Here's Why You Shouldn't Jump To Conclusions About Mass Shooters' Motivations

People said Jared Lee Loughner was motivated by politics. Reporting proved them wrong.

Just over half a decade ago, Jared Lee Loughner opened fire on then-Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) and a group of constituents she was meeting near a Tucson Safeway in Arizona. He killed six people and injured 13 more.

Shooting a politician is often a political act. And people on both sides of America’s ever-widening political divide were quick to allege that Loughner’s politics were opposite of their own.

On Wednesday morning, a man police have identified as James T. Hodgkinson opened fire on Republican lawmakers practicing for the annual congressional charity baseball game. And people are making the same sort of unsourced claims others made about Loughner. “I do know that America is divided,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said Wednesday morning. “Violence is appearing in the streets. And it’s coming from the left.”

Here’s another example (there are plenty more on Twitter):

The alleged gunman may very well turn out to have had a political motivation. Two Republican congressman have said that a man they say matched his description asked them before the shooting whether Republicans or Democrats were practicing on the field. But we don’t know for sure enough yet.

In these moments, like many others in journalism, it really helps to pump the brakes. Often, the shooter’s motivations are far from clear. Take Loughner. At Mother Jones, the liberal political magazine where I worked in 2011, we were more careful. Instead of jumping to conclusions, we reported out the story ― and found that Loughner’s politics were unclear at best. The Monday after the shooting, we published an exclusive interview with Bryce Tierney, a close friend of Loughner who may have been the last person to exchange messages with him before the shooting.

Loughner, Tierney said, had become obsessed with “lucid dreaming.” This is the idea that conscious dreams are an alternative reality that a person can “inhabit and control” and became “more interested in this world than our reality.” Loughner’s grudge against Giffords, Tierney said, originated not in any policy dispute but rather in her failure to correctly answer a question he claimed to have posed to her at a town hall: “What is government if words have no meaning?”

“It wasn’t like he was in a certain party or went to rallies … It’s not like he’d go on political rants,” Tierney added.

It was the first in a series of stories that changed the narrative about the Giffords shooting. “What the cacophony of facts do suggest is that Mr. Loughner is struggling with a profound mental illness (most likely paranoid schizophrenia, many psychiatrists say),” The New York Times would report a week after Mother Jones published the Tierney interview. Loughner was later formally diagnosed with exactly that condition. He wasn’t a political activist of any stripe. He was just another mentally disturbed person with a gun.

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