Mass killings often planned, not spontaneous, experts say

Balloons and flowers are left as a memorial on a road that leads to the Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a gunman opened fire on children and staff members.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The motive behind the Connecticut elementary school rampage is not known, but behavioral specialists with expertise on mass killings note that such events typically do not occur spontaneously, that the perpetrator has harbored both resentments and fantasies of how he would carry out his objective.

The perpetrators often say things or exhibit behavior that, in hindsight, foreshadow their rampages.

After the fact, “it never ends up being a surprise,” said Dr. C. Andrew Morgan, a Yale University psychiatrist and behavioral advisor to the U.S. armed services.

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People who knew Adam Lanza, the suspect in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., have not described him as violent, but many recall him as a loner who did not make friends and was painfully shy.


Officials have yet to name the gunman, but law enforcement sources have said it was Lanza, 20, who shot and killed 20 children and six adults before killing himself Friday.

The motives for such killings often have centered on a gunman’s seeking of attention or notoriety as revenge for perceived insults or slights.

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“It’s not chance. It’s communication of some sort,” said Robert A. Fein, a psychologist who has co-written government studies of how to use threat assessment to prevent assassinations of public figures and school shootings. “It’s an effort to say something. … It’s not random that someone does something so egregious.’’

It would be premature, Fein said, to automatically label the Connecticut killings as another school shooting. “Was this a school shooting — or a shooting that occurred at a school?”

Often, the shooter knows in advance that he will die. “So there’s suicidal motivation to it,” said Barry Spodak, a consultant to an array of federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies on threat assessment and the prevention of violence.

Based on the initial details to emerge so far from Connecticut, the attack appears to have been planned. “There’s a degree of organization that makes substance-induced violence less of a possibility,” said Ronald Schouten, a Harvard University psychiatrist, who helped investigate the case of 27-year-old Steven Kazmierczak, a former student at Northern Illinois University who, in 2008, returned to campus and shot and killed five and injured 21 others.

“These individuals typically do not carry these out spontaneously,” J. Reid Meloy, a UC San Diego psychologist who was a consultant to the FBI’s investigation of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, perpetrators of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings.

Planning for mass killings can span weeks, months or longer, Meloy said. Based on his research of adolescent and adult mass killers, Meloy said, “there is planning and preparation for these crimes.’’

It’s safe to say that mass killers are male. With the exception of a few Islamic suicide bombers, the total of female perpetrators throughout history is comparatively minuscule.

Lanza reportedly killed his mother, Nancy, in the home they shared, stole several weapons and then went to Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he fired upon students and staff members.

Several experts on such killings pointed out that at least three men who shot groups of students on a campus did so after first killing a family member or partner at another location:

Charles Whitman, the so-called Texas bell tower shooter who killed his wife and mother before using a rifle to kill 13 at the University of Texas, Austin, in 1966; Luke Woodham, who stabbed and bludgeoned his mother to death before killing two at a high school in Pearl, Miss., in 1997; Kip Kinkel, who killed his parents before fatally shooting two students at a high school in Springfield, Ore., in 1998.

As Friday’s tragedy attests, policymakers face a daunting challenge in preventing other group killings. Steve Albrecht, a threat-assessment consultant and coauthor of “Ticking Bombs,” a 1994 book about defusing violence in the workplace, said a commitment on par with the effort behind the first moon landing would be needed.

Yet without timely information on which to act, Albrecht asked, “how do you defend against something you don’t know about?”


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