Mass killers can show indications beforehand

by Ken Ewing

The tragedy in Aurora, CO leaves us wondering what we can do to prevent such attacks.  Certain liberal leaders are demanding tougher gun control.  The media implies that sales of ammunition should be limited.  These are predictable arguments that cater to partisan politics.  Are these kinds of measures the best place to start?

When an event like this happens, I often hear people say that no one could have predicted it.  But this kind of behavior does not happen in a vacuum.  Violent actions of this type build up over time.  In our society, people tend to deny and discount the behaviors that serve as precursors of violent attacks.

I came across a well-written article on the CNN website by Dr. Charles Raison.  Dr. Raison articulates some very good advice on how to prevent incidents like this.  I will summarize his major points here and add my own comments.

Many people use the word “psychotic” to describe individuals who commit these heinous acts.  In Dr. Raison’s words, “to be psychotic is to have lost touch with common shared human reality.”  The vast majority of people with psychotic disorders do not commit violence.  But, that said, the people with psychotic disorders are much more likely to be the ones to commit violence.

So, a good way to reduce the risk of mass murder is to pay more attention to people who show evidence of psychotic disorders, and intervene before it turns to destruction.  As Dr. Raison says, “This is no easy task, or we’d be doing it already.”  But Dr. Raison offers a number of guidelines:

1)      Sometimes the onset of psychosis is obvious through indisputably bizarre behavior, such as:

  1. Talking to oneself
  2. Espousing clearly strange, untrue beliefs
  3. Not making any sense at all

2)      Sometimes the onset is slow and insidious, which is harder to notice but manifests in ways such:

  1. Someone becomes isolated and withdrawn
  2. Someone falls away from a previous level of functioning
  3. Someone changes his/her appearance in strange and disturbing ways

3)      Spoken threats or indications of violence.  These should always be taken seriously but especially so if observed along with other signs of psychosis.

4)      Though people who are planning violence are often secretive about it, it’s just as common that someone will tell you what they are planning if you ask them.

5)      If you are on a close basis with the person, check their living environment.  Besides seeing if they are adequately caring for themselves, you might find evidence of violent intent, such as:

  1. Accumulation of weapons
  2. Bomb- or fire-making materials
  3. Violent writings or art work

Based on what little has been reported about James E. Holmes, the alleged Aurora shooter, can we see any of these signs?  A few come to mind:

1)      He dropped out of graduate school.  No reasons have been cited.  Reports indicate that Mr. Holmes was an extremely intelligent student, the top of his class.  Why the sudden shift?

2)      He dyed his hair orange.  When did this happen?  I don’t know but it’s a relevant fact if it occurred in the last few months.

3)      He was denied membership at a local gun club.  The owner had returned Mr. Holmes’ phone call and was so disturbed by the strange greeting on the answering machine (and by Mr. Holmes’ refusal to return multiple messages) that owner denied him membership in the club.

So at least one person was watching and took appropriate action.  James E. Holmes had spent months preparing his attack.  Are we to think that no one else saw anything unusual?  I suspect that, when all the facts come to light, we will see that signs and symptoms were evident but no one took notice and acted.

Awareness is the gold coin of self-protection. The media may call for more gun control, but the best defense is to be aware of those around us and not be afraid to look closer if something doesn’t look right.

[editor’s note: as was noted in our July 28, 2012 article “A concerned parent had notified the sheriff’s office more than a year in advance, and the sheriff’s office had detailed information on one of the Columbine killers (including lists of targeted victims, a count of guns acquired, status of bombs built, etc.) well in advance of the attack, but did nothing – something which the sheriff’s office later tried to cover up.”]

[8/2 Update: Holmes’ psychiatrist reported behavior to colleagues on a “behavioral evaluation and threat assessment” team, saying Holmes could potentially be a danger to others – nearly six weeks before the July 20 killings inside a movie theater in Aurora] – source: CNN story

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Posted by at 05:00 | Posted in 2nd Amendment, Crime & Sentencing | 19 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Rupert in Springfield

    I think its comforting to think that we have some way to pick out people ahead of time for these events and somehow defend ourselves through proactive action. Certainly that is a much more appealing than the alternative – confronting these sorts of people in the commission of their acts and being faced with the choice of killing them, them killing you, or getting lucky through evasion.

    The fact is that people are very poor in predicting specific behavior of specific individuals down to the level of very specific acts – will this person kill someone. We can predict generally that Johnny seems to be a good student and will probably excel in math and science, but we cannot predict that two years from now Johnny will win a science contest and be awarded a white Lexus.

    That’s the level of specificity you need to be able to predict this sort of thing. Anything less than that level of accuracy would encompass such a broad net of people as to make the effort totally worthless. One also suspects it would also abrogate quite a few rights in the process.

    It’s a perfectly human desire. The wish to solve some of lifes scarier problems by placating ourselves that non scary solutions are available.

    The fact is they are not. Let’s take some of the examples here:

    Accumulation of weapons – When I lived in Manhattan I had one revolver. This would be considered an accumulation of weapons by almost anyone in New York, and in fact was considered as such by those I told of my purchase.

    Bomb- or fire-making materials – At any given time I probably have a can of gas and some matches. Obamas pal Bill Ayers was able to do some bombing with little more than this, add a few cans of diesel and you have Timothy McVeigh.

    Violent writings or art work – I Love HR Gigers non “alien” work. I have a few signed works by him on my walls. I also collect violent early feminist literature, such as Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot Andy Warhol and who advocated the extermination of males. I find it interesting.

    Does this add up to me going down to Batman to shoot things up? Seems pretty unlikely. I’ve owned an AK47 semi auto variant for more than half my life. Should I bear watching by the police because of the artwork I have on my walls, the kind of books I like to read, the fact that I had bright red hair in college? Nonsense, we have no where near the police force required to accomplish such a task, nor would we want to live in a state that had such means.

    Get real – It’s nice to think we can prevent these things before they happen but we can’t.

    • valley person

      Get real – It’s nice to think we can prevent these things before they happen but we can’t.

      So we shouldn’t do a damn thing to make it less likely.

      • Rupert in Springfield

        >So we shouldn’t do a damn thing to make it less likely.

        No, who in the world ever suggested that?

        Once again – to take someones opposition to one thing and then attempt the logical leap that they oppose everything establishes nothing other than a lack of logical faculty on your part.

        • valley person

          You said we can’t prevent these things, period. You didn’t say, we can’t ID every potential mass murderer in advance, but we could do x, y or z.

          Other than arming everyone else so we can have mass shootouts, do you have any useful suggestion?

          • Rupert in Springfield

            >You said we can’t prevent these things, period.

            I never said that.

            >Other than arming everyone else so we can have mass shootouts, do you have any useful suggestion?

            Yes, read what you are responding to.

          • 3H

            “Get real – It’s nice to think we can prevent these things before they happen but we can’t.

            You said it. Remember when you said: “Yet again, take a little more time with your writing so you don’t have
            to keep stumbling to correct yourself. Saves time. Thanks!”
            and I asked you to practice what you preach? This is a prime example of how your operate: you hypocritically impose a standard on others that you can’t even follow yourself.

            Cheers! and Thanks!

          • Rupert in Springfield

            >You said it.

            How does what I said have bearing on what Dean claimed I said, which was very different?

            What you quoted is me saying we cant prevent these things before they happen. That’s very true.

            What Dean claimed I said was we can’t prevent things, period.

            That’s not true.

            They are very different statements. You can prevent a mass shooting, by shooting the perp when he walks into the theater with his shotgun. You cannot prevent the same thing, with any reliability, by examining his wall art and hair colour.

            > Remember when you said

            I remember very well, that’s why I am laughing at your screw up here.

            Dean not reading and blathering on is same old same old.

            You screwing up by trying to correct me, and committing the same srew up Dean did in the process is so utterly idiotic I think a new word for idiotic might have to be invented.

            > This is a prime example of how your operate: you hypocritically impose a
            standard on others that you can’t even follow yourself.

            Actually its a prime example me hoisting you by your own petard. Yet again. Frankly I am loving it.

            >Cheers! and Thanks!

            You’re so welcome! That was “awesome” as the kids say. Or is it “epic fail”? Who knows, but damn it was good.

            Keep on flailing!

          • 3H

            Wow…when you stumble.. you really stumble. I understand you need to cover for your embarrassing lapses.

            Keep on failing!! Epic or otherwise 😉

          • 3H

            Let me try one more time. Because I think we can get here. When VP responded to your initial post, it was to your statement,
            Get real – It’s nice to think we can prevent these things before they happen but we can’t.”
            You responded, in typical Rupert fashion, with, essentially, I never said that.

            VP came back with, “You said we can’t prevent these things, period.” And you responded with, “I never said that.” Don’t take VP’s statement (…period) literally. He was describing your statement, and he’s right. You didn’t say something to the effect of “THere is little we can do…” or “There isn’t much we can do…” You made an absolute statement. That we “can’t prevent them before they happen…” No qualifications, no allowance for doubt or discussion. You simply didn’t take the entire conversation in context. You pull out parts, take them literally, and then claim that you didn’t say what you obviously had said,

            Perhaps you misspoke? Who knows? You immediately go on the attack and assume that everyone else but yourself must be wrong. I don’t think you even bother to read up to see why people are construing your meaning the way they do.

            Stop focusing so intently on the tree, and take a look at the forest. It’ll do you a world of good.

            Peace, baby.

          • ardbeg

            Wow, what a surprise! The Big R not understanding context. What a shocker!

          • valley person

            Dude, I claimed you said what you said. I clipped your very words in. What is with you?You give denial a bad name.

          • valley person

            Once again for those slow on the uptake, your ending words, verbatim were:

            “Get real – It’s nice to think we can prevent these things before they happen but we can’t.”

            The rest of what you wrote was all about what a cool and responsible guy Rupert is, even though he has signs of being psychotic. You did not offer a single suggestion for lowering the risk of mass shootings.

  • 3H

    Mr. Ewing — it would helpful if we knew which comments belong to Dr. Raison and which ones belonged to you.

  • valley person

    Is this post intended as humor? Lets take a sampling.

    Bizarre behavior. Talking to oneself? It used to be we could spot that, but given all the hand and mouthpiece free cell phones out there, I see a lot of people who sure look like they are talking to themselves. Should I call a cop?

    Espousing clearly strange, untrue beliefs. Like despite all evidence to the contrary there is no man made global warming? Careful Catalyst. You just identified yourselves as psychotic.

    Not making sense at all. Are you paying attention Rupert?

    Accumulation of weapons? OMG. That would mean the entire NRA is potentially psychotic.

    Bomb or fire making materials. Watch out for those farmers with barns full of fertilizer. I always did wonder about them. Many are also isolated and withdrawn, especially the Norwegians in the upper Midwest. Ya…you betcha. Darn tootin.

    Dropping out of graduate school. Oy. I think that applies to millions. And what about those who never went in the first place?

    Orange hair. I guess blue hair is ok?

    Denied membership in a gun club? You mean there are private sector gun clubs who deny other Americans their 2nd amendment rights? Shame on them.

    I’ve got a different proposal. Set the bar a little higher for gun ownership, especially multiple, high capacity guns. Put purchasers through some tests, like we do with drivers. And include a standard psych exam.

  • Oregon Engineer

    VP is pretty much right in the last post. just about everyone is eligible for the loony bin and should be considered a mass killer suspect. (don’t agree with raising the bar. How many thousand Phsyc evaluations per day or per year).
    and this sign is especially suspect
    Someone changes his/her appearance in strange and disturbing ways
    could apply to more than half of teenagers today. Just ask any parent.
    So as far as Precognition of Mass killers, there may be a few individuals that have close association to a particular person but the rest of us would not have a clue. Any body walking the neighborhood in “Goth”. long black coat, all black clothing, lots of peircings, and or tattoos, strange colored hair, torn jeans, wild clothing combinations. Gang members tagging stuff. Society is about to fall apart. “the sky is falling”. No I do not agree that the average individual could tell strange behavior of any particular person to prevent mass killing. this article sounds like Minority Reoprt with Tom Cruise.
    and I talk to myself a lot.

    • valley person

      I was at a meeting last night and one of our city planners chowed up with freshly died 3 hair colors, none of which were remotely natural looking. I laughed and told her to watch out because this is a sign of going off the rails. I asked her if she was buying guns and she said no way. I asked if she was withdrawn and isolated, a bit of a joke since she is overwhelmingly outgoing.

      We can’t precog, but we can id risk and build that into who gets to buy what weapons. And we don’t have to do massive psych tests. Consider the following scenario. You want to buy a gun. Today you can go into a gun shop, they run you through the data base to see if you show up as a felon or certified nut, and if not you are free to buy any legal weapon, as many as you like and enough ammo for a small war. So the Aurora dude had easy pickings.

      Now lets add some reasonable screens, at least the level we use to get a drivers license and register a car. You have to show that you understand how the weapon works and how to keep it safe. You have to pass a basic psych test to show you aren’t a sociopath. You have to license, by serial number registered with the local police, your weapon. Any crime committed with that weapon will be partly on your head, so don’t lose it. If it is stolen you report in within 24 hours. And for your first gun purchase you are limited to a low capacity, low caliber handgun or hunting gun. You are limited to this one weapon for one year. Like a learners permit. If nothing goes wrong,you can move up the next year.

      Now you can try to move up to more and possibly higher capacity guns. You have a higher test bar, including a more detailed psych test. You have the same responsibility for these weapons.

      And after another year if you want to go to death com 3, you have a higher bar.

      If we had this system this guy could not have done what he did, except by buying the guns on the black market, which is a lot harder.

      Yes, this system isn’t perfect. It won’t stop every or even most gun crimes or deaths. But it would help a lot and it is reasonable.

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