The Common Denominator in Mass Murders Isn’t Guns. It’s Psycho-Social Isolation and Hostility.

Posted on December 27, 2013


The question isn’t how to lock up all the guns.  The question is how to get people to come forward with their misgivings, and act on that.


After every Columbine, every Newtown, every Aurora or Virginia Tech, there is the outcry over guns.  Pundits and politicians debate limiting magazine capacity, or banning semiautomatic weapons… especially the scary-looking ones, even though they are no more deadly nor more favored by murderers than your average run-of-the-mill shotgun or pistol.  It is as if, in the aftermath of a well-publicized gun crime, people believe that if only we could get guns out of the public’s hands, then these things wouldn’t happen anymore.

They are wrong.  Guns are not the root problem, not a predictor, and not even necessary to wreak havoc.  The common denominator is a hostile, psychologically or socially isolated person, and the only thing necessary to wreak havoc is their will to do so.

Let’s head for Bath, Michigan, 1927.  A local farmer, Andrew Kehoe, was disgruntled over rising property taxes to pay for the new consolidated school.  On a fine May day, Kehoe destroyed his own farm and the school in massive explosions that he had planned for months.  As frantic parents and town officials rushed to the school, he drove his explosive-laden vehicle to the scene, where it detonated.  Some 45 people were killed in all, including 38 children.  It remains the deadliest school massacre in US history.

Kehoe, Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, the Boston bombers – all were US citizens who launched devastating attacks on the US public, and none of them used a gun to do it.  No, the common denominator was the fact that they saw themselves as outside the community, hostile to it, and offended in some way.  Kehoe was miserly and angry over taxes he thought were unfair.  McVeigh saw himself in opposition against a tyrannical US government.  The Unabomber viewed modern society as oppressively over-reliant on technology, and was physically and socially isolated in a rustic Montana cabin.  The Boston bombers were motivated by religious extremist views that set them apart, in their own minds, from the community at large.

The same common denominator is at work in mass shootings, too.  The Newtown killer was socially awkward and physically isolated in his mother’s home.  The Columbine killers had been bullied and were hostile toward their classmates.  The Navy Yard shooter, the Virginia Tech shooter, and the Aurora theater shooter were all delusional.  The Fort Hood shooter was a religious extremist who saw himself not  as part of the US, but as fighting against it.

When high-profile shootings occur, calling for a gun ban feels like we’re doing something, but it is ultimately ineffective, as the high-profile bombing cases demonstrate.  When deranged people like the Aurora shooter or the Virginia Tech shooter are the killers, we are right to call for better monitoring of the mentally ill, but that is also not a panacea; people like Kehoe or McVeigh or the Columbine killers weren’t delusional, they were simply very hostile to the community or country that they lived in.

Predicting mass violence by individuals isn’t easy or simple, but we can reduce the motivations to one common theme: hostility to the community in which these killers live.

Whether that hostility is the result of ideology, bullying, religious extremism, mental delusions or general disgruntlement, someone probably knows about it.  Kehoe had a long history of hostility with his neighbors, to include killing their animals.  Boston bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev had bragged to friends about knowing how to make a bomb, and family, friends and acquaintances were all well aware that his brother Tamerlan had undergone a dramatic shift to a radical and hostile version of Islam.  A psychiatrist actually feared that the Aurora theater shooter was homicidal and reported her fears to campus police a month before the attack.  And the FBI actually knew of Nidal Hasan’s contacts with Al-Qaeda sympathizers well before his mass shooting at Fort Hood.

Whether it is family, friends, neighbors, co-workers or the authorities, it seems that our biggest point of failure in preventing these crimes is the failure to share the information we have, and to act on it.  That is where our focus should be, not on band-aid measures like ineffective gun bans.