America’s 378th mass shooting of 2017—of 427 total for the year—happened in a church nestled in Sutherland Springs, Texas. On November 5, Devin Patrick Kelley shot to death 26 people and injured over 20. “He was a powder keg, ready to go off,” an acquaintance of Kelley’s said in an interview.
Days before James T. Hodgkinson shot House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others in Virginia, the self-employed 66-year-old had threatened his daughter with a knife.
And before killing 58 and injuring more than 500 in the deadliest gun massacre in modern U.S. history on October 1, 2017, Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock had been stockpiling high-powered weapons.
Quite often it is only in hindsight that the friends and family of a mass-shooting perpetrator realize that the bloodbath was actually the climax of a series of foretelling clues from an angry, violent, paranoid, withdrawn person, who happens to have a newfound fixation with guns. Such devastating epiphanies beg the question: Can we predict tomorrow’s mass shooter?
“The reality is that none of those mass shooters just snapped. That’s very rare,” says Gerard Lawson, president of the American Counseling Association, who also drafted an emergency-response plan for colleges and universities following the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, where he teaches.
According to Lawson, people intent on pulling off a mass shooting put time and effort into their plan. “Almost always what you will find is a pattern of preparation–they put together weapons and stockpile them…to set the groundwork for what they are planning on doing,” he says. “Upon looking back, the people [closest to the shooter] say: ‘Maybe that was unusual; maybe I should have paid more attention to it.’ ”
Lawson says there are behavioral signs that coexist with this preparatory phase: “They [might] spend more time by themselves or go up into the woods each day and say ‘I think I can hear gunshots.’ ” Another sign to look out for, says Lawson, is when a normally social person becomes withdrawn.
Then, there are actual expressions of intent, most often displayed by mass murderers who are driven by an urge to exact revenge or regain power (as opposed to terrorists or those who mass-kill because they feel they are somehow acting for the common good).
“We sometimes refer to them as ‘collectors of every little offense that happens in the world,’ ” says Lawson. Such people see personal affronts everywhere— even when somebody cuts the line in front of them at the grocery store—helping justify their need for revenge. People near them might hear them talk about vengeance, about winning the power they feel they are missing, he says.
But can mass shootings spread like a virus? That’s what a 2015 study titled “Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings” proposed. Researchers conducted a statistical analysis of 176 mass-shooting events in the U.S from 2006 to 2011 and 220 school shootings between 1997 to 2013 and concluded that mass shootings were significantly more likely to happen if they had been preceded by another shooting that received national media coverage during the previous 13 days–the so-called “period of contagion.” According to the study, 20 to 30 percent of such killings appear to correlate with “infection.”
“When we looked at mass shootings that received widespread national coverage, we saw contagion, but when we looked at mass shootings where there were less than four people killed—which rarely made it past the local news—we found no evidence of contagion,” says Sherry Towers, research professor at Arizona State University and lead author of the study. This led her and her team to hypothesize that media might play the role of the “vector” in the copycat effect, especially for those who showed a fascination with other shooters by the kind of evidence they left behind.
“Exposure to the media and to another mass killing—beyond one that fascinated them in the past—might have been that one thing that triggered the killing,” says Towers.
But she acknowledges it’s not just a contagion effect that’s responsible for pushing someone over the edge. Another big factor is available weaponry. ”Not surprisingly, states with higher rates of firearm ownership have higher incidences of mass killings,” says Towers, whose study on gun violence is one of very few since the U.S.’s de facto ban on research into the topic since 1996. (President Obama ordered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to resume researching the causes of gun-related violence in January 2015.)
The U.S. ranks No.1 for mass shootings in the world, which is why both Lawson and Towers feel the key to reducing such tragedies is to reduce the “bystander effect,” where the presence of others discourages people from intervening in an emergency.
“We encourage people to say something if they see something that looks out of the ordinary,” says Lawson. “We would much rather have hundreds of false positives [if we can] stop the one that would escalate into a mass shooting.”
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