A Lingering Question From The Navy Yard

Sep 18, 2013
Originally published on September 18, 2013 1:59 pm

In the aftershocks of a mass shooting event — like the one that occurred Monday at the Navy Yard in Washington in which 12 victims and the gunman were killed — an inevitable question recurs: Does it make any difference to society's response — calls for more guns, calls for fewer guns, mental health arguments — if the gunman survives the event?

On The Spot

In a research essay, Mass Shooters in the USA, 1966–2010: Differences Between Attackers Who Live and Die, published in Justice Quarterly in June, criminology professor Adam Lankford of the University of Alabama looked at the life or death results of 185 rampage-style mass shootings. He found that whereas only 4 percent of murderers commit suicide, those who kill large numbers of people were far more likely to die at the scene of the crime — some 48 percent of mass gunmen either committed suicide or were killed by police on the spot.

In his research, Lankford explored the reasons for this behavior. But his findings also underscored that many mass shooters do not go to jail; they die. Subsequently they are are never given a psychological evaluation or questioned about motives or modus operandi following the attack.

'Not Insightful'

What about the ones who do go to jail, however? Have we learned anything from them about preventing future horrors?

Not much, says James Alan Fox, a criminal justice blogger and co-author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. "Although we often hear about a desire to study mass murderers with an eye toward prevention, there is little that we actually can learn from them. They're not talking, or if talking, not insightful."

In fact, Fox says, "there is little that helps us predict and prevent rare events like these."

Unintended Consequences

Joseph D. McNamara, a former chief of police in San Diego and a Hoover Institution research fellow, says he takes a "maverick view" of the situation. McNamara is glad there is not a lot of research on mass shooters who survive "because it would inevitably lead to all kinds of proposed, well-meaning solutions that have unintended consequences."

For example, he says, "years ago, behavioral scientists influenced public policy so that many violent criminals' records are private. Disclosure of someone's criminal history is actually a crime in many states, including California."

The intent of the secrecy, McNamara says, was benign: If someone's criminal record is made public it might interfere with rehabilitation. Such a conclusion, he says, "sounds logical but there isn't any conclusive research proving it. And after all, shame could just as well be a motivator that influences an offender to reform, along with the knowledge that people will be watching him a bit more because of his record."

The unintended consequence, McNamara says, is that people are afraid of getting in trouble by telling the truth about information that would alert potential victims. "I'm all for rehabilitation and have for many years denounced our terrible criminal justice system," he says. "On the other hand — unlike the defense lawyers and judges — I've seen firsthand during 35 years in policing the anguish of victims. Evidence does exist that crime prevention can work if the public is educated to danger."

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