We are not going to police our way out of mass shootings. We are not going to shame someone out of his beliefs. And we are not going to understand how to intervene if we just dismiss shooters as “mentally ill.”
This is not a simple problem and there’s no single solution. It’s not just a gun control problem or about mental illness. It’s a violence problem. The path a mass shooter follows from beginning to end often starts with violence, is littered with rage and anger, and ends with more of the same.
Mass shooters usually hate others because they hate something about themselves. They are angry and they blame other people. The roots of this anger often run deep; early childhood trauma and exposure to violence⏤whether that’s growing up in a bad neighborhood, being the favorite scapegoat of schoolyard bullies, or having a parent who likes to hit and kick⏤is often the first bump in a road that lead to extreme beliefs.
Of course, there are thousands of us who bear scars from childhood trauma who would never dream of killing innocent people; I’ve met lots of them. While many mass murderers start with a violent childhood, most traumatized kids get on the right path. Perhaps they have another adult – an extended family member, a religious leader, a teacher⏤who believes in them; there is a tremendous body of psychological research that shows how much having just one person who makes a child feel significant or special can build resilience no matter what the obstacles are. Some of these kids have enough natural gifts⏤intellectually or athletically⏤and feel significant in a socially applauded way.
Some of these kids find friends who become their substitute family. They may not be the best peer group⏤maybe they drink or do drugs or skip school⏤but they feel like they belong. They have a place. And so the anger and rage is contained.
But a very small minority of these kids don’t find a way to heal, or at least reduce, their pain and anger. Over time, it hardens into maladaptive personality traits; resentful, narcissistic, suspicious. He holds grudges. He’s unpredictable and hard to get along with. He isn’t successful in school. He doesn’t have any friends. In short, he’s an angry rebel looking for a cause.
And then, usually in late adolescence or early adulthood, something bad happens. He loses a job, gets expelled from school, dumped by a girlfriend. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is; someone has to pay.
Most mass shooters initially blame themselves; about 80 percent of them first become suicidal. But, at some point, his thinking shifts. Even after his plan morphs from suicide to homicide, many of them never make a getaway plan.
But, he thinks, it’s not enough. It doesn’t seem fair that no one else pays for what has happened to him. He’ll be dammed if he’s going out without anyone noticing. People are going to remember him; he is going to make sure of that.
So, he moves from thinking about revenge to planning it. He has plenty of help, whether it’s from like-minded hate-mongers online who reinforce his distorted thinking and cheer him on, or media accounts of other mass shooters. And, of course, getting the weapons is likely to be the least of his problems. What day he chooses to act is anyone’s guess, although a recent mass shooting can speed things up.
The only positive in this tragic scenario is that there are road signs all along the way and multiple opportunities for a different ending. In the horrific aftermath of a senseless tragedy, it makes sense that we would start there in terms of trying to prevent another one. And we do need to look at our gun policies and our access to mental health services.
But we also need to broaden our perspective on mass shooters from a focus on triggering events and warning behaviors to include ways to recognize and help individuals⏤especially children and teens⏤who have been traumatized, who don’t have a sense of community or purpose, who lack the skills to deal with an emotional crisis. As evidenced by the teen who kills herself over bullying, or the desperate husband who can’t live without his divorcing wife, you don’t have to be mentally ill to reach the end of your rope.