Many mass shooters are seeking out validation and notoriety for their murderous crimes, according to researchers studying the history of mass shootings for the Justice Department.
Perpetrators are inspired by other mass shooters and study previous shootings, so much so that the crimes can become “socially contagious,” Jillian Peterson and James Densely wrote Sunday in an essay in the Los Angeles Times.
The researchers have been analyzing the life histories of mass shooters in the U.S. for two years for a project funded by the National Institute of Justice, which is the Justice Department’s research arm.
An anti-immigrant manifesto authorities believe may be linked to the suspected shooter in the El Paso attack that killed 22 people specifically cites another written declaration by the shooter in the deadly attack on two mosques earlier this year in New Zealand. The latter online message appeared to praise President Donald Trump as a “symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” The New York Times reported Sunday that the language in the manifesto linked to the suspected El Paso suspect in turn “echoes Trump’s language” regarding a “Hispanic invasion.”
Many mass shooters are “radicalized” online communities in “their search for validation from others that their will to murder is justified,” according to the researchers, who have been studying over 150 mass shooters in crimes dating back to 1966.
Mass shooters often have experienced some kind of childhood trauma — and have reached a crisis point in their lives before a mass shooting, according to Peterson and Densley.
In addition, all the shooters were able to successfully organize what they needed for their crimes — including access to weapons and a chosen site.
The researchers found that in 80% of school shootings, the perpetrator obtained the weapons from family members. Workplace shooters tended to use handguns they obtained legally, while others were “more likely to acquire them illegally,” the researchers found.
To prevent mass shootings in the future, Peterson and Densely recommend making locations safer and making gun access more difficult. “Weapons need to be better controlled, through age restrictions, permit-to-purchase licensing, universal background checks, safe storage and red-flag laws” — which restrict firearm access for people in crisis, note the researchers.
Social media and media outlets should not glamorize the crimes — and everyone around a potential mass shooter should be sensitive to any danger signs that the individual is about to take destructive action, they added.
Knowledge gleaned from patterns of the behavior of mass killers can be used to “drive effective prevention strategies,” the authors conclude.
This story was updated after the death toll in El Paso increased Monday.