Another day, another mass shooting in the US: We can blame it on a number of factors, from the proliferation of guns in the urban and suburban environments to socialization factors or on the effect of violent videos, movies and even game “apps” for smart phones. A number of explanations of the phenomenon have been offered over the years and varying degrees of credibility have been attributed to them. A lot of outrage-and little introspection-are expressed in editorials and streamed across our TV screens in the aftermath of a mass shooting, but what do we really decipher about the shooter’s state of mind?
One thing is almost universally true in these case
The active shooter, that person who storms into a classroom, cinema, restaurant or house of worship, is most likely suffering from acute mental illness. The mental illness often leads to delusional feelings and a profound sense of victimization. As investigators delve into the shooter’s past to determine just what triggered such violent behavior, the phrases “you did this to me” or “you made me do this” either written or spoken, were articulated by the perpetrator in the days or weeks preceding the killing spree.
We’re not addressing here motivational factors that might have contributed to the violent behavior, such as political, ideological or religious opinions or racial animus, though those are often present as well. In those instances, mental illness may be a secondary factor or not a factor at all. What we are addressing is the emotional component when mental illness severe that beset the shooter and that lead the shooter to often uncontrollable outbursts of violent behavior that culminate in a mass shooting.
Of course, each case is different and no hard and fast rule applies to each mass shooting in the US. But when taken as a whole, we can discern some characteristics of those who perpetrate a mass shooting from a mental health perspective.
In general terms, the perpetrator has suffered from mental illness in the past, whether diagnosed properly or not. What’s more, studies of perpetrators-such as Adam Lanza, the author of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting-have shown that the mental illness, even if diagnosed, was not treated with correct medical protocols. By this, we mean either accepted clinical practices for treating the illness were not adhered to or the patient himself did not follow the prescribed treatment. In the case of Lanza, both are true. He suffered from untreated Asperger’s syndrome, which is suspected of worsening his mental illness. At the same time, he did not follow the prescribed treatment for his mental illness, once diagnosed.
In the case of Cho Seung Hui, the shooter in the Virginia Tech massacre who killed 31 people, we also see a case of severe mental illness not properly diagnosed. Although he had been counseled in the past about violent outbursts and harassment of other students, his feelings of victimization, made worse by bullying, were manifest during the shooting spree when he railed against everyone associated with him or the university in any way. During the subsequent investigation, police uncovered at least two videos he made of himself. One of the two he apparently recorded for post-incident airing. In that one, he makes it clear that others made him commit the horrific acts that day at the university. “I did not want to do this. You made me do it”, he states.
Photo of Cho Seung Hui, the Virginia Tech shooter
A couple of other characteristics we often see in the perpetrators of mass shootings are self-isolation, a “loner”, social awkwardness and the inability to develop meaningful relationships with friends or family. Indeed, in many cases a close friend or family member would be one of the first to detect changes in personality that hint at something being awry and thus attempt to force intervention. But all too often, the rage and victimization remain inside, as the eventual shooter is living in a surreal environment, convinced that there is no way out, no escape, from his brutal world unless he lashes out against the very threats that he believes are victimizing him.
There are many other factors that influence a shooter of this type and we do not discount ideology. But it is the leap that the eventual shooter must make that is addressed here. The decision to perpetrate the crime or not is a conscious one and thus the ability of the shooter to make that leap is influenced greatly by his mental state.
In an upcoming letter, we’ll take a look at some of the differences discernible in cases wherein the shooter is acting out of a deeply held ideological conviction as opposed to one who is reacting to years of internalized strife that manifests itself in violence.
(Security Strategies Today offers a one or two day in depth course on preparing your company or workforce in the event of an active shooter incident. The course address both the mindset of the shooter and tactical issues for those caught up in the event. Contact us for a quote.)