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() — When it comes to someone who commits a mass shooting, such as the one that killed seven at a Fourth of July parade, they don’t necessarily look different from anyone else. But there is a pathway many take that distinguishes them, experts say.
Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist, said it starts with someone who doesn’t develop resilience, and at an early stage, starts identifying with “destructiveness for destructiveness’ sake.”
“The necessary ingredients are someone who is not only alienated, but becomes invested in being alienated,” he said. “So that person becomes not only isolated, but so much harder to reach.”
When a person like this becomes removed enough from the mainstream, they can start to fail in various aspects of their life — socially, vocationally, academically and sexually, Welner said.
At some point, many of those who become mass shooters reach what Welner calls a “threshold of hopelessness,” where they come to believe that things will never get better for them.
“They’re so identified with the destructive that they embark on a path of saying, ‘This is something that I identify with enough that it’s going to be my identity, and I’m going to be someone who becomes larger than life, just like all of these other people that we’ve turned into celebrities,’” Welner said.
When it comes to these kinds of shootings, there is a cultural component as well, Welner said, and a uniquely American one, at that.
James Densley, a criminal justice professor, and co-founder of The Violence Project, which is a database that tracks mass shooters, said a common theme in his research has been that the shooter will have an unhealthy obsession with past mass shootings.
“It’s not only a case of copycatting that type of behavior— it’s literally that these individuals see themselves in the lives of the past mass shooters,” he said. “So if you see somebody, a loved one, who just seems to be unnaturally obsessed with past mass shootings, that they’re drawing them, talking about them, that they have those sort of signs there, that is really an opportunity for intervention and to open up that conversation.”
Along with this, suicidal ideation is something to look out for, as mass shootings are usually intended to be somebody’s final act, Densley said.
If you or someone you know is thinking of harming themselves, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free support at 1-800-273-8255. Starting on July 16, 2022, U.S. residents can also be connected to the Lifeline by dialing 988. For more about risk factors and warning signs, visit the organization’s official website.
Another common thread among shooters is something called “leakage,” or when someone relays their intent to harm someone. This could mean by posting abut it online, or talking with their friends.
It can be hard for people to recognize that this kind of behavior could be possible in someone they love, Densley acknowledged. But the reality is “that mass shooters are always somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s classmate.”
“This sort of mental barrier to prevent us from moving forward — we have to kind of get over that,” Densley said.
A true solution, Welner said, will take changing many different aspects of society.
“If we want to get there, I’m telling you this optimistically we can solve it, but people don’t want to take responsibility for what they can do at their end,” he said.