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Criminal Profiling 101: Mass Murderer


Criminal profiling, which is considered a scientific method, is still a relatively new field. There are multiple definitions and boundaries for the term; however, the goal of each current criminal profiling method is similar, and that is to develop a description of the perpetrator based on the examination of the given evidence. In some ways, it is still considered a technique that combines art and science, although there has been an effort in recent years to bring more science into it. This series of articles will describe some of the most used criminal profiling methods, their scientific base, and the different approaches from which they stem. The series begins with an introduction to criminal profiling, its brief history and development, its current state, and the used methods.

The Criminal Profiling 101 series is divided into six chapters:

Criminal Profiling 101: Mass Murderer

Mass murder is a phenomenon that is increasingly common in society. This term refers to the killing of four or more persons in a single incident (Aggrawal, 2016). Roughly once a month, an exaggerated report appears in American media, which can summon other potential perpetrators eager for their "minute of fame". Even though, this is not the only nor main reason for mass murders, every possible motive needs to be examined. The reasons behind the increasing prevalence of mass murder are diverse. Numerous studies have addressed these reasons and have produced convincing results, yet the phenomenon persists. Since the current proposed strategies offered by various experts would be efficient in minimizing the consequences of mass murders, it is necessary to spread awareness about them and thus "force" the people, respectively the government, to appreciate and embrace these proposals. This article aims to introduce the issue of the mass murderer, its definition, motives, methods of attack, and solutions.

various articles on mass murders
Figure 1: Media coverage of mass murders (Undark, 2018).

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) refers to mass murder as the murder of four or more individuals in one time and place without any emotional cooling-off period (Aggrawal, 2016). The cooling-off period is a period that is significant, especially for serial killers, and represents the time between successive murders committed by the same perpetrator. The event of mass murder is often unplanned and unexpected. It is commonly associated with context-specific motives or ideological beliefs (Turvey, 2023). Factors underlying this context may include workplace disagreements, gender-based violence, and, in some cases, racism (Turvey, 2023). As with other types of multicide, there is no specific profile of the mass murderer that can be inferred from studies of previous mass murderers. Their methods, motives, traits, and origins are diverse. These mass murderers come from all nations, socio-economic classes, and cultures. They use different weapons to commit this crime, and their skills and abilities also differ. The general perception of mass murderers is that they primarily attack random bystanders in public settings such as playgrounds, shopping malls, restaurants, or government offices (Aggrawal, 2016). Simultaneously, this type of murderer often ends up committing suicide or his behavior requires police intervention, which frequently ends with fatal consequences for the attacker. However, public attacks are just one part of the picture.

Mass murder in the form of mass shootings in American churches, schools, or other public spaces has almost become a normal part of the culture and is considered by the general public to be the most prevalent form of mass murder. However, an analysis conducted by USA Today in collaboration with The Associated Press and Northeastern University shows that these public mass killings, which are considered the most common due to media coverage, make up only a portion of this type of homicide (USA Today et al., 2023). This analysis was based on tracking all mass murders in America over the past decade. It includes mass homicides since 2006 in which at least four or more individuals besides the perpetrator were killed within 24 hours. Unlike the Gun Violence Archive which includes all shootings in which countless people were injured but no one died, the presented statistics are limited in some respects because they only include certain gun violence. The analysis does not include multiple homicides related to gang or drug activity, as well as robberies or other criminal activities, which are considered criminal offenses depending on the circumstances. According to the analysis, mass shootings targeting family members are up to twice as common as fatal shootings targeting strangers in public (USA Today et al., 2023). The data also shows that on average, five people die as a result of a mass murder as compared to a mass shooting where on average seven people die. While these public mass shootings have a higher number of deaths per case, other types of mass killings are more common, which ultimately results in more casualties (USA Today et al., 2023). In fact, the analysis reveals that the most common form of mass murder is domestic gun violence where "a male who kills his wife and children, and often afterward kills himself" (USA Today et al., 2023).

people walking on the streets with gun pointed to their head
Figure 2: Illustration depicting domestic gun violence, a leading contributor to mass murders (Zarmati, 2020).

According to another report by Everytown for Gun Safety, nearly three out of four children and teens killed in mass shootings died in a domestic violence-related incident (USA Today et al., 2023). Guns accounted for more deaths among children and teens than car crashes in 2020. Regarding weapons, most commonly a gun is used in mass murders. Non-gun mass killings occur in less than 20% of cases (USA Today et al., 2023). Moreover, in up to 30% of cases, mass murderers shoot themselves after the attack; the percentages increase when the attack is targeted toward their own family. Although there is no specific profile of the mass murderer, previous studies of mass murderers suggest that the perpetrator is often a male loner who suffers from chronic extreme anger, depressed mood, and paranoia. His goal is to gain control over the fate of others, thus gaining, at least for a brief moment, the feeling that he can have some control over his life and those around him (Aggrawal, 2016). Oftentimes, these offenders are emotionally unstable and seek revenge or retaliation for what they perceive as mistreatment, humiliation, or rejection (USA Today et al., 2023). The chances of an offender attack increase when the aforementioned factors are met with offender traits such as paranoia, distrustfulness, or suspiciousness (USA Today et al., 2023). These individuals struggle to adjust to crises they may encounter during their lifetime, such as a breakup, which may leave them feeling like their life is over. Although mass murders are most commonly observed in the context of domestic violence, there are several other types, and, therefore, the age range of these attackers also varies from an age of approximately 15 to 70 years of age, with the most common age range being 25-30 years old (USA Today et al., 2023).

A study conducted by Melanie Taylor, Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Nevada, stated that the most common reason for an attack by a mass murderer is an estranged or failed relationship. Offenders often deal with relationship or financial problems over an extended period of time, and the traumatic event is ultimately what can push them to kill (USA Today et al., 2023). Revenge is another prevalent reason for mass murder. Sometimes it is partner disagreements where the husband kills the wife and also the children as he considers them to be part of the wife. An example of a related motive is the case of John List, an accountant who, at the age of 46, shot five members of his family in 1971, citing his motive as him feeling like he could not keep his family happy, so they had to go (Aggrawal, 2016). Other motivations for mass murder include gaining control, robbery, or sending a message. This means that perpetrators will sometimes target a certain type or group of people such as immigrants or individuals of a different race or gender than the perpetrator. An example of the aforementioned motive of hatred toward a particular group is the case of 35-year-old George Hennard who in 1991 killed 23 people, most of them women, by driving his pickup truck through an entrance of a restaurant and opening fire. Hennard cited his hatred of women, and especially his mother, as the reason for his actions (Aggrawal, 2016). These two cases helped clarify the underlying motives of their actions, as they were apprehended before they had the opportunity to carry out another attack or suicide, but other motives are difficult to determine given the suicide rates associated with mass murder.

contours of the face and shoulders in which the outline of a person is falling and in the background are several eyes
Figure 3: Illustration depicting paranoia, an attribute exhibited by some mass murderers (Helfenbein, 2020).

Society often associates a mass murderer with a mentally ill individual. However, several studies have confirmed that most mass murderers are not treated for mental health problems and they are neither considered psychotic, nor do they suffer from hallucinations. An analysis by Columbia University confirmed the presence of a serious mental disorder in only 11% of studied mass murderers (USA Today et al., 2023). Jonathan Metzl, a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, has opined that there is no mental disorder of which harming others would be a symptom, much less cause a shooting. Rather, these mental illnesses are attributed to low energy levels, mood, and the occasional poor cognitive planning that is incompatible with mass murder which requires preparation, planning, and high energy. The example of a college student who killed six people in California in 2014 and eventually shot himself supports this statement. Before the act of murder occurred, this shooter had seen multiple therapists who could not agree on whether he had emotional problems or high-functioning autism (Carey, 2016). This example demonstrates that the alleged perpetrator underwent several psychological examinations, where no mental health problems that could account for his attack were diagnosed. Another shooter who opened fire at Newtown Elementary School in 2012 and killed 26 people had attended Yale's renowned Child Study Center where he was treated by various professionals before the attack. Later, when information about the shooter's childhood surfaced, some experts saw early psychosis or obsessive-compulsive tendencies. However, the only official diagnosis attributed to the shooter was Asperger's syndrome, which is considered a mild form of autism and does not often lead to violent behavior (Carey, 2016). These examples illustrate the difficulty of clearly diagnosing the perpetrator of mass murder with any kind of mental impairment, as it is difficult to determine whether they are "bad" or "mad" (Frances, 2014). These perpetrators are often in a grey area where psychiatrists fail to agree on the proportion of moral failure and mental disability. The consequence of this is inconsistent diagnoses.

The occurrence of mass murders is too frequent to be tolerated by society. Prevention of mass murders is challenging, as there is no specific profile of a potential perpetrator and the characteristics and motivations attributed to mass murderers are matched by a large number of people who are likely to never fulfill their fantasies (Frances, 2014). While it is possible to predict which group is at risk, it is almost impossible to determine which individual in that group will actually attack. Simultaneously, it is impossible to preemptively lock up or hospitalize all individuals who meet the characteristics of a mass murderer or have violent fantasies. More importantly, as the statistics mentioned above suggest, in more than 80% of the cases, a gun was used to carry out the mass murder (USA Today et al., 2023). This fact should be alarming enough that gun policies should become more regulated, and it should not be easier for a potential murderer to procure a gun rather than get an outpatient examination. One of the significant outcomes of the mass murder epidemic has been the realization that mental health treatment is underfunded and inaccessible to most people (Frances, 2014). In contrast, getting a gun is a very simple process. Therefore, a change in the process of obtaining a gun, which could potentially include a psychological examination of the individual, could be the solution to the overall problem of mass murders. Even though a potential assailant might not be diagnosed with a personality disorder, a psychologist might detect behavioral elements such as excessive aggression or other behavioral attributes not appropriate in combination with weapon possession, and thus prevent incidents like mass murder. Similarly, as stated, these incidents often take place within the home environment, and therefore equal access to mental health support for everyone could result in reducing the frustration, tension, or other issues that underlie gun violence in the family in the first place.

Closed and locked doors with sign: Mental health treatement and open safe full of guns
Figure 4: Illustration demonstrating the accessibility of guns and unavailability of mental health treatment (Anderson/Houston Chronicle, 2013).

There is no minimum amount of mass murder incidents to prove that this is a problem that needs to be addressed. What's even more incredulous, however, is that although this phenomenon occurs on an almost monthly basis, no action has yet been taken to radically reduce the problem. Even though incidents of mass murder recur too often to be tolerated, it is not enough to infer preventative measures by identifying and isolating the mass murderer. However, several studies that have addressed this issue have discovered some correlations between mass murders, guns, and the unfolding of these incidents in predominantly domestic settings. Furthermore, these studies have also found another societal deficiency, which is the underfunded and insufficient mental health support for the majority of people. These findings suggest that if there is a problem in the family that goes unaddressed and intensifies over a long period of time, the situation may escalate into a tragedy. Consequently, if the emotionally stressed person in question has a gun in their home, it is only a matter of time before they will use it. While the information presented in this article only proves the existence of solutions that can undermine incidents of mass murder, the problem remains their implementation, which, if enforced, could eliminate or perhaps entirely reduce the phenomenon.

Bibliographical References

Aggrawal, A. (2016). "Mass murder." In Payne-James, JJ, Byard, RW (Eds.) Encyclopedia of forensic and legal medicine (2nd ed.) Vol. 3. 291-9.

Carey, B. (2016). Investigating the minds of mass killers. The New York Times.

Frances, A. J. F. (2014). The mind of the mass murderer. Psychology Today. Retrieved March 23, 2023.

Turvey, B. E. (2023). Mass murder. Criminal Profiling (Fifth Edition): An introduction to Behavioural Evidence Analysis, 637–651.

USA Today and a partnership with The Associated Press and Northeastern University. (2023). Mass killing database: Revealing trends, details and anguish of every US event since 2006.

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Greta Nachajova

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