On Mass Shootings

Moving Beyond “Motives” in Mass Shootings

By James L. Knoll IV, MD , Ronald W. Pies, MD
January 14, 2019
As psychiatrists, our stock-in-trade is understanding our patients’ motives-and in general, understanding what makes people “tick.” So, it may seem surprising that when it comes to mass shootings, such as the horrific Thousand Oaks bar massacre, we feel frustrated by the media’s obsession with the shooter’s “motives.” The same goes for investigators of such attacks, who seem fixated on determining the shooter’s “motive.”
To be sure: after such tragedies, it’s simply human nature to ask, “Why did the shooter do it?” And even in the most heinous and difficult to fathom crimes, there is motive. The popular myth that the perpetrator of a mass shooting “just snapped” has been debunked.1 Furthermore, the determination of “motive” is often important in criminal law. Essentially, motive (from the Latin word motivum, meaning “moving cause”) is what moves a person to commit a certain act. In US criminal law, there is no requirement to prove motive to reach a verdict. However, motive may be shown by the prosecution in order to prove that a defendant had a plausible reason to commit the crime.
Technically, motive is distinct from intent, although the two are often intertwined. (Motive has been defined as “the reason that nudges the will and prods the mind to indulge the criminal intent.”2) Thus, a person who knowingly puts a loaded gun to someone’s temple and fires it clearly had the intent to kill or grievously wound the person, but may have done so for a number of motives (eg, revenge, jealousy, racial animus).3 Motive becomes critical in, for example, the prosecution of hate crimes and acts of terrorism.4
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Mass Shooters and the Psychopathology Spectrum

By Ronald W. Pies, MD
February 17, 2020
Are most individuals who carry out mass shootings “mentally ill”? Many in the general public-and some mental health professionals-continue to claim they are.1 This claim persists, despite findings to the contrary by forensic psychiatrists and several official investigations.2
It is clear that the disagreement has both empirical and conceptual components. On the one hand, we have empirical research looking at the prevalence of “serious mental illness” among those who have carried out mass shootings (usually defined as involving four or more victims). In general, the best available research finds very little clinical evidence that most mass shooters have suffered from serious mental illness-usually taken to mean schizophrenia and related psychotic disorders; bipolar disorder; or major depressive disorder.3 On the other hand, many in the general public and the media seem to view the concept of “mental illness” much more broadly than do most forensic psychiatrists or experts in violence assessment. The question often put to psychiatrists by those in the media is, “How can someone who randomly shoots ten or twenty people not be mentally ill? If that’s not mental illness, what is it?”4
The disagreement is not reducible to a naive “mistake” on the part of the media or the general public. That is, a satisfactory response to the question posed above cannot be a dismissive, “You simply don’t understand what mental illness is!” The problem is much more complex. It calls upon us to invoke Plato, whose reference (in the Phaedrus 265e) to “carving Nature at its joints” has fueled scientific controversies for 2500 years. What Plato was conveying in his “carving” metaphor is summarized by Matthew H. Slater and Andrea Borghini; specifically, Plato believed in “. . . the objective, independent reality of many different natural kinds of things. The members of such kinds would be the meat between the joints along which good theories cut.”5
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