Neuroscience and Law Symposium Examines Issue of Mass Shootings


Guns are now the leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 1 to 24, and active shooter incidents have skyrocketed over the last decade. In the wake of the tragedy at Uvalde and the other mass shooting incidents that occurred in 2022 alone, the Neuroscience and Law Center’s symposium on “The Law and Neuroscience of Mass Shootings” was the first of its kind to examine this nationwide epidemic through an interdisciplinary lens.  

The full-day symposium, held on November 1, 2022, featured 15 of the country’s leading experts on mass shootings and gun violence and over 450 guest attendees. The event was the second-most attended Fordham-run CLE program in the Law School’s history. 

Sponsored by the John and Diane Simpson Foundation, the event brought together experts from diverse disciplines, including medical and legal scholars and practitioners, legislators, criminologists, and law enforcement. With over 600 mass shooting events occurring in 2022 in the United States, the symposium offered crucial insights and discussions about an urgent topic. 

Through a series of four panels, experts sought to untangle the complex issues brought forth by mass shooting events. These matters included legal and liability concerns, gun control, identification of at-risk individuals, and the path forward regarding prevention and security. 

“The United States has had an unfortunately prolific and long history of mass shootings, especially compared to the rarity of such tragedies in the rest of the world,” said Deborah Denno, the Arthur A. McGivney professor of law and founding director of the Neuroscience and Law Center. “These mass shootings have become more deadly and frequent, often targeting specific groups such as school-aged children and minorities.” 

Adam Lankford, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Alabama, opened the day by defining mass shootings as “incidents that occur in public spaces … that result in the death of four or more victims.” While mass shootings occur worldwide, Lankford identified them as a particular problem in the  United States, which accounts for 30% of all mass shootings despite having less than 5% of the world’s population. 

“Civilian firearm ownership rates provide the best statistical explanation,” said Lankford. “In fact, it’s the only statistical explanation we’ve found so far for why various countries have more or fewer mass shooters and why the United States has such a big problem.”

In addressing this uniquely American circumstance, lawmakers and policy experts, including New York State Senators Shelley B. Mayer and Gustavo Rivera, and Professor Joseph Blocher, co-director of the Center for Firearms Law at Duke Law School, discussed state legislatures’ roles in passing effective gun regulation. 

According to Senator Mayer, efforts are being made in New York state to regulate firearms. Yet, she noted, “uniform federal action … coupled with a uniform process of prosecution and strong penalties for those who engage in unlawful gun conduct” must occur to see a nationwide change. 

Judge Nancy Gertner of the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts and Judge Jed Rakoff of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York provided a judicial perspective on current issues. Their concerns included the prosecution of mass violence perpetrators, the protection of civil liberties in the context of gun control, and the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which struck down an important element of New York state’s concealed carry law.

These legal topics were expanded upon by Douglas E. Fierberg, lead attorney at the Fierberg National Law Group, and John Donohue, professor of law at Stanford Law School, who spoke about victim representation and gun restriction laws. 

Other panels looked more closely at the psychology of mass shooters. Dr. David Rosmarin, director of forensic science at Harvard’s McLean Hospital; Laurence Steinberg, distinguished professor of psychology at Temple University; and Dr. Amy Barnhorst, director of the BulletPoint Project at UC Davis, engaged in an in-depth discussion of the identification of potential offenders, the connection between mental illness and violence, and the current research on adolescent brain development and behavior. 

A common misconception is that severe mental health issues are the main cause of mass shootings. However, Dr. Barnhorst revealed that only 11% of mass shooters had experienced symptoms of psychosis or severe mental illness. She noted that other factors, such as substance abuse, affiliation with extremist groups, grievances with peers, and suicidality, are more frequently related to acts of mass violence. 

The concluding panel gave the audience crucial insights into mass shooting prevention. Angelyn Flowers, professor of urban affairs, social science, and social work at the University of the District of Columbia, and Nicholas Johnson, law professor at Fordham Law, discussed some current and potential intervention methods. Their points focused on facial recognition technology, an expansion of the current “red flag laws,” which allow judges to remove guns from a person’s possession if they are deemed at-risk, and the creation of civilian-led community task forces. 

Jin Kim and Katherine Schweit, both former members of the FBI, closed the conference with a striking sentiment: continuing with law enforcement’s current approach to handling active shooter events will be ineffective. Instead, they suggested that preparation and accurate assessment of potential or actual threats are critical to preventing future acts of public gun violence. 

As of January 27, 2023, the Gun Violence Archive reported that there have been 42 mass shootings reported in the United States, more at this point in the year than in any year since at least 2013. With mass shooting events continuing to increase, the symposium offered varied insights on approaching such ongoing tragedies. Participants dispelled some myths surrounding mass shootings and opened an informed and critical discourse on prevention.  

Read the symposium’s program here.


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