PSYCHOLOGY 101: the mind of a shooter

Understanding how a gunman thinks could help law enforcement prevent another shooting tragedy


     It is nearly impossible for law enforcement to predict if and when another shooting incident will happen. When a tactical situation with an active shooter is underway, it is even more daunting and increasingly difficult to identify the type of person behind the gun who endangers the lives of others. Comprehending the psychology or inner workings of the gunman's mind and the behavioral precursors to a shooting may be the best defense in preventing another senseless act of violence.

     "It is very difficult to try to anticipate these types of shootings, given the availability of guns, ammunition and automatic firearms," says Dr. Scott Thornsley, associate professor of criminal justice at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania.

Plan of attack

     Before the first rounds are fired, the shooter already has the upper hand. Thornsley says most suspects are in complete control of their emotions, and know exactly what they want to do.

     "It will be difficult for an officer to prevent a shooting. He doesn't know if it is a spur-of-the-moment shooting that is occurring because of rage," Thornsley says. "The shooter may not be very well-prepared, or could be extremely prepared like Seung-Hui Cho or Charles Whitman at the University of Texas bell tower."

     Dr. Michael Welner, a New York University School of Medicine forensic psychiatrist and chairman of The Forensic Panel says law enforcement officers need to know that they're dealing with someone who is prepared to die, and will shoot until he's shot down or kills himself when police are closing in.

     It is important for law enforcement to make the appropriate decisions about how aggressive to be when shots are fired. Officers should also know the differences in an active shooter's objectives. For instance, a hostile situation is very different with a subject who is armed and uses a weapon as a threat to negotiate demands versus a subject who is armed and shoots to kill at random.

     "These individuals are going to shoot as many people as they can until they are stopped, so there is great urgency to stop them as quickly as possible so they can no longer squeeze off any more rounds," Welner says.

     Orchestrating a murder spree is something that is fantasized about, planned out and rehearsed for weeks, months or possibly years before the shooting occurs. Planning is an important component for the gunman; it gives him an advantage of having a dress rehearsal for the crime. In the Virginia Tech massacre, Thornsley says it was planning that contributed to Cho's perceived success.

     He notes it is typical for a shooter to choose the location of attack ahead of time, and he will typically select a place where people feel safe, such as at a restaurant or a school. "He controls the day, time, location and the weapon he's going to use," Thornsley says.

     By planning ahead, the shooter experiences a psychological buildup to the event because he knows the victims will be vulnerable when he opens fire.

     What distinguishes school shootings from other mass shootings, according to Welner, is that mass shootings involve an attack on a community to which strangers are invariably targeted, by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

     "In the middle and high school shootings, however, the gunman has a specific animosity and blame toward students and the school," he says.

     Ironically, even though the suspect will meticulously plan and prepare for a shooting, the mass shooter is not mentally ready for what happens when it's over, Welner continues.

     "The shooter is often on a mission where he is ready to die," says Welner. "Shooters don't plan on what will happen if they get away or if they're not killed by police; they will wander off and either wait to be apprehended or commit suicide.

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