Step Into the Mind of a Mass Shooter
We’ve seen this horrifying scene play so many times: Columbine, Virginia Tech, the D.C. Sniper case, Aurora Colorado, Newtown and now the Navy yard shooting. The deadlock on national gun control legislation will probably not break. We may not see our legal system helping to alleviate this problem, despite President Obama’s latest plea to Congress. Can we develop a system then to weed out potential perpetrators? To do that, we have to step into the mind of a mass shooter, and see what causes this madman go on a rampage.
Mass shooters plan their attacks in advance. These attacks usually occur during the day. The assailant is often armed to the teeth with powerful firearms, sometimes even explosives. They don’t expect to survive. Sometimes shooters send out a last communique before they take the final step and put their murderous plan into action. Gunman such as these cannot be negotiated with. The shooter feels he has been egregiously victimized and is exacting his revenge, going out in a blaze of glory and bloodshed.
Is there a certain psychological profile that fits all mass shooters? There hasn’t been much research on this topic. Most gunmen are killed in shootouts or commit suicide, so it’s hard for experts to conduct research with subjects afterwards. But the body of evidence is growing due to the increase in high profile cases.
A Secret Service and Department of Education report from 2002 studied school shooting incidents from the 1974 to 2000 and found no outstanding profile. Shooters were not framed as socially awkward outcasts picked on by their peers, as the media often proclaims. Shootings often take place in schools or at the shooter’s place of employment because this is where they believe they have been ridiculed or oppressed. Mass shooters lack any sign of empathy and are totally self-absorbed.
Consumption of violent movies and video games were not found to be any more than that of the average teen, and oftentimes they consumed far less violent media. Many had penned violent writings in stories, poetry and so on. This report found no significant link between recorded mental illness and school shooters. Depression and anti-social characteristics however were common throughout.
Violent video games are often touted as a cause by talking heads and politicians. Adam Lanza—the Newtown shooter, the twin Columbine perpetrators, and Aaron Alexis were all fans. There is a remarkable amount of evidence however that violent video games are not a significant cause of violence, according to the Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations. Too many people play violent video games, and the most peaceful countries in the world, like Japan and South Korea, are full of gamers who love Halo, Call of Duty and other shoot ‘em ups. We have to probe deeper.
93% of school shooters took part in past behavior that shocked teachers, parents, mental health workers or peers. Often these were warped, violent fantasies to be carried out on innocent people. 83% warned someone about their plan of attack to save that person. Most often, a mass shooter’s plans are undone by peers who see or hear disturbing things from the potential perpetrator and tell someone in authority. However, often teens and others play stupid pranks which are not truly intended to harm anyone. It’s best to keep a cool head if you plan to report someone. Do so privately. Let a trained mental health professional evaluate the situation.
Can we scan for the warning signs and red flag anyone who is likely to become a gunman? By stepping into the mind of a mass shooter, investigators see the warning signs clearly, but in hindsight. After an incident has occurred, police usually find a trail of clues that were there all along: violent writings, or a time where a shooter warned someone, are seen as warning signs of a shooting spree. Little has been done to research the messages some shooters sent to the media. More should be done in this regard. Still, experts believe that it is very difficult to detect who will become a mass shooter and when.
We may never be able to actually step into the mind of a mass shooter. But with more investigation and analysis, and more probing into the psychological backgrounds of these perpetrators, someday we may accurately pinpoint, or at least predict who has the potential to be a mass shooter and how to stop their transformation from occurring. If you see someone talking about or exhibiting shocking or unusually violent behavior, above and beyond normal joking, tell someone in authority, privately. It’s important that the person exhibiting disturbing behavior get the care they need. If you are a parent or a teacher, report on disturbing behavior early so that the individual can get help right away. But by understanding the phenomenon, we can be more vigilant in looking for the warning signs, alerting the proper authorities and keep our communities safe.
By: Philip Perry