In the aftermath of the recent mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso, the airwaves and newspapers are filled with speculation about causes of the violence. Among a seemingly unending list are far-left political beliefs, far-right political beliefs, manifestos, racism, insufficient national security priorities, a lethal collection of ideologies, the president’s alleged promotion of intolerance, the tangled pipelines of the web, inadequate gun control, violent video games, insufficient screening for purchasers of firearms, a lack of mental health services. All of the above have been cited in the media within 48 hours of the horrific weekend.
The search for causes of crime goes on and on. The past half-century of searching has given rise to an unending list of so-called “root causes.” Practically everything but the federal deficit has been cited as a cause of criminal behavior. Among them are the traditional culprits of poverty and inequality, bad parenting, school policies that become a “pipeline to prison,” racial discrimination, peer pressure, bad role models, and brain pathology. Then there are the more esoteric alleged causes that include inadequate diet, exposure to lead, having certain physical characteristics, even cycles of the moon.
The search for causes continues to lead to dead ends when it comes to finding solutions. The crucial element missing is a focus on the mental makeup of the perpetrator. An otherwise responsible person does not suddenly decide to kill a bunch of people. There is a personality that has formed, a mentality behind the pulling of the trigger.
Within 48 hours, investigators discovered that the Dayton gunman had “dark thoughts.” According to The Washington Post, as a kid dressed in dark clothing, the suspect had “a reputation” among the “emo kids, the outcast kids.” He was known to have “pushed one ex-girlfriend into a roaring river.” He had “screamed at another while pinning her against a wall.” He “was interested in guns and frequently harassed female students.” He had “instructed users of the social media to buy a gun and learn to use it responsibly” so they could protect themselves. What should have been an alarm bell to those who knew about it was this teenager’s “hit list with names of people he wanted to kill.”
Banning the use of automatic rifles could make it more difficult for would-be shooters to enact their schemes and, therefore, could save lives. But such a ban does little to change the mentality and intentions of mass killers. Other alleged causes are almost impossible to address perhaps because they are not really “causes.” Many people are adherents to extreme ideologies, but most do not kill people whom they consider their adversaries. And, of course, millions of kids play video games saturated with violent themes but to them, it is just entertainment. They would not think of translating those games into real-life events.
Warning signs must be recognized and attended to. Some killers are clever and do not broadcast their intentions. They are often the ones described as quiet loners who are withdrawn, not part of the mainstream. However, law enforcement and mental health professionals who delve into the psychology of mass shooters have been discovering that most send up “red flags.” These signals must be recognized and addressed by mental health professionals, educators, and law enforcement. Casting about for alleged “causes” external to the individual will not solve what appears to be an intractable problem.