The largest study of mass shootings to date found common threads among most mass shooters since 1996. It’s less about trench coats, bowl cuts and Confederate flags and more about the shooter’s past experiences, attitudes and behaviors leading up to the shooting — and of course, access to a firearm.
A study by the nonpartisan think tank The Violence Project funded by the Department of Justice, analyzed all mass shootings — killings of four or more in a public place, not including the shooter, as defined in this project and by the FBI — since 1996 and found most have four things in common: experience with childhood trauma, a personal crisis or grievance, a “script” or examples that validate their feelings or provide guidelines on how to carry the violence out and access to a firearm.
Debates over the cause of mass shootings have been largely tainted by political agenda. Those in favor of gun control blame guns, and those against it blame mental illness. However, this database focuses on more than 100 variables surrounding these incidents and offers a more holistic view of the circumstances that play into them.
The researchers analyzed shootings dating back to Aug. 1, 1966, when a former Eagle Scout and Marine fatally shot 15 people from an observation deck on the University of Texas campus. Though not the first mass shooting in the country, it was the first to receive extensive television coverage. The data includes up to the El Paso mass shooting this August. Since then, according to the Gun Violence Archive‘s database, there have been 126 more, though it is important to note the archive defines a mass shooting as four or more people killed or injured, not including the shooter, so the numbers on what it qualifies as a mass shooting are much higher.
The Violence Project looked at 167 mass shootings since the 1966 University of Texas massacre and found alarming statistics: Mass shootings are becoming much more frequent. Of the 167 cases the database analyzes, 20% have occurred in the last five years and half have happened since 2000. Also, though Americans equate the ’60s with racial tension, data shows these shootings are more often becoming motivated by xenophobia — whether religious or racial — and misogyny. Fourteen percent of those shooters motivated by hate were motivated by racism, 9.4% were motivated by misogyny, 6.5% were motivated by religious hatred and 2.9% were motivated by homophobia.
Seventy-seven percent of all mass shooters for which the data was available obtained their firearms legally. Additionally, the weapons were more frequently handguns rather than assault rifles. Shooters used handguns to carry out their attacks at more than three times the rate of shotguns, rifles or assault rifles.
The researchers also broke down general profiles of shooters of different locations: the K-12 shooter, the college and university shooter, the workplace shooter, the house of worship shooter and the retail/restaurant/bar shooter.
1. K-12 school shooter: a white male student of the school with a history of trauma who is suicidal. Leaks his plans ahead of time, high degree of planning, and has an interest in guns. Uses multiple guns that he stole from a family member.
2. College and university shooter: a non-white male current student with a history of
violence and childhood trauma who is suicidal. Uses handguns that he legally obtained and leaves something behind to be found (like a video or “manifesto”).
3. Workplace shooter: a male in his 40s, no racial profile, but is an employee of the
blue-collar shooting site and having trouble at work. Uses a handguns and assault rifles that he legally owns.
4. House of worship shooter: a white male in his 40s who is suicidal with a prior
criminal record and violent history. Uses in a handgun in a Christian church where he
knows victims. Low degree of planning, motivated by domestic spillage and hate.
5. Retail/restaurant/bar shooter: a white man, aged 30, with a criminal record and
violent history and no connection to the location. Uses one legally owned handgun.
One third show evidence of a thought disorder.
The researchers used male pronouns because 98% of mass shooters are men. Though these profiles do not fit every perpetrator of each kind of crime, they can offer insights into warning signs and help people adjust their responses.
“For example, school shooters are nearly always students of the school — so building design strategies and active shooter drills are ineffective because the shooter is an insider, well rehearsed in the security procedures,” the report says. “Same goes for workplace shooters who typically are employees.”
A valuable warning sign: more than 80% of shooters in each category are in crisis before the attack. The report defines crisis as a marked change in behavior communicated to others.
Crises can be loss of a job, bullying, suspension or expulsion from school or relationship rejection or loss. Workplaces are the most common sites for mass shootings.
The data shows mental illness is a factor, but not the cause of mass shootings. It points out that the majority of people with mental illness are not violent and that equating mental illness with violence further leads to stigma. However, 67.7% of shooters had general “mental health concerns.” About 26% had a diagnosed thought disorder, 23% had a mood disorder and 20.5% were on psychiatric medication. Thirty percent were suicidal before the shooting.
More than one-quarter had previously served in the military. Nearly two-thirds had a criminal record and 57.9% had a violent history.
Nearly one-third of shooters were victims of childhood trauma, and that number rose to 68% of K-12 shooters.
Scripts and validation for these crimes — like constant news coverage of other shootings promising fame and notoriety — are also a common thread.
“Most mass shooters study the actions of other mass shooters and seek validation for their methods and motives,” the report says. “Some are radicalized online as they search for meaning. Shooters always find someone or something to blame for their troubles. School shooters blame the school, workplace shooters blame the workplace. House of worship shooters blame specific religious groups. Other shooters blame women, immigrants, or certain racial groups.”
The data found warning signs and signs of social contagion. Nearly half leaked their plans or beliefs before the attack, and more than a quarter of shootings were highly planned.