The motivations of mass shooters

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.


  1. raven says

    …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.

    I always assume if they were white that they were Trump voters.
    Like the guy in Maine was.


    A video of Card’s X account, using the username @RobertC20041800, shows he was interested in right-wing figures. His “liked” tweets include content published by Donald Trump Jnr., Tucker Carlson and Dinesh D’Souza. He also liked tweets by former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Jim Jordan, according to the screenshots.

    He was also a Trans people hater.

    Both X (Twitter) and Facebook immediately took down his accounts. Like maybe they have something to hide. He was also a fan of Elon Musk.

    Like a lot of Trump voters, they have a sense of being victims because they are white people in a white dominant society. Or something.

    Last year, all the people killed by terrorists in the USA were killed, by…right wing terrorists. Source, ADL.

    When I saw the first headlines late at night, I said to myself, “Well, at least there is one less Trump voter”. It turned out to be right.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    why are these shooters almost always male?

    Could it be that there’s some fundamental difference between males and females? Careful with those dangerous politics there.

    And all the blah around childhood abuse, self-loathing, suicidal thoughts, blaming, planning -- all of it may be true… but it’s still bullshit. Here’s the bit that should be in 72 point block capitals so you can’t see all that other nonsense:

    They have access to the firearms that they need

    FIX. THAT.

    All the other bullshit doesn’t go away, but it does just turn into a cadre of deeply unhappy men… and we all know how much society cares about that, right?

  3. cartomancer says

    The key question arising from these studies, it seems to me, is what is it about the USA and its culture that fosters such conditions. Yes, the easy access to guns and fetishising of same is part of it, but why is the US also so uniquely well stocked with this particular type of angry young traumatised men with no sense of hope or belonging?

    The fact it’s almost always men suggests that there is something deeply harmful about the way the US socialises and supports men. Which suggests that the most urgent remedy, after getting rid of all the guns, is to dismantle the whole system of gendered expectations the culture has. It’s not rocket science.

  4. says

    The group around you is seen as a threat. We’re running cognitive systems that seem to like to grab features of our immediate environment. At some point the group feels like a threat.

    There are elements of it in how I feel about groups, but I think the extra negative empathy from the tourette syndrome helps with seeing other parts of social problems that enable and keep the abuse going. It’s like the various high intensity feelings can run like a movie on in the background and I pay attention if there is something worth watching. Some of it looks like things that can inspire terrible acts like this but I’ve been able to just let wash past and pick better responses.

  5. SailorStar says

    Why is it always men? Gosh, it’s like no woman ever has grown up in situations of abuse and other trauma…

    Or, gee, could it be that (mostly white but some minority) men are raised to believe they’re entitled to anything they want and if the slightest thing goes wrong, they’re entitled to inflict their rage on others…

  6. birgerjohansson says

    There must be an element of bitterness, of seeing society as a whole as an enemy while shutting down empathy and letting rage fuel the actions, but I do not understand the psychology beyond this crude guess.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    @cartomancer, 3:

    why is the US also so uniquely well stocked with this particular type of angry young traumatised men with no sense of hope or belonging?

    Is there any evidence that it is?

    I suspect that if you talked to any high school teacher in the UK, France, Germany etc. etc. every single one of them would be able to point to a handful of those guys. There were certainly at least half a dozen in my school in the 80s. They just, y’know, couldn’t go down to the corner shop and buy an SA-80.

  8. garnetstar says

    My not-so-likely theory is, that in a patriarchal society, women are trained from childhood to accept pain, not to think that they’re entitled to happiness.

    Another factor in the recent upswing in mass shootings: it really is, as was said, a form of suicide. And, suicide and methods of doing it are extremely contagious, for some reason, and they always have been. Once easily-available guns have been used in a mass-murder-suicide, and it’s been on the news, that form will continue.

    Before TV, when people got the news from newpapers, the papers found that even putting the news story of a suicide under the fold, where it wasn’t visible to passers-by, decreased the number of suicides using that method that followed. Now, and with mass-murder-suicides being such horrific events that are a social problem, widespread reporting is unavoidable.

    Look, just ban guns, OK?

  9. seachange says

    Power is power.

    You are using psychology to try to explain this. It is entirely unnecessary.

    A man’s place in the social order among men can go up and down suddenly and by chunks. It sometimes isn’t at all based on previous status(es). A woman’s place in the social order among women goes up and down by small steady increments. It is strongly dependent upon initial conditions.

    It is about power.

  10. cartomancer says

    sonofrojblake, #7

    I think the vast numbers of mass killings are pretty good evidence that the US has a special problem. Sure, there are many fewer guns in Europe, but European countries don’t have mass epidemics of knife, club, poison and crossbow murders instead. The depressive, dispossessed and ostracised in Europe tend to find different mindsets and different outlets for their anxieties than mass killing.

  11. KG says


    I have a hunch -- no more than that -- that the highly competitive nature of American society, combined with or perhpas exemplified by the widespread use (including on the left) of “loser” as the insult of choice, has something to do with it.

  12. says

    @10 and 11

    I would suggest that the reason we don’t see mass murders in Europe via knives, clubs, etc., is because it’s very hard for an individual to create that kind of carnage with those weapons. If it was easy, we’d be arming the military with those things (think of the cost savings!). The whole point of guns (and especially assault-style rifles and any firearm with high capacity ammo) is to kill lots of people very quickly and with minimal effort. Guns translate a simple flex of the forefinger into lethality.

    The USA might indeed be “highly competitive”, but I think a bigger problem is the precarious nature of existence that so many people face here. We have an entire political party that is dedicated to removing what social safety net we have, and any worker or environmental protections that are in place. Consider that a uniquely American scene is the community fund-raiser at the local firehall because someone’s child has cancer and the family can’t afford the treatments. No developed, economically powerful society with any sanity would allow this situation. If you put people in insane circumstances, don’t be surprised if they become unhinged.

  13. Katydid says

    @garnetstar: “My not-so-likely theory is, that in a patriarchal society, women are trained from childhood to accept pain, not to think that they’re entitled to happiness.”

    It says right in the Christian bible that women are obligated to pain and suffering because they believed a talking snake that told them the truth over their all-knowing maker who made the snake in the first place, then lied to them about the tree of knowledge and didn’t know they were going to eat from it. (Makes total sense…) I think this is the reason why women are “trained from childhood” (nicely put!) that their role in society is to keep low and expect no kindness. A lot of women have worked very hard for the past 3 generations to make things more equal, but we as a society seem to be in a cyclical backlash at the moment.

  14. John Morales says

    [I did wait]

    Obviously, if one is ever for whatever reason fantasising about committing a murderous spree, the best time to do it is when one has for themselves decided to die. Not like there will ever be another time to do it, not like there will be any personal consequences, not like you’ll ever regret doing it.

    Nothing to lose at that point, IOW.

    Obs, not a general explanation, but if one limits the consideration to those who have already decided to off themselves, it’s pretty much a gain no matter what.

    Whether or not this has anything to do with what’s going on in Gaza, I’ll let the reader decide.

  15. Silentbob says

    They can see no reasons
    ‘Cause there are no reasons
    What reason do you need?
    Tell me why?
    I don’t like Mondays

    from “I Don’t Like Mondays” -- Song by The Boomtown Rats
    named after the reason given by a spree shooter.

  16. Silentbob says

    The second part of sonofroj #2 hits the nail on the head: It’s the guns stupid. And the surrounding gun culture. There is no evidence of a fundamental difference in the nature of American humans.

  17. sonofrojblake says

    I think jimf has it -- life in the US for anyone who isn’t a millionaire sounds HORRIBLE

  18. sonofrojblake says

    Relax, everyone. Ignore Jill Peterson, PhD, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University. Disregard her master’s degree and PhD in psychology and social behavior from the University of California, Irvine and bachelor’s degree in sociology from Grinnell College. Toss in the trash all the time and effort she spent as the the principal investigator on a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice focused on understanding the life histories of mass shooters.

    WMDKitty is here! The answer is solved! It’s purely male entitlement.

    Thank fuck it’s not complicated or difficult or nuanced or anything!

    Thank you WMDKitty! It must be so easy being you.

  19. SailorStar says

    @John Morales, 15: I think it’s more that the population of Gaza has spent their entire lives in an open-air prison with their captors blockading any sort of aid such as food and water, and cutting off electricity and bombing them on any passing whim. Toddlers playing soccer on the beach? Time to “mow the lawn!” Foreign journalist reporting on the situation in the open-air prison? Just assassinate her, why not? Elderly woman minding her own business in her own ramshackle hut? Send in a patrol and shoot up the place, for funsies!

    It’s easy to see how people in that situation would feel they have no future and nothing to lose in venting their anger at the people murdering them on a whim. The unemployed neckbeard living in his mother’s basement who’s furious the prom queen doesn’t know he exists and mows down random women on a college campus, not so much.

  20. says

    I don’t see why the problem can’t be a combination of things. So, sure, it could be some men feel entitled, and some men feel powerless, etc. but without access to the guns, they can’t vent that on innocents. IOW, banning guns would surely reduce the mass shootings, but it would still leave us with a bunch of men who are, to put it unkindly, damaged goods. They’ve been damaged, at least in part, by a society that is hyper-consumerist, loves vicarious violence, has a perverse love/hate relationship with sex, and pushes the idea of “every man for himself” over community good. (To be fair, a portion of the society pushes that, not every element of it.)

    And no, you don’t have to be a millionaire to be doing OK in the USA. It does, however, help if you’re at least comfortably middle class, healthy, and white*.

    * I recall a bit from Chris Rock several years back where he said “There isn’t a white guy in this audience who would trade places with me…. and I’m rich!

  21. says

    It probably has absolutely nothing to do with media representations like John Wick that portray killing 150 people as an entertaining response to having a dog killed. Admittedly, as a friend of dogs, I can somewhat sympathize (which is the point) but it’s so disproportionate it’d even embarrass the Israelis. OK maybe not them.

    I find all these things relate, though: someone feels bad about themself and the world and lashes out murderously at other people who were only tenuously connected. I used to find it interesting how chambarra-style samurai films plan on the grand exit theme (e.g.: Harakiri or Sword of Doom) and that morphed from even having a justification for the killings into Clint Eastwood style spaghetti westerns where the hero appears as a detached sociopath, not bent on vengeance but rather mildly bored. It normalizes killing strangers as a primary social interaction for profoundly damaged people. Hmmm… does that echo the mass killings?

    If someone pushes my bushido button I can go on for pages about how some interpretations of bushido make the big bloody exit an existentialist statement, “killroy was here!” I.e.: they are going to remember me. That is a key thread in John Wick, too: people know nothing of him except that he’s really dangerous. What is an existentialist analysis of that? Or Clint Eastwood’s “man without a name” note that Kurosawa always gives even his minor characters an inner life and that cements the meaning of how and why they implode.

    American cinema of nihilism is just chalk full of this stuff -- consider The Wild Bunch who decide to kill a ton of faceless “bad guys” because what the hell it’s how we do things. Mass shooters align with Hollywood tropes because of the vagueness about who the bag guys are. Hint: the bad guy is the disassociated gunslinger or PTSD addled veteran who walks into town, and guns down everyone who looks at him side-eye. Again, compare to Yojimbo who is in it for money and also his legacy is a town freed of gamblers and gangsters, and a pile of corpses.

    Americans studiously avoid talking about the media of mass murder because, I dunno, maybe the media controls critiques of violence in the media?

  22. says

    PS -- note it’s always the masterless ronin who explode in the chambarra movies. Men with a real mission have responsibilities that ground them. The cultural freedom from responsibility or rejection of responsibility has something to do with triggering American mass violence. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

  23. sonofrojblake says

    Just having a chuckle at the juxtaposition of posts 16 (“here’s some lyrics about the nihilism of mass shooters”) and 17 (“Dude toxic masculinity is not exactly unstudied in feminism”), along with WMDKitty’s wisdom that it’s only and always simple male entitlement.

    Or it could just be ignorance and incuriosity, of course.

    If you still don’t get it…

    from “I Don’t Like Mondays” — Song by The Boomtown Rats
    named after the reason given by famously female spree shooter Brenda Ann Spencer


  24. Holms says

    Personally, I wonder if they even realise that they have both just admitted there is such a thing as being socialised male.

  25. Silentbob says

    @ ^

    You got me genius. Clearly the problem with Brenda Ann Spencer was her male socialisation.

  26. Silentbob says

    Just to clarify for the resident misogynists and transphobes: All four of the following statements can simultaneously be true

    1) Due to enormous social pressure and shaming regarding how inappropriate it is for a Scotsman to put sugar on their porridge, very few Scotsmen put sugar on their porridge.

    2) There exist Scotsmen who put sugar on their porridge.

    3) There exist non-Scotsmen who enjoy sugarless porridge.

    4) A person who does not identify as a Scotsman (even if technically born in Scotland) will not be “socialised as a Scotsman” and will be utterly unaffected by whatever social attitudes exist regarding Scotsmen, sugar and porridge.


  27. sonofrojblake says

    Also: please stop shitting on trans people by bringing them into this. What are you, Donald fucking Trump or something?

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