Dr Knoll is Director of Forensic Psychiatry and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY. He is Editor in Chief Emeritus of Psychiatric Times (2010 to 2014). Dr Pies is Professor in the psychiatry departments of SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY and Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston. He is Editor in Chief Emeritus of Psychiatric Times (2007 to 2010).
As psychiatrists, our stock-in-trade is understanding our patients’ motives—and in general, understanding what makes people “tick.” So, it may seem surprising that when it comes to mass shootings, such as the horrific Thousand Oaks bar massacre, we feel frustrated by the media’s obsession with the shooter’s “motives.” The same goes for investigators of such attacks, who seem fixated on determining the shooter’s “motive.”
To be sure: after such tragedies, it’s simply human nature to ask, “Why did the shooter do it?” And even in the most heinous and difficult to fathom crimes, there is motive. The popular myth that the perpetrator of a mass shooting “just snapped” has been debunked.1 Furthermore, the determination of “motive” is often important in criminal law. Essentially, motive (from the Latin word motivum, meaning “moving cause”) is what moves a person to commit a certain act. In US criminal law, there is no requirement to prove motive to reach a verdict. However, motive may be shown by the prosecution in order to prove that a defendant had a plausible reason to commit the crime.
Technically, motive is distinct from intent, although the two are often intertwined. (Motive has been defined as “the reason that nudges the will and prods the mind to indulge the criminal intent.”2) Thus, a person who knowingly puts a loaded gun to someone’s temple and fires it clearly had the intent to kill or grievously wound the person, but may have done so for a number of motives (eg, revenge, jealousy, racial animus).3 Motive becomes critical in, for example, the prosecution of hate crimes and acts of terrorism.4
Notwithstanding the legitimate role of “motive,” we believe that the ritualized hunt for the shooter’s motive is usually an exercise in fruitless speculation and wasted resources. When pursued by the media, this quest almost always lacks the necessary data to reach a sound determination. Moreover, these exercises rarely yield any useful or actionable information that would help reduce the likelihood of future mass shootings. Almost invariably, we learn little more than what we have known for many years—that mass shooters are typically (though not always) angry, aggrieved, emotionally unstable, or socially isolated males who are seeking retribution or revenge for perceived mistreatment, rejection, or humiliation.5
AS A SOCIETY, we must do better than this. We need to focus on:
1 Recognizing the major risk factors that raise the risk of violence in general;
2 Identifying and reporting observable “red flag” behaviors that point toward imminent, directed violence;
3 Reducing the likelihood that would-be killers can easily get hold of lethal weapons.
The authors report no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.
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