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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"But if we want to prevent shootings, asking about motive will just get you a useless answer to the wrong question. "  (Jane Stevens)

In the case of mass-shooters' we could probably (again) characterize the now-classic question from the folks at "Sanctuary" as THE question:   "What happened to them?"  rather than "What's wrong with them?"

Last edited by Daun Kauffman

Thanks for this really perceptive article, Jane!  I’m glad to see that at least two newspapers are beginning to look into how and why a mass murderer got to become that.  It’s as though there’s been a Gentleman’s Agreement that we will not look into who raised this person, or didn’t.  The psychologist James Garbarino spent a decade interviewing murderers on Death Row and wrote an important book titled “Listening to Killers” that people might wish to sample on Amazon. Basically, he found that murderers are made at home. But, for many of us, that’s too disturbing a reality to consider.

Vincent J. Felitti, MD posted:

Thanks for this really perceptive article, Jane!  I’m glad to see that at least two newspapers are beginning to look into how and why a mass murderer got to become that.  It’s as though there’s been a Gentleman’s Agreement that we will not look into who raised this person, or didn’t.  The psychologist James Garbarino spent a decade interviewing murderers on Death Row and wrote an important book titled “Listening to Killers” that people might wish to sample on Amazon. Basically, he found that murderers are made at home. But, for many of us, that’s too disturbing a reality to consider.

Thanks, Jane for the enlightening article.

Dr. Felliti, you said it,

"there's been a Gentleman's Agreement that we will not look into who raised that person or didn't.'

It is really sad that the current political situation in the US has turned these shootings into a blame game, rather than focussing on the real issue of these horrendous acts. Unless we ensure every child grows up with adequate love, support, and connection these senseless acts will not stop, guns or no guns.

 

Jane, I appreciate this article more than I can explain. As a family member survivor of two mass murders and as a school nurse who has had students murdered, the link between ACEs and violence has been my focus. I know that early childhood adversity, as well as adverse community environments (Pair of ACEs - work of Dr. Wendy Ellis), are the keys to prevention. We need to research root cause to understand a path towards prevention, using a public health approach. Thank you Jane for all you do to educate, inform, question and move the understanding of ACEs forward. Your life's work is appreciated, needed and makes a difference in this upside down and inside out world.

While I greatly appreciate this perspective, I think that--to move forward in ways that do not perpetuate both interpersonal and structural violence--we need to discuss additionally how misogyny and racism interplay with the ACE's analysis you write about.  The use of violence, especially lethal violence, is not distributed equally across gender and race. Mass shootings are almost never committed by girls/women.  The majority of people perpetrating mass shootings in the US are white men.  It is not just that "hurt people hurt people"; it's that there is a toxic blend of interpersonal violence that is rooted in and driven by structural violence.  Our country takes white children who are raised to be less empathetic towards others not only because they were not treated in a nurturing way by their caregivers but also because many of the people 'caring' for them and the society 'caring for them' systematically dehumanize girls/women and /children/people of color and people from all identities that have been historically marginalized/oppressed.  Because racism and misogyny infect all of the systems and institutions, our country takes girls and children of color and exposes them to a tsunami of further harm and violence (pre-natally and onward)--often in the very systems that are supposed to help.

I will speak for myself--As a white person in a white supremacist society, I don't feel I am qualified to best articulate this or to understand how to behave in an anti-racist way. Yet, I do know that I must do a deeper exploration of white supremacy/white hegemony/how whiteness operates and how it and all forms of structural violence have infected my brain and behavior in order to be as healing a presence as possible.  I have a lot of questions for myself; I am on a journey to think about how I am perpetuating harm if I talk about ACE's without talking about how to be as anti-racist--and, even as a lesbian, as anti-misogynist as possible. Trauma is rooted in oppression. I just don't think we are going to truly achieve a society that is "understanding, nurturing and healing"  if we don't address structural violence --racism, misogyny and other forms of oppression--head on--every time we talk about ACEs.

I've been reading Hannah Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism" about the rise of nazism in Germany and some of the economic and social factors that created a generation of monsters; and some of the parallels with today are uncanny. Arendt had no knowledge of ACEs or the biochemical factors at play in trauma. I think there is a fascinating albeit terrifying connection between trauma and extreme ideologies."The Origins of Ideology" is a book that needs to be written.

Grayson Lookner posted:

I've been reading Hannah Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism" about the rise of nazism in Germany and some of the economic and social factors that created a generation of monsters; and some of the parallels with today are uncanny. Arendt had no knowledge of ACEs or the biochemical factors at play in trauma. I think there is a fascinating albeit terrifying connection between trauma and extreme ideologies."The Origins of Ideology" is a book that needs to be written.

It's important to realize that, the brain being essentially a neurochemical machine, anything that produces brain activity will produce biochemical changes there.  Typically, these are intermediate mechanisms, not basic causes.  This is important to keep in mind when trying to figure out WHY something is happening.  

An 81 year old woman on 24-hour a day oxygen for lung failure expressed this nicely.  Heavily molested as a child, she got significant relief from 3 pack a day smoking because of the anxiety-reducing effect of inhaled nicotine (apart from its significant long-term damage).  Moreover, the cloud of smoke now continually surrounding her helped keep people at a certain distance.  She married slender and at age 35 her husband convinced her to stop smoking for her health.  Suddenly she was flooded by male sexual attention that she had no experience with.  Profoundly anxious, she ate to reduce her anxiety. This helped and she gained from 130 pounds to 310, which really helped reduce sexual attention.  However, she also went into acute and chronic respiratory failure because the lung damage she could handle at 130, she could not handle at 310.  She went on 24-hour oxygen for 2 decades, when she entered our Obesity program.  We took her down from 310 to 150 and she no longer needed the oxygen.   Congratulating ourselves on this success before we really understood the complexity of the issues going on, she was again flooded with male sexual attention.  Badly frightened, she consciously decided to get back over 300 pounds and accept the fact she'd be on constant oxygen the rest of her life.  

I have a video interview with her where she makes the profound comment that, "It's important to understand that weighing 300 pounds and smoking 3 packs a day are not the problem.  They are the symptoms of the problem."  I often wished I Had met her and she had told me this fifty years ago; it would have made my professional life a lot easier.

Great Article, I hope that the police,justice departments and all caregivers of children read this. Everytime I see a mass shooting on the media,I wonder ",how many ACEs does that shooter have?" I am not a professional in this business of counseling others but in my life experiences including my own 6 ACEs and my position in life put me in a opportunistic situation to mentor at risk young men.I always figured that these shooters had a few ACEs up their sleeve and I see it all of the time as I work with this population of men. Most of the time they don't know that I am "working with them",but I am . I mostly work with young men with young children although I am not limited to that. My hope is to break that chain so that their children ,the next generation does not have or limits the ACEs that they get growing up. We are growing a generation of shooters and to stop them starts with the family.Somewhere between that cute little baby and that shooter was an innocent child who was acquiring ACEs .I love this website ,Thank you Jane Stevens you have identified and given a name to the root of my problem and have helped me to help others. Fred Fruehan

Vincent J. Felitti, MD posted:
Grayson Lookner posted:

I've been reading Hannah Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism" about the rise of nazism in Germany and some of the economic and social factors that created a generation of monsters; and some of the parallels with today are uncanny. Arendt had no knowledge of ACEs or the biochemical factors at play in trauma. I think there is a fascinating albeit terrifying connection between trauma and extreme ideologies."The Origins of Ideology" is a book that needs to be written.

It's important to realize that, the brain being essentially a neurochemical machine, anything that produces brain activity will produce biochemical changes there.  Typically, these are intermediate mechanisms, not basic causes.  This is important to keep in mind when trying to figure out WHY something is happening.  

An 81 year old woman on 24-hour a day oxygen for lung failure expressed this nicely.  Heavily molested as a child, she got significant relief from 3 pack a day smoking because of the anxiety-reducing effect of inhaled nicotine (apart from its significant long-term damage).  Moreover, the cloud of smoke now continually surrounding her helped keep people at a certain distance.  She married slender and at age 35 her husband convinced her to stop smoking for her health.  Suddenly she was flooded by male sexual attention that she had no experience with.  Profoundly anxious, she ate to reduce her anxiety. This helped and she gained from 130 pounds to 310, which really helped reduce sexual attention.  However, she also went into acute and chronic respiratory failure because the lung damage she could handle at 130, she could not handle at 310.  She went on 24-hour oxygen for 2 decades, when she entered our Obesity program.  We took her down from 310 to 150 and she no longer needed the oxygen.   Congratulating ourselves on this success before we really understood the complexity of the issues going on, she was again flooded with male sexual attention.  Badly frightened, she consciously decided to get back over 300 pounds and accept the fact she'd be on constant oxygen the rest of her life.  

I have a video interview with her where she makes the profound comment that, "It's important to understand that weighing 300 pounds and smoking 3 packs a day are not the problem.  They are the symptoms of the problem."  I often wished I Had met her and she had told me this fifty years ago; it would have made my professional life a lot easier.

.

 

Wow!  Just "wow"...

 

Daun Kauffman posted:
Vincent J. Felitti, MD posted:
Grayson Lookner posted:

I've been reading Hannah Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism" about the rise of nazism in Germany and some of the economic and social factors that created a generation of monsters; and some of the parallels with today are uncanny. Arendt had no knowledge of ACEs or the biochemical factors at play in trauma. I think there is a fascinating albeit terrifying connection between trauma and extreme ideologies."The Origins of Ideology" is a book that needs to be written.

It's important to realize that, the brain being essentially a neurochemical machine, anything that produces brain activity will produce biochemical changes there.  Typically, these are intermediate mechanisms, not basic causes.  This is important to keep in mind when trying to figure out WHY something is happening.  

An 81 year old woman on 24-hour a day oxygen for lung failure expressed this nicely.  Heavily molested as a child, she got significant relief from 3 pack a day smoking because of the anxiety-reducing effect of inhaled nicotine (apart from its significant long-term damage).  Moreover, the cloud of smoke now continually surrounding her helped keep people at a certain distance.  She married slender and at age 35 her husband convinced her to stop smoking for her health.  Suddenly she was flooded by male sexual attention that she had no experience with.  Profoundly anxious, she ate to reduce her anxiety. This helped and she gained from 130 pounds to 310, which really helped reduce sexual attention.  However, she also went into acute and chronic respiratory failure because the lung damage she could handle at 130, she could not handle at 310.  She went on 24-hour oxygen for 2 decades, when she entered our Obesity program.  We took her down from 310 to 150 and she no longer needed the oxygen.   Congratulating ourselves on this success before we really understood the complexity of the issues going on, she was again flooded with male sexual attention.  Badly frightened, she consciously decided to get back over 300 pounds and accept the fact she'd be on constant oxygen the rest of her life.  

I have a video interview with her where she makes the profound comment that, "It's important to understand that weighing 300 pounds and smoking 3 packs a day are not the problem.  They are the symptoms of the problem."  I often wished I Had met her and she had told me this fifty years ago; it would have made my professional life a lot easier.

.

 

Wow!  Just "wow"...

 

I appreciate this post very much.  I teach, mentor and work with facilitators to help clients find the unconscious, very positively intentioned reasoning behind the long-term behaviors people say they want to change. It is absolutely as you say in your article - the 'presenting issue' is most likely a symptom of a larger issue they've been trying to work out as best they could, with what they knew, ever since developing the coping mechanism that is now viewed as 'the issue.'   TO be clear, I don't usually work in weight loss; I am of the compassionate yet honest opinion that, until it is conscious to the person that the weight is a symptom of another issue, I am not the most helpful person for them to work with. But this article made me recall the layers of abuse and neglect a woman with weight issues had, and how readily we were found, deconstructed, understood them and relieved their emotional charge and triggers...but the excess weight stubbornly remained. The client was very happy with the former progress, not so much with the latter.  I finally asked her, after several sessions, 'what's your best guess about that?' and she immediately blurted, 'if I lost weight, then he'd be able to throw me around again.'  And that is another perfect illustration of what we're talking about. 

Thanks for sharing this.

1-3 thousand people are estimated to have been in the store at the time. Texas has a 1 to 5 ratio for carry permits. Where were the 200 - 600 possible weapons in the store at the time of the shooting? The myth of self protection should be labeled "Self carry because I fear everyone" Legislators need to look deep into why there is a need to carry weapons and are those people really mentally sound. There was one man that stood his ground throwing pop bottles at the shooter to distract him. He survived being shot twice.

This is an important blog.  Thank you.

I have a new book that may interest you on Science and Secrets of Ending Violent Crime – see more about the book and me at www.irvinwaller.org.  It  goes from risk factors for violent crime, including homicides, to solutions proven effective and cost-effective, ways for cities and governments to implement widely those solutions, and how to get buyin from politicians.

I agree that ACE´s provide important knowledge about risk factors linked to violent crime.  Longitudinal developmental studies reinforce similar risk factors for violent crime.  You mention some projects that have demonstrated how  tackling the risk factors can reduce violent crime. My book presents a much larger group drawing systematically on academic, governmental and public health sources. 

The real challenge is how to get these effective solutions used widely, which was the main objective of the book.  Unfortunately the US is not using the knowledge.  It is clear that the US in comparison per capita to other G7 countries has not only dramatically more mass killings (most of which are executed with semi automatic or automatic guns capable of killing multiple victims)  but also has dramatically more homicides (most of which are executed with illicit handguns).  The vast majority of homicides in a year in the US are the latter.  The US spends dramatically more on police and particularly incarceration than any other G7 country - evidence is clear that this is largely mispent - indeed one ACE is father incarcerated!

The book uses academic studies and government websites to identify and then explain in simple terms what has been proven to prevent violent crime before it happens.  These show a number of upstream actions that have dramatically reduced violent crime in both small clinical trials and a few large scale correlational studies. Despite this knowledge, the US uses none of these proven actions sufficiently to reduce state wide, city wide or national rates of violent crime – neither mass killings nor street homicides. 

The book looks at what different levels of government have attempted to reduce violent crime, including a number of cities that have de facto followed 7 essentials agreed internationally to be necessary to achieve dramatic reductions in violent crime and so been successful – some of these have sustained the success.

The book also looks at how to get political buyin, demonstrating the large cost benefit of tackling risk factors upstream, including parenting and so ACE´s.  It also shows that the upstream actions are affordable and more popular than politicians understand.  It identifies advocacy groups who can put pressure on politicians to act.

I'm not clear on how useful this analysis is independent of an explanation for why the violent response to ACEs is more prevalent among men than women. Tracing acts of mass violence to ACEs is only part of the story, and viewed by itself could be a detriment to efforts to counteract the perpetuation of gender-based social conditioning. Mass violence is not just an ACEs problem, it is a male problem.

The more I thought about this article the more frustrated I've become. The level of ACEs among white U.S. males is far fewer than any other population (particularly Black, Indigenous, Latinx, etc.), and yet white U.S. males are the most likely to perpetuate this type of violence. As Ms. Kimberg commented above, without embedding the study of ACEs into a larger framework of structural oppression, we are missing the mark. We need to NOT connect ACEs to mass violence, unless and until there is proportionate attention to paid to why it impacts populations so differently.

It is worth noting that blaming "broken homes" for mass shooters is a popular and much-debunked talking point, and analysis such as one this start to sound eerily similar. This is not advancing our understanding of the problem of mass shootings at all.

Last edited by Sophie Morse
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