Can We Predict Who Will Become Mass Shooters?

James Holmes was a psychiatric patient at the time he shot 24 people dead in the Aurora Picture House shooting in 2012. EPA/Arapahoe County Sherriff's Office

The ConversationThe Orlando nightclub attack on June 12 was among the deadliest in American history, and it was the 133rd mass shooting to take place in the United States in 2016 alone.

In the aftermath of the shooting, there has been much talk of the US Second Amendment – the right to bear arms – and of how to introduce new laws to make it harder for mad or bad people to get their hands on guns. But what else can we do to try to bring this under control? Working on ways to perhaps recognise people who might develop into mass killers – and the reasons they have for doing so – would obviously be an important step forward.

There are inherent challenges in trying to identify people who are at high risk of committing an extremely violent act such as a mass shooting. And one of the biggest challenges in carrying out research in this area is that because the event rate is extremely low, conventional research techniques – such as cohort studies – aren’t useful.

US academics James Fox and Monica DeLateur published a paper in 2014 which explored numerous myths and misconceptions surrounding both multiple homicide offenders and mass shooters, along with some of the challenges in attempting to avert these extremely violent acts. One of the myths they explored is the notion that more attention and response to “telltale warning signs” would allow mass killers to be identified before they acted.

Warning signs in the soon-to-become mass shooter can take the form of overt or veiled threats – known in the field as “leakage” – for example, Elliot Rodgers' “Day of Retribution” video made before he killed six people and injured 14 others near the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara in 2014.

As pointed out by Fox and DeLateur, these telltale warning signs or indicators are “yellow flags that only turn red once the blood has spilled” as they are often identified in the aftermath of tragedy with crystal clear hindsight.

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