■ Why are social problems everybody’s problem?

■ How does sociology differ from “common sense” in explaining social problems?

■ Do you agree with this statement: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”? Is this sound sociological thinking?

Studying Social Problems in the Twenty-First Century

Chapter 1

shooting started. The gravity of the situation did not hit me until later, when I picked up my boy from preschool and showed my wife where the shooting was in relation to my office—literally around the corner. The full extent of it did not dawn on me until the next morning, when all of the news outlets were still talking about it. Then I looked at myself in the mirror and realized: Students were shot and killed at my university.

—Joseph Flynn, a Northern Illinois University professor, explains his reaction to the violence that occurred on his campus when a person opened fire inside a lecture hall, killed five students and wounded 20 others, and then took his own life. (Flynn, Kemp, and Madrid, 2008:C1)


For those of us who spend our days in a college setting, few things scare us more thanthe thought that violence might shatter our “protected” social environment in a lecture hall or other campus facility. Sadly, however, such shootings are becoming an all- too-common occurrence in educational settings, from elementary and secondary schools to colleges and universities, across the United States. And schools are only one of the many settings in which seemingly random acts of violence, typically involving guns and multiple injuries or deaths, take place. Violence has also become all too common in locations such as shopping malls, workplaces, hospitals, and other public spaces. Regardless of where the violence occurs, it leaves behind shock and anguish. Violence is the use of physical force to cause pain, injury, or death to another or damage to property. On an almost daily ba- sis, the Internet and global television news channels quickly spread word of the latest bombing, the latest massacre, or the latest murder. In the United States today, gunfire is one of the leading causes of death—only vehicular accidents take a higher toll on the lives of young people in this country. Indeed, this country has the highest homicide rate of any high-income nation. In this chapter, we explore what we can learn from sociology about social problems such as this.

None of us thought it was gunshots. [The shooter] didn’t say a single word the whole time. He didn’t say get down. He didn’t say anything. He just came in and started shooting. . . . I’m not sure how long it lasted. It felt like a really long time but was probably only a minute or so. He looked like, I guess you could say, serious. He didn’t look frightened at all. He didn’t look angry. Just a straight face. . . .