We will never really understand the motivations of mass murderers

After every mass murder, the question everyone asks is why it happened. How could anyone possibly be so violent, or so evil, or so out of control, or so crazy as to engage in the wholesale and indiscriminate killing of a bunch of people who are usually complete strangers?

In some cases, there are longstanding preexisting warning signs: a history of mental illness, substance use, isolation and/or estrangement; the repeated experience of being abused or bullied; and/or the influence of a political or religious or racist cult.

Sometimes there is an event that might be seen as the immediate trigger: a fight, a humiliation or failure, a rejection, some burning of all bridges, a cutting off of hope and connection.

But often enough, the mass murderer is (like the recent knife-wielding Pennsylvania schoolboy) someone with no preexisting risk factors, has no special special current stressors, and is part of a loving family.

I have spent a long professional life as a psychiatrist judging peoples’ motivations and attempting to assess the risk that the person in front of me might harm himself or others. I have also studied the available literature and made a small contribution to it.

My conclusion is that we will never really understand the motivations of mass murderers or be able to pick them out of the vast crowd of people with the same motivations and experiences who don’t kill.

Even after everything is analyzed to death, the motivation for mass murder always remains a mystery. For every mass murderer there are tens of thousands of similar people who never go berserk. We can’t ever expect to predict who will do it and when.

The excessive focus on ferreting out the psychological motivations arises from understandable human curiosity, but it also serves a dangerous political purpose. So long as we are distracted by the why, we do not attend to the much more practically important and politically charged question of how.

The knife-wielding attack in Pennsylvania had a relatively benign casualty rate, demonstrating the obvious fact that guns are much more efficient than knives as instruments of death. Guns make it possible to kill many more people in a shorter period of time and at a greater distance.

That’s why 700 years ago, guns began replacing blades, arrows, and spears as instruments of warfare, and that’s why other developed countries see it as a sacred public-safety responsibility to regulate gun possession among civilians. In contrast, we in the United States have buried our heads in the sand and are ignoring the enormous toll of gun violence. In 2010 firearms were the means of death in 20,000 suicides and 11,000 homicides in the U.S.

Some of these deaths might have occurred anyway through less-lethal means, but there is no denying that free access and wide availability has made gun death a major threat to our public health.

My medical instinct is to favor the licensing of guns in the same way we license that other most dangerous cause of instrument-related death: cars. We should do our best to ensure that the people who have guns are responsible in their use. Those with histories of mental illness, substance abuse, or violence should not be permitted to pack heat, and I also see no reason to allow the wide dispersion of military-grade weapons and ammunition that can inflict so much damage in so short a time.

I fully understand the political obstacles that heretofore have defeated even the mildest of gun-control legislation. These will weaken inexorably (but very gradually) as the death toll rises over the coming years.

But there is a better way that could save many lives. A solid majority of Americans favor sensible gun control that respects the constitutional rights of responsible gun owners but balances this with appropriate concerns about public safety and public health. Surely a fair and reasonable compromise could have been achieved had gun control not become such a fiercely contested ideological hot potato.

We need to work past the passions and misinformation to find common-sense answers before tens of thousands more innocents die needless deaths. We spend far too much effort trying to understand the impossible-to-fathom motivation of mass murderers, and far too little effort finding common-sense gun-control compromises that could greatly reduce the lethality of their means.

Allen Frances is a psychiatrist and professor emeritus, Duke University.  He blogs at the Huffington Post.

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  • NormRx

    Well, it took a while but we are now back to the gun debate.
    First the term reasonable gun gun control is misleading. To the vast majority of gun control people, “reasonable” is the outright banning of guns.

    Second, Gun murders are down about 50% in the past thirty years. As the famed economist, John Lott states in his book “More Guns Less Crime.”

    Third, many countries have strict gun control laws and it doesn’t affect the suicide rate one bit, people just change their method. I could list the countries, but if your are interested the data is readily available.

    Fourth, You state that guns should be regulated just like cars.
    As a CCW holder and lifelong shooter, I would say that I conditionally
    agree with you.

    At age 16 (or 14, if your state allows it), I should be able
    to pass a simple written test in which the answers are given in a government published pamphlet. I should be able to have a certain amount of range time to demonstrate my ability to correctly identify which end of a gun the bullet comes out of and be able to pass a childishly simple series of handling exercises. Following that I would receive a license to own and carry guns.

    This license would be valid in any of the fifty states- just
    like a driver’s license. If I wanted to carry a gun in Washington DC, I could do so despite DC’s much stricter gun laws than say, my home state of Wisconsin, because my Wisconsin’s driver’s license
    is recognized as valid anywhere in the US. I would be allowed to carry those guns openly or concealed or any way in which I desire. It would allow me to carry my gun anywhere I so desired and in any way I wanted- just like I could drive my car anywhere. I could take it to amusement parks, bars, police stations, schools, or any private property that allowed me to enter.

    I would be able to own as many guns as I wanted, of whatever
    type or size that I wanted, as small or large as I could imagine. They could be fully automatic machine guns, concealable miniature pistols, short barreled shotguns, pistols with an extra magazine under the barrel, guns shaped like Oscar Mayer wieners, quad-barreled 20mm cannon, and anything in between. Icould trick my guns out with any size barrel or handles I wanted, including combinations that today would be considered illegal according to ATF because they have no “sporting” purpose.

    In fact, the whole idea of “sporting” use would vanish, since automobiles can be built in any style or shape or color the owner desires. If I wanted to add an extended capacity fuel tank, collapsible trunk spoiler, headlight shrouds, tactical push bar, trailer hitch that protrudes
    conspicuously below the chassis, detachable rear seats, only my wallet size is be an issue- so why would it not also apply to my guns equally?

    I would be able to buy or sell those guns with nothing more than a cash exchange and a handshake to anyone in the United States anywhere
    with no background checks, no worrying about “Parking Lot Loopholes”
    or large-capacity fuel tank restrictions. I could advertise them in any venue I wanted. I could open a dealership in firearms anywhere in any state without anything more than the most basic zoning for commercial businesses.

    I would not be answerable to a federal bureau (ATF) for my existence and continued ability to stay in business. I wouldn’t need to call in
    transactions to an instant background check. I wouldn’t have to worry about government inspectors checking my paperwork and possibly revoking my business license for the dastardly deed of allowing a customer to use the abbreviation “ST.” instead of spelling out “STREET” when they wrote their address on the purchase order.

    Furthermore- as has been clearly and repeatedly demonstrated
    in the cases of geriatric Americans plowing through buildings, flea markets, street fairs, etc.- the ‘privilege’ of having such a license would be something that is fought for tooth and nail and renewals would be nearly automatic, meaning that my right to keep and bear arms would be virtually impossible to legislate away.

    Most importantly- if we continue the “treat guns like cars, if I desired to never operate my gun in public, I would never need to have a license, pay registration fees, carry insurance, or use taxed
    “ammunition” (fuel)- just like vehicles which never use public highways; farm vehicles, for example.

    So yes, treating gun ownership like car ownership would
    actually be a great advantage!

  • SteveCaley

    Several points:

    #1) I find it depressingly illustrative of our instrumentalist mindset to discuss firearms – machines – not people. Firearms are lethal devices, and the gun industry markets them to all comers, not just responsible purchasers. I believe that firearms are being irresponsibly marketed and sold in America.
    That being said, it is truly the person who kills; the gun obliges. The REAL question should be – how do other societies tend to have these events less frequently than us? What is there about our society that tends to foster mass murder?
    #2) Most frequently, the killer commits the crime at a location which has become deeply cathected with rage and humiliation. Schools and work are the most frequent targets. Why? What can we do about addressing this?
    #3) The forensic mental pathology of these people is peculiar, and different from people who commit individuals or serial murders. Off the cuff, there seems to be more derealization than explosive rage disorder or psychopathy. How can we detect this effectively?
    #4) We have no problem banning guns from being owned by people AFTER they committed felonies. Is there some way to address the issue BEFORE something happens, without Philp K. Dick’s “Minority Report” response?
    #5) “Those with histories of mental illness, substance abuse, or
    violence should not be permitted to pack heat,” is a noble idea. What is the instrument – what is the test? Is reactive depression sufficient to ban handgun ownership? How many drinks a day? A bar fight in college? What keeps this apparently noble test from turning completely corrupt?
    Welcome anyone’s thoughts.

    • guest

      These are all great questions. We psychiatrists should be devoting ourselves to attempting to answer them so that we can identify behavioral patterns, warning signs and potential interventions.

      What we should NOT be doing: portraying such attempts as “an excessive focus on ferreting out psychological motivations.”

  • azmd

    The fact that we don’t understand the motivations of mass murderers now doesn’t mean that it is impossible to find out. It just means that we have not investigated thoroughly or effectively enough. We hold ourselves out as experts in human behavior, so we should be endeavoring to further our expertise in that area, not weighing in on controversial political issues like gun control.

    In my opinion, taking the position that “it’s unknowable and unfixable, so psychiatry should busy itself not with trying to advance the science of understanding human behavior but by trying to control the rights of other people” adds to the negative perception that the public has of our profession.

  • guest

    I’m not touching the gun debate. I’ve been reading a great book regarding sociopathy, or people who are “born bad.” The further I get into it, the more I’m able to “understand” people who commit senseless and brutal crimes. The question becomes then: how do we punish people like this? That’s a hot topic right now.

    • SteveCaley

      Fantastic – I think that all educated Americans ought to read about this topic. It’s about our society – sociopathy and psychopathy, and ASPD in general, are fairly prevalent.
      I think those are the SERIAL KILLERS, more reliably than the mass killers; although the mass killers have shown signs of being unhinged well before they “went off.”
      The handling of the problem is square in the lap of society itself, not a thing to be foisted off on the “mental health profession.” It’s got some public health aspects.

      • buzzkillerjsmith

        That’s right. Mass and serial killers are different types.

    • buzzkillerjsmith

      Sociopathy is interesting. There’s a Canadian shrink who wrote a book about it. Univ. of British Columbia I think. There was also a guy interviewed about it on NPR not too long ago. Univ. of PA I think.

      • guest

        Robert Hare? Someone here recommended his book to me, and I’m currently reading it on my kindle. I’ll google the guy from NPR. Not the most pleasant of topics but really eye opening.

        • buzzkillerjsmith

          That’s the guy. Thank you. The other guy at Univ. of PA is named Raine.

          How’s the book?

          • guest

            Honest assessment: it’s ok. It’s written well and it flows but it’s neither particularly technical nor shocking with anecdotes. I’m barely 1/3 through; after I’m done I’ll give you a better review :).

            It may be the subject matter too. How many chapters can you read about each individual characteristic of a sociopath? Maybe it’s just a fatiguing topic?

  • guest

    Also, Jared Laughner, Adam Lanza and the Washington Navy Yard shooter were all recognizably mentally ill.

    As a psychiatrist, my opinion is that we should be advocating for better early identification of and more effective treatment for (which sometimes means involuntary treatment) the severely mentally ill. We should get our own house in order before we start to involve ourselves in social activism.

  • Bruce

    A Remedy for potential mass murderers:

    It’s unfortunate that lots of people live their lives in quiet
    desperation. We should all recognize this and have empathy. However, we must
    have much more empathy for the victims and their families, of mass murderers.

    These dopes are getting just what they were seeking; an enormous
    amount of attention, media clamoring for interviews, center of attention,
    background investigations, “blame it on society”, “the perp
    is a victim”, etc.

    We could never pass a law about this, but we can
    mount a campaign to pressure all Media and State Governments to co-ordinate the

    1. Maximum of two days reporting the name of the person who committed a mass murder. Then never another
    mention of his/her name or a photo for the rest of time.

    2. No reporting of court proceedings, only the results of the trial without ever mentioning their name, only the

    3. Then they are placed in a prison NEVER to be heard of again.

    4. One more thing; Two words that will strike fear into the heart of any sociopath planning a mass murderer; “General Population”.

    As soon as the idiot sociopaths, considering
    mass murder, understand that this is the result of such
    actions, these terrible events would be substantially reduced.

    Again, we can’t pass a law; but we can pressure Media not
    to encourage this kind of behavior. The Media, et al can easily
    establish a universal ethical code for responses to mass

    If a reporter MUST have a “scoop”, they could go
    back to a time when they actually got off their
    butts and informed the population on what their government is up to.

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