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Our image of mass shooters inaccurate, study says

The news alerts us to another mass shooting at (fill in the blank) a school, a theater, on a busy street or at a shopping mall – and we shake our heads in disbelief. What’s the toll this time? Five dead? Ten? Twenty? Who would do such a heartless thing? And, isn’t there a way to stop sick and violent predators before they kill?

You probably have a vision of the typical mass shooter. A mentally ill scruffy loner, a brooding, friendless young man who suddenly “just snaps.” But a new FBI study reports that impression is all wrong.

The Bureau’s Behavioral Analysis Unit has been studying mass shooters for years. First, it looked at 160 so-called “active shooter incidents” between 2000 and 2013 and focused on the locations the shooters chose, how they carried out the carnage and what impact their actions had.

The recently released second phase of the FBI’s research drilled down on the psychology of 63 of these mass murderers. Researchers wanted to see if there was a pattern or a common motive driving their behavior. The results reveal the truth behind our misconceptions.

The FBI discovered most mass killers aren’t “crazy.” Only about 25 percent of the study subjects had ever been diagnosed with a mental illness. However, mental health stressors – like anger, anxiety, depression or paranoia – at the time of the crime were common among those studied.

Another important finding: those who carried out mass killings didn’t just “explode” one day. Rather, the research showed, they methodically planned their attacks, taking weeks and sometimes months to strategize and arm themselves.

And most important for civilians to understand were the findings about the personalities of mass shooters and the red flag warnings they might display. According to the study’s co-author, criminal justice professor James Silver, these killers aren’t isolated hermits and they frequently telegraph their violent inner thoughts. The study’s 63 killers exhibited, on average, four or five troubling behaviors prior to their attacks, behaviors specifically noticed by spouses or domestic partners, friends, teachers or classmates. Some of the disturbing words or actions came more than two years before the killings. That underscores the finding that there isn’t one sudden trigger for a mass killer but rather a build-up of uncontrollable frustrations that ultimately erupts in bloodshed.

“It’s important that people understand that active shooters are people in the community,” Silver said. “They have jobs. They’re in school. They do talk to people. They come from all walks of life.” Frequently they have financial troubles, marital problems or abuse drugs and/or alcohol. …

Researchers found the most common grievances stemmed from negative personal relationships or action taken against them at work. Simmering anger against a perceived enemy is, apparently, a powerful motivator. Sixty-four percent of the mass killers questioned confessed they targeted one specific victim at their chosen location but the attack turned into a massacre.

The takeaway here is repeated expressions of revenge against another person should not be ignored. Nor should comments about suicide. About half the subjects had expressed suicidal thoughts.

Researchers discovered that in 41 percent of the cases, a previous report had been made to law enforcement about the perpetrators’ worrisome behavior. Unfortunately, the Bureau’s latest study does not indicate what, if any, pre-emptive police action might have been taken…. To be fair, police cannot be expected to predict future behavior and should not be put in a position to evaluate someone’s mental state.

Other findings of interest:

• Most killers were male; four were female.

• About two-thirds were Caucasian. …

• The age range spanned from age 12 to 88 … with most 40 to 49 years old.

• Nearly three-quarters had a personal connection to the chosen location. …

• And these killers bent on committing murder did obey gun laws. …

So, now we know more about the pre-attack behaviors of these horrific mass murderers. When do we come up with a solid strategy to prevent their crimes?