Unmasking the Rise: Exploring the Motivations of Mass Shooters in the Growing Epidemic of Mass Murders
What Makes Them Tick, and Who, or What, is Winding the Clock?
On January 4th of 2024, a 17-year-old student of Perry High School in Iowa opened fire on the first day back from the holiday break, killing a sixth grader, 11-year-old Ahmir Jolliff, and wounding seven others, one of whom was a staff member of the school. Police reports show that the gunman was armed with a pump-action shotgun and a small caliber pistol. He also had an improvised explosive device (IED) which was safely disarmed.
This writer will not be publishing the name of the shooter, for reasons that will become clear later in this article.
His motive has not been made known as of this writing, but his family has spoken out about him being “relentlessly bullied” since elementary school, and things escalated when his younger sister started being bullied as well.
The shooting has once again raised the question among the public about what can be done about these crimes. Naturally, we started hearing the same tired cries to ban guns, or that we just need “common sense gun laws”. Never mind the fact that banning guns is an unconstitutional and ineffective solution, a would-be mass murderer wouldn’t be swayed if the tool of his choice was taken away, they’d simply move on to a different weapon. “We just need common sense gun laws” is also somewhat amusing because it implies that the existing laws are not “common sense” and aren’t working.
How Can We Understand What Causes Mass Shootings?
The first step to solving any problem is to first try and understand the problem. Understanding this problem means that leftists and Democrats are going to have to turn their focus to something very different than guns themselves. Researchers James Densley and Jillian Peterson, co-founders of The Violence Project, give us some insights that are worth listening to. Their bios read as follows:
Densley is Professor and Department Chair of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Metro State University. After earning his Doctor of Philosophy, (D. Phil.) in sociology from the University of Oxford, he quickly established himself as one of the world’s leading experts on street gangs and serious youth violence, including violence online. James is the author or editor of 11 books and over 150 journal articles, book chapters, essays, and other works.
Peterson is a Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Hamline University and director of their forensic psychology program. She earned her Ph.D. in psychology and social behavior from the University of California, Irvine, and went on to lead large-scale research studies on mental illness and crime, mass shootings and school shootings, which have received global media attention. Jillian is a sought-after national trainer and speaker on issues related to mental illness and violence, trauma, forensic psychology, and mass violence. She is trained in restorative practices, violence mediation, crisis intervention, de-escalation, and suicide prevention.
Their organization, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center, is thought to be the largest and most comprehensive database of mass shooters. Densley and Peterson also published a book released in 2021 titled “How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic.”
According to these experts, reframing mass shootings as suicidal events rather than solely homicidal could be a key to understanding the motives behind them, and thus helping us reduce the rate of occurrences. Most mass shooters exhibit suicidal ideation prior to carrying out their attacks. Typically, they do not intend nor expect to survive their crimes. The shooters usually feel unseen, invisible, and overlooked, so these crimes are a way for them to show the world their pain. According to Densley and Peterson, understanding the despair that drives the shooters can be an effective means of stopping them before they go too far.
The focus needs to be on the perpetrators of these crimes rather than the tools they use to commit them.
Densley and Peterson make the case for why applying existing suicide prevention methods can help get someone off the road to this type of violence.
Why Should We Treat Mass Shootings as Suicides as Well as Homicides?
In San Diego, California on January 29, 1979, there was a shooting perpetrated at Grover Cleveland Elementary School. It was committed by a 16-year-old girl named Brenda Spencer. She opened fire on children getting off the bus at the school, which was across the street from her home. When asked by a reporter why she had done it, she famously responded that she hated Mondays.
“I just don’t like Mondays… I did this because it’s a way to cheer up the day.”
After spending years in prison, at a parole hearing, she was asked the same question and she is recorded as saying, “I wanted to die. I was trying to commit suicide.” She followed up by saying that “every time I tried suicide in the previous year, I screwed it up.” She targeted the school specifically because she felt that police would shoot and kill her. She was attempting what is known as suicide-by-cop. Five children were killed, along with the principal and the custodian.
Brenda hasn’t been the only mass shooter driven by suicide. Researchers are finding evidence that suicides and mass shootings can often be different expressions of the same problem. Our focus on the gun itself ignores this, and if the public perspective can’t shift, we are only going to see more and more. Densley is quoted in an interview as saying that mass shootings are “angry suicides.” Professor of criminology at the University of Alabama, James Lankford agrees, but it wasn’t until he published a 2021 study comparing mass shooters to other demographics that he realized just how much more mass shooters had in common with people who die by suicide than they did with other kinds of homicide offenders.
“Homicides are rarely premeditated but public mass shootings almost always are,” Lankford said. So are suicides. While mass shootings were 3.8 times more likely to be premeditated than standard homicides, they were only 1.2 times more likely to be premeditated compared to suicide. Mass shooters were more likely than other homicide offenders to act alone. They were more likely to be killed by law enforcement, and, at least in Lankford’s study, while standard homicide offenders aren’t particularly likely to experience suicidal tendencies, mass shooters were a bit more likely to have a history of suicidal ideation than even people who actually died by suicide.
Other researchers analyzed 41 school shooters for the Secret Service and Department of Education and found that 78 percent had a history of thinking about or attempting suicide.
It stands to reason then that suicide prevention measures are a valid way to address this issue. Acts of mass violence are essentially functioning as a method of suicide.
So why are the shooters so angry and in such a state of despair that, not only do they want to die, they want to take others with them?
The National Association of School Psychologists says “There is NO profile of a student who will cause harm.” They argue that any attempt to profile a would-be shooter runs the risk of targeting children who would otherwise never perpetrate a violent crime while excluding ones who could. That said, there are still common threads running through the histories and backgrounds of known school shooters. Robin Kowalski, a Ph.D. on staff with the Brookings Institute has published studies on commonalities between these events. Her findings show that 95 percent are males, 60 percent of those are white, and they overwhelmingly felt marginalized in some way.
One 16-year-old shooter wrote, “I feel rejected, rejected, not so much alone, but rejected. I feel this way because the day-to-day treatment I get usually it’s positive but the negative is like a cut, it doesn’t go away really fast.” Prior to the Parkland shooting, the perpetrator said, “I had enough of being—telling me that I’m an idiot and a dumbass.” Further, a 14-year-old shooter stated in court, “I felt like I wasn’t wanted by anyone, especially my mom.”
These children felt invisible/unseen. Rejected. They felt as if they were “outsiders” in regard to their peers. This despair is then often turned outwards, at the perceived causes of their anguish.
Does the media coverage we generate and the attention we receive from politicians and anti-gun activist groups contribute to the motivation for potential shooters to take action?
Jillian Peterson, in an interview with Politico, calls mass shootings “socially contagious”, meaning when one occurs and garners a lot of media attention, others will inevitably follow. Densley follows up by saying, “Mass shooters study other mass shooters. They often find a way of relating to them, like, ‘There are other people out there who feel like me.’”
Peterson goes on to say, “There’s this really consistent pathway. Early childhood trauma seems to be the foundation, whether violence in the home, sexual assault, parental suicides, extreme bullying. Then you see the build toward hopelessness, despair, isolation, self-loathing, oftentimes rejection from peers. That turns into a really identifiable crisis point where they’re acting differently. Sometimes they have previous suicide attempts. What’s different from traditional suicide is that the self-hate turns against a group. They start asking themselves, “Whose fault is this?” Is it a racial group or women or a religious group, or is it my classmates? The hate turns outward. There’s also this quest for fame and notoriety.”
Violent events like mass shootings tend to spread like wildfire among media outlets and social media platforms. Politicians get on their soapboxes. Anti-gun activists start their campaigns with renewed vigor. For an unstable and suicidal individual who feels invisible, they start to realize that they do have a way of being seen. They're looking for this fame and notoriety in their deaths that they don't have in their lives. A way to make their names go down in infamy.
There is an organization called No Notoriety, founded by Tom and Caren Teves who lost their son in the Aurora, CO shooting. If you recall, the shooter’s name and face were everywhere in the news and across social media while his victims faded into the background. Mass shooters are actively seeking out this level of attention, so the No Notoriety organization has changed that dynamic. They speak about the shooting, but they focus instead on the victims, the first responders, the families, and friends, and let the perpetrator be the one who fades into the background.
Another aspect of mass shootings that tends to make the media pundits and politicians hyper-focus on an incident is whether or not a semiautomatic rifle, the dreaded AR-15 specifically, was used. As Peterson and Densley mentioned, mass shooters will study other mass shooters. As they study one another, they start to mimic each other, particularly on a specific aspect of a shooting that is being spoken about more than others. Essentially, our media, politicians, and activist groups have turned what is merely a basic semi-automatic rifle into a talisman-like object that draws these individuals to them. Mass shooting events that use different weapons don't tend to garner as much time and attention. There is an overwhelming tendency to imitate the behaviors of others that previously got a lot of attention. For example, one of the most widely-known school shootings in the U.S. was the Columbine High School massacre. That shooting got more coverage from CNN than the death of Princess Diana.
So What Should We Do?
The cries of “DO SOMETHING” echo loudly after each mass shooting, and rightly so. The murder of innocents should always be something we seek to prevent whenever possible, it’s just that the most common “solutions” that are always presented after one of these events are either unconstitutional, ineffective, or both.
Banning guns, particularly semi-automatic rifles, is both unconstitutional and ineffective. If you ban Weapon A, the killer simply moves on to Weapon B. The call to ban guns is no more than an emotional knee-jerk reaction, and while understandable, it actually won’t do anything to curb mass murder in the slightest. As difficult as it is, we have to be able to set our emotions aside and think logically and critically about this issue.
Most other gun control proposals are equally as ineffective. Universal background checks, for instance, won’t help because most school shooters are not getting their weapons through legal channels. Red flag laws must first adhere to due process, otherwise, those laws would violate the constitutional rights of the accused. Safe storage of weapons in the home is a common sense solution, but not one that could be feasibly or constitutionally mandated by lawmakers. It would be impossible to enforce without authorities doing routine home checks, which is a huge violation of privacy rights, particularly if no crime has been committed and there is no evidence that a future crime MIGHT be committed. This is also a violation of our due process rights. If you have a troubled, potentially suicidal person in your home, just make sure they don’t have easy access to your firearms, no laws required.
So focusing on the weapon used is not the logical way to approach solving this problem. We in the U.S. now need to shift our focus onto the individuals themselves. Since most school shooters talk about their crimes before they commit them, as a society we must learn to listen. We can reduce mass shootings in our country, but it’s going to take time and conscious effort. It’s going to take a cultural shift in how we perceive and understand these events. We have no illusions that this will be quick or easy, but the best solutions rarely ever are.
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