Hamline News

Unlikely Research Opportunity Launches Career Path

Hamline is increasingly gaining attention for providing hands-on research opportunities for undergraduate students. One example is the student team that work for Jillian Peterson, Ph.D., professor of criminology and criminal justice, conducting research that impacts the national conversation on gun violence/mass shootings.

Making sense of senseless acts

Peterson is a forensic psychologist who began her career as an investigator in New York City researching the life histories of people facing the death penalty. These life histories were used in sentencing hearings, and the experience led to her interest in researching mass shootings and those who commit them.

“Mental illness has been blamed for mass shootings but we really know little about the reasons behind these events,” Peterson said.

In 2017, Peterson co-founded The Violence Project with Dr. James Densley, professor of Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, and they began working on the Mass Shooter Database which involved creating profiles on 171 mass shooters.

She invited a few dozen Hamline undergraduate students to participate. Using only publicly available data, 40 students spent the next two and a half years looking at 109 common factors including age, marital status, military experience, and availability of nearby mental health clinics and gun shops. Next, they created codes for each factor and entered them to the database. After verification, the result was a usable searchable dataset of characteristics for people who had committed mass shootings.

Shortly after this process began, a mass shooting in Las Vegas in October 2017 — the largest in U.S. history— resulted in 58 fatalities and 850 people injured.

From data to reality

For one of the volunteer researchers, Kyle Knapp '18, this horrific event added a sense of urgency and validated the importance of the project.

“After the Las Vegas shooting, trying to understand gun violence in America became real for all of us,” Knapp said. “Mass shootings are low-frequency, high-impact events. When they occur, the impact spreads throughout society, and we relive past mass shootings whenever a new one occurs.”

In 2019 Peterson received a $300,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice (a department within the U.S. Department of Justice) that funded creation of the database and made it publicly available. It also allowed her to hire, train and pay 10 of those students as research assistants, including Knapp.

His job was to interview incarcerated mass shooters via written correspondence. To prepare his interview questions, Knapp looked at news articles and other online information about the mass shooting.

“Never in a million years did I think I’d be studying mass violence as a career or involved in interviewing mass shooters in prison,” Knapp said.

The grant included “course buyouts” to pay other instructors to teach Peterson’s classes so she could continue her research. It also paid travel expenses for Peterson and a few of her research assistants to go into the feld and conduct qualitative interviews with seven incarcerated surviving mass shooters as well as interview some of their family members.

“Hearing the stories from the shooters, their friends and family, and survivors, has been a very eye-opening experience. Jillian often says, ‘the worse the crime, the worse the story’ and she’s right,” said Knapp.

Knapp graduated with majors in anthropology along with criminology and criminal justice, and a minor in forensic science. In 2020, Knapp was accepted into the criminology and criminal justice doctorate program at Florida State University, where he plans to study mass violence, violent victimization and hate crime.

Faculty success leads to student opportunities

Peterson and Densley first released their data publicly in November 2019 and released an update in July 2020. They have also applied for additional funding so they can keep the research going.

Securing grants to research mass shooters has been critical to Peterson’s work. While it’s unique for Hamline or any teaching college to bring in large grants, the criminal justice department has received grants totaling approximately $1 million over the last five years.

“Hamline has been incredibly supportive, and President Fayneese Miller has been very excited about new research, and there’s growing support to go after bigger grants,” Peterson said. “We couldn’t have done this research without our students’ help. They came up with the variables the professors had missed and were really the feet on the ground. It was a daunting project but our excited, passionate students are amazing.”

“I learned a lot of my research skills from Jillian, and I want other Hamline undergrads to have their own similar experience,” added Knapp. “There is an impact to this work. I want to help figure out why this happens in the United States more than other places. This is where I want my career to go.”

Written by Tom Brandes
Edited and updated by staff