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The misdirection of motive


When the next shooting happens at a school, an office building, or a movie theater, the question will again be asked: "What made him snap?" But mass murder is not an impulsive crime. Virtually every one of these attacks, forensic investigations show, is a predatory crime, methodically planned and executed. Therein lies the promise of threat assessment: The weeks, months, or even years when a would-be killer is escalating toward violence are a window of opportunity in which he can be detected and thwarted.


In Inside the Race to Stop the Next Mass Shooter, the article in Mother Jones Magazine from which the quote above was taken, Mark Follman describes the work of the FBI and Los Angeles Police Department's threat assessment teams, which combine law enforcement and mental health professionals to identify people who are likely to commit extreme acts of violence. They prevent that violence by intervening and assisting them in accessing mental health services.


Since last Thursday's shooting in Oregon, in which Chris Harper Mercer shot nine people to death and then killed himself, I've been pondering how motive doesn't help us understand or prevent crimes. It can be useful for determining who committed a crime, but using motive as an explanation for mass shootings leaves us spinning our wheels in place, like a battery-powered toy car continually bumping against a wall. 


These threat assessment teams show that law enforcement is on the right trajectory; it's encouraging that they're using science and data to help people from committing crimes, and help them in the process. But it definitely requires a completely different mindset, Follman points out. He describes an agent who led the FBI threat assessment team as saying: "Our goal is prevention over prosecution. If we can facilitate caretaking for individuals who are not able to perceive alternatives to violence, then I think that's a righteous mission for us."


The article continues to describe the Columbine effect -- the number of mass shooters who used the murder of 12 students and one teacher by fellow students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999 as inspiration, and then examines what the reasons are for the increase in mass shootings. It ends with speculating that one of the reasons might be social media. 


In the article, there's no mention of the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), or the related science that makes up what Donna Jackson Nakazawa, author of Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology and How You Can Heal, calls the "Theory of Everything". This includes the epidemiology of childhood adversity, the neurobiology of toxic stress, the long-term biomedical and epigenetic consequences of toxic stress, and resilience research. 


For those of us who have studied this unified science of human development, we know that the seeds of many mass shootings are, more than likely, planted in a child -- anytime from in utero through the teenage years -- as a result of some combination of living in a dysfunctional family, a dangerous neighborhood, experiencing abusive systems (zero-tolerance in schools, severe abuse in prisons), and/or war-torn country.


They have nothing to do with "manifestos", such as some writing that Mercer left behind that said he was frustrated because he had no girlfriend.  


Neuroscience shows that the effects of toxic stress on children’s developing brains can result in damage to brain structure and function. 


What this looks like on the outside is that when a child experiences trauma, the thinking part of their brain is knocked offline, and their survival brain is put in charge. No amount of reasoning will soothe survival brain.


Children who experience trauma and don’t develop attachments to caregivers act out, can’t focus, can’t sit still, withdraw, or dissociate. When they get older, they cope by drinking, overeating, doing drugs, having inappropriate sex, smoking, fighting, stealing, etc. What’s really important to understand is that to them, these are coping mechanisms. They are solutions. They work very well for a short time. Nicotine reduces anxiety. Food soothes. Drugs can be anti-depressants. People who use them don’t regard them as problems. So telling someone how bad smoking is for him or her isn’t likely to make much of an impression.


The consequences are all over the map. There's the homeless guy who grew up in a household where he was severely beaten and neglected, and the family moved frequently, giving him little opportunity to form a caring relationship with any adult. His choice of coping was breaking into houses and stealing things -- it gave him an adrenaline fix that temporarily blocked out his misery. It wasn't until he was caught and convicted and sent to prison, where he was savagely raped, that he turned to drugs for complete escape and continued a slide into living on the streets. Women tend to turn their anger inward, so that their bodies attack themselves, resulting in autoimmune diseases. Men tend to turn their anger outwards, and for a very few, the consequences of the volatile mix of extreme anger, no intervention to help them, and not only easy access to guns, but encouragement to use guns to vent anger result in consequences all over the map above, which Mother Jones published with Follman's article.


Just as in the case of Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who fatally shot 20 children and six adults and then himself at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, in December 2012, we will no doubt discover many steps along the way for the education, social service, law enforcement, healthcare, faith-based and/or business sectors of the community to have intervened and helped Mercer and his family. But with no intervention, easy access to guns and encouragement to use guns won out.


What's encouraging is that the gaps among what the threat assessment teams are doing and how schools, juvenile justice, courts, social services and healthcare, business and faith-based community are beginning to implement ACE-, trauma-informed and resilience-building practices are narrowing. And it's clear that all sectors of a community have to change to help the vast number of people who harmed by ACEs. 


Guns are the last step of a long journey into frustration, despair and anger that results in a person killing people and the shooter killing himself or being killed by police. The steps along the way where people intervene and help people who are hurting to keep them from hurting others or themselves is increasing. That's a good thing. 


I'd love your input.  


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Yep, the media need to become trauma-informed, too, Peter! As a journalist, I can tell you it's not an easy journey, but very necessary.

Thanks for cross-posting this on your FB page.

Cheers, Jane


I have post parts/total of this on my  FB and it's tough to get feed back. I use it on gun control post.  Patrick Kennedy stated while he was in Congress trying to pass Mental Health Parity Law his difficulty for support. After his rehab was exposed because of a car accident on Capital Hill, other Congressman came to him with their stories of mental health issues in their families. But they would not vote for his bill because of the fear of the media's evidence dogs being released to investigate their personal lives. 

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