The myth, misconception and misdirection of motive in mass shootings


Photo: Vernon Bryant, Dallas Morning News 

Almost the first thing you hear out of the mouths of police after a mass shooting is: “We’re looking for a motive.”

In Gilroy, CA, the FBI is investigating the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival as domestic terrorism. In El Paso, TX, police are describing the shooting as a possible hate crime and act of domestic terrorism, and focusing on the manifesto written by the shooter. Police in Dayton, OH, are still looking for a motive for why 24-year-old Connor Betts murdered nine people in 30 seconds.

But if we want to prevent shootings, asking about motive will just get you a useless answer to the wrong question. Police might feel as if they have an explanation for why 19-year-old Santino William Legan murdered three people, and why 21-year-old Patrick Crusius murdered 22 people. But motives don’t explain the roots of why those three young men, or any other mass shooters or bombers, foreign or domestic, start their journey as innocent babies and end up on a road to killing people. And in those roots, are our solutions.

If you use the lens of the science of adverse childhood experiences, the answer reveals itself, and usually pretty quickly.  

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, “We have studied every mass shooting since 1966. Here’s what we’ve learned about the shooters”, Jillian Peterson and James Delaney of The Violence Project wrote: “First, the vast majority of mass shooters in our study experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age. The nature of their exposure included parental suicide, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and/or severe bullying.”

Here's why that’s important….it’s all about that road from cute baby to distressed murderer. Childhood trauma can lead people to becoming killers, if there’s no intervention. It can also lead to people having heart attacks, cancer, arthritis, becoming alcoholic and suicidal. That was originally revealed in the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.

The ACE Study showed a remarkable link between 10 types of childhood trauma — such as witnessing a mother being hit, living with a family member who is addicted to alcohol or who is mentally ill, living with a parent who is emotionally abusive, experiencing divorce — and the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, being violent or a victim of violence, among many other consequences. The study found that two-thirds of the more than 17,000 participants, who were mostly white, had an ACE score of at least one, and 12 percent had an ACE score of four or more. (For more information, see ACEs Science 101and Got Your ACE Score?) Subsequent ACE questionnaires include experiencing bullying, the foster care system, losing a family member to deportation, racism, community violence and being a war refugee, among other traumatic experiences. ACEs are now divided into three types: adverse experiences in families, adverse community experiences, and adverse climate experiences.

The point is — and the science is irrefutable now — just as a bullet ripping through flesh and bone, if a kid experiences something that causes toxic stress, damage to the structure and function of the brain will occur. How, and if they heal, depends on a kid being given resilience from adult who is able to do so — parent, caregiver, teacher, coach, imam — as well as the health of the social and physical environment in which they live.

This is all part of ACEs science, which includes ACEs, the bad things that happen to you when you’re a kid; the toxic stress from ACEs that damage a kid’s brain; how that toxic stress affects their health and behavior; how toxic stress can be passed on from generation to generation through our genes; and, most important and relevant to how we prevent shootings, how the brain and body can heal.

Most pertinent here, is how toxic stress affects health and behavior. The data is startling: The more ACEs you have, the greater the risk for chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. People have an ACE score of 0 to 10. Each type of trauma counts as one, no matter how many times it occurs. You can think of an ACE score as a cholesterol score for childhood trauma. For example, people with an ACE score of 4 are twice as likely to be smokers and seven times more likely to be alcoholic. Having an ACE score of 4 increases the risk of emphysema or chronic bronchitis by nearly 400 percent, and attempted suicide by 1200 percent. People with high ACE scores are more likely to be violent, to have more marriages, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, more depression, and more autoimmune diseases. People with an ACE score of 6 or higher are at risk of their lifespan being shortened by 20 years. 

Kids experiencing trauma act out. They can’t focus. They can’t sit still. Or they withdraw. Fight, flight or freeze — that’s a normal and expected response to trauma. So they can’t learn. The schools that respond by suspending or expelling them just further traumatize them, and drive them into the prison system.

When they get older, they cope by drinking, overeating, doing drugs, smoking, as well as over-achieving or engaging in thrill sports. To them, these are solutions. They’re not problems. Nicotine reduces anxiety. Food soothes. Some drugs, such as meth, are anti-depressants. So telling someone how bad smoking is for them isn’t likely to make much of an impression if it relieves anxiety.

I’d bet that the shooters’ ACE scores were pretty high.

Although we can’t predict if a kid with ACEs will express their toxic stress outwardly in violence to others, or turn inward to do more harm to themselves, or, in some cases, do both, we know enough to intervene at every step of the way…and should. Warning signs will always show themselves, if we’re educated to see them. And if we address these signs, we have a better shot at preventing not just violence, but all other ways childhood adversity can affect us as adults if our systems integrate practices based on ACEs science.

And there are plenty of examples of how integrating ACEs science in organizations and systems is diverting kids affected by ACEs from lives of violence and disease:

  • An elementary school in San Diego stops suspending and expelling students. They don’t need to. And the kids’ grades, test scores and attendance climb. Teachers are happier and less stressed.
  • A health clinic in Pueblo, Colorado, sees a 30 percent drop in visits to the emergency room.
  • A juvenile diversion program in Philadelphia reduces arrests from 1600 to 500 in three years. In San Diego, during the first year of a juvenile detention facility that was built to be trauma-informed from the ground up, there were no violent incidents whatsoever.
  • Pediatricians say they have a better relationship with parents and their kids. They can address developmental problem, identify family violence earlier, and help heal families.
  • After one year, family courts that integrate the Safe Babies Courts approach see 99 percent of the kids suffer no further abuse.
  • A family physician in Tennessee who treats people addicted to opioids sees that 99 percent of his patients are able to hold down a job.
  • Within 24 to 48 hours after a person recovers from an opioid overdose in Plymouth County, MA, a police officer visits and offers to take them to a rehab facility right then and there. And then says, “How about I treat you to dinner on the way?” The result? A 26 percent drop in opioid overdoses, while other nearby counties see an 84 percent increase. 
  • A batterer intervention program in Bakersfield, CA, sees recidivism rates fall from 60 percent to six percent.
  • In Cowlitz County, Washington, youth suicide and suicide attempts drop 98 percent.

But back to the myth, misconception and misdirection of motive: If not motive, what should we focus on instead? How about a forensic analysis of ACEs and resilience factors in mass shooters’ childhoods? You can begin to envision this approach in the news articles that focus on “What do we know about the shooter?” Here are examples from the Los Angeles Times and the Ohio Dispatch.

What I’m talking about is taking this approach further by identifying every step along the way that a family, a school, a pediatrician, a coach, people in the faith-based community, police, foster care, juvenile detention, probation, youth organizations, etc., could have intervened to help that child and/or their family when it was clear the kid was troubled. (And troubled kids are often a symptom of a troubled family and/or a troubled community, which need help.) And after figuring out the solutions, embedding those new healing practices in all of those organizations.

I’m not advocating using this approach to blame families, organizations, systems or communities. I’m advocating doing this so that our organizations and systems can move from blame, shame and punishment in changing human behavior to what really works: understanding, nurturing and healing.

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