Friday, April 27, 2018

SAGE Dictionary of Criminology Entry on Mass Murder


Mass killings involve the death of four or more individuals, in one event, located in close geographic proximity. No one profile of a mass murderer exists, aside from the near universal involvement of troubled young men (Swanson, 2011).

Distinctive Features

Feelings of alienation and victimization are commonalities in the life histories of mass murderers. Psychopathology, bouts of psychosis, depression, paranoia, and antisocial behavior convince them that society is responsible for their suffering. The majority of attacks by these externalizers are predatory and methodically planned where anger and revenge alleviate despair from social exclusion and humiliation. Life events coalesce into suspicious and resentful worldviews where others are alleged to be spiteful. Such experiences contribute to the killer’s preference to hold grudges and act entitled while taking extreme actions. Inexperience with perspective-taking, communication, emotional regulation, information processing, and problem solving cripple the formation of meaningful relationships that might dissuade destructive behavior. The mental health sector and entities producing epidemiological studies and structured risk assessment instruments attempt to discern the causes for indiscriminate killings but are hampered by distinct operational definitions and varying study methodologies (Krouse & Richardson, 2015). Confusion arises from disagreements about what constitutes disordered minds and knowledge that most people fitting the mass shooter archetype do not commit crimes.

Recent mass casualty events saw the same firepower granted to shooters as bestowed upon infantrymen. The killers used often legally acquired weapons to engage in some of the deadliest shootings over the past 10 years. Access to such weapons and glorifying attention makes present-day mass murders unique (Knoll, 2012). This form of atypical homicide is given increasing attention disproportionate to the phenomenon’s occurrence. In spite of incidents covered by media being selected outside of true representativeness, Krouse and Richardson (2015) approximate the average prevalence of mass murder at 31 per year. The curiosity surrounding this rare form of violence is aggravated by identification with victims alongside concomitant interest by media, gun control advocacy and law enforcement groups discerning warning signs and dissecting motives to affect the search for the next mass murderer. Scholars have curtailed the use of offender’s names because attention afforded these perpetrators inspires similar attacks.

Efforts to classify offenders based on motivations (revenge, power, loyalty, terror, profit) or their relationship with the intended victim (family annihilator, school shooter, pseudo-commando, disgruntled employee) (Knoll, 2012) are misguided as location differentiates mass murderers across three broad patterns: the murder of domestic partners and children (familicides; occurring 8.5 times a year), killings committed as part of other criminal activity or arguments (felony related; occurring 8.3 times a year) and shootings transpiring in workplaces, churches, restaurants and schools (public; occurring 4.4 times per year) (Krouse & Richardson, 2015). Mass murder is as prevalent as it was in the 80s and 90s but with higher victim counts although tracking the time between incidents provides better measurement for frequency. Simplistic analysis of USA Today data that comingles all murders led to a failure to detect the shift in public mass shootings which have increased from occurring every 200 to every 64 days (Cohen, Azrael & Miller, 2014). Krouse & Richardson (2015) caution that generalizations about mass murders are applied to offenders that respond to circumstances differently. The psychological and behavioral differences between offenders who attempt suicide as they struggle with precipitating crisis events like social marginalization, family problems, work or school issues are superficial. Fundamental dissimilarities in chosen weapons, victims and locations do exist between mass shooters who die as a result of their attacks and those who live (Lankford, 2015).

Grievances instigate thought patterns that result in violence, contributing to the mass murderer’s defeat after working for good graces. The offender, often under significant stress, directs rage towards those tasked with alleviating the strain of daily life in familicides where the cherished aspects of their own lives are destroyed and the ability for relatives to carry forth are decimated. Felony related killings are attacks related to armed robbery, gang or drug activity, criminal competition, insurance fraud, arguments, witness elimination or romantic triangles, often sparked by an initial displeasing interaction whereby others killed are incidental damage to the goal of obtaining something tangible from the victim. Public killings encompass school shooters, pseudo-commandos, domestic terrorists, workplace avengers, psychotic perpetrators, rampagers and foot soldiers of hate groups and are usually motivated by desire to resolve a perceived or imaginary dispute by meting out vengeance on the wrongful parties whether they are individuals, corporations or demographic groups. Workplace shooters are the most likely to hunt down and eliminate specific targets whereas terrorists, rampage and school shooters rally against the symbolism of ideological infrastructures and select victims randomly.


Mass murderers are impaired by hyperactive intake of stimuli, where slights are deeply felt and interpreted as purposely malicious. Emotional intensity contributes to existential loneliness and misunderstanding and can mutate into ‘injustice collecting’ (O'Toole, 2014) as events that most overlook become immensely troubling. Mass murderers have a disdain for coping strategies and maintain a core centric belief that they matter more than others. Their heightened penchant to analyze the world, how every movement of those surrounding them negatively intrudes and intense self-awareness ensures an encounter where they are wronged will play directly into the ongoing drama of their lives. Mass murderers are fueled by tempered rage and disgruntled by a failed search for meaning interrupted and punctuated with persistent suicidal ideation, somehow avoiding long term unemployment, homelessness, prison sentences and mental hospital stays where their fellow mutinous brethren are warehoused. Without a grander purpose in life, mass murderers give their own suffering meaning by responding with violence. When those deemed by mass killers to be substandard engage in behavior constituting a personal affront to their masculinity or use language designed to belittle or disrespect, that action is noted in expanding list of wrongs.

Grievances are a sense of injustice or the loss of a person, prestige or purpose the offender regarded as anchoring and represents the first of six behavioral stages in the “path to intended violence” (Allely & Faccini, 2017). Followed by ideation, research/planning, preparations, breach and attack, the resolution to utilize violence to strike back against unfairness occurs during a period of rumination. More than momentary setbacks or short-lived expressions of frustration, grievances are a conclusion reached about the reason for the offender’s suffering after introspection to deduce the cause of discontentment. The motivation for mass murderers driven to violence to regulate social relationships contrasts the usual way they are portrayed as unfeeling automatons; they become obsessed with asserting control over those in close proximity and influence thought patterns by provoking fear to impose their views of traditional gender roles. Forcefully altering the perceptions of others and exhibiting a pattern of violence or threatening behavior against women in the form of domestic abuse forms a mosaic of a troubled person which can serve as a harbinger of future attacks.

The pursuit of social ties and norms and subsequent failure to bond with others result in alienation and abandonment, precursors to the internal torment that develops into self-loathing and eventual outward displays of mass violence. The difficulty of prediction is emphasized when considering school shooters but the killer may reveal warning signs which include: bullying, isolation, vacant gazes, loss of parents, violent ideations, school expulsion, depression, explosive outbursts and hurting animals. Research demonstrates that between 44 – 67% of public mass murderers need to be heard and communicate their intentions to harm to at least one person through verbal statements made to family or friends or the creation of manifestos, diaries, journals, web pages or notes about their plots. The vast majority of mass shooters signal their intentions in advance which presents an opportunity for intervention which is, aside from the 57 mass murder plots thwarted since 1993, often unseized and ignored.

Society conflates severe mental illness with the mild disorders of personality mass murderers bear to distract from everyone’s potential to contribute to their concealed ill feelings. The majority of offenders are not disabled by delusions but there are elements of paranoia, deep resentment, outward judgment or narcissism present that do not amount to specific and treatable ailments. Even if mental illness is uncovered, there is no evidence that treatment makes a meaningful difference to divert potential killers away from desired courses of action. Because gun violence has a social context, it is not something that mental illness can describe (Metzl & MacLeish, 2015). There are programs designed to address individuals who express troubled thoughts and mental health experts and law enforcement agencies have learned how to identify potential perpetrators and reduce the frequency of mass shootings. Even if prediction and prevention are unreachable goals, mass murder research is worthwhile given the misinformation referenced in the days after such events and the few rigorous inquiries due to a dearth of funding dedicated to the topic. Mass homicide reveals how we systematically fail at connecting with the interiority of others, highlighting ignorance that these offenders are sometimes the byproduct of mistreatment at the hands of powerful people harboring similar deficiencies.

Key Readings
Allely, C. S., & Faccini, L. (2017). “Path to intended violence” model to understand mass violence in the case of Elliot Rodger. Aggression and Violent Behavior. 37:201-209.

Cohen, A. P., Azrael D., & Miller, M. (2014). Rate of Mass Shootings Has Tripled Since 2011, Harvard Research Shows. Mother Jones. Retrieved from

Knoll, J. L. (2012) Mass Murder Causes, Classification, and Prevention. Psychiatric Clinics of North America. Psychiatr Clin N Am. 35:757–780.

Krouse, W. J. & Richardson, D. J. (2015). Mass Murder with Firearms: Incidents and Victims, 1999-2013. Congressional Research Service Report. Retrieved from

Lankford, A. (2015). Mass shooters in the USA, 1966–2010: Differences between attackers who live and die. Justice Quarterly. 32(2):360-379.

Metzl, J. M. & MacLeish, K. T. (2015). Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms. Am J Public Health. 105(2): 240–249.

O'Toole, M. E. (2014). The Dangerous Injustice Collector: Behaviors of Someone Who Never Forgets, Never Forgives, Never Lets Go, and Strikes Back! Violence and Gender. 1(3):97-99.

Swanson, J. W. (2011). Explaining Rare Acts of Violence: The Limits of Evidence from Population Research. Psychiatric Services. 62(11):1369-1371.

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