This spring, Dr. Jillian Peterson, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University, added an exciting new title to her list of accomplishments: Award-winning author.
Peterson, along with her collaborator James Densley of Metropolitan State University, won the Minnesota Book Award in the non-fiction category on April 27 for their recent publication, "The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic."
“Already we’re getting a lot of local interest in the book,” Peterson said. “The award has helped get the book in more people’s hands, which hopefully ends up shifting how we think about this phenomenon and shifting policy.”
“The Violence Project” is the result of a years-long research project wherein Dr. Peterson and a team of Hamline students built a comprehensive database of every mass shooter since 1966, in an attempt to closer examine and better understand the common factors that lead to mass shootings.
“Dr. Peterson’s innovative research continues to enhance our understanding of this phenomenon while enriching the academic culture of Hamline’s campus,” Hamline President Fayneese Miller said. “Her work in this field presents unparalleled research opportunities for our criminology and criminal justice students.”
Dr. Peterson started the project in 2017 with a team of Hamline criminology and criminal justice undergraduates volunteering their time and work.
“It started out as us trying to build a database and understand this phenomenon better because we realized there was a lack of research on it,” Peterson said.
The database includes every perpetrator of a mass shooting who killed four or more people, going back to 1966. What made the database even more unique is the inclusion of life history variables, such as mental illnesses, childhood trauma, academic performance and how the perpetrators acquired firearms.
As the database was built out, undergraduate students were able to find areas for improvement and room for expansion.
“Students were a really big part of the process, they would say things like ‘this coding structure isn’t right,’ or ‘we need to add this variable.’ So it kept expanding,” Peterson said.
A major boon came to the project in 2018 when Peterson was awarded a $300,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice, which allowed her team to expand the project's scope and resources.
“We were shocked when we got it and it really allowed us to expand the work,” she said. “We were able to pay students, we got more serious and made sure everything was really reliable.”
With the grant support in hand, Peterson and students were able to travel across the country to conduct interviews with incarcerated mass shooters.
“We wrote letters to every living perpetrator of a mass shooting that we could find who was incarcerated, asking if they would be interviewed by us,” Peterson said. “We got five perpetrators who agreed.”
But the interviews didn’t end there. Peterson and her team made an effort to talk to parents, siblings and childhood teachers of perpetrators – in addition to survivors, their families and first responders – to get a more in-depth understanding of the phenomenon.
As the pandemic took hold and interviews and research winded down, Peterson and her colleague Dr. James Densley, started to develop a final vision for the project.
“James and I both recognized that the only way to really tell this story in full was with a book,” Peterson said. “We had been doing media interviews and giving presentations, but it just felt like in order to do this project justice we needed to write something.”
Early in the process, Peterson and Densley identified that they wanted the book to be accessible to a wide audience rather than be a purely academic text, since the subject is a far-reaching phenomenon.
In writing the book, Peterson and Densley quickly found that two perpetrators, who they chose not to identify, emerged as main foci.
“We follow their stories throughout the book, but the book is organized by theme,” Peterson said. “There is a chapter on America – which is more sociological and looks at why this is happening here and not other places. Then we walk through perpetrators' lives, so there are chapters on early childhood trauma, crisis, hate, opportunity.”
This is to help illustrate that the ultimate takeaway, Peterson said, is that there is no single cause of mass shootings.
“Anyone who says there is, is kind of missing the point,” Peterson said. “There are all these different causes and this trajectory towards violence is a long road, but when you spell it all out you can see all these different intervention points.”
The main hope of providing a data-driven, non-partisan project, Peterson said, is to help guide the formation of responsible public policy.
“It’s grounded in research and science, rather than fear and emotion.”
Another lasting benefit of the project is the opportunity it provided for criminology and criminal justice students who participated in years of research.
“They were major collaborators, they helped change and shape the project as it went,” Peterson said. “Many of them are in our publications and thanked in the book. A lot of them went on to graduate school where they could really use this experience. I think it was a really life-changing experience.”
Looking back, Peterson finds her students’ work on the project not only encouraging for herself when pursuing future projects, but also inspirational for younger students.
“I had students work on the project from when they were freshman to when they were seniors and you could see the confidence grow,” she said. “I think working with students collaboratively on research is so different than being in the classroom because you’re working on a project that feels much bigger than you. I talk about that in my classes and I think it’s inspiring for current students to see what these students did before them.”
As “The Violence Project” continues to receive national and global media attention, Peterson said she’s gearing up for more research projects this summer, with about 10 Hamline students on board to assist.
Pictured above: Jillian Peterson (Courtesy of Hamline University/Dave Turner)