On the morning of Aug. 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, a former Marine, stepped out on the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower and aimed his Remington bolt-action rifle at his first victims on the campus below. More than an hour after the shooting began, 15 people were dead and 31 injured. Among those was Claire Wilson, the first target, who was shot in the stomach. Wilson, who was eight months pregnant at the time, lost her unborn child and spent several months recovering in the hospital.
The massacre at the University of Texas at Austin wasn’t the first mass shooting in modern U.S. history. But at the time, it was the deadliest, and marked a turning point in public awareness of mass shootings and shooters in the era of mass media.
On the night of Oct. 1, 2017, businessman Stephen Paddock smashed the windows of his 32nd-floor suite in the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and fired his semiautomatic rifle on thousands of people attending an outdoors country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip. Fifty-eight people were killed and 887 were injured after a massacre that took only 10 minutes.
Despite a few similarities in Whitman’s and Paddock’s personal backgrounds and modus operandi, the men were as different as night and day.
Whitman was a former altar boy and Eagle Scout in a difficult but devoted marriage. Paddock had no religious or political affiliations, and had married and divorced twice.
But their attacks helped frame a new database of mass shooters that hopes to inform future research and policy decisions about how to effectively prevent and respond to mass shootings.
Jillian Peterson, Ph.D., and James Densley, Ph.D., built the groundbreaking database on mass shooters.
Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota, told VOA the idea for the database came about after he and Peterson grew increasingly frustrated with television analyses in the aftermath of mass shootings that offered the simplified theory that the violence was caused either by guns or mental illness. The researchers advocated for more data-driven conversations about the phenomenon.
About the data
All shooters have either been charged, convicted, or killed at the scene.
Densley and Peterson, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University in St. Paul, began initial data collection in 2017, prior to the mass shootings in Las Vegas. Following that massacre, they, along with undergraduate volunteers, spent two years collecting more than 100 pieces of information on each of 171 mass shooters, resulting in The Violence Project Database of Mass Shootings in the United States, 1966-2019.
VOA’s report is based upon that research.
The database, the most comprehensive to date, is available at The Violence Project, defined on its website as a nonpartisan think tank dedicated to reducing violence in society and improving related policy and practice through research and analysis.
Mass Shooters (1966 – 2019)
Since 1966, there have been 167 mass shootings in the United States, defined by the Congressional Research Service as “a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered with firearms — not including the offender(s) — within one event, and at least some of the murders occurred in a public location or locations in close geographical proximity (e.g., a workplace, school, restaurant, or other public settings), and the murders are not attributable to any other underlying criminal activity or commonplace circumstance (armed robbery, criminal competition, insurance fraud, argument, or romantic triangle).”
Put in perspective, mass shootings are statistically rare, accounting for fewer than 1% of all firearm homicides in the United States. But they are occurring regularly in a growing number of venues, leaving a trail of mass destruction that emotionally outweighs their numbers.
According to The Violence Project, nearly all mass shooters have four things in common:
- Early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age
- An identifiable grievance or crisis point
- Have studied the actions of past shooters and seek validation for their methods and motives
- The means to carry out an attack
Where mass shooters killed
The past decade has seen an increase in mass shootings in a variety of settings. This troubling trend has prompted a debate among proprietors, school administrators and religious leaders about the need to balance openness and inclusiveness with physical security measures.
Current or former workplaces of perpetrators were the most common sites for mass shootings. Most of the shooters had been fired. Densley said a prevention strategy for businesses could include ways for managers to intervene with employees before a tragedy occurs.
Almost all of mass shooters at restaurants, bars and retail establishments were strangers to those businesses, while perpetrators in workplaces, houses of worship, and schools and colleges tended to be current or former students and insiders known to the victims.
A one-size-fits-all profile of a mass shooter is nonexistent.
Mass shooters have several profiles, unique to where a shooting occurred.
In houses of worship, the perpetrator most often was a white male in his 40s motivated by domestic issues or hate. He had a criminal record and a history of violence, and used handguns or assault rifles he legally owned.
In schools K-12, the mass shooter was a suicidal white male student of the school with a history of trauma. He leaked his premeditated plan before the shooting, and most often used multiple guns stolen from a family member.
By contrast, the typical shooter at a college or university was a suicidal, non-white male student of the institution with a history of childhood trauma. He used handguns legally obtained, and left a video or manifesto detailing his intent.
Of the 171 mass shooters studied, only three were women. In one case, the woman acted in partnership with a man.
While the difference in numbers between female and male mass shooters is stark, it was represented in all U.S. homicides in which 80% to 90% of offenders in a given year were men.
There are few statistics on female perpetrators of homicide, but those that are available help to explain why women tend not to commit mass shootings.
According to a U.S. Justice Department report that looked at U.S. homicide trends from 1980 to 2008, women who committed murder almost always killed someone they know, and 58% of the time, they killed a significant other or immediate family member, compared to only 18% for male killers. Women committed just 6% of all murders with multiple victims.
Thirty-nine percent of mass shooters experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age. This includes at least one of the following: physical or sexual abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence in the household, having a parent who committed suicide or being the victim of bullying.
Multiple studies, including one published in the Journal of American Medical Association in 2018 found a link between childhood trauma and social, mental and physical problems in adults. Those who have experienced trauma as children were more likely to face a host of difficulties as adults, including having violent relationships, becoming dependent on drugs or alcohol, having a psychiatric disorder and becoming depressed or suicidal.
Research also shows that the more incidents of trauma a child experiences, the greater the possibility for mental or physical problems to arise in adulthood.
Two-thirds of mass shooters had a history of mental health concerns, which is higher than the 50% of people in the general population who will satisfy criteria for a mental illness at some point in their lives.
Twenty-three percent had a mood disorder, which includes depression or bipolar disorder. This number was also consistent with lifetime prevalence rates among the general population.
Twenty-six percent had a thought disorder, which includes schizophrenia and psychosis, and was significantly higher than the general population.
Twenty-one percent of mass shooters were on psychiatric medication.
The commonality of mental illness between mass shooters is striking, leading some people, including President Donald Trump, to argue that mental illness should be targeted as the main cause of mass shootings.
Densley urged caution in drawing such conclusions.
Signs of crisis
Before they carried out their crimes, more than 80% of mass shooters were in crisis, described by The Violence Project as a marked change in behavior that is noticeable to others. Such behavior includes exaggerated emotional responses, an increased interest in violence and signs of hopelessness.
Densley said in many cases, several people had concerns about a mass shooter’s behavior, but those pieces of information were often not connected.
“You have a school teacher that notices something. You have a friend that notices something, a family member, a law enforcement member. But if those individuals are not talking to each other, that information will never get passed on, and no one will ever know,” he said.
Sixty-eight percent of mass shooters were suicidal either before or at the time of the shooting.
Densley said a shooter’s anger is channeled inward and outward.
“Outward is where the homicide comes into play, because they are angry at a certain group of people or they are wanting to put on a show as their last act. But there is also a lot of inward hatred and frustration and confusion, and that is where the suicide comes into play,” he said.
Fifteen percent of mass shooters were immigrants. But immigrant shooters were more frequent on college and university campuses, where 5% of mass shootings took place.
The Virginia Tech mass shooting in 2007, so far the third-deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, was carried out by a Korean American immigrant suffering from severe depression.
Densely noted possible underlying grievances and motivations in carrying out such a crime at one’s own school.
“It may well be that non-white immigrants feel very disconnected from university life. They may be suffering from racism or exclusion, may feel alienated. And these, we know, are risk factors for these types of shootings. Beyond it is just the race,” he said.
‘Unusual, irrational thoughts’
Charles Whitman, 25, was an ex-engineering student at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert sharpshooter from his tour in the U.S. Marines. The UT Tower — at one time the tallest building in Austin — offered him a strategic vantage point.
“A person could stand off an army from atop of it before they got him,” he once remarked to a college friend.
Whitman was the eldest of three sons born to an abusive, domineering father and a God-fearing Catholic mother, whom Whitman adored. Hours before the massacre, he stabbed her in the heart and confessed to the murder in a handwritten note.
“To Whom It May Concern: I have just taken my mother’s life. I am very upset over having done it. However, I feel that if there is a heaven she is definitely there now. And if there is no life after, I have relieved her of her suffering here on Earth.”
Two hours later, for reasons Whitman admitted he couldn’t “rationally pinpoint,” he killed his wife.
“She has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have,” he confessed in a note he left next to her body. … “I don’t know whether it is selfishness, or if I don’t want her to have to face the embarrassment my actions would surely cause her.”
The shootings at UT ended with Whitman’s death, not by the army he envisioned, but by two of three police officers who stormed the tower. Fifty-seven percent of mass shooters die at the scene.
In the suicide note he wrote the day before the shootings, Whitman offered a glimpse of his state of mind.
“I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. … I talked to a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt come (sic) overwhelming violent impulses. … After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder. I have had some tremendous headaches in the past and have consumed two large bottles of Excedrin in the past three months.”
An autopsy conducted the day after the shootings revealed an aggressive, malignant tumor the size of a pecan on Whitman’s brain. The pathologist who performed the initial examination determined the mass had no bearing on the killings.
But a subsequent autopsy ordered by a state task force found the link between the tumor and Whitman’s actions could “not be established with clarity.”
Whatever motive Stephen Paddock had to kill and injure hundreds of concertgoers in Las Vegas, he took it to his grave.
The 64-year-old loner did not leave a suicide note, video or manifesto, as 23% of mass shooters do. He killed himself with a gunshot in the mouth as police, security guards and a SWAT team charged into his room. Thirty-eight percent of mass shooters die by their own hand.
Paddock was the eldest of four sons. His father, self-described as a “third-time loser,” was a cunning thief, con man and fugitive who spent eight years on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. Paddock’s mother was a secretary.
In high school, Paddock was considered a “brainy” student. He graduated college with a degree in business administration.
He was a licensed pilot, savvy real estate investor and a high-stakes gambler, spending more time playing video poker in casinos than in the houses he owned, one of which he paid for in cash. Before the Las Vegas shootings, a minor traffic citation was his only known run-in with the law.
The last known communications Paddock had with his family was a text message to his brother Eric inquiring about their 90-year-old mother in Orlando. Hurricane Irma had ripped through her neighborhood, knocking out the power. Paddock followed up with a phone call to her. Two weeks later, he was dead.
Though Paddock was reported to have suffered with bouts of depression linked to financial losses, toxicology reports and a complete autopsy showed anti-anxiety medication in his system, evidence of hypertensive cardiovascular disease, and no indication of dementia. None of the findings solved the mystery of his motive.
In its final report after a nearly 16-month investigation, the FBI concluded that Paddock’s attack was premeditated, that he had acted alone, and was “influenced by the memory of his father” to “attain a certain degree of infamy.”
“Throughout his life, Paddock went to great lengths to keep his thoughts private, and that extended to his final thinking about this mass murder,” the report said.
Comparing the shooter data
Determining why people became mass shooters required a new set of research and data that went beyond basic trends, descriptors and demographics, and broad definitions of what constitutes a mass shooting.
To compile the database for The Violence Project, Peterson and Densley narrowed the definition and broadened the focus on mass shootings and shooters. Where past studies relied on data collected in five-year intervals or only in high-profile cases, their research covered a 53-year span, closely examining variables including age, race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, education, relationship status, number of children, employment type and status, military service and branch, criminal, violence and abuse history, gang and terrorist affiliation, bullying, home environment and trauma.
What emerged were fleshed-out profiles and motivations of individual shooters, whose crimes can potentially influence current and future policy and prevention.
How mass shooters got their guns
Almost half of all mass shooters acquired at least some of their guns legally through a licensed dealer, unregulated private sale or other legal means.
Charles Whitman and Stephen Paddock amassed their arsenals legally. For his rampage, Whitman, a firearms enthusiast, had seven weapons and 700 rounds of ammunition, including three rifles and a sawed-off shotgun. His purchases were made at a hardware store, a gun shop and at Sears.
Paddock had 23 weapons in his Mandalay Bay suite and nearly 1,400 rounds of ammunition. At least 12 of his guns were equipped with bump stocks, which enabled him to shoot more people in minutes than Whitman had in an hour.
Types of guns used
Handguns are present in over three-fourths of all mass shootings.
Records show Paddock made purchases in Nevada, California, Texas and Utah. A month before the shootings, he bought tracer ammunition — designed to illuminate a bullet’s trajectory — from a private seller at a gun show in Phoenix.
Densley, the researcher, questions whether legally purchased weapons used in some mass shootings should have been allowed, despite laws that permit access. He points to cracks in the background check process.
“We’ve got some individuals who had histories of violence, histories of domestic violence, who somehow got around the background check,” he explained. “We also had examples where the background check process kind of failed. For whatever reason, the data wasn’t inputted into the FBI’s database, and so, it was never flagged. … There are still a lot of gray areas, things that we need to be looking at.”
Comparison rates of mass shootings committed in the United States and in other countries are difficult to determine because the definition of mass shootings, as well as how homicide data is collected, varies from country to country.
An exception is deaths by firearms.
The United States had the 28th highest rate of deaths from gun violence, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evolution, which tracks deaths in every country by all possible causes. Gun violence killed four people per 100,000 in the United States in 2017, greater than most other industrialized countries.
The lowest rates of gun deaths were in Asia. Singapore, Japan and Indonesia reported 2-4 violent gun deaths per 10 million. Several European countries, including Britain and Iceland, were not far behind with 6-7 violent gun deaths per 10 million.
Countries where death by gun violence was worse than the United States included those in Central America and the Caribbean. El Salvador had 43 violent gun deaths per 100,000, according to the data. (VOA)