Murder sprees by grudge-bearing, gun-toting killers have become a tragic feature of modern society although owing to the thankfully rare occurrence of the incidents, little is known about the sort of person who decides to embark upon this sort of deadly rampage. An article just published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law reviews what we know about such people.
It must be said that the article spends a lot of time on the rather interpretive ‘psychodynamics’ of mass shooter personality and less on more systematic evidence, but largely, it seems, because there is very little of the latter.
However, it’s also worth saying that forensic psychology and psychiatry in the US has traditionally been, and remains, much more heavily influenced by Freudian theories than in Europe and so these sorts of analyses are not quite so unusual as they might seem.
The two introductory paragraphs to the paper note the main points and dispel some myths with regard to mass shooters (please note, I’ve removed the numerical references for ease of reading).
The term pseudocommando was used by Dietz in 1986 to describe a type of mass murderer who plans his actions “after long deliberation”. The pseudocommando often kills indiscriminately in public during the daytime, but may also kill family members and a “pseudo-community” he believes has mistreated him. He comes prepared with a powerful arsenal of weapons and has no escape planned. He appears to be driven by strong feelings of anger and resentment, in addition to having a paranoid character. Such persons are “collectors of injustice” who nurture their wounded narcissism and retreat into a fantasy life of violence and revenge. Mullen described the results of his detailed personal evaluations of five pseudocommando mass murderers who were caught before they could kill themselves or be killed. He noted that the massacres were often well planned (i.e., the offender did not “snap”), with the offenders arriving at the crime scene heavily armed, often in camouflage or warrior gear, and that they appeared to be pursuing a highly personal agenda of payback to an uncaring, rejecting world. Both Mullen and Dietz have described this type of offender as a suspicious grudge holder who is preoccupied with firearms.
Mass killings by such individuals are not new, nor did they begin in the 1960s with Charles Whitman. The news media tend to suggest that the era of mass public killings was ushered in by Whitman atop the tower at the University of Texas at Austin and have become “a part of American life in recent decades.” Research indicates that the news media have heavily influenced the public perception of mass murder, particularly the erroneous assertion that its incidence is increasing. Furthermore, it is typically the high-profile cases that represent the most widely publicized, yet least representative mass killings. As an example that such mass murderers have existed long before Whitman, consider a notorious case, the Bath School disaster of 1927, now long forgotten by most. Andrew Kehoe lived in Michigan in the late 1920s. He struggled with serious financial problems, and his wife suffered from tuberculosis. He appeared to focus his unhappiness and resentment on a local town conflict having to do with a property tax being levied on a school building. After becoming utterly overwhelmed with resentment and hatred, Kehoe killed his wife, set his farm ablaze, and killed some 45 individuals by setting off a bomb in the school building. Kehoe himself was killed in the blast, but he left a final communication on a wooden sign outside his property that read: “Criminals are made, not born”‚Äîa statement suggestive of externalization of blame and long-held grievance.