Journalists should avoid simple explanations after mass shootings

Accused Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock's brother said from Orlando that he didn't even know his brother owned rifles. "Maybe a pistol or two that he kept in his safe," Eric Paddock told CNN. His neighbors in Mesquite, Nevada, have expressed their shock and said he never seemed violent.

Later Monday, Paddock’s brother revealed that their father was once on the FBI’s most wanted list. While that will be an interesting addition to the suspected killer’s profile, it may or may not explain anything.

And there was this: The brother also says the shooter was a multimillion-dollar real estate investor who played $100-a-hand poker. They are interesting details that may have nothing to do with a motive. 

It is a pointed illustration of how unreliable family members and neighbors can be in painting an accurate picture of people who commit horrendous acts. Ask yourself how well you really know your neighbors or even your family members who live far away from you.

The problem with these incomplete portraits drawn from people who didn't really know the suspect or may have a reason not to reveal what they know, is that they leave us with the image of someone who "snaps" for no explainable reason. The other default explanation is that the shooter may have sought "retaliation" for some wrong.

But experts who study school shootings, for example, say there is seldom a simple direct explanation for such irrational violent acts. You can't just point to violent movies or the political climate and find a motivation. Instead, experts say, the motive is often a collection of many factors from mental illness to problems with public assimilation. Mass shooters often see themselves as insignificant or having been rejected by society.

It is important that we journalists recognize that mass killings and suicide are complex events.  They often are preceded by a long trail of warnings that family and friends either marginalize, rationalize or ignore. The National Alliance on Mental Illness points out that, "Most people with mental illness are not violent. In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence." 

When mental illness is a factor in violent crime, these factors are usually at the core of the violent act:

  • Co-occurring abuse of alcohol or illegal drugs
  • Past history of violence
  • Being young and male
  • Untreated psychosis

CNN reported, "Grant Duwe, director of research and evaluation at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, compiled his own numbers for mass public shootings, finding 160 cases between 1915-2013. Of those, 97 involved shooters who had either been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, or showed signs of one. The 61 percent is actually a minimum estimate," said Duwe, who is also author of the book "Mass Murder in the United States: A History."

Who commits mass killings in the United States?

One reason we may not recognize the people who pull the trigger in mass killings is because we may have an inaccurate vision of who they are. Paddock is white. And white males are by far the leading demographic of mass killers, despite media representations of non-whites as being more dangerous. CNN reported that men are responsible for about 90 percent of all murders. 

But Paddock is nearly twice the age of the average mass killer. Of 134 mass killing cases studied by The Washington Post, "All but three of the mass shooters were male; the vast majority were age 20 to 49. More than half — 75 of them — died at or near the scene of the shooting, often by killing themselves." The most common scene of mass killings, besides homes, are workplaces, which is another clue to the complexity of motives behind these shootings.

The guns
Mass killers typically bring multiple weapons with them. A Washington Post calculation of mass killings found that "Shooters brought an average of four weapons to each shooting; the Las Vegas music festival shooter had at least 10." 

The Gun Violence archive, a non-profit site that collects data related to guns and shootings, points out that while mass killings get blanket media coverage, they are a fraction of the total death toll in the United States.  

While mass killings get the majority of media attention, a graphic from GunViolence.org shows most gun deaths are not part of a mass killing spree.

There is one other oddity following mass killings in the United States. Right after the stock market opened, hours after the most deadly shooting in recent U.S. history, stock prices for major gun companies rose on the fear that there might be a public reaction to restrict gun sales. It is a common reaction. After the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, gun sales in the U.S. went up and stayed up for months. Gun sales have slowed in the U.S. since the 2016 election as President Trump assured gun owners he would not touch their gun rights. 

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.

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