For the family of Sean Copeland, 51, and his son Brodie, 11, from Austin, Texas, the tragedy of their deaths, as they died along with at least 82 other people, in a Bastille Day massacre at the hands of Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Tunisian man driving a truck, is every bit as devasting as the recent deaths by shooting of the children at Robb Elementary School in the town of Uvalde Texas on Tuesday May 24th 2022. Yet, the method of murder in both instances was completely different.
Unexpected and criminal death by any cause is shocking and devastating for the families and friends of the victims and the community at large.
This latest incident, as with all others has been swiftly condemned by political leaders and the anti-firearm lobby calling for increased firearm laws, and in some cases for the private possession of firearms to be banned. The reason that this hackneyed refrain has never taken hold is that legislating firearms out of existence will not succeed. There are common sense and compelling reasons as to why licensed firearms are an intrinsic part of society.
Even were the possession of licensed firearms banned, there would always be unlicensed firearms for sale from and to criminals, and failing possession of a firearm, the person determined to murder may choose from an alternate selection of tools and methods for murder.
Is it time to look at the root causes and motivation of people that indiscriminately murder others rather than focus on the tool that facilitated their particular brand of violence? How could communities work together to perhaps detect and to an extent predict the violent and deranged behaviour of those amongst us who pursue a deadly agenda? 19 young lives at the Robb Elementary School and a number of other mass shootings could perhaps have been spared if peers and friends had shared clear warning signs with the authorities.
According to a 2011 report addressing homicide trends in the US from 1980 to 2009, published by the US Department of Justice the two largest concentrations of homicide offenders are in the age group 18-34. Of these, 37.5% of offenders are between the ages of 18-24 and 28% in the age group 25-34. Does this suggest a possible clue in the tracking and prediction of mass murder by persons with sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies? Certainly a two-thirds majority spread over 16 years suggests that further research in this context would be useful.
I don’t pretend to possess anything better than an average understanding of people, (if that) and I don’t suggest (although there is a set of common demographics) that mass murderers can be put into neat categories so that we can predict who will murder. Mass murder events like the Bastille Day massacre, motivated by a fundamentalist ideology and expressed in terrorism, will be more challenging to predict and prevent because the murderer who piloted the truck was likely supported by a group, some of whom would at least have had a broad idea of what he was planning. The support group, sharing, as they would, a common bond would be unlikely to ‘give-up’ their comrade as he planned his mission. The lone perpetrator, as in the case of Ramos in contrast, may plan and execute his mission alone, although frequently there may be warning signs, including threats and statements ahead of the event.
I am suggesting that in many (perhaps more than 50%) of cases, the murderer is recognised by family, peers and other persons as displaying anti-social behaviour or tendencies. As far as the notion that mass murderers suffer from a serious mental illness, (SMI), a joint study by New York State Psychiatric Institute and the Irving Medical centre at Columbia University found that only 11 percent of mass murderers and only 8 percent of mass shooters had an SMI for example, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder.
Survey co-author psychiatrist Paul S. Appelbaum argued that the data from the joint study indicated that persons who displayed “difficulty coping with life events” may (rather than an emphasis on serious mental illness) be a more rewarding focus area for the early detection of anti-social behaviour and concurrently the prevention of mass shootings.
This is underscored by the theory of psychiatrist Ronald W. Pies who has suggested that psychopathology should be understood as a three-gradation continuum of mental, behavioural and emotional disturbance with most mass shooters falling into a middle category of “persistent emotional disturbance.”
US media reports quote people who knew Salvador Ramos said he “liked to joke around”. The New York Times spoke to his colleagues at work who said he “went out of the way to keep to himself” and that nobody really knew him.
According to the New York Times, two parents who said they were friends of the murderer’s family described him as serious and said he had a temper. One remembered he often talked back to his mother in his younger years. The state police said Ramos shot and critically wounded his grandmother at her house, the address the gunman listed on his driver’s license, before heading to the school.
The Washington Post quoted his friends and relatives describing him as a lonely 18-year-old who was bullied over a childhood speech impediment, suffered from a fraught home life and lashed out violently against peers and strangers recently and over the years. Classmates interviewed after the incident said that Ramos reportedly dropped out of school after repeated bullying, apparently missing long periods of high school.
The Washington Post, quoting one of his friends, wrote, “About a year ago, Ramos posted on social media images of rifles that ‘he would have on his wish list’. Four or five days before the shooting, he posted images of two rifles he referred to as ‘my gun pics'”. Several reports claim Ramos had a disturbed home life with frequent quarrels with his mother, who is allegedly a drug user. Similarly, after other mass shootings perpetrated by teenagers or young adults, especially in a school, work or commercial environment there have been reports of behaviour that could have been recognised as warning signs.
An additional and pervasive influence on young people – even those with a seemingly balanced school and family life, is the proliferation of violent and anti-social video games. Youngsters spend days in a month engrossed in first-person roles in games that involve killing others.
The video games have become very sophisticated and realistic with many of the games connecting to the internet, allowing children and adolescents to play games and have discussions with unknown adults and peers. Commonly, the most popular games emphasize negative themes and promote the killing of people or animals, use and abuse of drugs and alcohol, criminal behaviour, disrespect for authority and the law, sexual exploitation and violence toward women, foul language and obscene gestures, and racial, sexual, and gender stereotypes.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry studies of children exposed to violent media have shown that they may become numb to violence, imitate the violence, and show more aggressive behaviour. Younger children and those with emotional, behavioural or learning problems may be more influenced by violent images.
Spending excessive time playing these games frequently leads to less time socializing with friends and family and poor social skills, and frequently youngsters that are engrossed in these games experience decreased sleep and aggressive thoughts and behaviours.
Did Ramos experience a persistent emotional disturbance? In the light of Tuesday’s events in a small Texas town the answer seems pretty clear. Given the apparent emotional challenges experienced by Ramos and his chosen method of expression, would there have been a different ending if Ramos lived in a place where semi-automatic rifles were banned? Would he have chosen a different method of killing? Perhaps he would have had to be a bit more creative to acquire unlicensed firearms, but it is unlikely that mere access to a firearm or even a firearm can be blamed for the tragedy – a determined murderer will find a way to kill people.
The community that knew this young murderer may have had an opportunity to stop him. One has to ask if there was no one who knew this child murderer prior to the event, that could connect the dots and warning signs of his behaviour?
Written by Jonathan Deal