There's still no scientific way to know who will become a mass shooter

A new report charges that there hasn’t yet been enough concerted research on what makes a person become a mass shooter.

It may be that the era of mass public shootings began way back in 1966 when two occurred within weeks of each other in Chicago and Austin. There have been 306 school shootings since 2013, or about one a week, according to Everytown. Each time such a tragedy occurs, we’re first reminded of the easy availability of assault weapons followed quickly by blame assigned to the people—local police, psychologists, social workers—who failed to identify the perpetrator as a danger to their community. But this kind of hindsight is unfair. The truth is there’s been amazingly little coordinated study of the psychology behind mass shooters and very little consensus as to what those warning signs might be. A new review of such research was compiled by sociologist Michael Rocque and criminologist Grant Duwe and is in the February issue of Current Opinion in Psychology.

Media finger-pointing exacerbates such lazy misconceptions and hysteria, so in the absence of methodical study, Roque notes, “Everybody’s an expert on this issue, but we’re relying on anecdotes.”

(Photo: John Moore)

Mass public shootings: rampage shootings and school shootings

As defined by Rocque and Duwe, rampage shootings are mass shootings (generally defined as involving four or more victims), taking place in a public location, with victims chosen randomly or for symbolic purposes.

Mass shootings from 1976- 2016. (Credit: Duwe)

School shootings are any violent gun attack on another person occurring in a school.

Click image to jump to an interactive map of U.S. school shootings on Everytown’s site. (Credit: Everytown)

The heartbreaking attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day was an example of both types of shooting.

Duwe tells Science News, “There is little good research on what are probably a host of problems contributing to mass violence,” and he’s not alone in thinking so. Another researcher criminologist, James Alan Fox, has been trying for a decade to get crime researchers to pay closer attention to the motivations of these killers. Criminologists may ascribe the same motives to a mass murderer as they would to other murderers, or consider them simply so psychotic that study of them would be beyond criminology. And in the U.S., gun violence is such a politically charged topic that there’s been very little funding allocated for the study of it.

(Photo: Michele Eve Sandberg)

Absent widespread research on learning to identify potential shooters, individual experts have been trying to develop some helpful insights and predictors, and Rocque and Duwe compile some of the latest theories in their summary.

Possible risk factors

Mental illness

Obviously, it’s too simplistic and unhelpful to simply pronounce each shooter as mentally ill and then move on to the next tragedy. Most mentally ill people are non-violent. Researcher Louis Klarevas, in his book Rampage nation: Securing America from mass shootings, finds that while 80% of mass killers have some form of mental illness—with mental illness and anger as immediate factors—it’s more a "gateway” and not a trigger to action. Another analysis suggests that 60% of shooters have been diagnosed with mental issues. This is three times higher than the incidence of mental illness in the general population, so it’s concerning, but it also means that a substantial 40% of shooters have not previously been diagnosed as having mental issues.


Nearly every mass shooter in recent times, 99%, has been male and some suggest a challenge to masculinity is a recent contributing factor in the decision to kill. Sociologist Michael Kimmel posits that mass shootings may reflect the “culture of hegemonic masculinity [that] encourages the use of violence to avenge a perceived challenge to their masculine identity.” Intriguingly, most shootings occur in white rural areas where local culture encourages an unambiguously heterosexual form of masculinity.

Copycat contagion

Fame found.

In today’s attention-hungry American culture, it’s clear that becoming a shooter is a quick way to fame. Florida media coverage may also encourage potential shooters to become copycats, sometimes perhaps out of a feeling of identification with another shooter. Some experts have suggested that names of mass killers be withheld from media coverage so as not to risk glorifying them in the minds of dangerously like-minded individuals.

Deadly conditions

The trinity of violence

In his book Rampage nation: Securing America from mass shootings, Louis Klarevas cites a trinity of violence: three conditions that need to be in place for a shooter to commence an attack.

1. The availability of a weapon capable of killing many people in a short time
2. A motivated offender
3. A target or targets

Strain theory

This idea, described by Jack Levin and Eric Madfis in “Mass Murder at School and Cumulative Strain,” sees the individual experiencing increasing levels of strain until he snaps. It describes a series of events that may lead to an attack.

1. Long-term strain, from bullying, troubles with employment or family
2. Uncontrolled strain, when the subject has no access to other people who can help relieve the growing strain
3. A specific strain of some sort, a loss or setback, sparks the idea of a shooting
4. Planning
5. Attack

A (de)pressing problem

(Photo: Joe Raedle)

Mass shootings are on the minds of many of us on a daily basis, especially those of us who are parents with school-age children. In 2018, wishing a child a good day upon being sent off in the morning includes the implied “please don’t get killed.” For the kids, it’s a never-ceasing shadow of each day and their social interactions. Alongside common-sense gun-control regulations that protect children, a more aggressive and science- and data-driven assessment of what causes a shooter to shoot is beyond overdue.

Drill, Baby, Drill: What will we look for when we mine on Mars?

It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back

  • In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
  • Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
  • The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points

Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?

Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."

Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.

In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.

Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.

"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that it's unlikely that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."

Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.

Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)

In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.

Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.

What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.

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