Thanks to the easy availability of high-powered weaponry, mass shootings in the US are depressingly frequent. In almost all cases, the shooter ends up being killed by law enforcement officers or kills themselves in the immediate aftermath, as was the case with the recent Maine shooter who killed 18 people. One cannot help but think that these people knew they were going to die so their rampage was part of a death wish plan.
But the question is why, if they sought death by suicide, they felt the need to kill other people, often total strangers, as a prelude. What do they gain? For some it may be that they seek posthumous fame, however fleeting. For others it may be due to an inchoate rage that seeks vengeance against the world for some harm that the shooter feels that he has suffered. For yet others, it may be an attempt to make some kind of political statement, however confused. Also, why are these shooters almost always male? By now, when I hear of such shootings, even before we get any details, I simply assume it was done by a man.
Criminologist Jill Peterson has researched the life histories of people involved in 180 mass shootings which are not related to other underlying criminal activity and not a domestic violence situation, and shares her findings.
So in our database, it’s 98% men. There’s four women in the database, two of them perpetrated the shooting with a man. So we see this common pathway and of course it’s a little different for each person, but this pathway seems to start with really significant early childhood trauma. So things like physical abuse, sexual abuse, suicide of a parent, domestic violence in the home. Over time, that individual becomes angry, becomes isolated, becomes hopeless, there’s a lot of self-loathing there. Many of them are suicidal and attempt suicide before doing a mass shooting. Then that self-loathing kind of turns outward and it becomes whose fault is this? Who do I blame for the fact that I feel this way? So school shooters blame their school. Workplace shooters blame their workplace. Other people blame religious groups, or racial groups, or women.
Perpetrators tend to be radicalized through studying other shooters before them. Many of them spend time on the internet in kind of these dark chat rooms where violence is really celebrated and validated. And then they go into this act knowing it’s their final act. So they’re kind of actively suicidal, planning to die in the act. They have access to the firearms that they need. And many of them leak their plans. Many of them tell other people they’re thinking about violence before they do it. And then they go out and they choose a location that’s symbolic of their grievance with the world because they’re looking for this fame and notoriety in their death that they didn’t have in their life.
I realize that people who enter into a killing spree are not in the most rational state of mind and trying to fully fathom their reasoning may be futile. But a recent news report says that it looks like one potential mass shooter had, at the last minute, second thoughts about taking other people down with him.
A heavily armed man killed himself rather than carrying out an apparent plan to shoot up a mountaintop amusement park in Colorado, authorities said Monday.
The 20-year-old man was found dead at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park on Saturday morning before it opened to the public, apparently breaking into the park while it was closed. He was armed with an AR-style rifle, a handgun and explosives and was wearing body armor and tactical clothing, authorities said.
The Garfield county sheriff Lou Vallario said a message saying: “I am not a killer, I just want to get into the caves,” was written on a wall of a women’s bathroom where he was found. Vallario could not say for certain that the suspect left the message.
Multiple improvised explosive devices were also found in his vehicle, police had said. Authorities searched the rest of the park for other explosives but suggested no others were found.
“While this investigation is still ongoing and very active, it is important to realize that given the amount of weaponry, ammunition and explosive devices found, the suspect could have implemented an attack of devastating proportions upon our community and first responders,” said Walt Stowe, the Garfield county sheriff’s office spokesperson.
The man, whose name has not been released, was from the area and had a semi-automatic rifle, semi-automatic handgun and multiple, loaded magazines for each weapon, he said. The man’s clothing had patches and emblems that gave the appearance of him being associated with law enforcement, Stowe said.
On Saturday, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent cited Stowe as saying that police were investigating the man’s death as a possible suicide.
Clearly he had planned the massacre carefully and the fact that he changed his mind is a relief. All the factors that Peterson suggests that may have pushed him in the direction of planning to kill others were not sufficient for him to take that final step. One wishes that would happen more often. And maybe it does but the person does not kill himself and so we never hear of it. On the one hand, it would be nice to think that there are massacres that do not happen due to a last minute change of heart. On the other, it is disturbing that there my be even more potential mass killers out there than we realize..
But the real problem is that people are able to so easily acquire all that they need to carry out such rampages. If they could be deprived of that ability, then the appeal of this form of suicide may wane.