Going Postal looks at the high school, campus and workplace shootings which have cast a shadow over American society since the late Eighties. April 2009 was the 10th anniversary of the Columbine Massacre but this is a phenomenon which is twice as old.

By looking at five different shootings that have occurred over the last two decades, the film seeks to build up a picture of how and why this violence occurs. It also shows up the points of similarity between school and workplace rampages: in both instances the perpetrators want to attack the institution as well as individuals.

The documentary features interviews with relatives of some of the victims of the violence as well as with relatives and friends of the perpetrators. The film also contains an interview with Michael Carneal, who was only 14 years old when he killed three children and wounded five others, when he opened fire at a prayer group at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997. His raw and troubling story and stories of other shootings are placed in context by a series of interviews with academics, journalists and security experts who, between them, have spent a considerable time researching the subject.

Journalist Mark Ames, author of the book Going Postal, which explores shootings in the workplace and at schools, sees the early workplace shootings in the context of Reaganomics, when, in the Eighties, many pensions and benefits were lost and the gap between the well-paid and the average worker increased dramatically.

Professor Katherine Newman, a leading sociologist from Princeton University and author of the book Rampage, which looks at the social roots of school shootings, argues that geography plays a crucial role, in that the shootings often happen in small towns or suburban areas and, very rarely, if ever, in urban areas or ghettoes. She says this is partly because people in small towns often feel so trapped and alienated that if they do have a grievance they may feel they have little outlet but violence.

Finally, Mark argues that although mental instability and regimes of medication play a role in what makes a school or workplace shooter, they are rarely insane and are practically impossible to profile.

Going Postal is part of BBC Two’s The Violence Season which explores the social, historical and psychological causes of violence.

Monday 25 May
10.00-11.30pm BBC TWO