In the horrific aftermath of the shootings this year at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown (Conn.), the mall in Portland (Ore.), and during the Batman movie in Aurora (Colo.), many media commentators and elected officials have made comments about the inevitability of additional attacks. The public also appears to have an insatiable appetite for information about the causes of these spree killers who theoretically just “snapped” and went on their homicidal path.
Both concepts are flawed. The purported inevitability of attacks, coupled with the concept these killers suddenly became homicidal with no known motivation, is certainly sensational, but also unsupported by research on this type of attack.
Spree Shooters Plan Attacks
Spree shooting is a terrible homicidal violence that isn’t conducted in the spur of the moment. Review of the American and foreign school shootings have always found elaborate planning by the shooters. The study of attack locations, identification of unsuspecting soft targets in “gun-free zones” and elaborate attack plans are often combined with computer research about suicide, homicide and weapons. Selection of camouflage or tactical-type clothing seems to be a common theme as well as obtaining weapons and ammunition. This is very organized behavior by individuals who are often labeled as having mental health issues or believe to be insane. Clearly, anyone who engages in this terrible criminal behavior is making a large number of decisions over an extended time and can be identified as potential lethal behavior.
In the American society, violence is often inflicted in the heat of passion, or under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Spree killers aren't acting out in the moment—they're long-term planners who may have a passion, but the execution is in cold blood. They may extend their anger or passion over extended time periods, building plans based on old events or even an emerging situation that dove tails into their old programming and grudges. It makes sense to them—not to us. How could rational people make such plans even to the point that they may include committing suicide after they have executed their big statement to the world?
The actual motivation for the shooter may be unfathomable to the public at large. This behavior is so unreasonable to us it appears alien. Interestingly enough, the term “alienist” was applied to psychologists and psychiatrists in the early 1900s when they studied murderers who were alienated from normal human emotions and connections, or whose acts were so outside the realm of “normal” they were deemed to be “alien“ to human nature.
There's obviously no excuse for killing defenseless groups of people, and this “insane behavior” makes no sense. From the shooter’s side, they don’t worry about making sense, they're making decisions based upon their own thoughts, advancing violent plans and showing clear intent to harm all in furtherance of their own perceived grievances or issues.
Behavioral Red Flags
This long-planned violence isn't inevitable, and doesn't exist in a cloak of unidentifiable secrecy. Much like sharks or other dangerous animals who exhibit exaggerated attack behaviors prior to attack, these deadly shooters show their behaviors long before they appear to “just snap.” They may have exhibited years of anti-social behavior or mental illness. All of the planning and gathering of necessary items for the big attack may also be conducted in plain view of friends, family and the public, along with verbal and written statements of hate and threats of violence.
Troubled and mentally unbalanced people show visible and reoccurring aspects of their problems to friends and family who may fail to recognize it as criminal. Or they just hope it isn't a precursor to violence, but don't intercede. Most parents would never believe their offspring could be capable of murdering multiples of human beings in cold blood, but have observed bad or psychotic behaviors for years prior to the big event right along with other precursor events in school or at work.
How many Sunday evening late night T.V. news interviews have we all seen following a murder that include neighbors who describe the killer as "a quiet man”? They may haven't seen the many problems suffered by the shooter or were witness to degrading behaviors, but many people may have witnessed individual pieces that should have been cause for alarm.
For the American public, there's an unfortunate trend to shun or avoid angry and troubled people and hope nothing bad happens. Or if it does spring forth, they believe they're problems for the police to deal with. The cop who takes a report about verbal threats or odd behavior rarely gets information about the person’s life behaviors that are often endured by family, friends and teachers.
Spree Killers & Firearms
One of the most obvious danger issues we seize upon is of course the use of firearms obtained by spree killers. Media outlets broadcast the brand and type of weapons used, get commentators to speak about them and politicians call for restrictions and bans—all without embracing the notion that firearms are inanimate objects that are misused by these murderers.
It's already illegal to use firearms in the commission of felonies and for citizens under the age of 21 to possess or own pistols and pistol ammunition. Laws that prevent non-criminals from committing statutory bad acts don't stop criminals from engaging in crime. There are people who are entitled to purchase firearms and ammunition, but have mental health problems or personality problems and shouldn't have guns. In fact, it may be illegal for them to be sold firearms if they self report or have notices provided by mental health professionals. But in this age of law suits and HIPPA protection, few mental health professionals are willing to make treatment or warning notifications to the police.
Each firearm that's legally purchased from a licensed gun dealer in America requires the purchaser under oath to fill out a series of questions that include convictions, domestic violence and mental health treatments. Several of the American spree killers purchased weapons legally, filled out the forms and underwent the mandatory law enforcement background checks and waiting periods required by state laws. More than relying on purchasers to self report, it may be better to have people with intimate knowledge on the subjects who are unsuitable or who have lied to purchase guns to come forward and report the matter. This is an uncomfortable position to be in, but hopefully we as a society can be more proactive reporting these types of issues even though they're outside of our comfort zone. We may never know how many illegal acts will be prevented, and it isn't possible to estimate how many injuries or deaths were prevented, but we still need to do the right thing and report illegal behaviors even by friends and family.
The purchase of guns by people with histories of violence and mental health issues or who aren't old enough to legally own firearms should draw immediate attention from those around them. Despite media claims or public perceptions that illegal guns are available on any American street corner, the facts don’t support this claim, and illegal guns haven't been at the heart of a major shooting spree. American spree shooters have obtained legally purchased weapons themselves or stole legally purchased weapons and misused them. Obviously the theft of legally purchased guns shows proof of felony intent. The shooters also practice and train with guns, and may exhibit unusual behaviors at public shooting ranges or gun stores. Gun dealers and gun ranges have reported people with erratic behaviors and have prevented sales and use to include the recent Colorado shooter.
Report Bad Behavior
In addition to obtaining firearms, school shooters also have conversations, emails and written plans that are viewed by peers, family or friends as “wrong” or “scary,” but were dismissed. This is because they didn't wish to believe that a clear intent of future violence was being shown.
But spree killers always leave clues. Those clues aren't always correctly dealt with or interpreted and are rarely reported at home. School teachers and administrators operate with more defined lines of reportable behavior and are more likely to report violence indicators or behavior. More families need to correct, deal with or seek outside resources and report bad behavior.
Verbal signals of potential violence go far beyond direct threats and may include indirect or passive/aggressive claims, harassing phone calls and emails, reoccurring suicide threats and belligerence. The line between evidencing willingness to harm one’s self vs. harming others is very thin.
Physical violence is much easier to appreciate, but may also be surrounded by other physically indicative behaviors like stalking, intimidation, lack of emotional control, deteriorating appearance, isolation and withdrawing behavior exhibited or aggravated by increased use of drugs and/or alcohol.
An example: One day after the recent Connecticut shootings, school kids in Laurel, Maryland, reported a teen who had made comments about committing school violence. The information was provided to a school liaison officer, the school administrators, parents and local prosecutor’s office. Investigation found elaborate plans and research being made by the youth. They were placed in a mental health facility for an emergency evaluation. This is a textbook example of people observing the precursor behaviors and acting upon it. This type of scenario occurs frequently in schools across America and exemplifies the phrase first coined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in their Counter Terrorism campaign “If you see something, say something.”
Violent Video Games
It may come as a surprise to be told shooting sprees are practiced by young adults daily around the nation and the world—in popular video games. Even if the academic studies of T.V. violence aren't embraced, the most skeptical among us must acknowledge the intensive repetition of digital killing can desensitize “normal” players to the suffering of real human beings. It has even gone a step further with the popular use of “zombies” as targets in the games instead of “live people.” With a potential spree shooter, who already has violent or mental issues, they can submerse themselves in this video-based behavior without negative consequences and feed their violent fantasies by the hour. Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman (U.S. Army, retired) first referred to these first-person shooting games as “murder simulators” many years ago, and they seem to be very real parts of spree killers observable precursor activities leading up to their shootings.
Addressing Myths About Violence
Other myths exist which obscure objective evaluation of projected violence. Some beliefs are held that family members are good people deep down and they would never harm someone. They may be perceived to “not be dangerous.” This is a very dangerous proposition in and of itself. Law enforcement and mental health professionals can readily attest to the fact that under the right circumstances and with the right motivators, anyone can become violent. The observable pieces by spree killers on the other hand, have shown a long continuum of simmering violence and bad behavior.
The concept that spree violence is inevitable (cited earlier) is another damaging myth. Early identification and intervention is necessary along with commitment to prevention. Safety plans can be formulated and executed as opposed to just hoping bad or violent behavior disappears on its own. Dedication to doing “the right thing” is a necessary element to interrupt these pathways of violence, and numerous agencies or people can be engaged to help. There's no need to allow bad behavior to continue unchecked, and once it is addressed, multiple parties need to continue to monitor and interact with problem subjects.
Recognizing threat behaviors is of course the first step toward managing those threats. Use of outside organizations like counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists and teachers to intercede and support persons in crisis brings much more attention to bear, and puts attention and a spotlight on problem behaviors. Friends and family may be engaged to assist and in more serious situations legal options may include the police, local prosecutors and involuntary commitments for mental health evaluations.
Widening the circle of people around a crisis subject reduces risk to all. Intervention can help change the subject’s viewpoints on violence. This horrific practice of shooting sprees isn’t inevitable, and the subjects leave visible traces that need to be engaged/reported. Personal involvement can redirect these persons at risk in positive activities instead of allowing them to sink further into their own withdrawn fantasies where they have less in common with ordinary human beings. We must all be vigilant, recognize aberrant behavior and “if you see something, say something.”