Professional gambler Stephen Paddock committed the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States. He killed 58 people (so far) and injured more than 500. Right after the carnage, his brother Eric said “an asteroid fell from the sky” because his brother gave no indications “at all” that he was on this pathway. The FBI and an army of Nevada law enforcement professionals immediately began searching for a “motive." Everyone wants to find reason and logic in this heinous, unimaginable crime. They want to explain why Paddock attacked 22,000 innocent country western music concert goers with automatic weapons from the 32nd floor of a hotel. So far, we only get to blame “bump stocks” and argue about the 2nd Amendment. Time will tell what else they discover but we already know enough to make some sense of the rage-filled actions of Paddock. The answer is connected to ACEs. Once we all understand ACEs, we won’t buy the lie that “an asteroid fell from the sky.”
The ACEs that helped turn Paddock into the greatest mass shooter in history, that took the lives of so many, and devastated families across this country, however, are not found in the cards he gambled with in Las Vegas.
The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study is the most significant research done in 30 years on the predictive nature of childhood trauma on adult illness, disease, criminality, and victimization. It has not been mentioned in any TV coverage or print news story in the hundreds of hours of coverage. The media and the investigators are not even discussing the ACEs of Paddock’s life.
Dr. Vincent Felitti and Dr. Robert Anda began the ACE Study more than 15 years ago as they studied 17,431 Kaiser Permanente patients in San Diego and identified correlations between the childhood trauma they had experienced and later health impacts, onset of diseases, and mental illnesses later in life. Other researchers have now studied ACEs in jail and prison populations, children growing up in abusive homes, victims and their children in Family Justice Centers and domestic violence shelters, teen criminals in Juvenile Justice facilities, and court-ordered child abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault offenders. They have also been studied in mass shooters, mass murderers, extremists, and men who strangle women in this country. What is the most significant finding from the ACEs research when it comes to criminality in America?
In America, we raise our criminals at home. In America, we raise our rage-filled, home-grown radicalized terrorists at home. In America, we raise our mass murderers at home.
Felitti and Anda developed a scale of 0-10 that gives one point to ten different kinds of trauma a child can suffer between birth and age 18. ACES include being abused physically or sexually as a child, experiencing verbal and emotional abuse, witnessing domestic violence, having a parent with a mental health issue, experiencing abandonment or neglect, having divorced parents, an incarcerated parent, or a parent with drug or alcohol issue. Thirty-six percent of the American public has an ACE score of zero. Sixty-four percent of the American public has an ACE score of 1 or greater. What has the ACEs research found? The higher your ACE score the greater the likelihood of profound health, behavior and economic impacts in adulthood.
Felitti and Anda and now many other researchers have correlated high ACE scores to dramatically higher rates of victimization, illness, disease, and criminality in people’s lives than those with an ACE score of zero. The higher an ACE score the greater the likelihood of adult violence. An ACE score of 4 or greater is correlated with everything from mental illness, to sociopathic and psychopathic behavior, to drug and alcohol abuse. What if we are missing what is already in plain sight from the carnage in Las Vegas? What if we are ignoring the actual genesis of a mass murderer by not talking about ACEs?
Fact: Most of the mass murderers/shooters, homegrown terrorists, prison inmates, rapists, and violent criminals in this country grew up in homes with some mix of child abuse, domestic violence, neglect, verbal and emotional abuse, and drug and/or alcohol abuse. The ACEs of childhood produce the rage and criminality of adulthood.
Based on what we know so far, without any intensive research yet on Paddock’s childhood, we know he was violently abused by his brother Bruce, abandoned by his psychopathic, mentally ill father at age 7, the product of divorced parents, regularly subjected to fear of violence and abuse in his home growing up, and the son of an incarcerated father. This gives Paddock an ACE score of at least 6 and dramatically increases the likelihood that he would grow up with unmitigated rage and chronic mental health issues. We don’t know the whole story yet, but he was at least verbally and emotionally, if not physically abusive, to the intimate partners in his life. My guess is we will find all kinds of other anti-social and abusive behavior toward others when the whole story is told. He lacked attachment to virtually anyone — no close friends have come forward from anywhere — and he was obsessed with possessing and firing military style weapons without any interest in hunting, target shooting, skeet shooting, or recreational gun use with friends or social acquaintances.
It is easy to say “Who cares? He was a killer and he made choices that other people don’t make even when bad things have happened to them.” True. When acts like this happen, no one has any sympathy for the killer and no one wants to hear someone was abused as a child. Fair enough. Many grow up with violence and abuse and abandonment in their lives and they don’t become infamous mass murderers. But virtually all the mass murderers have high ACE scores. Virtually all radicalized American terrorists have high ACE scores. What is the difference then? Those that don’t suffer the documented impacts of a high ACE score have many mitigating factors in their lives — mentors during childhood that help them set goals and then achieve those goals, caring friends and strong social support, healthy relationships with other children and then other adults, and mental health support as needed. As far as we know, Stephen Paddock had none of these mitigating forces in his life as a child or as an adult. It is not an excuse. It is not a complete explanation. It does not provide the “motive” we all want. But don’t buy the lie that an “asteroid fell from the sky.”
Casey Gwinn is the President of Alliance for HOPE International, the founder of Camp HOPE America (the first evidence-based camping program in America for children with High ACE Scores), and the author of a book about ACEs called Cheering for the Children: Creating Pathways to HOPE for Children Exposed to Trauma. He has 4 ACEs.