EXPERT: What Makes a Mass Killer?

That said, community mass killers, if they target a specific ethnicity or preferred victim, may intentionally skip others who have nothing to do with the killer's perceived grievance. Paranoid thinking does not necessarily mean someone is not aware of what he is doing, even as the community may experience him as someone running amok.

Community mass shootings also differ in the actual event being out of proportion to the trigger that sets it off. The killer is someone who has nurtured a homicidal plan for some time, somewhat vaguely. The idea intensifies with despair. If there is a certain despair or sense or loss, which may have nothing to do with the killing itself, even a seemingly minor trigger will set the homicidal fantasy into motion.

That contrasts quite a bit from the workplace setting, in which a very clear stress and its impact on a person's workplace or financial identity will prompt the killer to wipe out the workplace literally and symbolically.

When you speak about a minor trigger, what are you referring to?

In my professional experience, the most common trigger is actually rejection by a woman the community mass killer had a romantic interest in. But other triggers have been identified and may instigate a fantasy into motion. The more psychotic the person is, the more likely the trigger relates to the psychosis.

What distinguishes multiple shooters from other killers?

All mass shooters are at the very least, ready to die. Some are suicidal, some are not. But in my professional experience, mass shooters do not prepare for life beyond their mass killing. Many mass shooters expect to be killed in the course of their assault and may even write notes they expect to have discovered after the crime. Some shoot themselves when they expect capture is imminent. Others make very clumsy efforts to escape an otherwise organized death scene ? not because they are disorganized, but for all of the meticulous planning they have done, for the attack, they have given comparatively little planning to getting away.

Is that lack of thinking far into the future the reason that we hear of adolescent shooters? Why is that?

To some degree. Because adolescents do not have the perception of time that adults do. Thirty years in prison, to a person who is 15 years old, is far more abstract an idea than it is to a 35-year-old. An adolescent who has not been incarcerated does not relate to court procedure and the criminal justice system the way a mature adult weighs the events to follow a homicidal attack. Homicidal impulses may therefore confront adolescents as well as adults. Adolescents do not have the same experience to steer them away from acting on those impulses, even though they recognize the enormity of mass homicide and the illegality of it. Adolescents also are more likely to be drawn into the allure of masculine identity through homicidal violence.

Is that why we don't see female mass killers?

Absolutely. There is nothing in our society that would elevate a woman's identity or her femininity through her ability to destroy. This truth reinforces my opinion of how important it is for us as a society to repudiate the connection between destruction and masculinity in order to develop the values we want our young people to carry with them even in times of emptiness and despair.

Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist, has examined several of this country's most well-known mass killers. He is chairman of the the Forensic Panel, (, a national forensic science practice of psychiatrists, pathologists and toxicologists. He is an associate professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine and special consultant to ABC News. Welner is also developing an evidence-based test to assist criminal sentencing , the Depravity Scale, (, which invites Americans to participate in surveys that are used to form a legal standard of what represents the worst of crimes.

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...