Inside the mind of a mass shooter

Expert identifies traits, reasons for violence

WASHINGTON - Sandy Hook, Orlando, Aurora, Las Vegas, and now Sutherland Springs, Texas. As we struggle to find answers and to come to terms with the reality of mass shootings, one of the key questions is, why?

What drives some people to carry out unthinkable attacks? And what do mass shooters tend to have in common?

Dr. Richard Cooter is a forensic psychologist at George Washington University. He specializes in mass shootings, and the mind of a killer. 

“You will have some people who are true psychopaths. That's relatively rare,” he said. “The majority of these folks, and they’re men, they have a grievance of some sort.  It may be real, it may be imagined.  But whatever it is, it is real to them.”

An FBI report released in 2014 looked at 160 active shootings and found gunmen almost always acted alone, were usually male, had a wide range of ages, and killed themselves about 40 percent of the time.

But what makes a person want to carry out such a horrific crime in the first place? Cooter says something makes them lose empathy and disconnect from their conscience. Often, he says they become overwhelmingly angry.  

“They tend to isolate from people and they just ruminate over this grievance and over a period of time they will come to a point they can’t stand it anymore," he said.

The Sandy Hook shooter was apparently mad at his mother. The Pulse nightclub shooter who pledged allegiance to ISIS was said to be “angry at the world,” Cooter said.

Cooter believes they may let the anger simmer, building until it makes them direct their rage at society.

Other shooters are what he would consider highly psychotic and unable to feel remorse.  He points to the shooter who opened fire in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Doctors testified he had a psychotic mental illness. The gunman who targeted Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords and others was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Cooter says there’s another factor. For the deeply disturbed, a mass shooting can offer instant fame and a way to make their lives seem to have meaning.  

“They become famous for a while. They’re usually not around to know it, but that’s the plan,” Cooter said. "There seem to be copycat sorts of things.”

Even so, Cooter says there are plenty of people who have deep anger or other hallmarks of a mass shooter, but it’s extremely rare to actually decide to kill scores of innocent people.

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