Inside the mind of the mass shooter
LONDON — Stephen Paddock opened fire on a country music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, from an overlooking hotel, killing at least 59 people and injuring more than 500 others. A 64-year-old former accountant with no criminal record, Paddock was ultimately found in his hotel room, dead, with some 23 guns, including more than 10 assault weapons. Police later found an additional 19 firearms, explosives, and thousands of rounds of ammunition in his home. Authorities have yet to find a motive.
But “lone wolf” mass shooters — individual perpetrators with no ties to any movement or ideology — are not a new phenomenon, and important clues about their motivations and thought processes have been found.
Most mass shooters either kill themselves or let police do the job. But those who survive have shown some common features, such as narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. That was the case with the Norwegian Anders Breivik, who, in 2011, detonated a van bomb that killed eight people, before shooting dead 69 participants in a youth summer camp. He remains in prison in Norway.
In “The Wiley Handbook of the Psychology of Mass Shootings,” Grant Duwe, the director of research and evaluation for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, examined 160 cases of mass shootings in the United States in 1915-2013.
Duwe found that 60 percent of the perpetrators had either been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder or exhibited signs of serious mental disturbance before the attack. About a third had contact with mental-health professionals, who diagnosed them, most commonly, with paranoid schizophrenia. The second most common diagnosis was depression.
Yet, most people suffering from these disorders are harmless to the public. Duwe says the difference may lie partly in an acute sense of being persecuted — and an acute desire for revenge.
This view is corroborated by Paul Mullen, an Australian forensic psychiatrist. Based on a detailed investigation of five mass murderers whom he personally examined, Mullen concluded that such killers struggle to reconcile their own grandiose ideas of themselves with an inability to succeed at work or in relationships. The only explanation, they decide, is that others are out to sabotage them.
Mullen’s study showed that the path to mass murder is stereotypical. All of his subjects had been bullied or socially excluded as children. They were all suspicious and rigid — qualities that helped deepen their isolation. They constantly blamed their problems on others, believing that their community had rejected them; they failed to consider that they themselves were too wearisome or self-centered.
In Paddock’s case, many questions remain unanswered, beginning with why he chose that particular concert to attack. But the contours of his story are beginning to emerge. Reinforcing the loner trope, one neighbor said the “weird” Paddock had “kept to himself”; living next to him was “like living next to nothing.” It has also been revealed that in 2012, Paddock sued for negligence a Las Vegas hotel where he had fallen; litigiousness can be a hallmark of the resentful and paranoid.
Duwe argues that, contrary to popular belief, such gunmen do not “just snap.” Though roughly two-thirds of mass public shooters experience a traumatic event immediately before carrying out the attack — usually the loss of a job or relationship — most spend weeks or even years deliberating and preparing to get their revenge. In Paddock’s case, such quiet planning may explain the armory found in his home and hotel room, which he rented days prior to the attack.
After the massacre, more than half of mass public shooters either commit suicide directly or provoke the police into killing them. This rate is nearly 10 times higher than for homicide offenders in general. Does this reveal, Duwe asks, just how mentally plagued these perpetrators are? Perhaps they believe they can no longer bear the agony of life; once they have “settled the score” for perceived slights, there is no reason left to live. –Project Syndicate
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Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist and the coauthor of the forthcoming book “The Streetwise Person’s Guide to Mental Health Care.” Adrian Furnham is professor of psychology at University College London and the author of the forthcoming book “The Psychology of Disenchantment.”
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