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Can science tell us who will become a mass shooter?

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From Bruce Bower at Science News:

A dearth of research means the science of rampage shootings simply doesn’t exist…

Nor does any published evidence support claims that being a bully or a victim of bullying, or watching violent video games and movies, leads to mass public shootings, Winegard contends. Bullying affects a disturbingly high proportion of youngsters and has been linked to later anxiety and depression (SN: 5/30/15, p. 12) but not to later violence. In laboratory studies, youngsters who play violent computer games or watch violent videos generally don’t become more aggressive or violent in experimental situations. Investigators have found that some school shooters, including the Newtown perpetrator, preferred playing nonviolent video games, Winegard says.

Still, a small but tragic group of kids lead lives that somehow turn them into killers of classmates or random strangers (SN: 5/27/06, p. 328). If some precise mix of, say, early brain damage, social ineptitude, paranoia and fury over life’s unfair twists cooks up mass killers, scientists don’t know the toxic recipe. And it won’t be easy to come up with one given the small number of mass public shooters to study. More.

The main problem here is precisely as noted by Bower: “the small number of mass public shooters to study,” who live scattered over large regions. For example, suppose three out of sample of ten shooters are one of a set of identical twins, or left-handed, or adopted. A great deal of socially useless or harmful nonsense could be generated on those subjects because they are already subjects of research interest. But in the larger sample that we are thankful not to have, that bias would likely be engulfed.

A couple of other thoughts: Many parts of the world are more violent than, say, North America or Western Europe. Mass shooters are considered a huge public problem in Canada. But elsewhere, in the midst of a civil war or ethnic cleansing they might not even stand out. We don’t know because we have no generalized sample of the human race.

Also, in a disturbing number of cases, the shooter turns out to have been a known public danger but authorities did nothing and/or law enforcement was badly bungled.

Law enforcement personnel are much more numerous than mass shooters and typically have a more normal psychological profile. Why not then invest more research money in studying 1) remedies for the problem that nothing is done about a clear and present danger and 2) why so many interventions go so wrong? – O’Leary for News

See also: Was Anders Breivik not insane?

22 Replies to “Can science tell us who will become a mass shooter?

  1. 1
    Bob O'H says:

    Research on this topic is restricted in the US because the CDC hasn’t been able to spend any money on it in the last 20 years, thanks to the Dickey Amendment.

  2. 2
    Barry Arrington says:


    The Dickey Amendment does no such thing. The law states that the government cannot use tax dollars to promote the gun control political agenda. There is absolutely nothing in the law that would prohibit the research described in the OP.

    I am not surprised by your ignorance. One thing you can say about the Left, they never let mere facts get in the way of a narrative.

  3. 3
    Barry Arrington says:

    From the OP
    “Also, in a disturbing number of cases, the shooter turns out to have been a known public danger”

    Prior to Columbine, the police had actually drafted an affidavit for a search warrant for Eric Harris’ house. They never followed through on it, and the rest is history.

  4. 4
    Allan Keith says:


    Mass shooters are considered a huge public problem in Canada.

    This is the first that I have heard of this. Any mass shooting is a problem. But to call the low numbers seen in Canada a huge public problem is a huge exaggeration.

    The only benefit I can see in examining mass shooters is to see if there are some signs that are common amongst them. If properly applied, this information can be used to identify people who fit this profile and make sure that they get the help that they need. Sadly, my fear is that it would not be properly applied, and would be used to violate or limit their freedoms.

  5. 5
    News says:

    Allan Keith at 4, you must have read what I wrote too hastily.

    Mass shootings are rare enough in Canada that any instances seem like a huge public problem, if media coverage is any guide. The Montreal Massacre (December 6, 1989) provides some sense of that:

    As noted above, it might make more sense to examine more closely the much larger database around why people who are in fact threatening to kill others are not followed up by the very people whose job is to do so.

    And why, if something happens, people whose job is to address the problem at the scene often fail to do even the obvious things.

    With a large database, it is simply much easier to identify common and predictable factors. One might end up with a better success rate in terms of lives saved.

  6. 6
    Bob O'H says:

    Barry @ 2 – whatever the wording, the effect of the Dickey amendment has been to prevent the CDC from researching gun control (I guess because a scientific conclusion such as “increased gun control will reduce gun-related deaths” would be seen as advocacy). Dickey himself has said he regrets the amendment.

  7. 7
    News says:

    Is this the Dickey amendment?:

    12 For FY1997-FY2012, Congress has included a provision in the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor,
    and Education appropriations that has prohibited that agency from spending any appropriated funding to “advocate or promote gun control.” This rider is known as the “Dickey amendment,” for the Member, Representative Jay Dickey, who attempted to redirect $2.6 million away from a CDC firearms injury program during committee markup of the FY1997 Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education Appropriations bill (H.R. 3755).

    Although the Dickey amendment was rebuffed (6-8), the committee chairman, Representative Robert L. Livingston,
    inserted into the reported bill the following limitation on the CDC salaries and expenses appropriation language:
    “That none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” Report language noted further:

    The bill [H.R. 3755] contains a limitation to prohibit the National Center for Injury Prevention and
    Control at the Centers for Disease for Disease Control from engaging in any activities to advocate
    or promote gun control. The CDC may need to collect data on the incidence of gun related violence, but the Committee does not believe that it is the role of the CDC to advocate or promote policies to advance gun control initiatives, or to discourage responsible private gun ownership. The Committee expects research in this area to be objective and grants to be awarded through an
    impartial peer review process. (H.Rept. 104-659, p. 49.)
    This limitation was first enacted as part of the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act, 1997 (P.L. 104-208;
    September 30, 1996; 110 Stat. 3009, 3009-244). For FY2012, Congress expanded this limitation so that it applies to all HHS funding in addition CDC in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012 (P.L. 112-74; November 18, 2012; 125 Stat. 786, 1086 (Section 218), 1110 (Subsection501(c)). The Administration’s plan maintains that research on the causes of gun violence does not constitute “advocacy,” and such research would not be in violation of the Dickey amendment. Similar provisions were included in the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013 (P.L. 113-6), the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014 (P.L. 113-76), and the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015 (P.L. 113-235).

    My OP concerns public safety issues created by *failure to enforce existing legislation* and *failure to protect the public in times of emergency.*

    How does the Dickey amendment prevent getting a handle on that?

  8. 8
    john_a_designer says:

    Where in the U.S. does Bob live? From his user name I’m guessing its Ohio. Is that correct?

    What does he do for a living? Is he a lawyer?

    I just wanted to make sure that Bob knows what he is talking about.

  9. 9
    Barry Arrington says:


    I guess because a scientific conclusion such as “increased gun control will reduce gun-related deaths” would be seen as advocacy.

    No, that would be seen as using tax dollars to push a leftist political agenda and not science. Bob, surely you will agree with Thomas Jefferson:

    “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical”

    Or maybe you are in favor of forcing me to pay taxes to propagate your political opinions. I would not be surprised if you were.

  10. 10
    cornu says:

    I guess because a scientific conclusion such as “increased gun control will reduce gun-related deaths” would be seen as advocacy.

    No, that would be seen as using tax dollars to push a leftist political agenda and not science.

    H’uh? Do you think it’s impossible for scientific research to conclude that gun control will reduce gun deaths? Surely, even in the US, whether gun control measures work is an empirical question and not a political opinion.

    That being the case, Limiting research that might generate politically inconvenient results sounds like political correctness run amok…

  11. 11
    john_a_designer says:

    Bob seems to be implying the CDC can’t study gun violence. But how then can he explain this private study which is based on CDC data? (It covers part of the period during which the Dickey amendment was in effect.)

    “According to data retrieved from the Centers for Disease Control, there were 7 firearm-related homicides for every 100,000 Americans in 1993 (see light blue line in chart). By 2013 (most recent year available), the gun homicide rate had fallen by nearly 50% to only 3.6 homicides per 100,000 population.”

    At the same time, “the number of privately owned firearms in US increased from about 185 million in 1993 to 357 million in 2013. Adjusted for the US population, the number of guns per American increased from 0.93 per person in 1993 to 1.45 in 2013…

    In other words, there was a “56% increase in the number of guns per person that occurred during the same period when gun violence decreased by 49%…”

    Notice the correlation: it’s an inverse one. Of course, correlation is not causation, nevertheless this is raw data from a U.S. government source which does not support the emotion based arguments of the gun control advocates.

    Of course, as an American citizen and taxpayer I don’t think the CDC is the best agency to be studying gun violence. I don’t the CDC is going to give us much insight into mass shootings. IMO NIHM would be an agency that would be far better suited to study psychiatry and psychology of a mass shooter.

    PS the CDC statistics are backed up by FBI statistics which is also in a much better position to track gun violence. Who knows? Maybe the CDC was using FBI statistics.

  12. 12
    Seversky says:

    Excerpts from the Wikipedia entry on Dickey Amendment

    In United States politics, the Dickey Amendment is a provision first inserted as a rider into the 1996 federal government omnibus spending bill which mandated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”[1] In the same spending bill, Congress earmarked $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget, the exact amount that had previously been allocated to the agency for firearms research the previous year, for traumatic brain injury-related research.[2]

    The amendment was introduced after lobbying by the National Rifle Association in response to their perceived bias in a 1993 study by Arthur Kellermann that found that guns in the home were associated with an increased risk of homicide in the home, as well as other CDC funded studies and efforts.[2][4] Mark L. Rosenberg, the former director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, has described this amendment as “a shot fired across the bow” at CDC researchers who wanted to research gun violence.[5] In a 2012 op-ed, Dickey and Rosenberg argued that the CDC should be able to research gun violence,[6] and Dickey has since said that he regrets his role in stopping the CDC from researching gun violence,[7] saying he simply didn’t want to “let any of those dollars go to gun control advocacy.”[

    On March 21, 2018, Congressional negotiators reached a deal on an Omnibus continuing resolution. The 1.3 trillion dollar spending agreement also includes language that codified Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar interpretation of the Dickey Rider in testimony on February 18, 2018, before the US House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee.[14] While the amendment itself remains, the language in a report accompanying the Omnibus spending bill clarifies that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can, in fact, conduct research into gun violence.[15] It was signed into legislation by U.S. President Donald J. Trump on March 23, 2018. [16]

  13. 13
    Seversky says:

    If you reject any kind of gun control does that mean that you should be able to purchase a belt-fed GPMG firing the standard 7.62 NATO round? How about a Browning M2 .50 cal mounted on the bed of a pickup or an RPG-7 or the GAU-8 Gatling-style cannon mounted on the A-10 ground attack aircraft which fires 30 mm depleted uranium armor-piercing shells. Is there anywhere you would draw the line or do you believe the Founding fathers intended private citizens should be able to arm themselves with anything up to tactical nukes?

  14. 14
    Bob O'H says:

    Barry @ 9 –


    I guess because a scientific conclusion such as “increased gun control will reduce gun-related deaths” would be seen as advocacy.

    No, that would be seen as using tax dollars to push a leftist political agenda and not science.

    THere you go. You’ve just equated scientific studies with advocacy of a political position. Now can you see why the Dickey amendment stopped research into the effectiveness of gun control?

  15. 15
    Bob O'H says:

    JAD @ 11 – the private study wasn’t paid for by the CDC was it? Read the Dickey amendment.

    As for the study, why do homicides level off after about 2000 if gun ownership still increases? Could in be that correlation is not causation?

  16. 16
    News says:

    This is the type of story I am referring to in my first suggestion: “remedies for the problem that nothing is done about a clear and present danger”

    The Air Force says it failed to follow policies for alerting federal law enforcement about Devin P. Kelley’s violent past, enabling the former service member, who killed at least 26 churchgoers Sunday in Sutherland Springs, Tex., to obtain firearms before the shooting rampage.

    Kelley should have been barred from purchasing firearms and body armor because of his domestic violence conviction in 2014 while serving at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. He was sentenced to a year in prison and kicked out of the military with a bad conduct discharge following two counts of domestic abuse against his wife and a child, according to Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek.

    The US Air Force probably has way more bureaucrats than airmen and I don’t know how new, stricter laws would remedy a situation where people fail to follow older, less strict ones.

    Something about that does not sound right. I would put research money into this problem, not into stuff like why weirdoes are crazy.

    Look, the “why weirdoes are crazy” line legitimately appeals to some researchers but the problems usually turn out to be intractable – relative to problems caused by administrative failure.

  17. 17
    ET says:

    Wow- so there isn’t any other agency or scientist that is able to do gun control research? Really? It has to be the CDC? Really?

  18. 18
    john_a_designer says:

    Unless you can find some kind of link between some kind of disease and gun violence, I don’t see that the CDC has much of a role.

    On the other hand, the NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) I think should be pursuing research into gun violence.

    [T]here has been an unprecedented national conversation about what role mental illness plays in gun violence. In communities and legislatures, the debates have focused on finding the right balance on several complex issues: gun control versus gun rights, commitment laws versus protecting the rights of people with serious mental illness, and public safety versus personal freedom…

    If this seems like a stretch, consider two inconvenient truths. First, while most violence has no relationship to mental illness, we must accept that some people with serious mental illness who are not treated can be violent, most often against themselves but also against others. Denial of a link between untreated serious mental illness and violence against self or others serves neither those with mental illness nor our larger society. Recognizing the link reminds us of the importance of early treatment for protecting people with illness, their families, and their communities.

    The nonsense about the CDC and the Dickey amendment honestly is nothing more than a left wing political talking point, which like most of the left’s talking points is a lot of passion devoid of any rationality, grounding in reality or truth. Furthermore, it’s disingenuous. The gun control activists on the left have already made up their minds. They’re not really interested in doing more scientific studies. As I pointed out above @ 11, according to CDC statistics covering the period from 1993 ton 2011, there was a “56% increase in the number of guns per person that occurred during the same period when gun violence decreased by 49%…” And what is the response for the left? It’s, “so what.”

    Of course, I guess they could have been more irrational. They could be demanding that NASA look into gun violence. I guess they’re not that fanatical or stupid.

  19. 19
    john_a_designer says:

    I live in a small Ohio City, with a population less than 100,000, in a very rural county. According to the statistics I have been able to find on-line, between 2003 and 2016 there have been zero homicides per 100,000 not just gun related homicides any kind of homicide in my community. Indeed in the time I have lived here I have only heard of two murders anywhere nearby. Neither involved a firearm.

    By contrast the murder rate in Chicago, for the same time period has averaged about 18 per 100,000.

    According to the Chicago Tribune 3/26/18 in the last 365 day there were 588 homicides that were the result of gun violence. “The majority of the victims of homicide in Chicago are young, black men.”

    Where I live there are very unrestrictive gun laws. By contrast, in Chicago the gun laws are very restrictive.

    Does anyone have a hypothesis why there is such a dramatic difference in the homicide rate? Remember we are comparing a population size of 100,000. Does gun ownership have anything to do with it or are there other factors? If there are what are they?

    To do science you have to start out with a hypothesis. So what is your hypothesis?

  20. 20

    JAD @ 19: You are describing two vastly different cultural environments. One is saturated with Hip Hop lyrics and attitude, the other is not.

    There are, of course, more factors to consider, such as drug abuse, poverty, poor educational systems, and absent fathers, but Hip Hop culture is the gasoline that keeps the fires raging. It has devastated many poor black communities… including Chicago. It is the very opposite of uplifting music. It is a destroyer of communities.

  21. 21
    cornu says:

    JAD, among-population differences in mortality confounded by economic, environmental and historical factors? Sounds like a job for epidemiologists. Which US govt. research centre specialises in that field?

  22. 22
    john_a_designer says:

    Yeah, maybe a virus is the root cause of violent behavior which because of a genetic predisposition, like sickle cell anemia, affects certain races more that others. But if that is possible maybe the viruses came from space as Fred Hoyle and N. C. Wickramasinghe suggested in their 1980 book, Diseases From Space.

    A customer reviewer on Amazon gives us the gist of their hypothesis.

    ”In the first chapter, the authors argue that “we shall be presenting arguments and facts which support the idea that the viruses and bacteria responsible for the infectious diseases of plants and animals arrive at the Earth from space. Furthermore, we shall argue that apart from their harmful effect, these same viruses and bacteria have been responsible in the past for the origin and evolution of life on the Earth. In our view, all aspects of the basic biochemistry of life come from outside the Earth…”

    Another reviewer comments,

    ”Following the 2014 Rosetta mission and the unmanned lander’s detection of organic molecules on the surface of the comet, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe’s hypothesis, once considered wild, now seems ahead of it’s time.”

    If that could be true maybe we ought to have NASA look into it.

    Yeah it’s possible like angels and unicorns are possible. But we don’t have government agencies scientifically studying angels or unicorn. Why? Because we have no scientific evidence for them.

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