Pre-Incident Behavior of ACTIVE SHOOTERS

By Duncan, Stan | Law & Order, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Pre-Incident Behavior of ACTIVE SHOOTERS


Duncan, Stan, Law & Order


Mass murder is rarely an impulsive crime. The growing body of knowledge about the offenders indicates that they usually exhibit some common behaviors before they murder. To date, much of the research about the offenders has focused on what they were thinking, and little focus has been given to what they were doing. The media inevitably look for a single proximate cause, "a motive," as if one thought could explain a mass murder. While these cases are complex, there are specific behaviors that law enforcement officers can watch for.

Firearms

While the preparations for the mass murders are often attributed (at the time) to recreation, we do know that many of the killers train with their firearms. This training can be in a structured, disciplined environment such as a public gun range, or it can be in a secretive location with little or no attention given to skill or results.

Many of the killers were members of shooting clubs or practiced at public ranges. Before the Dunblane, Scotland, Massacre in 1996, Thomas Hamilton practiced at public ranges or shooting clubs. At one range, he seemed more interested in rapid firing, and he was warned that he fired too many rounds per target. Sadly, before the massacre, a police detective concerned about Hamilton's behavior around boys recommended that Hamilton's gun permits be revoked, but the detective was overruled by a supervisor who retired when the official investigation into the massacre was released.

In 2002, before killing 16 people at his prepatory school in Erfurt, Germany, Robert Steinhaeuser joined two shooting clubs. Like Hamilton, this would give him legal access to guns and ammunition. A similar pattern was shown by student Pekka-Eric Auvien in 2007 before he killed eight people at his school in Finland.

Postal worker Patrick Sherrill was a skilled shooter but a substandard employee. He killed 14 coworkers, wounded six and then killed himself at the Edmond, OK, post office. Sherrill did not need to train for his attack because he had been a handgun instructor in the Air National Guard. In contrast to Sherrill's skill as a shooter was college student Kimveer Gill, who shot 19 people at Canada's Dawson College. Fortunately, Gill only killed one of his victims before he killed himself.

Some killers prefer to train in remote areas often in an undisciplined manner. Klebold and Harris (1999) made movies of themselves shooting their guns at bowling pins and trees in remote wooded areas of Colorado. The younger killers are more likely to conceal their firearms possession because they are more likely to have committed crimes in procuring and possessing firearms. Because they are already committing crimes by mere possession, these killers are not going to risk getting arrested by trying to practice at a public gun range.

Some young killers did learn to shoot in structured, supervised settings. Thirteen-year-old Mitchell Johnson and 11year-old Andrew Golden killed five people and wounded 10 in 1998 during an attack at a school in Jonesboro, AR. Golden was given a gun at age 6 and later practiced at a gun club while Johnson was taught by his mother and by instructors during a formal three-week course.

It should be noted that some killers can have a long experience with firearms training starting in adolescence before they attack. Bryan Uyesugi killed eight coworkers in Honolulu in 1999, but he was on his high school rifle team 24 years earlier in 1975.

Similar to the Columbine case, 18-year-old Sulejman Talovic obtained some firearms illegally before his attack at the Trolley Square shopping mall in Salt Lake City in 2007. Like Talovic, 19-year-old Robert Hawkins obtained guns and ammunition illegally before he killed eight people and himself in 2007 at a shopping mall in Omaha, NE. Hawkins stole the rifle and ammunition he used from his former stepfather.

Many of the older mass murderers like Charles Whitman and Patrick Sherrill had military experience.

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