The psychological autopsy of Stephen Paddock is underway with the hope of uncovering why this seemingly ordinary 64-year-old resident of Mesquite, Nev., would open fire on a crowded Las Vegas music festival, killing scores and wounding hundreds of country music fans.
Paddock’s brother has been interviewed anticipating that he might share some insights into the mind and motives of a mass murderer. Did he notice – even with 20/20 hindsight – any telltale warning signs of a troubled and potentially violent individual?
Even though the gunman didn’t have a criminal record, his now deceased father had been on the FBI’s 10 most-wanted list for bank robbery. People wondered, “Like father, like son?” Paddock’s girlfriend, who is out of the country, has also been a focus of investigation.
I have been involved in such efforts in a very central way. In 2006, after Seattle’s Capitol Hill shooting, I was enlisted by the Seattle Police Department to head up an investigation of the circumstances leading up to a post-rave massacre in which six were executed and two were wounded by 28-year-old Kyle Huff.
Although the assailant showed many of the characteristics common in mass murderers (for example, social isolation, repeated failures, and the tendency to blame others for one’s own misfortunes), the details that we uncovered about his background and motivation would only help put closure on the tragic event for those who lost a loved one. In no way would our observations assist in identifying future Kyle Huffs.
Even though Huff fit the common profile of a mass shooter, so do thousands of Americans who would never attempt to pick up a deadly weapon as a final act of payback against the world that had brought them so much misery. There are countless Americans who fail at work and in relationships, who have few friends and never smile, and who blame others for all their problems. Many may even fantasize about getting even with society. But acting on those thoughts is an extreme move that very few actually take.
If we attempt to seek out those disgruntled and dispirited individuals, we could actually make matters worse. In the process of intervention, they could feel targeted and persecuted, which would only intensify their sense of resentment. Very few mass killers see themselves as the problem. Their problem is with how others have mistreated them.
If prediction is not feasible, what about prevention through enhanced security? In the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s massacre, it would make sense to take great precautions with big events at similar locations. Target hardening might discourage a copycat, but in the long run, turning entertainment venues into fortresses would be counterproductive.
Highly visible security can also make people feel vulnerable by implying there is a target on their backs. And there is little to say that a determined assailant would not find a way to breach security. Or crowds at entrances and exits could become targets.
Moreover, the reduced risk would be far outweighed by the increased inconvenience. It has been suggested, for example, that the Mandalay Bay Resort where the sniper rented his rooms could have employed metal detectors. Imagine the impact of having guests and gamblers line up through a security checkpoint just to enter a busy hotel/casino. Imagine all the travel golf bags that would have to be emptied of their contents for inspection. Although some people might find such measures comforting, many more would look for an alternative place to visit.
At the end of the day, it is conceivable that we could reduce the risk of bloodshed by employing extremely invasive screening methods and imposing ethically questionable restrictions on anyone who even came close to matching the common profile of a mass killer. That would require us to forsake many of the personal freedoms that we Americans hold dear.
A smarter place to focus our attention would be in preventing the more common but less spectacular carnage inflicted with guns every day in America. For instance, imposing universal background checks for all gun purchases and limiting concealed-carry permits, expanding access to mental health services and increasing support for folks going through job termination or marital separation.
These are steps often proposed in the wake of mass shootings, and they are the right things to do, but not necessarily for the reason we’re motivated to do them.
Ironically, for someone like Paddock, who is determined to slaughter innocent people and take his own life, the planning has just gone beyond the point where such well-intention efforts can can avert tragedy. But in the process of trying to prevent the next mass killing, we can possibly improve the lives of countless Americans.