Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Are Some Mass Shootings a Form of Political Violence?

Shooters have targeted members of particular groups, including Black, Hispanic and gay people. A few may have been motivated by politics as well as bigotry.

A makeshift memorial for the victims of the Highland Park Independence Day parade mass shooting on July 8, 2022.
(Antonio Perez/TNS)
A majority of homicide victims knew their assailants. That’s part of what makes mass shootings so terrifying – the idea that you could be randomly killed while going to school, the movies or the grocery store.

But some shooters do target particular groups, if not individuals. Recent high-profile shootings led to multiple deaths of Black people (Buffalo in May and Charleston in 2015); Asian Americans (Atlanta in 2021); Hispanics (El Paso in 2019); and gay people (the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016).

The alleged shooter who killed seven people and injured dozens more at the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Ill., had previously been kicked out of a synagogue near the parade route. Highland Park’s population is about half Jewish. Synagogues and Jewish organizations in San Antonio canceled events over the weekend after the FBI warned of a threat to “an unconfirmed Jewish facility” in the area.

It’s possible that some hate crimes may be motivated not just by bigotry but politics. Some mass shooters leave Internet trails that detail the ways they’ve been drawn in by radical politics. And, at a time when politics is polarized by identity as much as ideology, it can sometimes be difficult to separate out different types of motivations.

It’s better not to dwell on the particular cases, but rather try to understand the forces that prompt attacks and how to prevent them, says Shannon Hiller, executive director of the Bridging Divides Initiative, which tracks and works to mitigate political violence in the United States. The research initiative is based at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

“What we focus on is the impact on communities of the violence and how we can get ahead of it,” she says. “With that said, what we are going to see a lot going forward is the intersection of gun violence and political violence.”

Following are edited excerpts from our interview:

Governing: We're seeing a rise in political violence and threats in this country. There have also been mass shootings clearly targeting particular groups. Are we seeing a rise in what might be described as sectarian violence, where killings are motivated not just by racial enmity but to some extent politics?

Hiller: Often, these can be both. In some of these targeted incidents, people are acting out and pushing back against what they perceive as progress toward more inclusive democracy and changes that they don't like.

Targeting minority groups in America is, sadly, a long, long trend in this country. And it's often for both political and hate-fueled reasons, together. A lot of what we may need to apply to these different solutions all need to be working together to protect all Americans from this type of violence.

A policy document from the 1920s notes that there were something like 300 bombings of residences and real estate offices in response to Black Chicagoans trying to move into different neighborhoods. So that's obviously both targeted violence of Black neighbors, but also very political in trying to enforce racial segregation at the time of the Great Migration.

Governing: There have been several polls over the past couple of years that have found a sizable and increasing minority of Americans believe violence is justified to achieve political ends. Do these attitudes help lay the groundwork for actual perpetrators?

Hiller: Lily Mason and Nathan Kalmoe’s new book (Radical American Partisanship) shows where, over the long term, some of the trends toward broader acceptance of political violence is still quite low. And there are ways in which, if politicians of any parties speak up against it, it can actually temper those attitudes toward violence. In their book, they probe into the specifics of how, when it comes to the worst types of violence, people tend to back off. Acceptance is still in the low single digits, even though it’s increasing and concerning.

I do think having one party that's questioning the results of the last election, and potentially putting in place ways to undermine future elections, sets the scene for broader conflict in a way that we haven't seen in a long time. There are a lot of steps between here and there. And there's a lot that we can do to stand up against those types of trends. But unfortunately, I don't think most of them are headed in the right direction at the national level.
Shannon Hiller.png
Shannon Hiller, executive director of the Bridging Divides Initiative, which tracks and works to mitigate political violence in the United States. The research initiative is based at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

Governing: We’re familiar with sectarian conflicts involving a pair of groups in opposition, whether Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq or Protestant and Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland. But in this country, we have many different races and ethnicities. Does that mean these dynamics play out differently, or does it still involve some variation of us versus them?

Hiller: In a lot of our work, we encourage people to think about the specific community you're talking about, and what are the specific drivers of conflict there. You know, Long Beach looks different than Chicago, which looks different than rural Virginia, where I grew up. That's one of the beauties of the U.S., that our communities can look so different across the whole country. But it also means that there are different underlying tensions and drivers of conflict.

What we see is that national politicians don't benefit from trying to problem-solve at that level. We certainly see some politicians really using these divisions to drive their own political gain, and re-emphasizing that us-versus-them mentality, and that has consequences for the ability to find that common ground.

Governing: A decade ago, Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, along with more than a dozen of her constituents, was shot by someone who apparently objected to her politics. That appeared to be the case also with the shooting at the congressional baseball practice five years ago. But a lot of recent political violence, such as running down protesters and certainly mass shootings, involves targeting strangers, as opposed to elected leaders. Many officials are being harassed and face protesters at their homes or when they’re out to dinner, but it seems like actual violence is directed at random individuals, as opposed to people clearly in positions of authority. Why might that be?

Hiller: Some of these mass shootings are targeting strangers, but they aren't random, because they're targeting particular people because of who they are, including the Buffalo shooting not that long ago, or Charleston. Part of what we do track is reporting on political violence where an individual or a few individuals are targeted with violence and epithets are used, because that can be an indicator of some of those broader conflicts and racially or religiously motivated violence.

We did a whole report on demonstrations at homes and found that they were coming from all different ideological angles, but they more often involved armed individuals when there were more right-wing protesters. We did see though, that some of the more confrontational ones were coming, for example, from environmental justice groups who were protesting outside of all sorts of local officials’ homes as well.

Governing: Can you comment on damage against property and its symbolic importance? We’ve had so many debates about Confederate monuments in recent years, and we also just saw the destruction of the Georgia Guidestones, apparently by people who bought into far-right conspiracy theories. Certainly, a number of left-wing protests over the past couple of years have resulted in property damage.

Hiller: I do think a lot about, for example, the Proud Boys' attack on a historically Black church in D.C. One reason why that's so harmful is because of the long history of attacks against Black churches in response to organizing in the civil rights movement. It's not just the one incident; it has a broader reverberation into the community. In the same vein, I also think about increasing attacks and threats against synagogues.

It’s important to be monitoring these signs, and then immediately addressing them when they happen, at all levels of government, because that helps to ensure that those types of incidents aren't normalized or even celebrated. It doesn't have to be inevitable. We can hold individuals accountable and clearly stand up against these particular incidents.

Governing: For Americans, given our history, the idea of civil war means mass armies geographically defined. In contemporary times around the world, civil wars are often more like ongoing, lower-grade, guerilla-style conflicts. Do you worry about that becoming a model here?

Hiller: I think it's important that people are beginning to look back to the end of Reconstruction or massive resistance (by the South against integration), and what that looked like in this country, including widespread, extra-judicial killings in the form of lynching. It doesn’t mean it will take that particular form again, but there actually are examples of that type of low-grade conflict in our country, in our history.

The unlawful paramilitary activity that's happening right now does look like some of that type of low-grade conflict in other countries. I worked in Myanmar for a number of years, and the way in which — completely outside of the government — unlawful militias are patrolling the southern border is something we can and should be addressing now. It's really concerning that it's been going on this long.

Governing: What should we be doing to prevent a wider spread of political violence?

Hiller: One of the first things we talk a lot about right now is just reducing immediate harm against individuals or communities. That can look like different things in different places, but, for example, we've worked with experts in de-escalation and bystander intervention to talk about how more folks can get that type of training, whether it's people attending local meetings, or people working around elections.

The second thing is to understand that some of this action involves people taking advantage of these divisions for political gain. How do we undermine that? Being informed and working together — oftentimes in sort of unlikely coalitions — speaking up against this type of anti-democratic activity. I have been encouraged by the number of Republican officials at the lower level, who have been some of the folks most targeted by harassment and threats, because they've been speaking up on these issues.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
From Our Partners