PSYCHOLOGY 101: the mind of a shooter

     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.

     "The shooting becomes a statement of whom they want to be," Welner adds. "These are crimes in which the perpetrators aim for immortality and spectacle and see the shooting as their crowning achievement. After that, nothing else matters, including living."

Problematic profiling

     Experts profile the typical mass murderer, serial killer or spree murderer as a white male. Occasionally, a gunman who doesn't fit the stereotypical or statistical profile will emerge, which attributes to the difficulty of profiling a suspect, according to Thornsley.

     Sociologist Joseph Gasper with Johns Hopkins University agrees. "Even though individuals exhibit certain behaviors prior to a shooting, attempting to profile a shooter can be problematic," he says.

     It is difficult to profile young people in particular, Gasper adds, because they are still developing emotionally and psychologically. In the case of the Virginia Tech massacre, profiling could be misleading because of many similarities among college students.

     "If you look at some of the profiles, you'll find the characteristics included in the profile are really the characteristics of a very large number of students," he says.

     Issues surrounding challenged masculinity are also connected to how lethal violence is viewed in America, according to Gasper. "Images in the media show men being portrayed as extremely masculine and glorified for committing random violence," he says. When videotapes are reviewed after shootings, Gasper adds, it seems as if the suspect is acting out something they saw in a movie.

     "For the vulnerable, I think those kinds of images in culture and the media provide the template for carrying this out," he says.

     Welner believes masculinity is all too frequently culturally defined in the United States by the capacity to destroy, and this occurs in various parts of the world as well. "There are other countries also in which masculine identity and success are tied in to the notion of a warrior icon," says Welner.

     He explains the difference between the suspects whose goal is to kill from suspects who just have an affinity for guns. For example, Welner says in a very security-conscious country such as Israel, where heavy arms proliferate, mass shootings of this kind do not happen. Welner attributes this to the differences in a person's sense of identity, accomplishment and masculinity, one that does not derive from the capacity to destroy others for the sake of destroying.

The socially inept shooter

     Relationship problems and a history of rejection are also contributing factors to the shooter's motives, according to Gasper. Many school shooters feel they are disconnected from society. But no matter how these problems have affected the shooter, it has an impact on them from a social standpoint.

     "They have no social outlets, and bullying certainly contributes to that," Gasper says.

     Being viewed as a "real man" is important to adolescent boys and young men, according to Gasper.

     "Young men who are less gender-conforming are often the target of repeated bullying and harassment, the content of which is often homophobic," he says.

     When a suspect's manhood is in question, Gasper explains, the effects could be devastating. The shooter will often seek ways to recapture his manhood by joining outcast groups or joking around in class; other times, behavior escalates to lethal violence.

     Gasper relates this to the Virginia Tech massacre. "Cho's stalking behavior may have been a link connecting his masculinity issues to his murderous rampage," he says. "His classmates reported that he was bullied and made fun of him for his shyness and how he walked. Neither of these characteristics conforms to society's stereotypes of masculinity," Gasper says.

     "I believe the stalking incidents may have been seen in his mind as a way of making sure that no one got the wrong idea about his manhood," says Gasper. "When stalking failed to recapture his manhood, his problems likely escalated because he felt more desperate and turned to mass murder and suicide as a final solution."

     Typically, shooters are individuals with a long history of frustration and failure, unable to cope with life's disappointments, according to Thornsley. He says that quite often the shooter blames others for their unhappiness.

     According to Welner, there is a wide range of human behavior that manifests through a criminal act such as a shooting. He says the most predictable psychological quality in school shooters is blaming others for their shortcomings and feeling that others deserve punishment. There is also a component of paranoia, resentment, suspicion and contempt for those around them.

     "The less specific a target is in a mass shooting, the more it involves generalized paranoia. You have to be contemptuous and dehumanizing to kill a stranger," Welner says.

     The lack of emotional support with friends or family also adds to the shooter's frustration. "When a life problem has emerged and they are overwhelmed, or if they don't have a friend or therapist, that's a real problem," says Thornsley.

The last resort

     Some shooters experience what is referred to as a triggering or precipitating event prior to initiating a shooting, according to Thornsley, but it does not have to occur immediately before the crime.

     Gasper concurs, and says there is a common misconception about shooters suddenly "snapping," when in reality the person has been planning a shooting for a long time.

     "It's not something somebody decides to do overnight," Gasper explains. You can see that with the planning in the case of Cho. The thought had probably entered his mind, months beforehand, really as a last resort."

Defining a shooter's intent

     The Forensic Panel is a New York-based forensic science practice lead by Welner and is currently in the process of collecting data and researching the Depravity Scale. This project could change the way forensic science is included in criminal sentencing cases such as mass shootings.

     According to The Forensic Panel, the Depravity Scale is a evidence-driven tool which will aid in establishing and standardizing a fair, consistent distinction of the worst crimes.

     Legal terms for a crime such as "heinous," "atrocious," "evil" and "depraved" are currently used in the justice system to impact the severity of sentences — but with no consistent way of defining those terms.

     The Forensic Panel indicates that the Depravity Scale will assess specific intents, actions, victimology and attitudes of a criminal about his actions. It focuses on the "what" of the crime rather than the "who" or the "why" to distinguish the aspects of a crime's fact pattern as a reflection of depravity and what warrants a more severe sentence.

     Welner notes the Depravity Scale, which will be further developed into the Depravity Standard, will aspire to affect sentencing through societal representation. The Depravity Scale includes two ongoing surveys at that urge the general public's participation — law enforcement as well as the communities it serves — to gather data on society's opinion of what elements of a crime are the worst of the worst. He hopes that through the data collection process the public will reach a consensus about the worst of crimes, regardless of background, and ultimately have public opinion influence the judicial system.

     "The greatest significance about the Depravity Scale and the Depravity Standard research as it relates to law enforcement is that it focuses on the intent, the actions and the attitudes of a person about a particular crime," Welner says.

     "No two murders, robberies or assaults are exactly the same," he continues. "Those of us who do case investigative work recognize there are features or qualities of a crime that do separate out the worst of crimes."

Ending mass homicide

     Welner says the Depravity Scale could have an influence on criminal sentencing and could change the way law enforcement professionals work. For instance, investigations would not be conducted solely for a verdict of guilt or innocence but would also uncover information about a motive and an individual's attitudes about the committed crime. As a result, evidence-based guidelines will give courts more information to consider about the type of crime, the intent of the criminal's actions and the criminal's attitude about his crime and whether any element does or does not distinguish that crime.

     The Depravity Standard will also give law enforcement professionals more control to ensure the case they investigated is the case that the judge and jury learns about. Welner says that in his experience, an officer will work on a case, supply evidence to prosecutors and close the case with enough confidence for a conviction, but by the time the case goes to trial and the defendant is convicted, the sentencing doesn't fit the crime.

     "If the case gets plead to a lesser charge or something that doesn't resemble what the officers were investigating, officers and detectives may regret how the case outcome has nothing to do with the case they investigated," Welner says.

     According to Welner, the Depravity Scale will also establish the guidelines of how the severity of a crime is viewed and how socially unacceptable it is. These guidelines could also apply to law enforcement by providing officers with another way of understanding the criminal psychology of a shooter.

     "This absolutely loops back to the Depravity Scale, in the sense that if we define societal standards for an evil crime, it is easier for us to repudiate and point out to young and impressionable people that this behavior is wrong, and why it is nothing to draw notoriety from," Welner says. "That, in my opinion, is how we are going to extinguish mass homicide."

     Welner expects to complete research for The Depravity Scale in a year, and it will be implemented on a tentative basis. He says this learning curve will help define which cases are brought forward for the most severe punishment and aid legislators in distinguishing crimes, sentences and parole eligibility.

Taking away the incentive

     "The Depravity Scale will have a revolutionary impact on justice many years from now, and we need to carefully and sensitively appreciate all of angles it will intersect with in the justice system," according to Welner.

     "Mass shooting is a copycat crime," Welner adds. "If societal standards are set for what is depraved in crime it can also be easier to determine the level of exposure sensational crimes should receive without rewarding attention-seeking criminals." He says people must become more civic-minded, using wise and practical self-defense to work with law enforcement before the police arrive at the scene of a shooting. Shifting the attention to survivors, victims and the community no longer gives an incentive to a shooter, who thought he would get recognized for his crime.

     In Welner's opinion, an important lesson to learn from a shooting catastrophe is the significance of law enforcement and the general public working together to maintain safety.

     "This takes the pressure off the police, creates a sense of confidence in our institutions and empowers people to manage their own communities," Welner says.

     Although it is inevitable for more shooting crimes to occur, Welner hopes the media, academia and parents will help extinguish copycat crime.

     "In my professional opinion, law enforcement has to be very active in teaching safety issues and promoting heroism and victims," says Welner, "Law enforcement needs to stay away from giving a sense of humanity to people who do inhuman things."

Early intervention important

     Active shooters have a plan which includes an angry fantasy, violent crescendo and often fatal finale. Some experts say children who have undetected social and psychological problems early in their lives could easily "slip through the cracks" of the school system and society.

     Ann Marie Lenhardt, Ph.D., is conducting a study about the life behaviors and patterns of 15 school shooters in 13 incidences of targeted school violence in the United States.

     As a school violence expert and professor of counseling and human services at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, Lenhardt says the study reveals an early onset of similarities in the shooters' behavior.

     "Looking at the lives of the shooters we studied, there were characteristics from early on, in elementary or middle school, where they felt picked on and didn't feel like they were part of any group," Lenhardt says.

     The shooters turned to violence as a coping mechanism, and most had very turbulent parent-child relationships with a perceived lack of support from their parents.

     "They're "loners", not only in the outside world but in a family setting as well," Lenhardt says.

     Similarities among the shooters included:

  • Exaggerated need for attention and respect
  • Rejection and isolation by peers
  • Feelings of alienation, bullying and persecutionAntisocial tendencies
  • Poor coping skills
  • Anger management issues
  • Relationship and discipline issues
  • History of making violent threats
  • Depression
  • Attempted suicide
  • Access to parents' weapons

     Lenhardt's research indicated at least 1,000 students were enrolled in the schools the shooters attended, most of which had an insufficient counselor-to-student ratio.

     Lenhardt recommends implementing counseling and prevention programs in schools, starting in kindergarten. This will allow for intervention, conflict resolution and anger management strategies to positively influence children at an early level.

     A penchant for violence often manifests in adolescence due to years of ignored social and psychological issues. But early intervention for children at high risk for violent behavior could prevent the youths of today from turning into the cold-blooded killers of tomorrow.