Spree shooters: Predictable, preventable behavior

In the horrific aftermath of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn, the mall shooting in Oregon, and the Batman movie shooting in Colorado 2012 has been a tragic year marked by outrageous violence.

Many media commentators and elected officials have made comments about the inevitability of additional attacks and how we are defenseless to prevent other similar murders unless we make other gun restrictions above and beyond current laws which make all of these behaviors illegal.

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 of inevitability and the idea people just snapped are flawed. The purported inevitability of attacks, coupled with the concept these killers suddenly became homicidal with no known motivation, is certainly sensational, but unsupported by research into this type of attack.

Knee jerk concepts of “gun control” is also a flawed concept since criminals don’t abide by gun laws or cease their behavior due to additional taxes or amount of available ammunition. The law abiding public is affected, but murderers and criminals do not suddenly throw up their arms in surrender over a new law.

They did not just snap

This type of terrible homicidal violence is not 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.

These heinous felons seem to be very fond of assembling all of their elaborate gear over a period of time like camouflage or tactical clothing, knives, weapons and ammunition. This is very organized behavior by individuals who are often labeled as having mental health issues or believed to be insane or “they just snapped.”

Clearly, anyone who engages in this terrible criminal behavior is making a large number of decisions over an extended time which can be identified as heading towards lethal behavior and 30 second news sound bytes looking for “the cause” or “the final straw” that made this shooter go berserk is not going to see the actual picture.

The truth is 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 1900’s 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 is 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 are 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.

In the American society, violence is often inflicted in the heat of passion, or under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Spree killers are not acting out in the moment, they don’t snap-they are 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 necessarily to anyone else. How could rational people make such plans even to the point that they may include committing suicide after they have executed their big plan or statement to the world?

These attacks are not  inevitable

This long planned violence is not inevitable, and does not 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.

Spree shooters, troubled young adults and mentally unbalanced people show visible and reoccurring aspects of their problems to friends and family who may fail to recognize it as criminal in nature or take action. They may live in denial or they just hope it is not a precursor to violence-but do not intercede. Most parents would never believe their offspring could be capable of murdering multiples of human beings in cold blood. But there are parents who 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 TV news interviews of have we all seen following a murder which  include neighbors who describe the killer , “He was a quiet man.”  They may not have seen the many problems suffered by the shooter or were witness to degrading behaviors, but many people may have witnessed individual pieces which should have been cause for alarm.

For the American public, there is an unfortunate trend to shun or avoid angry and troubled people and hope nothing bad happens. We just don’t get involved. If violence does spring forth, there is a common belief only the police can deal with it after the fact.

There is little communal emphasis to be pro-active with problems evidenced by people outside their comfort zones. They are shunted off to being “someone else’s problem” or problems for the police to deal with.

The policeman who takes a report about verbal threats or odd behavior rarely gets information about the person’s life behaviors which are endured by family, friends and teachers.

Instead of prevention, 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 which are misused by these murderers. It is already illegal to use firearms in the commission of felonies. It is already illegal for citizens under the age of 21 to possess or own pistols and pistol ammunition.  Laws which prevent non-criminals from committing statutory bad acts do not stop criminals from engaging in crime. You don’t have to look much beyond the history of anti-gun possession laws in Chicago and Washington DC two of the most restrictive cities in the nation and their high murder rates. Those laws prevented law abiding citizens from possessing firearms, but did not prevent homicidal criminals from doing so.

Criminals are not entitled to have guns. There are also people who are entitled to purchase firearms and ammunition that have mental health problems or personality problems who should not have guns, and in fact it may be illegal for them to purchase or possess firearms. If they self-report, or have notices provided by mental health professionals it is illegal to sell them firearms. In this age of law suits and HIPPA protection, fewer mental health professionals are willing to make treatment or warning notifications to the police.

Each firearm which is legally purchased from a licensed gun dealer in America is regulated by federal and state laws and requires the purchaser under oath to fill out a series of questions to include convictions, domestic violence and mental health treatments.  Several of the American spree killers purchased weapons legally, filled out the forms, underwent the mandatory law enforcement background checks, and waiting periods required by state laws.

The type of gun is irrelevant they complied with all of the laws required of every citizen.  Rather than relying on purchasers to self report, it may be more important that people with intimate knowledge of  subjects who are unsuitable, or who have lied to purchase guns come forward and report the person who has just committed a federal crime.

This is an uncomfortable position to be in, but hopefully we as a society can be more pro-active reporting these types of issues even though they are outside of our comfort zone.

We may never know how many illegal acts will be prevented, and it is not 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.

In the Sandy Hook massacre, news reports are relating the shooters mother purchased the guns legally. The shooter stole and misused them, not his law abiding mother, and now many politicians want to prevent or further restrict guns for everyone who follows the law? How do they miss the felonious acts of the murderer?

The purchase of guns by people with histories of violence, mental health issues, or who are not 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, it is just not true, and illegal guns have not been the heart of a major shooting spree.  American spree shooters have obtained legally purchased weapons themselves or have stolen 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.

Spree shooters always leave clear signs of planned violence

In addition to obtaining firearms, school shooters have also had conversations, emails and written plans viewed by peers, family or friends as “wrong” or “scary” but were discounted or dismissed by people who did not wish to believe clear intent was being shown of future violence.  They always leave clues with those around them. Those clues are not always correctly dealt with or interpreted and are merely suffered and 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.

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 text book 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.”

It may come as a surprise to be told shooting sprees are practiced by young adults daily around the nation and around the world- in popular video games. Even if the academic studies of TV violence are not embraced, even 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 (US 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 pre-cursor activities leading up to their  shootings.

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 be “not 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.

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 versus 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.

If you see something, say something

The concept that spree violence is inevitable cited earlier, is another of the damaging myths about stopping this violence. 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 is 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 is not inevitable, and the subjects leave oh so visible traces which 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 and less in common with ordinary human beings.

We must all be vigilant, recognize aberrant behavior, and “If you see something, say something.”

Comments are closed.