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Hardly a week goes by without another mass shooting in the US. What drives someone to commit mass murder? What are the psychological patterns and circumstances that unfold over and over again? What do mass shooters have in common? What early warning signals are usually there, and why are they usually missed? What could explain so many mass killings following the same patterns?
Before we can take action to reduce or prevent mass killings, it is essential to understand them.
Is mass killing (the murder of three or more people in a single incident) a single or multi-factorial phenomenon? Few human actions can be attributed to only one factor, one motivation. What are the key factors?
The popular trope is that mass killer are ‘mad, bad, or sad’. That is, mentally ill, evil, or desperate. Alas, such words do little to reach understanding. Indeed, they may shut down meaningful exploration. Once the label has been applied it creates the illusion of understanding; ‘They were evil,’ surely describes the act, but not its antecedents.
Some of the factual antecedents are present in every case: the mass shooter had access to one or more firearms, and ammunition, and, potential victims. In countries that do not permit ready access to weapons, there are a tiny number of mass killings.
Yet, that is not the whole picture. The US has 120 guns per 100 residents. It is not surprising, therefore, that with only 5% of the world’s population, the US has 31% of the world’s mass shootings.
With around one mass killing per week, in the US here, for comparison, are the yearly median number of such incidents in other countries: Albania, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Macedonia, Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Switzerland, United Kingdom, all are zero in a typical year. Although some of those countries have suffered a few mass killings in recent history, they are very, very rare. One outlier is Norway, which is normally peaceful, with 77 killed in 2011.
The Swiss have ready access to weapons, (2 million in circulation, among 8.2 million people) and the last mass shooting was in 2001.
In Japan, there has only ever been one mass shooting, in 1938. In the entire African continent, there has only been a handful, despite the ethnic tensions that persist.
Such variation between countries with similar access to weapons suggests that cultural factors play a large part. The US is approximately six times more likely to have mass killings than the rest of the world. In the first six months of 2022, there had been a mass killing at the rate of nearly one per week.
Could it be that the shared psychology of the right to bear arms for self-defence against tyranny is involved? Does that right to self-defence against tyranny extend to all forms of assault, at least in the minds of some people? Could people who commit mass killings be exercising their right to self-defence against perceived or actual emotional or psychological assault or tyranny?
In the overall picture of mass shootings, in the US, 60% of mass shooters were white, which corresponds to the number of white people in the population. Race, therefore, seems not to be a widespread factor, despite the racism that still exists across the USA.
While around 70 million Americans have had criminal arrests, prior criminality seems to play a limited role in mass killings. As an interesting aside, as many Americans have a criminal past as have college degrees. By the age of 23 years, one in three Americans will have been arrested. 1 in 3 Americans does not commit mass killings. The vast majority of mass killers have, to that point, been law-abiding citizens.
Neither is a history of serious mental illness the key factor. In fact, the vast majority of mass killers have no mental health incarceration record. Only 5% of mass killer cases researched were found to have mental illness involved. That is, 95% of mass killers were not ‘mad.’ Given that in any one year 25% of the population is dealing with a mental health issue, that indicates that mental illness is much less of a concern than the media would have the public believe. Indeed, people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of crime.
With ‘mad’ and ‘bad’ ruled out, in the majority of cases, what of ‘sad’ as an explanation for mass shootings?
80% of mass shooters had suffered social isolation, exclusion, and multiple perceived or actual injustices. It seems that anger or ‘serving a cause’ can explain many of the mass killings. What causes? An attempt to redress real or perceived injustices seems heavily involved.
Almost all mass shooters either kill themselves before capture or commit suicide as their last act. It seems reasonable to conclude that all or most mass shooters know that their acts will, or are highly likely to, end their lives and that they proceed on that suicidal basis.
Each year, worldwide, there are around 700,000 to 800,000 suicides. If it is the case that almost all suicides are an active choice after all hope has been lost, and, given that addressing actual or perceived injustice seems to be a central motivator for mass killings, could those factors work together in the minds of mass killers?
Could it be that in some (or many) cases, mass killings are a form of ‘revenge suicide’? That is, the future mass killer has reached a point where they have given up hope and have suicidal ideation, because of the way they have been treated and feel that since they have been driven to that point, by the injustices imposed on them, there is nothing to lose by seeking a mutually lethal form of revenge?
In people who have been harmed by others, it is relatively common to engage in imagined, cathartic revenge. The person has no intention of carrying out their fantasy, and it is adopted purely to make the person feel better, and more empowered about the harm done to them.
Perhaps in the mind of mass shooters, the imagined cathartic revenge transitions from feel-better fantasy to purposeful action.
Most people who choose to kill themselves do not engage in revenge suicide or take others with them. What might be going on in the minds of those who do? Here are some possible rationales for their actions:
- ‘You [society or a group of people] inflicted life-ending social and emotional pain on me. My life is over at your hand; I will make sure you know what that feels like.’
- ‘You have ruined my life, diminished and belittled me; here are the consequences of your actions.’
- ‘You showed me that the way to deal with people that you don’t like is to ruin their lives. Thanks for the lesson; I can do that, too.’
People generally make decisions and act to reduce pain or bring pleasure. Could it be that the act of mass killing does one or both?
Perhaps the potential mass killer is in extreme emotional pain and has lost hope that the pain can ever be removed. Perhaps they see their lives as blighted, with no remedy being possible. Most people are tempted to blame others for their situation. Perhaps in those who have suffered extreme and prolonged harm that tendency is even stronger. Maybe they feel that lashing out at those who have harmed, rejected or abused them, or prevent them from solving their problems, is an act of justice.
Maybe the potential mass killer finds pleasure in planning revenge against those who have inflicted actual or perceived harm. Perhaps the act of planning the mass killing gives the disaffected person a focus, a purpose, and a goal, and the pleasure obtained from the planning becomes self-reinforcing. Perhaps planning revenge suicide gives meaning to a life that has been rendered worthless and meaningless, or perceived to be so.
When people are subjected to social isolation and abused by others, that tends to jade their view of humanity. Victims of social exclusion, and harm, often believe that all people are ‘just like’ those who have harmed them. While that may seem odd to those of us who spend our lives helping others, take a moment to consider this. If you have been deprived of kindness and subjected to various forms of abuse your entire life, would you believe that the world was full of good people, or that everyone was ‘just the same’?
That takes us to the belief component of mass killing. For a mass killer to act as they do, it seems likely that they believe their actions are the only or best possible choice for them.
People’s beliefs are shaped by their experiences AND their interpretation of those experiences. Once started on a particular belief trajectory, experiences are interpreted to confirm those beliefs, which further reinforces those beliefs, which makes it more likely the person will notice evidence that their beliefs are accurate, and downward the vicious spiral goes. Before long the person is rendered incapable of accepting any fact or reasoning that challenges their beliefs.
Those who commit mass killings, it seems, have reached a point where, to them, the people they target deserve to die.
Such a mindset is not unique to mass shooters. In war, politicians seek to create such ‘othering‘ of the ‘enemy’ to the point that perfectly normal people can be highly motivated to kill innocent civilians.
If normal people, living crime-free, mentally healthy lives can be driven to engage in politician-authorised mass killing, it seems entirely likely that people who have been repeatedly harmed by others, and formed a worldview that only more of the same awaits them, can create, in themselves, the same desire to kill.
Are the early warning signals usually present, before the mass killings take place? It seems so. Yes, almost always the warning siren was blaring, repeatedly, in hindsight.
Over and over again we find that mass shooters have been subjected to actual or perceived harm, come from dysfunctional families, and have been socially isolated, repeatedly. For a host of reasons, when help was provided to others in similar situations, the soon-to-be mass killers received no help. They became increasingly isolated by and from society, thus rendering it increasingly unlikely that they could have been helped before they reached the point of no return.
What can be done to prevent mass killings? Listening, compassion, understanding, empathy, support, training, education…
Many social workers have been calling, for decades, for programmes that would redirect those who appear to be on a crime trajectory, to a more constructive path. Year after year those calls are ignored, and year after year, the same people, in the same circumstances, with different names, go down the same path of criminality.
Leading experts continue to call for early support and constructive intervention as the only workable way to reduce crime, of all sorts.
This is not a new message, and the following is not a new question: how many more mass killings will it take until we provide the preventative support that is needed?
In countries where people are not left behind, there are very few mass killings, much lower crime, higher levels of happiness, and fewer people engaged in law enforcement. The US has, by far, the highest number of people in prison, at 737 per 100,000 population. The other G7 countries have an average of 98 people in prison on the same measure. That is 7.5 times more people in prison, per head of population in the US. The intentional homicide rate paints a similar picture. The average for the other G7 countries is 0.99 per 100,000. In the US the figure is 4.96, which is five times larger.
In some countries, there is support for the political decision that mass killings are an unavoidable side effect of intended ‘freedom’. In other countries, there is freedom from mass killing as an intended effect of political decisions to engage in crime avoiding support.
Here is a model, which can be tested, verified, or falsified, by researchers, aimed at understanding and explaining mass shootings.
Suicidal revenge: the gateway model of mass shootings
If we were to consider the journey to mass killing, what gateways would have to be passed en route? What must be in place for one person to pass through any given gateway, and what protective factors stop, or divert a potential mass killer in another direction?
|A societal or local culture of the right to bear arms to prevent attacks or oppression.||Reduced access, or restricted access to lethal weapons.|
|A societal or local culture of self-responsibility for self-defence against all forms of attack.||A culture where violent self-defence is only acceptable after all other options are either not available or have been exhausted.|
|Growing up in a dysfunctional ‘family’ setting, where that dysfunction was allowed to continue by the state.||Strong, functional families, where mutual support is an expected part of the local and national culture.|
|Social isolation, exclusion or ostracisation, repeated and or ongoing.||Those who are troubled, isolated, excluded, or otherwise in difficulty, are supported.|
|Absence of any effective support network, or the presence of a dysfunctional support system, repeated and or ongoing.||Public-facing professionals (including teachers, social workers, health professionals, and police) are trained, equipped and empowered to spot, and/or help those who are excluded.|
|A building sense of injustice and victimisation, along with a belief that there is no way to stop or correct the injustices, develops to the point of loss of hope for any possibility of change.||Public-facing professionals are trained, equipped and empowered to spot, and/or help those who are disadvantaged.|
|Development of suicidal ideas.|
Development of notions of revenge for the injustice imposed.
The emergence of suicidal revenge thinking.
|All citizens feel a sense of duty to report behaviour that indicates a person is thinking of harming themselves or others.|
|Thoughts of suicidal revenge move to the planning stage.||All citizens feel a sense of duty to report behaviour that indicates a person is planning to harm themselves or others.|
|Purposefulness emerges and creates a sense of empowerment which reinforces the intent to conduct suicidal revenge.||Public-facing professionals (including teachers, social workers, health professionals, and police) are trained, equipped and empowered to help those who are in distress and exhibit sudden changes in behaviour.|
|A ‘final straw’ or trigger event, harm, trauma, or injustice (or series thereof) starts the final stage.||Public-facing professionals are trained, equipped and empowered to identify and support those subjected to trauma.|
|The decision is made, and the choice is taken, to implement the suicidal revenge plan.||All citizens feel a sense of duty to report behaviour that indicates a person is planning to harm themselves or others.|
At the beginning of this article, we asked: what can stop mass killings? We can stop them by understanding their causes, and the gateways that have to be passed for them to happen. Each gateway is an opportunity to prevent another potential massing killing.
If you have been affected by the contents of this article, there is help available.
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.