Hamline News

Students Contribute to National Mass Shooter Database

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Hamline students collected, compiled and entered much of the data in the recently released mass shooter database under the direction of Hamline Professor Jillian Peterson and Professor James Densley of Metropolitan State. The two researchers co-lead The Violence Project.

The students became involved when Peterson asked for volunteers in 2017. The goal at that time was to understand what information was available.

“When I received the email, I thought back to the book I read on school schoolers when I took Jillian’s Forensic Psychology class and volunteered without hesitation,” research assistant Kyle Knapp said.

The initial goal of the project was to collect data and see what could be discovered on mass shooters. Following the Parkland shooting in 2018, the project accelerated and funding was granted from the National Institute of Justice

“There was really no cohesive database available,” said research assistant Elliot Fay, a current criminology & criminal justice student.

“At that time, the scope of the issue was largely unknown,” said Knapp.

Other databases covering mass shooting focus entirely on spatial and temporal data, commonly known as the what’s, when’s, and where’s. In contrast, for their project, Peterson and Densley’s team researched those variables and everything else, such as qualitative data about the community where the shootings took place and details about shooters’ lives.

“I researched the shooter and read what news articles and court cases I could find about them,” Fay explained. “We collected a lot of census data about the demographics of the places where the shootings took place for the community database.”

“I was tasked with taking a deep-dive into the lives and minds of mass shooters,” said Knapp.

During the research, the team ran into problems finding the more obscure data.

“A big challenge was missing information.” Stasia Higgins, current criminal justice and student database manager, said. “Some mass shootings get a lot of press coverage where others get one or two articles.”

The team also discovered that the passage of time affected the amount and type of data available.

“Many shootings that took place before the 1990's were either sparsely reported or the news articles were not preserved. It was frustrating at times to work with this missing data bias,” Fay recalled. “[But] there is a point, in any research, where one has to just stop and move on.”

Despite the struggles, the mass shooter database has become internationally recognized with over 1000 downloads in the first three days after the public release. The Violence Project website has also seen 30,000 visitors.

With the growing number of database downloads and international recognition, the students met their goals for participating in the project.

“I was hoping to contribute to something important and I definitely feel that I did,” Higgins stated.

Fay shared similar thoughts. “I was hoping to be able to help build something that hadn’t existed before. I hope that this data will be able to help other researchers and policymakers in their work.”

With the public release finished, the students will continue to work on related projects which will supplement their criminal justice education and support their career ambitions.

“As for right now, I’ll just be helping with the media release, but in the near future I’ll be helping out at the mass violence prevention training,” Fay said.

Knapp was searching for research experience before graduate school and volunteering for the data project has provided a trajectory. Knapp explained, “It has also been career-defining, as I am applying to Ph.D. programs with the goal of studying mass violence at a doctoral level.”

For Higgins, she hopes to continue with her work in the criminal justice field. “I would like to be a criminal analyst.”

Link to mass shooter database press release.

Written by Malenie Ven.
11/25/19