Yesterday, on the second day after a mass shooter killed 18 persons and wounded 13, but before the suspect was found dead, I drove through Lewiston, Maine. I was trying to find a place to sit down with my laptop and have lunch, and more generally to observe. Nearly everything was closed in the town. At McDonald’s, only the drive-through remained open.

The local shelter-in-place order must have had something to do with this, although I don’t think it was very strict. It is also easy to understand why ordinary people in small-town peaceful Maine would be in shock. Lewiston, the second largest city in Maine, has only 35,000 inhabitants. I find it a bit more difficult to understand why people would still be scared, though. There were many cops searching the Lewiston surrounding area, although I saw only a few in town. More surprisingly, in Portland, the progressive city 50 miles away, some businesses closed on the morrow of the killing. Note that contrary to ordinary individuals in nearly all other advanced countries, Mainers don’t have to shake in terror and impotence if they think a killer is in the neighborhood: they can have guns too.

Unfortunately, on Wednesday night in Lewiston, there was no Elisjsha Dicken at the right time and place. Dicken is the young man who, on July 17, 2022, was shopping with his girlfriend in an Indianapolis mall and saw a mass shooter in action. The criminal had already killed three persons and wounded two. Just fifteen seconds into the killing, Dicken, an ordinary citizen, drew his Glock 19 and, at 40 yards, shot 10 rounds, of which 8 hit the killer, a marksman’s exploit with a handgun. The killer was only able to shoot back once before he tried to retreat and died. (See the Wikipedia entry and the Wall Street Journal editorial of a few days after the event.)

Tragedies must fit into the theories, explicit or (more often) implicit, with which one interprets what happens in the world. In the case of social tragedies—as opposed to, say, quantum events—just about anybody entertains theories whose validity he is certain of. When a mass shooting occurs (never in Maine until now, just like it was unknown in the country just six decades ago) every non-student of society tries to explain it with his homemade intuitive theories. Those who believe that guns are the problem (while they were more legally accessible, except for legal carry, when mass shootings were unknown) will see such an event as confirmation. So did Joe Biden who called on Congress (“Manhunt Drags On After Maine Shootings Leave 18 Dead,” Wall Steet Journal, October 26, 2023) to act:

Work with us to pass a bill banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, to enact universal background checks, to require safe storage of guns, and end immunity from liability for gun manufacturers.

We can imagine the killer, just about to leave his apartment to go on his rampage, thinking “Oh my God, I can’t do it,  my gun is safely stored in my gun cabinet.” Somebody opposed to a standing army, or persuaded by former president Trump that the army is training “our boys to be killing machines,” could as well explain the Maine killing by the fact that the killer was an Army reservist. Many claim that mental disease is the cause of everything now going wrong in the world, perhaps like the early-20th-century Progressives blamed alcohol or the hereditary defectives.

I am not sure how to explain random mass killings, but I have proposed some hypotheses. Rapid change, to which many people cannot easily adapt, would be a complementary one, although there have been many such periods in the past two or three centuries. At any rate, one should make sure that one’s theories about society are well grounded in logic and evidence before using them to explain something like mass shootings. Epistemologically, a theory is necessary to determine which facts are significant. It’s probably not going to be news to most readers of this blog that economics or political economy generally provides the best analytical tools for thinking about what happens in society.