For the past 15 years, my colleagues and I have conducted research on adolescents and adults who commit mass murder (see our research at www.forensis.org). We define mass murder as the intentional killing of 3 or more individuals, excluding the perpetrator, during one event, and have studied cases in both the US and overseas, wherein this criminal phenomenon has its roots in the ancient behaviors called amok.
Now that the anniversary of the Newtown mass murder has passed, it is important to note the public misconceptions about this rare and frightening act. In this article, I would like to shed some light on what I consider the 7 myths of mass murder.
Myth 1: They “snap”
Immediately following a mass murder, there is a steady stream of newspaper headlines and what I call “entertainment profilers” who appear on television and proclaim that the perpetrator “snapped.” There is no known psychological term called “snapping,” but it appears to be the assumption of many that anyone who commits a mass murder has done it impulsively, without any planning or preparation, and has completely lost control. The hidden premise is that anyone who gave such behavior any thought, even if emotionally troubled, would not engage in such behavior, since it is so horrifying and antithetical to the general goodness of the human spirit.
This is a myth in virtually all mass murders. Our research, and others’ studies, have consistently shown that mass murderers, whether adolescents or adults, will research, plan, and prepare for their act of targeted violence over the course of days, weeks, and even months. In fact, the fantasy of committing a mass murder may have been incubating in the mind of the mass murderer for years—even though the time, place, and target of the killings was not yet determined by him.
The act itself usually occurs after there has been a major loss in love or work, and I think this may actually “start the clock” for final detailed preparations. I have forensically evaluated a number of mass murderers in prison or forensic hospitals, and with few exceptions, there was no evidence of a high state of emotional arousal when the killings occurred. We have confirmed this by studying the interviews of witnesses who have survived mass murders, and they invariably describe the shooter as cool, calm, and deliberate: a lack of emotion that is a corollary of violence that is planned and purposeful.
Myth 2: They can easily be divided into “psychopaths, psychotics, and depressives”
David Cullen, the journalist and author of Columbine, an excellent book on the high school mass murder in Colorado in 1999, has asserted this formulation. Unfortunately, his diagnostic classification of these individuals is much too simplistic. Most of those we have studied in our research, and I have evaluated for court purposes, are complex in their motivations and psychopathology and cannot be placed in such simple categories. In our language, they often have both mental disorders and personality disorders.
Mental disorders range from chronic psychotic disturbances, such as paranoid schizophrenia diagnosed in the Jared Loughner case, to major depression, other depressive disorders, bipolar disorders, and other paranoid disorders, such as persecutory delusional disorder. Fully understanding the range and complexity of these individuals’ disturbances is critical.
Personality disorders also abound in this group of dangerous individuals. We have found that personality disorders in mass murderers are often a mixture of antisocial, paranoid, narcissistic, and schizoid traits—someone who habitually engages in criminal behavior, is suspicious of others’ actions, is self-centered and grandiose with little empathy for others, and is chronically indifferent toward others and detached from his emotional life. It takes little imagination to see how such an individual, in the right circumstances, could intentionally kill others.
What Cullen has done is a disservice to the millions of individuals in the US and overseas who are clinically depressed or have a psychotic disorder, and pose no more risk of violence to others than your neighbor who is ostensibly normal. I have told a number of groups when I speak that Jared Loughner has given paranoid schizophrenia a bad name—many other factors contributed to his attempted assassination and mass murder. Schizophrenia is quite treatable with medication and other psychotherapeutic support, and few people with schizophrenia are violent.
Myth 3: Incidents of mass murder are increasing
When a mass murder occurs, it receives worldwide news coverage that is instant and pervasive. Unfortunately, we human beings are prone to overestimate the frequency of an event by its prominence in our minds, and mass murder is no exception. This is a very rare phenomenon, and is neither increasing or decreasing in the US. Since 1976, there have been about 20 mass murders a year. Casualty numbers vary considerably with each event, and typically the more people killed, the more press coverage the event receives. Violence sells: 2003 was the most violent year for mass murder, with 30 incidents and 135 victims. One of the quietest years for mass murder was 2001—if the 9/11 terrorist attacks are not considered.
The Washington Navy Yard, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Edmund Oklahoma, and San Ysidro still resonate in the public consciousness, however, reminding us that these events do happen, perhaps all the more frightening because of their perceived randomness. A positive counterpoint, moreover, is that rates of all violent crime have significantly decreased over this same time period, from 48 victims per 1000 persons in 1976 to 15 victims in 2010. What was the most lethal school mass murder in US history? It was in Bath, Michigan, in 1927, and the bombing resulted in the deaths of 45 people, mostly children in the second to sixth grades.
Myth 4: Firearms are not an issue
Of course they are. They are the means by which people can easily kill themselves and others. Mass murders are typically committed with firearms or explosives, whether in the US or internationally. Perpetrators usually bring 2 or 3 firearms to the scene of their massacre. Assault weapons were the killing instruments in both Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut in 2012; a shotgun was initially used at the Washington Navy Yard. Banning assault weapons, however, will unlikely reduce the frequency of mass murder in the US.
Between 1994 and 2004, when the federal assault weapons ban was in effect, there was no decrease in the average number of mass murders per year; however, there were no studies as to whether there was a specific decrease in the use of assault weapons in such crimes. The trend line remained flat. However, limiting firearms capacity would likely reduce the number of casualties at any one massacre—Jared Loughner was tackled by 3 senior citizens in Tuscon when he attempted to reload. What should be center stage is regulation of firearms. It is more difficult to buy the over-the-counter drug Sudafed than a semi-automatic pistol.