The Patterns of Mass Killing

If you were only listening to the political debate following the mass murder in Newtown, Connecticut, you might think that most such mass murders were perpetrated using “assault weapons” and that the murderers generally attacked strangers. That, apparently, is not the case:

The basic pattern found by the New Jersey DHS fusion center, and obtained by Public Intelligence (.PDF), is one of a killer who lashes out at his co-workers. Thirteen out of the 29 observed cases “occurred at the workplace and were conducted by either a former employee or relative of an employee,” the November report finds. His “weapon of choice” is a semiautomatic handgun, rather than the rifles that garnered so much attention after Newtown. The infamous Columbine school slaying of 1999 is the only case in which killers worked in teams: they’re almost always solo acts — and one-off affairs. In every single one of them, the killer was male, between the age of 17 and 49.

They also don’t have military training. Veterans are justifiably angered by the Hollywood-driven meme of the unhinged vet who takes out his battlefield stress on his fellow Americans. (Thanks, Rambo.) In only four of the 29 cases did the shooter have any affiliation with the U.S. military, either active or prior at the time of the slaying, and the fusion center doesn’t mention any wartime experience of the killers. Yet the Army still feels the need to email reporters after each shooting to explain that the killer never served.

It’s harder to construct patterns around shooter motives, the report notes, since in most cases the killer takes his own life or gets killed by law enforcement before publicizing his reasons for violence. But DHS warns that “indicators of potential violence” include a worker’s abrupt and persistent absenteeism; “escalation of domestic problems into the workplace; talk of severe financial problems”; a notable decline in “attention to appearance and hygiene”; unsolicited empathy with the perpetrators of mass violence; and vocalized musings about suicide. The fusion center doesn’t offer more granular data.

The weapons in question, semiautomatic handguns, are also the weapon of choice in gang slayings so you might think that a coherent policy would target those weapons. The emphasis on “assault weapons” suggests otherwise.

Something we should keep in mind: even in the United States the number of these mass killings is actually quite small. It’s difficult to come up with robust findings from such small datasets. It is, however, easy to make political hay over tragedies so who cares whether the bills that will eventually be based will actually accomplish anything?

19 comments… add one

  • PD Shaw

    I understand, but don’t sympathize with, the focus on assault weapons. This area has seen a large growth in big sporting goods stores the last several years and I’ve perused the guns and thought many a time: “Give me a break, do people really need that?” I just never let my distaste for certain excesses in society become the basis of a policy view, like say most anybody on Morning Joe these days. I still don’t understand why people really need cell phones.

  • Icepick

    I still don’t understand why people really need cell phones.

    Ah, so you’ve never had the misfortune of having your car break down in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.

  • PD Shaw

    I’ve just decided not to have my car break down. But if you think your car might break down, just crash into someone with a cell phone instead. Their usually prepared for emergencies.

  • Icepick

    I’ve just decided not to have my car break down.

    Uh-huh, I see.

    But if you think your car might break down, just crash into someone with a cell phone instead.

    How do I know if they have a cell phone before I crash into them?

  • PD Shaw

    Everybody has a cell phone these days, but I’m not everybody.

  • Can we expand our categories to “makers,” “takers,” and “breakers”?

    Just for conversation? Killers are “breakers”?

  • Icepick

    Everybody has a cell phone these days, but I’m not everybody.

    Good thing I’m not in Illinois – I’d constantly be worried that I was crashing into the wrong car. For safety’s sake you’d better stay out of Florida, or give me advanced warning when you come here.

  • PD Shaw

    @icepick, You’re in luck; I took the family to Walt Disney World a couple of years ago (same week as Andy as I recall) and swore it was our first and last trip there. Its not a particularly relaxing place for planners. But to be fully honest, I do have Onstar on my car, before that I would occasionally buy a pay-as-you-go cell phone for long trips, and I think my daughters is going to end up forcing us to get one. I’m enjoying my cell phone freedom while I can.

  • PD Shaw

    I’m not sure how Ackerman can say “terrorists” aren’t committing these mass killings, presumably he means the subjects of the GWOT aren’t. I assume Timothy McVeigh isn’t on the list because he’s not a shooter, but a bomber. The local terrorist was a bomber too, but he’d been set up by the FBI so the trigger didn’t do anything. Bombers are breakers too.

  • steve

    The assault weapon thing still seems weird to me. We always had a few guns on the farm. Everyone had a couple. No one dressed up in camo and posed with their weapons trying to look all macho. That aspect of gun culture still strikes me as odd. People who, mostly, want to act out macho military fantasies while having avoided military service themselves. But, I am not sure it is all that much worse than obsessing over sports, stamps, or any other odd thing that people collect. I dont really see banning them doing much.

    Steve

  • The weapons in question, semiautomatic handguns, are also the weapon of choice in gang slayings so you might think that a coherent policy would target those weapons. The emphasis on “assault weapons” suggests otherwise.

    sigh

    Man, apparently I just can’t say this enough…..

    We don’t have bad policy by accident. We have it on purpose.

    Proof:

    Dave’s blog post.

    Q.E.D.

    Ah, so you’ve never had the misfortune of having your car break down in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.

    Or been standing in the grocery store saying to yourself, “Crap, what was it she [wife/gf/etc.] wanted me to get….?” Or, sitting at home just after the wife pulls away saying, “Crap, should have told her we are out of….”

    Not to mention the fact that I use my iPhone for taking lots of pictures, keeping track of information that I consider important, reminding myself of appointments, chores, etc.

    How do I know if they have a cell phone before I crash into them?

    Use your smart phone to check that their avatar does not look like Abraham Lincoln. :p

    Something we should keep in mind: even in the United States the number of these mass killings is actually quite small.

    Which suggests all the nonsense we’ve been seeing is just that….nonsense. Focusing on just about any other problem would yield far greater benefits to society.

  • Andy

    I have to admit that I would find it hard to live without my phone. It’s practically my second brain.

    As for guns, yeah, the vast majority of crime is committed with handguns. And it sounds weird to me for people to talk about how dangerous “assault” rifles are for mass shootings after VA Tech.

    My problem with proposed gun control measures I’ve read is that they don’t really do anything to prevent gun crime, yet they add burdens on legal gun holders and cost everyone in terms of enforcement.

    Personally, I’m ambivalent about guns. I’d be willing to give mine up in exchange for restrictions that are actually effective in reducing crime or mass shootings. I see no reason, however, to support ineffective “feel good” measures that will just end up turning law-abiding citizens into criminals.

  • Icepick

    Use your smart phone to check that their avatar does not look like Abraham Lincoln. :p

    Yeah, but if I had a smart phone I wouldn’t need to crash into them.

    I’m thinking PD Shaw might work for the car companies.

  • Icepick

    I’m not sure how Ackerman can say “terrorists” aren’t committing these mass killings, presumably he means the subjects of the GWOT aren’t.

    Because Major Hasan was just a regular old case of work-place violence?

  • steve

    “I’m not sure how Ackerman can say “terrorists” aren’t committing these mass killings, presumably he means the subjects of the GWOT aren’t.”

    It’s math. If 98% of the killings are not by terrorists, then terrorists are not really the problem.

    Steve

  • PD Shaw

    Don’t get me started on Hasan, but the real odd exclusion from the study are the Beltway snipers, who said they were terrorists and were sentenced as terrorists. They weren’t “mass” killers, they did it too slowly.

  • PD Shaw

    steve, he didn’t say 98%, he says terrorists aren’t committing these crimes, they are absent.

  • steve

    @PD- What are you, a lawyer or something parsing out every word? He also says vets aren’t doing the killing, yet 4 had some military affiliation. I think he is right there also. We dont have vets who spent time in combat doing the mass shootings. We dont have al Qaida trained and recruited terrorists either.

    Steve

  • PD Shaw

    Sure Ackerman wrote a one-off poorly thought conclusion, summarizing a study that has nothing to do with his personal hobby horse. Of course, 9/11 was not one of the” 29 major mass killings in the U.S. since 1999,” so we’ve wasted our time worrying about that one.

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