Myths about mass shootings

Jul 31, 2012

We may think we know what makes the perpetrators of mass shootings -- mostly boys and men -- tick. Though psychology doesn't always lend itself to hard statistics, there are some patterns that might surprise you. Join journalist Jeff Kass to discuss the misconceptions about these attacks and the people who commit them. Read Kass's piece "Five myths about mass shootings": http://wapo.st/P6EvEx

Hi all. Thank you for joining in. This is a topic that is not only important and timely, but as we see, has sadly been recurring.

Have you been to Norway post-bombing and shooting spree. Just curious how it compares to your observations in the United States?

I have not. I was asked to comment on the court proceedings there, which seemed a little unusual to me in that they seemed to incorporate issues of his mental health, along with what happened and a sort of sentencing hearing when the victims are able to speak all wrapped into on. But also, the Breivik shootings seemed to have a much deeper political motivation than most of the shootings here in the United States.

After Columbine, many school systems created new rules to prohibit the clothing style favored by those shooters. Apparently they believed that students could become pathologically anti-social if allowed to set themselves off that way. I take exactly the opposite view -- if a student is at the bottom of the high school social ladder, one of the best strategies available is to reject the dominant totem pole, and create a separate one for yourself. Is it a common theme of scholastically-based mass shootings that a loner has been discouraged from marching to his own drummer?

I vaguely recall some schools banning trench coats after the Columbine shootings because that is what the gunmen wore. I can only guess that some schools cracked down on the "outcasts" because they were seen as more likely to commit shootings. The better issue would be to promote an atmosphere where students on all rungs of the social ladder can get along.

Several recent mass shooters (Fort Hood, Pittsburgh Health Club, Virginia Tech), have cited lack of female companionship as part of their general dissatisfaction with life. It's easy for cause and effect to get mixed up here, but is lack of a romantic outlet a likely trigger for turning depression into action?

From what I've seen, many school shooters have a lack of female companionship - and I'm not talking about girls who are just friends, but girlfriends in the romantic sense. The Columbine killers wrote endlessly about their lack of ability to obtain dates. Would a romantic relationship have helped? I suppose it is possible. The anger needed to carry out a shooting, I believe, is immense. The fundamental question here is what, if anything, can mitigate that? Is it a girlfriend? Is it more acceptance?

Do mass shootings happen in other parts of the world? I am NOT talking about known war zones, but regular communities around the world. I know we hear about the events around the US, but what about Canada, France, or Japan? Is there something different about the society that would make mass shootings more likely to happen in certain modern socieites than others?

We do have the shootings in Norway, which I believe killed 77 people. There was also a mass shooting in Winnenden, Germany and one in England in 2010. These societies look very much like the United States in that they are democratic and have advanced and wealthy economies. Yet I also believe gun control is stricter in all those countries outside the United States. So there are differences and similarities. Having said that, I have seen that there are more mass shootings in the United States than anywhere else, and that may in part be a function of various parts of our society: easier access to guns (although I don't mean for that to be an endorsement of gun control), and the culture of honor  I discuss in the Five Myths piece. I also saw one professor say we simply have a more violent society here in the United States.

Come on his parents and others knew he was a danger to the community but did nothing. The question is how did he get the funds for his firearams and ammo. His parents should be held criminally liable and do hard time if they gave him the funds etc. Unless we ban the possesion of all firearms and seize all firearms in this country we will not stop shootings like the ones in CO and AZ. And you get mine after you pry them from my cold dead hands. Friends and families of these shooters and potential shooters need to take some personal responsibility and if the behavior gets scary take the proper steps to make sure these inidividuals dont go off. Another way to prevent these type of shootings is to allow [concealed weapons]. 

Keep in mind we are talking about two different sets of people here. In Columbine, you had two teenagers who were still living at home with their parents at the time of the shootings. I believe the nexus there is much closer when you ask what the parents knew and if they had any responsibility. When you are talking about a 24-year0ld man such as the Aurora shooter who lives in another state from his parents, the nexus can easily get much wider both legally and morally.

In your piece you wrote that reducing/eliminating illegal gun sales would not appreciably reduce the number of mass shootings. From what I've read in the papers, what a lot of people are actually concerned about is assault weapons.

 As someone who has covered some of these shootings firsthand, there seems to be surprise when people find out the guns were obtained legally. I think you are right in that there is a concern that people are able to own such powerful weapons. But I also think people are surprised that, simply put, someone so easily walked into a gun store or gun show and purchased them. Part of it may be that we see these shooters as sneaking around and hiding their plans and therefore buying guns on the sly when it is really done out in the open.

Not too long ago, drunk driving was a major problem. Then MADD organized and put harsher restrictions on drunk driving. It worked. Drunk driving went down. Then, meth labs were a big problem. So, harsher restrictions were put on cold medicine (a key ingrediant of meth). The number of meth labs went dwon. So, if restrctions worked with drunk drriving and cold medicine to reduce meth labs, then why won't harrsher restrictions work in reducing gun violence as some have suggested?

I think it is reasonable to assume that in general, the more restrictions you put on something, the more people will be deterred. But it is also a tough question: At what point will someone like the Columbine killers or Aurora suspect be deterred. I believe that these shooters in general are very motivated. And in Columbine and Aurora, very smart. Again, it is a tough question as to how far we are willing to go to limit guns from the wide majority of the population in the hopes of stopping some of these shooters. I am not advocating one way or the other, but saying that I think it would take a lot of gun control/restrictions to stop them.

I appreciate all the gun control questions. On that note, there was a fascinating story in the New York Times that I blogged about regarding China, where guns are very hard to obtain. Yet there were schoolyard attacks with knives and other weapons. Again, these shooters will generally find a way. Catching warning signs may be a better help.

A possible copycat was just arrested in Crofton, Maryland. He has an arsenal of weapons and ammunition but didn't shoot anybody yet. My question is, when somebody like this is caught BEFORE committing mass murder, what can be done to make sure he doesn't go ahead and shoot people after he's released?

It depends on the outcome of the arrest. If he obtained a felony on his record, or a certain mental health diagnosis, he may be prohibited from owning firearms. As a result of his arrest, he may be ordered into counseling  and/or probation. In that sense, there would be more people in more constant and in-depth contact with him who could either keep him steady or catch warning signs.

In the wake of these shooting, there is inevitably proposals for new gun laws. It seems to be at least, that the ones suggested are generally ones that wouldn't help in situations like this - a shooter with no criminal record, no history in the mental health system. At best it would limit some of what was available to him. In your research, do you see any proposals that would be effective in limiting these sorts of incidents, outside of blanket bans on ownership?

As I've mentioned in a couple of the other gun control answers, it's just not clear that anything will stop these shooters from obtaining weapons. Still, if they cannot obtain assault rifles but still other guns, will the shootings be less deadly? Probably. But then shooters might just turn to the black market to obtain more deadly weapons. I think catching warning signs might be a better prevention path, which I think leads into the next question on mental illness.

Any thoughts on what it will take for the US to get serious about proactively providing mental health services to people most in need? It seems so many shooters needed help but weren't getting it, often because no one could compel them to until after they had killed people. I know it's tricky because you don't want to violate people's rights, but when you're mentally ill and your own brain is working against you, how much free will do you really have? Our way of dealing with mental illness in this country clearly isn't working (and the methods that forced people into institutions weren't working either), but no one seems to be working to do something about it.

These mass shootings may be a wake up call to more help for the mentally ill. That was actually mentioned yesterday. I covered the court hearing for the suspected shooter and the aunt of one of the murder victims said we need more help for the mentally ill. Keep in mind too: Columbine shooter Eric Harris was seeing a psychologist and was on the drug Luvox at the time of the shootings.

What I don't underdstand is the law and accountability. From my recollection, a gun store owner was charged for guns sales to the killers, but I think it was Kliebold's girlfriend-ish who also gave him a gun, and escaped prosecution. What level of responsibility do those around gunmen have? And why does it vary from state/case?

On Columbine: The killers illegally purchased a semiautomatic TEC-9 from a friend of a friend. That seller was prosecuted and sentenced to prison. Shooter Dylan Klebold's friend, who he went to prom with as a friend, purchased the other three guns for the shooters at a gun show. Because they were "long guns" (such as rifle and shotgun) the transfer to a minor, at the time was legal. I would add this: Prosecutors want to prosecute on  these cases. I don't think they would back off.

"Another way to prevent these type of shootings is to allow [concealed weapons]. " You let this part of an earlier comment pass without remark. It's amazing to me that anyone could think that someone in that theater could have quickly grasped the situation and, within the couple of minutes that the shooting lasted, overcome the darkness, tear gas, and mass panic to achieve the perfect shot to take down the shooter, notwithstanding his extensive body armor and, again, the tear gas! Most highly trained police officers couldn't make that shot (and likely would know better than to try).

Sorry. Didn't mean to ignore you. Is it possible someone with a concealed weapon could hit a shooter before police arrive? I suppose so. Is it also possible that the person with a concealed weapon would hit an innocent bystander. I believe that is also the case. That is the crux of the argument. How much potential uncertainty are we willing to add to these situations?

I am signing off now. Thank you for the questions, I hope I was able to give some good answers. It is amazing how fast an hour can go.

In This Chat
Jeff Kass
Jeff Kass is the author of "Columbine: A True Crime Story" and was one of the first reporters on the scene of the shootings. His book is the first to tell the complete story of that day, the far-reaching consequences, and the common denominators among school shooters across the country. He broke national stories on the shootings such as leaked crime scene photos, and the sealed diversion files of the killers. He reported the story extensively for the Rocky Mountain News, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, and U.S. News & World Report.
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