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School shooter Nikolas Cruz survived: Will it help us understand?

A video monitor shows school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz, center, making an appearance before Judge Kim Theresa Mollica in Broward County Court, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Susan Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, Pool)

PARKLAND, Fla.–The carnage at Stoneman Douglas High School shared all of the horror of America’s worst mass shootings.

But one scene was unusual — the shooter Nikolas Cruz being led away alive in handcuffs.

Of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern history, 19-year-old Cruz is the only shooter to survive. Gunmen in Orlando, Virginia Tech, Las Vegas and Sandy Hook either killed themselves or were shot dead by police.

Philip Lazarus, director of Florida International University’s school psychology program, said being able to interview a mass murderer can provide useful information. He once asked an Alabama teenager whose rampage was curtailed only by a jammed gun to rate his level of depression before the shooting.

“He said, ‘I had no feeling. I was like a robot. I was numb. There was no feeling going on, so I can’t give you an honest answer to that,'” Lazarus recalled.

Lazarus said the interview gave him a better understanding of the despair many school shooters feel.

But often those interviews just produce more questions than answers, said Scott Poland, a professor of psychology at Nova Southeastern University who has led crisis teams that responded to school shootings.

“Many of them could never really give much information that could help people understand,” he said. “The search for answers from the shooters themselves has really been quite frustrating.”

Research has shown that almost all mass shooters are suicidal, said Adam Lankford, a criminology professor at the University of Alabama who has written extensively on the subject.

“A lot of offenders who actually survived wanted to or expected to die,” he said.

Officials placed Cruz on suicide watch after he was arrested about a mile from the school. The shooter fired more than 100 rounds in a roughly three-minute span, killing 17 and wounding 15 others.

A timeline compiled by the Broward Sheriff’s Office shows about an hour and 20 minutes passed between when the first shot was fired and Cruz was arrested.

After the shooting, the gunman left with students fleeing the school and purchased a drink at a Subway inside a nearby Wal-Mmart. Then he stopped at a McDonald’s and sat there for a while. He left the fast-food restaurant and was arrested by police.

Lankford examined 185 mass shooters from 1966 to 2010. About half died in their attacks. Shooters are more likely to either kill themselves or be shot by police when their death count was higher, he said.

Of those who died, 80 percent killed themselves and the remaining 20 percent were shot and killed by police, according to Lankford’s study. Researchers note that while mass shooters typically have suicidal thoughts, most people who are suicidal are not violent.

When a shooter survives, it means court proceedings and more publicity for the gunman.

Experts say that can prolong grieving and make healing harder. But for some people, they might find relief in being able to express their pain to the gunman

“When the attacker dies, especially if we know he’s suicidal, he is in some sense getting away with it,” Lankford said. “He’s getting what he wanted.”

Cruz’s lawyers say they will offer a guilty plea in exchange for avoiding the death penalty. Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein said, “It’s in nobody’s best interest to go through a circus of a trial.”

Perhaps, what would help grieving families the most is some kind of meaningful change that would prevent future tragedies, Lazarus said. It would help them to know their loved one didn’t die in vain.

“That would be more important than knowing the exact mental condition of the perpetrator,” Lazarus said.

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