Numerous mass shootings have led to an ongoing effort to understand the psychological makeup of the perpetrators. There is hope that such knowledge will prevent future carnage, however, this is not likely to be the case.
Human beings have killed one another since the dawn of civilization. Long before the existence of social media or the selling of semi-automatic rifles to eighteen-year-olds, there have been people who relish maiming and killing others. A sixteen-year-old told me, “If anyone aggravates me, I’m ready to kill him. I just like to fight, to feel skin against my knuckles, to feel noses break. I always win.” Fortunately, he was arrested before he killed someone. Of course, there was no way to know whether he would have killed someone or whether was enjoying bragging about himself as a tough guy.
A New York Times article from June 2 states that mass killers experience loneliness, hopelessness, feel “like losers,” and have a “need to prove themselves.” School shooters frequently have been portrayed as students who were ostracized and bullied. Criminologists have cited a lack of development of the brain in young shooters as a contributing factor.
A problem in trying to identify and intervene in the lives of potential school shooters is that many people who share these very characteristics kill no one. Moreover, people who commit mass murder usually do not announce their intentions or specific plans for doing so. Only after the fact are their homicidal intentions discovered in declarations and manifestos posted on social media.
To say that school shooters feel like “losers” tells us nothing and can even be misleading. Frequently, such people reject family and school before ever being rejected by them. They carve out a way of life in which they seek control over others, where seeking power is a way of life. They expect others to suit their requirements rather than satisfying the requirements of others. When others do not corroborate their view of themselves, even when the slights are small, they seethe with anger. They are lonely because they do not value other people except for what they can get out of them. Love, loyalty, and friendship are antithetical to their way of life. They have contempt for people who live regular lives. People fear them and want nothing to do with them. Some of these violent individuals appear to be quiet. This is because they are harboring a lot that they wish to conceal. They share very little of their inner lives with anyone, as they are close to nobody.
Some mental health professionals and policymakers think that, if identified early as dangerous, these individuals can be treated for their “mental health” issues. However, it has long been acknowledged that most perpetrators of mass violence are not seriously mentally ill.3, Since that is the case, what would mental health professionals treat?
Furthermore, if one were able to identify a potentially dangerous person and compel him to attend therapy, what outcome could reasonably be expected? These are not people who see much wrong with themselves. Their intense anger, often disguised, is at other people who slight them or do not corroborate their inflated view of themselves. Not accustomed to confiding in anyone, even priding themselves on secrecy, such individuals would be unlikely to reveal themselves to a stranger whom they were compelled to see.
Over his vociferous objections, Trevor* was forced by his parents to go to therapy. He did little except occupy a chair in different therapists’ offices. He had nothing against any of the therapists, but he saw no reason to meet with any of them. Trevor tried to convince them that it was his parents who needed to be “fixed.” Interviewed in jail after he killed his father during an argument over having residential treatment, Trevor remarked to me about the therapists, “I’m not saying they weren’t good at their jobs. I didn’t need them.”
More than fifty years ago, the late Willard Hendrickson, my supervisor at the University of Michigan’s adolescent inpatient service, stated, “If you can’t catch them, you can’t treat them.” Like Trevor, many people for whom violence, fantasized or real, is a way of life will disclose little of substance even if forced to appear at a therapist’s office.
People with a personality similar to that of mass shooters are not a recent phenomenon. What is relatively recent is their easy access to weapons used mainly in military combat. Previously, their violence assumed other forms, as it was not so easy to target groups of people. Moreover, there was no internet for them to communicate with like-minded people, attract an audience, and indulge their fantasies.
Ten states and Washington, DC have red flag laws. If law enforcement personnel believe that someone poses a threat, they can go to court to seek what is like a restraining order, in that it forbids a person to purchase firearms. These laws remain controversial. A New York Times article from June 6 points out that in Suffolk County, New York, “By far the most common reason for an order was to deter suicide.”
A significant drawback to some red flag laws is that a person cannot prove a negative, namely that he is not a danger to himself or others. Whereas past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, psychologists and psychiatrists are still not usually able to predict with great accuracy whether a person constitutes an imminent danger. One commentary on the effectiveness of red flag laws stated they might lead to an increase in homicides because people would be less likely to disclose their thoughts out of fear their weapons would be confiscated.
Even if a person were to disclose his intention to commit a crime, it is difficult to tell if this would be me bluster for the purpose of intimidating others, or whether it constitutes an imminent threat.
Limiting access to weapons used primarily in war and improving the thoroughness of background checks can help prevent mass shootings. We should expect little from the mental health profession as far as identifying potential mass shooters, most of whom are not mentally ill and will not respond to therapists who want to “treat” them.
*Trevor is a fictional name from an actual case