WASHINGTON (CNS) — Although the recent spate of mass gun attacks has the same results — multiple deaths and woundings — the motivations behind those attacks can be nearly as varied as those who commit those atrocities.
“People talk about the profile as if there’s one population of perpetrators,” said Peter Langman, a clinical psychologist based in Allentown, Pa. “There’s not one perpetrator, there’s multiple types.” Solely within the school-shooting category, Langman added, there are three types.
Of those types, the one that might have best applied to Adam Lanza, who killed 20 students — at least eight of whom were members of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Newtown, Conn. — and six adults before taking his own life Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, was psychotic.
But even there, Langman preferred to couch his declaration about the shooter during a Dec. 19 telephone interview with Catholic News Service “because there’s so little we know about him.”
“He was probably schizophrenic, and so he was not fully in touch with reality,” Langman explained. “He had delusions of grandeur. His background sounds very much like that of Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter: very shy, almost not able to function.”
Cho killed 32 and wounded 17 others during an April 2007 shooting spree at the Blacksburg, Va., university. He also took his own life.
Cho was “able to function in school and college, but socially unable to function. Eventually, Cho became delusional. He thinks he was being a hero like Jesus or Moses,” Langman said.
But for Lanza, he added, the combination of “extreme social dysfunction and the sheer irrationality of the attack and going to a school he doesn’t even attend and gunning down innocent 6-year-old kids, that’s something psychotics have done.” The two other types of shooters Langman identifies are “traumatized” and “psychopathic.”
Joel Dvoskin, a clinical psychologist in Tucson, Ariz., who lives a mile and a half from the site of the 2011 killing spree by Jared Loughner at a Tucson mall that killed six people and severely wounded former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, said one risk factor is rarely given enough attention.
“The one risk factor, and it’s something that can be done about, is actual threats,” Dvoskin told CNS. “People say they were going to do it, but they weren’t taken seriously.” If someone uses threatening language regarding some event he will perpetrate, Dvoskin’s advice is to “tell someone, because they might do it, and you should assume they’re going to do it.”
But the trouble with that, according to Dvoskin, is that budget cuts at the federal, state and local levels have severely curbed the funds and options available to help mentally unstable people even when they seek out the help themselves.
“Our system of helping people in the past dozen years has been devastated by budget cuts. This system of coming to the aid of people … has been gutted and so we’re much less able to provide help to those people, and the quality of hat help isn’t as good,” Dvoskin said. “And people are prone to leave voluntarily because they’re not getting that help.”
“The metaphor over the years is kind of like meteorology. We know very little,” said Daniel Davis, a forensic psychologist in private practice in Columbus, Ohio. “Is there a history of aggression? Is there a history of previous suicidal thoughts, previous aggressive behaviors?
“We have to look at what murder-suicide is. He not only killed others, but he also killed himself. What kind of pain was a man going to put on others, and then kill himself? What makes is difficult for us is when you put all those factors together.”
Dvoskin said that, even in instances of multiple killings, the shooting sprees should be viewed as suicides since the shooter plans a scenario in which he is likely to die at the end, whether at his own hand or that of the police.
“We know more about preventing suicide than we do about preventing homicide,” Dvoskin said. “If we think more about ‘carnage, and I’m going to take these people with me,’ you have to be willing to end your life as you know it in order to act on this rage. I’m sure I’m not the only person thinking this way.”
He added the common response to a shooter who comes out alive following a spree is, “You must have been crazy to do something like this.’ But the better thing … because they all don’t have serious mental illness, is that they are in serious emotional crisis and extreme emotional distress — and I mean extreme with a capital ‘E.'” In the mind of the shooter, he said, “there’s no psychological way to end your pain except by dying.”
Langman, until 2011, served as the clinical director of KidsPeace, an advocacy group in Allentown. He said the most peaceable approach to curbing mass violence, like what happened in Newtown, is prevention.
“The best thing we can do is to educate teachers, parents and students as to what the warning signs are and that’s being done to some extent, but the focus seems to be on lockdown drills more than what’s done before the shooter even gets into the building,” he told CNS. “We also need to do a lot of work with these shooters.”
Langman added, “Typically, shooters leave a trail about what they’re going to do. If teachers and parents know what those are and what to do when they see them, then we can stop some of these attacks.”