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Predicting The Unpredictable Mind Of An Active Shooter

Predicting The Unpredictable Mind Of An Active Shooter

It is unfortunate to admit that active shooting incidents have become part of our culture, and it is also regrettable to say that we can probably make a good guess about when the next mass shooting will occur. If we say in two weeks or in the next three weeks, there is a good bet that both times we will be correct.

This has not always been the case. There was a time in our nation when mass shootings seemed to only occur in third-world countries. When we heard such news from overseas, we thought that those areas lacked a cultural sensibleness that first-world countries such as ours had overcome centuries ago. But here we are in a nation struggling to deal with unwarranted vicious attacks on innocent people.

Many of our leaders have offered solutions to curtail this influx of mass shootings but have come dramatically short with the usual lackluster proposals, ineffective laws and social programs that, if successful, only help a minuscule of individuals. Changing a culture is going to take much more than laws and anti-gun rhetoric. The ban on assault rifles, particularly the AR-15, is a standard solution proposed by mainly liberal-thinking lawmakers who blatantly ignore what they know is factual — that in most mass shooting incidents, the shooter used a handgun.

According to Statistal Research Department and The National Institute of Justice, handguns continue to be the most common weapon type used in the U.S. This is about 78 percent of mass shootings. But the AR-15 has become the weapon most associated with mass shootings. In fact, the assailant used this type of weapon in the last few reported mass shooting incidents. It is also reasonable to postulate that this false narrative that the AR-15-style rifle correlates with mass shootings may be the cause of the recent increase in mass shootings with this type of rifle.

Additionally, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has referred to the AR-15 as the “most popular rifle in America” and has engaged in back-and-forth deliberation with anti-gun advocates, adding discourse to this heated debate. So regardless if handguns are used more often by assailants, the fact that the AR-15 is at the forefront of the false narrative arguing that the ban on this weapon will solve mass shootings, the assailant’s culpability is once again placed aside. It should be logical to concentrate on the root of evil — the assailant — instead of focusing solely on the tool used. Regardless of whether a handgun, knife or assault rifle is used, innocent people are left dead or injured.

One robust indicator in predicting mass shootings is suicidality. About 40 percent of mass shooting assailants were suicidal during the shooting. This number significantly increases for younger shooters from K-12 (92 percent). For students in higher education (college/university), that number is close to 100 percent. These statistics are vital to first responders because there will could be an inevitable conclusion to a possible gun battle engagement.

There is a 58 percent chance that the assailant will perish by his own hands or by law enforcement officers. Law enforcement departments have similar policies for officers to engage the assailant as soon as possible and stop them while mitigating harm to victims. Officers entering these situations must be ready both mentally and physically for the possibility of using deadly force. Also, another aspect to consider is the result of the aftermath, which will be analyzed and critiqued for many years.

Initially, the topic of what set off the assailant will be broadcast throughout the media. The assailant’s background will be scrutinized thoroughly to try to make sense of it all. For instance, take 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who murdered innocent children and staff members before taking his life. Lanza had few friends and lacked social interactions, primarily due to his shy and withdrawn nature. He played video games, some violent in context, and he occasionally went to shooting ranges with his mother. He was not fond of people touching him, but many people have specific quirks about them. Nothing here really indicates any red flags.

He was diagnosed with sensory integration disorder, a condition that impedes response to sights, touch and smell. Later he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism that also interferes with social interaction. Again, these are mental health difficulties that are not uncommon. He did very well in school academically but poorly socially. His mother had to pull him out of several schools for behavior issues. He was obviously dealing with social anxiety, so it is no surprise that he was probably not a good fit in traditional school settings. Later his mother and father separated, and this caused added stress. Lanza became estranged from his father as well as from one of his two brothers.

Our world includes broken families, stress, health issues and other complex life events. These life situations are not unusual, nor are the difficulties every child must face in adjusting to society’s norms. Family and friends also bear the adjustment of having to see someone they care about going through a rough time. Although these mitigating circumstances may conveniently explain the cause of violence, it does not pass muster because we all have to endure similar experiences. Still, it also is true that many people go through worse life experiences and do not shoot up elementary schools full of children.

There are common themes that present themselves in identifying potential mass shooters. The assailant does not value life. Somewhere they have convinced themselves that life is not worth living. The belief that their life is not worth anything, nor are the lives of others, is the mindset of these killers. The value of life may not have been emphatically introduced into early childhood because it seems to be lacking presently.

Another common theme is that the assailant lacks control. Not too many things give you such an imposing feeling of being in control when handling a loaded firearm. Lacking a sense of control in one’s life can cause frustration, especially for young people who start their lives believing they have the talent and ability to reach desired outcomes. This may be true, but many outcomes become a reality through hard work and overcoming obstacles, something a person with a utopian ideology may not be able to comprehend.

The doctrine that meritocracy is unfair has allowed many young people to believe that everything they desire should be given to them — that working hard on goals is unfair, that things should be acquired by government assistance, social programs, ethnic and cultural consideration and the disregard of personal characteristics. Not being provided what some think they are entitled to can cause a frustrated individual to wallow in jealousy, a victim mentality and revenge. Therefore, it is the responsibility of those who care about this type of person to ensure that their utopian ideology is challenged with a more realistic view of what a positive outcome entails.

The assailant’s emotional development is not on par with those in their age group. The main features of emotional development include the ability not only to identify and understand one’s feelings but also to see these things in others accurately. One must also learn to manage strong emotions and their expression constructively. When we see a 2-year-old toddler throwing a tantrum, we brush it off by acknowledging that the child is going through the terrible-twos stage of child development. No big deal. In contrast, if a teenager displays those same emotions, it is a big deal. Something is amiss in the emotional development of this person.

Being able to express and understand emotions is essential to have better empathetic and social skills. These emotional development traits can ensure healthy relationship-building processes. This is not about finding a person’s inner self or some touchy-feely explanation. It is about comprehending that when we are angry, it is acceptable and healthy to share our dismay by verbally addressing the person or persons involved. It is morally wrong, illegal and downright reprehensible to enter an elementary school and shoot innocent children only to state later, “I lost control, I snapped,” or the standard default justification, “I have mental issues.”

Mental illness is a broad term encompassing many mental health conditions. Assailants have an abundance of disorders to choose from. A mental disorder is characterized by a clinically significant disturbance in a person’s cognition, emotional regulation or behavior. Everyone today seems to suffer from one or another type of mental disorder. Maybe we all are because a whopping 300-plus million people live with some form of an anxiety disorder, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, social anxiety and separation anxiety disorder. But mental illness alone does not necessarily correlate with mass shootings.

Aside from the common theme of potential assailants displaying suicidal tendencies, trauma and mental illness/crisis, there are additional warning signs that mass shooters have displayed prior to initiating the deadly assault. Almost 50 percent of these assailants shared their plans with others. Before engaging in their assault, mass shooters informed family members, friends and co-workers as well as strangers and law enforcement officers.

In mass shootings in K-12 schools, the assailant was likely a current or former student and knew some of their victims. In workplace shootings, the assailant also was a current or former employee who went after specific individuals. Some suggestions posed to these institutions are to implicate better security measures, utilize active shooter drills and set up an anonymous reporting system where potential assailants can be identified.

Another interesting finding is that with most firearms used in mass shootings, the assailant purchased them legally. However, in mass shooting cases involving K-12 schools, the assailant, 80 percent of the time, stole the weapon from a family member. There is some talk that parents should be held accountable, but it is rare for parents to be held responsible for school shooters. There are only about a quarter of states that have some form of law requiring parents to secure their firearms. But even in those states with these laws, most communities are sympathetic toward the parents. They empathize that parents have suffered enough, that little could have been done, that punishing parents won’t bring the dead back.

Robert Crimo, Jr., the father of the Highland Park, Ill., July 4, 2022, parade shooter, was indicted when his son Robert Crimo III opened fire on parade-goers. But the seven-count indictment was issued for reckless conduct because prosecutors stated that the father had signed his son’s gun ownership application despite knowing of his son’s threat to commit suicide and kill others. A Michigan Court of Appeals has recently ruled that the parents of Ethan Crumbley, who opened fire at a high school in 2021, killing four people and injuring seven, can be tried for involuntary manslaughter. We will have to wait and see how this will trend out in the courts.

And finally, social media, along with news agencies, are catalysts in the spread of mass shootings. The news media diligently search for motives and the history of the assailant. Day after day, the news continues reporting on the shooting and the assailant. Some of these reports last a week, while others go on longer. Then it is revisited when the case goes to trial. On the other spectrum, social media spreads public attitudes on various online formats. These formats are where to search out potential assailants.

Though the news and social media encourage copycats to one-up the previous mass shooter, it is reasonable to believe that the news agencies or social media outlets are not intentionally encouraging mass shooters. Still, potential assailants can and have been influenced. On sites such as Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, these assailants are seen by many as heroes. Two weeks after the Parkland school shooting, 638 copycat threats targeted schools nationwide. Suppose lawmakers and activists really want to be serious about preventing mass shootings. In this case, they should not prioritize whether a .45-caliber handgun is less dangerous than an AR-15 over understanding and holding accountable a potential assailant who is under the assumption that they are entitled, that life is insignificant, and that they can get a pass every time they fail, break rules, ignore social norms and violate the law.

By Louis Martinez, M.A., M. Psych

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