Politics & Policy

What Motivates Mass Murderers

We refuse to confront murderers’ motivations, and make high body counts more likely.

Why did a deranged man choose to kill 20 innocent young children in Newtown, Conn.? Immediately after the killing, some speculated that he was jealous of the Sandy Hook students because his mother spent time volunteering at the school.

However, new evidence shows the real motive was likely different: He wanted to try to kill more people than the current mass-shooting record holder, the 2011 Norwegian mass shooter.

Police have apparently discovered articles in the killer’s bedroom leading to this conclusion. USA Today writes that the school was picked “because it was the easiest target for an alleged attempt to outdo Norwegian mass murderer who killed 77 people in July 2011.” Likewise, the Hartford Courant reports that the Connecticut shooter “saw himself as being in competition with” the Norwegian killer.

Is this a believable motive? Unfortunately, it is. Indeed, the goal of a high body count is nothing new at all. Many mass killers are clearly vying for fame, and not just any shooting will do. They know very well that the more people they kill, the more the world will hear about their deeds. The Newtown killer presumably picked this target also because the horror of killing small children would further add to the media attention.

These killers might well be mentally ill, but many of them are also calculating and highly logical. Though many plan to die in the attacks (75 percent of mass shootings end with the shooter’s death), they typically feel unappreciated and want to be remembered by others. They use mass killing to force people to notice their existence.

A perfect example is the Virginia Tech killer, who compared himself to the Columbine killers. He hoped that if he could massacre more people than they had, he could achieve even more media coverage.

All the discussion about the shooter only shows future mass killers that they can expect to be lavished with similar attention. I have been arguing for almost 15 years that, in order to cut down on future killing sprees, the media should stop giving these killers the attention that they crave, especially by mentioning their names.

Some countries, including Canada, put legal embargoes on information about pending criminal cases. Only after trials have occurred may the news media go into the case’s details. The main reason is to protect the jury from bias, but it also limits the notoriety the killers can accrue. That said, even Canada has no restrictions on coverage if the killer himself dies at the scene.

But this is the United States, home to the First Amendment. No one seriously discusses a gag order on the press, even if it would be a very effective way of curtailing these attacks. A free press serves as an important check on government power, and allowing the government to determine when certain topics are too sensitive for the press puts us on a slippery slope. (It’s worth noting, however, that when it comes to guns, the press has no problem touting such “reasonable” regulations.)

Mass killers choose their targets carefully so they can achieve the greatest carnage. Obviously schoolchildren make an easy target, but they aren’t the only example of this phenomenon.

Mass shootings occur in places where people of all ages are defenseless, such as so-called gun-free zones in which lots of people congregate and guns are banned. Since at least 1950, all but two of the public shootings in America with more than three deaths have taken place where guns were banned.

Take the Aurora shooting last summer. Within 20 minutes of the murderer’s apartment there were seven movie theaters premiering the Batman movie. The shooter didn’t go to the one that was closest to his apartment. And he didn’t choose the one with the largest audience. Instead, he went to the only one where guns were banned.

We should be trying to deprive these killers of what they crave: attention and easy targets. Instead, we ignore measures that might keep them from getting attention and pass laws that give them defenseless victims.

John R. Lott Jr. is a former chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission and the author of the just released book At the Brink: Will Obama Push Us Over the Edge?

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