Work on the national mass-shooter database is “career-defining” for Hamline student researchers

Student researchers contribute to a national comprehensive database on mass shooters.

Max Kingsbeck, Reporter

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An extensive national database on mass shooters that was formed from research done by Hamline students was released to the public on Nov. 19.

The database was developed by Jillian Peterson, professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Hamline, and James Densley, professor of Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University.

Funded by the National Institute of Justice, the database includes information on 171 mass shooters between 1966 and 2019 with over 100 life history variables collected for each by a team of Hamline students.

Before this project was started two and a half years ago, there was no comprehensive catalog of mass shooters to this extent.

“I wanted to make a database because there just wasn’t anything out there on life histories of mass shooters and there wasn’t anything on the role of mental illness in mass shootings,” Peterson said. “James Densely at Metro State University and I decided to put together this database, so we started by listing all the mass shootings we could find using existing databases and came up with as many variables as we could.”

Funding from the NIJ allowed for nine students who had been contributing to the project as volunteers to be hired as paid researchers.

Hamline senior Amanda Jensen worked as project coordinator and research associate on the database.

“I came on working for the Center for Justice and Law first,” Jensen said. “I heard about this when people were still volunteering to do the database for free, and everyone talked so highly about it so I said ‘I want to help out.’”

Jensen along with Kyle Knapp, who graduated from Hamline in 2018, were hired to conduct community interviews that include communicating with convicted perpetrators of mass shootings, as well as people who knew them and others who were impacted.

“We’re the first database to ever touch on mental health, which in itself the database is quite amazing with so many mass shooters and so many variables,” Jensen said. “I think it’s really great to touch on the mental health issues and the crisis someone could be going through right before the shooting takes place.”

Knapp explained how the scope of the project expanded and how more variables for each shooter were added as research continued.

“We did basic demographic stuff, some life history things,” Knapp said. “What we’ve expanded on is that we got more into the life history stuff, more into the personal details of one’s life.”

Elliot Fay, a Hamline junior and student researcher on the project, explained the process of cataloging the information for each shooter.

“Since we were getting all of our information from public sources like newspapers and court cases, it was just a matter of Googling and reading as much as we could find to answer what questions we had and the variables we needed,” Fay said.

Senior Stasia Higgins, who has worked on the project for two years and was responsible for managing the database, reflected on the broader significance of the project. “I think the database is so important because it tells us what we do and don’t know about mass shooters, and could be used to inform policies aimed at preventing more shootings,” Higgins said.

Jensen, Knapp, Fay, and Higgins will continue to work on the project through 2020. Each expressed appreciation for their time working on the project.

“I just want students to know that if something looks scary or hard or difficult, go for it, it could really change your life,” Jensen said.

Knapp echoed a similar sentiment.

“Fall 2017 before I started I would not have seen myself where I’m at now and with the goals I have,” Knapp said. “It’s been career defining for me, because it actually changed my course, focused my interests more.”