NORMAL — An Illinois State University professor who studies mass shootings thinks incidents like the one in Las Vegas are likely to happen again and hasten the breakdown of civil society.

Julie Webber, professor of politics and government, noted that recent shooters are “attacking places where people meet freely … places of community,” such as a music concert and a nightclub.

“Civil society is, in a way, breaking down. … They're sort of hastening that end,” Webber said of the shooters.

Although destroying civil society might not be the shooters' intent, their actions could contribute to that if people become fearful of gathering in such places, said Webber, who has been studying such cases for 20 years.

Her latest book, “Beyond Columbine: School Violence and the Virtual,” published this year, looks at a number of school shootings, including Virginia Tech in 2007 and Northern Illinois University in 2008.

Her work focuses on incidents where there is no expressed motive.

She has found the shooters all feel “that they are socially stigmatized in a real way,” said Webber. “They're all kind of socially awkward.”

The 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., was cited in a Washington Post article as a “turning point,” after which “school shootings could no longer be considered unthinkable aberrations.”

“Columbine is the template” that subsequent shooters have built on, said Webber. “In each one, they kind of change the script that was followed in Columbine.”

She is concerned by references to particular shootings being the the largest or deadliest or the use of similar phrases that could be seen as glorifying the shooters' actions.

Society is changing, said Webber, and “a lot of our lives are characterized by gaming.”

In today's “virtual world,” numbers take on added significance, whether its a credit score or a game score, she said.

In that context, shooters could try to increase their “score” by the number of people shot or killed.

At 64, the Las Vegas gunman was much older than most who have been involved in such incidents, but Webber found it significant that he was a high stakes gambler, noting “the gaming thing is very strong.”

Investigators in Las Vegas are still trying to piece together evidence as they search for the “why.”

“We'd like to know the motive,” Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo told news media. “That is our most important goal — to prevent further action associated with another individual who is contemplating this or what exactly went into the suspect's mind to enable him to pull off such a complicated event.”

Webber noted that in the first phase of school shootings in the late 1990s, leading up to Columbine, the shooters did not die and there was not a lot of planning.

Subsequent attacks have involved more planning and the shooters have not survived, having either committed suicide or been shot by police.

She notes in her book “the mass media setting in which they occur” and “the parade of 'selfies' and posed portraits the shooters take of themselves” in many cases.

Police have said significant planning preceded the Oct. 1 Las Vegas shooting. There are reports of him booking hotel rooms near the sites of other mass gatherings, including a Chicago's Lollapalooza outdoor concert.

Webber doesn't have a single answer to preventing future attacks. “I think it will happen again,” she said.

However, one approach would be to provide support for families attempting to deal with mental health issues.

“We need critical and thoughtful mental health reform from people who actually work in the community and know … what kind of support the people need,” Webber said.

Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter @Pg_Sobota

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