Since President Trump, as have many others, suggested that mass shootings are largely a mental health issue, it occurred to me that perhaps the people who study mental health already have this figured out.
I found an article from 2014 in Psychology Today that almost perfectly described the El Paso shooter. I try to not quote big chunks of things but it’s so good that I’m going to do so. What follows is a summary provided by the author of the article, Allen J Frances M.D, of research done by Dr James Knoll, a leading forensic psychiatrist with special expertise in mass murderers.
In 2013, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) issued a report on public mass shootings. The CRS used as its working definition incidents “occurring in relatively public places, involving four or more deaths.” The CRS identified 78 public mass shootings in the U.S. since 1983 that had resulted in 547 deaths and 1, 023 casualties.
He [Dr. Knoll] also notes that most perpetrators are young males who act alone after carefully planning the event. They often have a longstanding fascination with weapons and have collected large stores of them. The shootings usually occur in a public place and during the daytime.
Individual case studies involving psychological autopsy and a careful analysis of the often copious communications left behind suggest common psychological themes. The mass murderer is an injustice collector who spends a great deal of time feeling resentful about real or imagined rejections and ruminating on past humiliations. He has a paranoid worldview with chronic feelings of social persecution, envy, and grudge-holding. He is tormented by beliefs that privileged others are enjoying life’s all-you-can-eat buffet, while he must peer through the window, an outside loner always looking in.
Aggrieved and entitled, he longs for power and revenge to obliterate what he cannot have. Since satisfaction is unobtainable lawfully and realistically, the mass murderer is reduced to violent fantasy and pseudo-power. He creates and enacts an odious screenplay of grandiose and public retribution. Like the child who upends the checkerboard when he does not like the way the game is going, he seeks to destroy others for apparent failures to recognize and meet his needs. Fury, deep despair, and callous selfishness eventually crystalize into fantasies of violent revenge on a scale that will draw attention. The mass murderer typically expects to die and frequently does in what amounts to a mass homicide-personal suicide. He may kill himself or script matters so that he will be killed by the police.
The frequency of mental disorders in mass murderers is controversial because it is not clear where to draw the line between “bad” and “mad.” The paranoia exists on a spectrum of severity. Some clearly do not meet criteria for any mental disorder and often may justify their acts on political or religious grounds. Others have the frank psychotic delusions of schizophrenia. Many perpetrators are in the middle, gray zone where psychiatrists will disagree about the relative contributions of moral failure versus mental affliction.
OK. This is good — we have a profile of mass shooters that applies across the entire political spectrum.
Now that we know what mass murderers look like, can we use this knowledge to prevent them from becoming mass murderers?
For the most part, the answer is a disappointing no because it is just not possible to find needles in haystacks.
That is a tad disappointing but that would seem to be the task before us. We also thought that finding ISIS Terrorists was like finding a needle in a haystack but we’ve been pretty good at it. One thing computers and the Internet have given us is the ability to find needles in haystacks!
Lots of people fit Dr. Knoll’s demographic and psychological profile, but never act out their fantasies. We can easily predict a high-risk group, but have no way to identify the one specific person who will go haywire, and when it will happen. To prevent the act of the killer who winds up pulling the trigger, we would have to seriously violate the civil rights of the hundreds of thousands of others who resemble him, but turn out to be harmless. Mass murders happen way too often for us to tolerate, but way too rarely to be easily preventable by identifying and isolating the mass murderers. We can’t possibly jail or hospitalize everyone who has violent fantasies.
Fortunately, the author of the article has a solution.
The way forward is clear — we need to reduce free access to guns for those individuals who are at high risk to use them irresponsibly. Undoubtedly, this will eventually happen as the mass murders continue to pile up. Sooner or later, public outrage will overcome the NRA radicals and push politicians to do their job. But how much more blood must be spilled before simple common sense prevails over extreme ideology.
ERMAHGERD! WHAT? Another great article shot to hell because an author’s brain left his body and smashed itself with a rock. You can profile these people and you’re not going to try to find the needle in the haystack because it would be hard? Instead, let’s “seriously violate the civil rights of the hundreds of thousands of others” against a hope that a shooters “fascination with guns” will only be a fascination because they’ll be harder to get? Dr. Dummkopf — something which is difficult to get only becomes more fascinating!