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Speculation about motive in mass shootings could encourage copycats, some psychiatrists suggest

Media speculation about motive in mass shootings rarely yields useful information and can potentially encourage other wannabe shooters, some forensic psychiatrists say.

Focus should instead be on risk factors that could identify a potential shooter and thwart a plot

Children sign a Canadian flag at an impromptu memorial in front of the RCMP detachment in Enfield, Nova Scotia, on Monday. It was the home detachment of slain RCMP Constable Heidi Stevenson, who was one of at least 22 people killed during Sunday's shooting rampage. (Tim Krochak/Getty Images)

In the aftermath of a horrific event like the Nova Scotia massacre, everyone searches for reasons. But experts say that's not really productive and won't help prevent another tragedy.

Media speculation about the motive in a mass shooting typically yields no useful information, is "rarely helpful to society" and can be potentially harmful by encouraging copycats some psychiatrists say.

"The risk by plastering motive all over the media, it gives would-be future shooters more of an opportunity to identify with past shooters," said Dr. James Knoll, director of forensic psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y. 

"It gives them more to identify with and maybe more encouragement."

Knoll said when someone who is troubled, unhappy and mulling committing such a violent act reads about another shooter's motives, they may think: "Yeah. I feel that way, too. That's exactly like me."

"How much lavish detail do we need to dissect in terms of motive in the media about these folks? And is it good for the public or not good for the public? I strongly suspect it's not," Knoll said.

WATCH | Clinton Ellison describes 'nightmare through hell' when his brother, Corrie, was killed in Nova Scotia massacre

'All I could hear was explosions from the fires and gunshots,' says Ellison. He ran, terrified, into the woods to save his own life. 9:15

The forensic research literature has found that a sizeable percentage of those who commit mass shootings have been studying, following and identifying with past shooters, he said,

"There is no doubt in our minds at this point this is being propagated like a sociocultural script." 

He understands the desire for people to understand the "why" after an act of violence like the weekend rampage by a lone gunman through rural Nova Scotia that left at least 22 people dead.

Motive important for research

And determining the motives of mass shooters is important for research purposes as well as law enforcement, legal and forensic reasons. It can help inform officials in determining the right types of public health and safety measures, Knoll said.

But those questions are best left to the professionals who can conduct what's called a psychological autopsy: a team of trained police behavioural analysts or profilers who will examine all the evidence, the crime scenes and any criminal records, and speak to all the shooters' social contacts to develop a clearer picture of how the shooting came to be. These autopsies, first established by the American Association of Suicidology, are also  conducted after suicides and murder-suicides.

"It's been my experience, unless you do a full-blown psychological autopsy, a lot of times it amounts to speculation. And I think there, you're sort of coming up with just a murky mist and confusion," said Knoll, co-author of a 2018 column in the Psychiatric Times titled .Beyond "Motives" in Mass Shootings.

In it, he and psychiatrist Dr. Ronald Pies express their frustration at the "obsession" media and investigators have with determining a mass murderer's motive.

'Rarely helpful to society'

"Obsessively seeking a shooter's motives merely out of curiosity or salacious interest is rarely helpful to society, particularly vis-a-vis mass shootings," Pies, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University, said in an email to CBC News.

"We must ask, 'How useful is that to society at large?' he said.

The Atlantic Denture Clinic is guarded by police in Dartmouth, N.S., on Monday. The business is owned by the suspected gunman in the weekend massacre. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

In the case of Nova Scotia, it's clear some degree of planning went into the shooting spree, based in part on the fact the shooter was dressed in an RCMP uniform, Pies said.

"But planning per se doesn't tell us much at all regarding motive, mental state, mental capacity, etc," he said.

Pies echoed Knoll in saying such speculation could be harmful because it can create an aura of mystery and intrigue surrounding mass shooters.

"Instead of a 'whodunit' mystery, the media create a 'whydunit' narrative that results in tremendous notoriety and attention for the [accused or alleged] shooter," he said.

"I believe this is a kind of catnip for very unstable, would-be or wannabe shooters, who, while waiting in the wings, then fantasize about one-upping or outdoing the previous shooter."

Knoll and Pies wrote that the pursuit to uncover motive rarely yields any information that might help reduce the likelihood of future mass shootings.

WATCH | Video shows gunman wearing uniform, changing clothes:

Surveillance video obtained by CBC News shows the suspect in the Nova Scotia shootings briefly pulling into a parking lot and changing clothes. 0:59

"The ritualized hunt for the shooter's motive is usually an exercise in fruitless speculation and wasted resources," they wrote.

As well, they said, most what is learned has been known for  years: that mass shooters are typically angry, aggrieved, emotionally unstable or socially isolated males seeking retribution or revenge for perceived mistreatment, rejection or humiliation.

Some motives so obscure

Dr. William Reid, a Texas-based forensic psychiatrist who interviewed and assessed Colorado theatre shooter James Holmes, said some motives may be so personalized and obscure that they make no sense to anybody else — and may not even make sense to the shooter except on that day.

"I've used the term 'a fool's errand' to try to figure out why did they do that." he said.

Holmes opened fire at the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colo., killing 12 people and injuring 70. Reid uncovered that Holmes had a specific delusional belief that every person has one point of value, what he called human capital, and if he were to kill another person, he would acquire that person's point.

 A motive like that would be impossible to predict, even with all the collective research on mass shooters. Knoll stresses the importance of moving beyond motive, and says more attention needs to be focused on risk factors that could identify a potential shooter.

"We've got a pretty good read on it from a 30,000-foot viewpoint about these things, and the motive. Now the question turns more toward prevention," he said.

The FBI report Knoll and Pies cite in their article found that the majority of perpetrators demonstrated at least four to five concerning behaviours that were observable to others. 

These signs include what's known as "leakage of violent intent" to others, making threats and acting aggressively.

"Some of the biggest evidence-based factors that we have now in terms of prevention have to do with third-party reporting of concern and the would-be perpetrators so-called leakage of intent," Knoll said.

Knoll and Pies cited one case in which a potential shooter was stopped thanks to alert students who reported the individual's threatening messages on social media to the proper authorities.

They said another study of thwarted mass homicide plots found that friends, family members and acquaintances of threateners — as well as the general public — all played an important role in discovering and preventing the plots.

"I believe that such vigilance on the part of the public is feasible, with sufficient will to do so," Pies said.

About the Author

Mark Gollom

Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

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