Shooters: Why Do They Do It?

On Monday, July 4th, 2022, there was another horrible mass murder, this time at a 4th of July parade in a nice neighborhood. Seven innocent people lost their lives while out celebrating with their families. The details are still coming out, but supposedly the shooter had been planning his attack for months.

My first thought when I heard about this was “his poor mother” and my second was “what led to this?”. Planning to climb up on a roof and kill strangers is not normal. He was a young man who was known by many to be struggling. His photos of odd tattoos and ranting videos show that he was not a mentally well-adjusted person.

I started thinking about other mass shootings and went to Wikipedia where I found a list of them going back to the 1920s. There were not nearly as many in the years before the 1960s. They seem to increase after that point. Being a graduate of the University of Texas, I noticed the Tower shooting in the list and began to read about the shooter, Charles Whitman. I have never read about him before and I was surprised to read that up until shortly before he killed his wife and mother and massacred 14 people from the tower, he had been a normal person.

I continued reading and found that he left notes behind and asked for an autopsy to be done because he had been struggling with the impulse to kill people for a while and he thought something had changed inside his brain. The autopsy found a small tumor in his brain above the amygdala which may have contributed to his impulses. He had been to see a doctor to whom he reported his violent thoughts, but only once and nothing came of it. He knew something was wrong but he didn’t know how to stop it.

From there I began to read an Atlantic article published in 2011 about how criminals and mental patients are sometimes truly unable to stop themselves because they are controlled by brain impulses in the same way that a Tourette’s victim cannot control his outbursts. One example was a man who had been normal but became a child porn addict and pedophile after a large tumor grew in his brain. When it was removed the abnormal desires disappeared. Then it started to grow again and the desires came back! The author was a neuroscientist and his point was that we need to understand these things so we can better decide how to rehabilitate criminals and also which ones are more likely to reoffend or not.

There is obviously a connection between the brain and behavior, but how much free will a person retains is up for debate. For example, people with traumatic brain injury can have a completely different personality after injury, usually a less pleasant one . And I think all parents can vouch for the personality changes they see in their children as they go through puberty. These changes are not simply willful disobedience, they are a chemical reaction to the hormone changes. The research is ongoing. Here are a couple of articles https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4072650/ and https://www.jneurosci.org/content/36/9/2757

From the Wikipedia list I was surprised to see so many mass shootings going back way before the internet became available. This shows that the while there may be cases of copycats who saw it online and copied it, there have always been people who have acted violently without internet provocation. There does seem to be more violence now, however I have not had time to find data to verify that idea. It may just be that we hear about it more.

I don’t know why they do it. But I do think not enough help is available. Just as Charles Whitman did not get help, many of the recent shooters were young men who were known to be struggling and did not or could not find the help they needed. I don’t think it’s fair to automatically blame the shooter’s parents because there is a good chance they tried to get help.

Our system is set up to err on the side of less intervention. In other words, even if you express violent thoughts to a doctor, you are not going to get locked up until AFTER you commit a crime or kill someone. This is to protect those who will never actually act on their thoughts, but it also means some people will be walking free who shouldn’t be. It’s the same for people with suicidal thoughts; they are usually let out of the hospital if they claim they no longer want to die, but sometimes they go home and kill themselves.

With the Uvalde shooter, his internet acquaintances were concerned about things he was saying, but they didn’t report him. It’s hard to know when someone is just talking and when they are serious. They probably thought he wanted attention. However, after that shooting, a copycat was reported after claiming he had plans . A study of mass shooters from 1966 to 2019 found that many perpetrators ‘leak’ their plans in advance to someone when getting counseling for suicidal thoughts and that while some were seeking fame, others were considered to be issuing a cry for help.

Based on the ‘brain theory’, it’s not just revenge or hate that leads these people to commit these atrocities, it’s something they can’t control. This theory suggests that with better diagnostics we could prevent the majority of mass shootings. However, I think sometimes we are dealing with simple human nature and sin. It’s sad either way.

What do you think? Can we prevent mass murders? Should people report it when someone they know is saying violent things? Is violence increasing or is it just the awareness that is increasing?

14 comments

  1. That’s a tough one. Some people do have issues that cause them to be killers, but I worry that that train of thought could relieve them of responsibility. I do think most people who kill are “crazy ” but they still deserve punishment.
    Then there are “crimes of passion ” where someone kills their spouse or family because of a divorce or argument. But those crimes are so horrific that I find it almost impossible to forgive.
    When someone is on the security camera at 7-11 blowing away the clerk, how can there be a question of guilt? I understand due process but these people should be put down behind the court house. I know that’s harsh.

    • Once the crime is committed, they must be punished, but maybe we can prevent some of these with better diagnostics. I’m thinking an MRI should be ordered for every troubled teen or young adult who expresses suicidal or violent ideation, at the first encounter with any medical or law enforcement professional. And extensive blood work. But that is not what happens. Many of them are sent away with a RX for an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication with no real testing.

  2. It’s very sad, isn’t it? The loss of innocent life is tragic, but also those of us who are mothers can look at that deeply troubled boy and long for some way to get him the help he needed before this all happened.

  3. Sometimes I think we are dealing with demonic influence. Either possession or oppression with the demon whispering in the ear of the shooter the suggestions over and over and over. What they do is pure evil!

  4. The first issue is the criminals’ punishment. They are talking about providing the shooter with lifetime medical care, free meals and a relatively safe place to sleep… for LIFE! Okay, it is prison, and from the ones I have visited, it is NOT the local hotel! It is rough in there, but this is guy who so devalued other’s lives that he randomly shot into a crowd, not caring if who he hit or killed. HE SHOULD BE EXECUTED! Not vindictively and not with celebration; it is a tragedy when anyone dies by other than natural causes. He should be counseled, offered religious service, and then summarily executed. Anything less DEVALUES the lives he took.

  5. Another issue with the shooter targeting this particular parade is that Highland Park is a predominantly JEWISH neighborhood. All Israel News noted that it sometimes is called “the Chicago Jerusalem” due to the number of Hebrews living there. So whether any of his tweets or social media postings or acquaintances can reveal if he was anti-Semitic might help understand this crime.

  6. We mere mortals can never know what is going on in a person’s mind, what is controlling it, and what level of responsibility (s)he has. Probably one reason Jesus said not to judge one another as deserving or undeserving of God’s love. (We’re ALL undeserving, actually.) The actions need to be addressed, but the soul is God’s alone to judge.

    • I agree. It’s disturbing to see so many shootings all over the world in the past few weeks, even Japan where they have no guns! And Denmark and Norway, land of equality, supposedly.

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