6 Factors That Motivate Random Mass Murders

5 min read

On October 27, 2023, in the city of Linden, Maine, a gunman walked into the Simmerhorn Bar and Grill and began shooting at the recreating patrons. He exited the lounge turned killing field and, in a refrain of his murderous behavior, inflicted a second carnage at a local bowling alley. By the end of that Friday night, 18 people lay dead and 13 seriously injured.

It was the deadliest mass shooting of 2023, a year that has witnessed 565 such massacres as of this writing. That’s almost two such calamities per day.

The killer, Robert Carr, was later found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Invariably, the question is asked, “Why would someone perpetrate such an act of wanton evil upon strangers?” It appears so irrational that it defies an explanation. But there’s an elemental human impulse that yearns to understand what prompted such savagery.

Carr was an army reservist with reported mental problems. He had been detained in September, one month before the killings, for making threats and possibly being paranoid at an Army Reservist base in Maine. Though released, local law-enforcement authorities were notified of his possible risk to the community. Attempts to interview him were to no avail.

Was it a mental illness and paranoia that drove him to violence? Paranoid individuals with serious mental disorders are potentially dangerous. Still, the vast majority of individuals with mental illness are not psychotic. Was Carr’s easy access to a semi-automatic rifle a prime factor that allowed him to perpetrate his deadly spree? It’s not clear statistically, as the great majority of gun owners of all types of weaponry are law-obeying and not violent. Are angry, loner individuals the ones committing mass violence? Again, the vast majority of lonely and even bitter individuals do not commit mass executions. So, how do we comprehend random mass murder?

It helps to bifurcate mass shootings into those victims who were targeted and profiled for, say, their race, religion, or sexual orientation, and those who were chosen at random. For instance, a targeted disaster occurred on August 26, 2023, when a white man walked into a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, Florida, and shot to death three African-Americans. They were clearly profiled by race.

Another scenario involves a situation in which multiple victims were “collateral damage” of a violent spasm by someone out to kill a specific individual and, in the process, lost his mind and shot everyone in proximity. This happened on October 6, 2023, when a husband walked into a biker bar in Orange County, California, with a plan to kill his estranged wife. He shot her but also killed three others before police arrived and killed him.

The targeted killing of profiled groups is heinous and immoral, and deaths by way of collateral victimization are unspeakably tragic. What is so chilling about acts of random mass murder is our awareness of our vulnerability to arbitrary raw violence. It could occur at any given time, whether one is shopping, having a drink with friends, or recreating at a bowling alley.

About 40 percent of mass murderers don’t target their victims. The scientific literature has identified a number of psychosocial factors that drive indiscriminate mass killings. Here’s a summary of the findings:

  1. The majority of random mass murderers are white men, middle-aged or younger.
  2. They have histories of mental health problems. Though frequently described as paranoid, they are not usually psychotic. Their suspiciousness is better described as a deep cynicism that manifests in a chronic distrust of people and social institutions in general, a form of epistemic distrust. It’s not self-referential, like a psychotically paranoid individual who believes a nefarious plot is being hatched against him by a person or group of people. The mass murderer’s deep skepticism is towards social systems (federal government, corporations, e.g.) and all who thrive or appear to function successfully in them.
  3. Chronic cynicism and brooding distrust are why mass murderers tend to be loners. A self-fulfilling process takes hold, whereby the distrust and brooding conduct leads to further social marginization and interpersonal isolation, and ultimately self-alienation.
  4. Ninety percent of future mass murderers had prior contact with the law. Sometimes, because of their inappropriate conduct, they come to the attention of mental health professionals. An angry incident at an army reserve center led to Carr’s psychiatric evaluation in September of 2023, a month before the killings.
  5. The revenge motive is another animating force behind random mass murder. Chronic and pervasive distrust of others, together with a cynical perspective and feelings of having been repeatedly disrespected and marginalized, produces a gaping and unbridled rage that seeks retribution. This kind of primal emotional upheaval has the potential to be directed at anyone, anytime.
  6. They typically have a history of difficulty maintaining employment, and are frequently out of work at the time of the killings.

So, how do we identify the individuals before a tragedy occurs? They have histories of mental problems and conflicts with the law, and therefore, a record that identifies them. They are highly likely to be white males. They tend to be unemployed.

The greater challenge is to link these external measures with a subjective and primary metric, the potential murderer’s state of mind. It’s that simmering, cynical, and alienated self-state that’s on the verge of eruption that is pathognomonic: It’s this mental state in which reside the seeds of wantonly indiscriminate killings.

A possible solution is careful and therapeutic intervention when a likely candidate is identified. Carr was evaluated a month before the carnage in Linden, Maine. As the laws currently stand, if he denied suicidal or homicidal thinking and had the wherewithal to shelter himself, he was just given a recommendation to “see somebody.” These interventions are usually brief, and likely reinforce a sense of social alienation. Are we ready to invest more resources in crisis intervention services and in longer-term mental health services?

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