When we look at the alienated angry young men who go on killing sprees, we have to accept that many non-murderers fit the profile, too, as the New York Times recognizes:
“The big problem is that the kind of pattern that describes them describes tens of thousands of Americans — even people who write awful things on Facebook or the Internet,” said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University who has studied and written about mass murderers. “We can’t round up all the people who scare us.”
Those who study these types of mass murderers have found that they are almost always male (all but two of the 160 cases isolated by Dr. Duwe). Most are single, separated or divorced. The majority are white. With the exception of student shooters at high schools or lower schools, they are usually older than the typical murderer, often in their 30s or 40s.
They vary in ideology. They generally have bought their guns legally. Many had evidence of mental illness, particularly those who carried out random mass killings. But others did not, and most people with mental illness are not violent.
“They’re depressed,” Dr. Fox said. “They’re not out of touch with reality. They don’t hear voices. They don’t think the people they’re shooting are gophers.”
They do not fit in. Their most comfortable companion is themselves. According to Dr. Fox, mass killers tend to be “people in social isolation with a lack of support systems to help them through hard times and give them a reality check.”
“They have a history of frustration,” he went on. “They externalize blame. Nothing is ever their fault. They blame other people even if other people aren’t to blame. They see themselves as good guys mistreated by others.”
Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine, said these individuals often feel they do not belong, yet frequently live in “smaller town settings where belonging really matters.”
Research does show that people with serious mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder, pose a modestly higher risk of violence. But most people who are mentally ill are not violent.
Dr. Swanson of Duke said studies indicated that only 7 percent of people with a diagnosed mental illnesses might do anything violent in a year, “and that is something as minor as pushing or shoving somebody.”
With many of the killers, the signs are of anger and disappointment and solitude.
“Sure, you’ve got these risk factors, but they also describe thousands of people who are never going to commit a mass shooting,” Dr. Swanson said. “You can’t go out and round up all the alienated angry young men.”
For every alienated angry young man who goes on to kill people, there are thousands who won’t.
Interestingly, the New York Times does not do the same math on the other key ingredient in a mass shooting, the gun.
There are roughly 300 million guns in the US, and roughly 10,000 gun homicides per year.
So, for every gun that goes on to kill people, there are tens of thousands that won’t. For every gun that goes on to kill large numbers of strangers, there are millions that won’t. (Annually.)