On the morning of September 6, 1949, Howard Unruh left his apartment for the last time. The unemployed World War II veteran, long suspected of suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, or some other manner of war trauma-induced mental illness, grabbed a .38 caliber handgun from the collection of weapons he had amassed, stuffed his pockets with ammunition, and exited just after 9 a.m. He then engaged in a deadly rampage through his Camden, New Jersey neighborhood in what has since come to be known as the “walk of death.” He would surrender to police after a shooting spree that left twelve dead at the scene, and a thirteenth victim to pass a short time later in a local hospital. Among Unruh’s victims were three children.
The massacre is widely attributed as the country’s first mass shooting event, a class of unexpected, largely unpredictable crimes in which a deranged killer or killers take their frustrations out on people they deem as “deserving” victims, unrelated bystanders, or some combination thereof. Accordingly, the events of the day seem altogether dated and disturbingly familiar. In perhaps the best-known photograph linked to the “walk of death,” the background architecture and manner of dress are clearly of a bygone era, but the blank stare Unruh levels at the camera would not be out of place above the fold of any modern newspaper. A reporter who reached the killer in the midst of his spree in the above-linked New York Times piece found not a raving lunatic, but rather a well-spoken person possessed by an eerie calm. Like certain blank-faced murderers of the modern day, Unruh discussed his kill count in terms of “scoring,” as though he had just participated in a sporting event instead of a tragedy.
One major difference between Unruh’s crime and modern mass shootings: they are far less isolated in this era. Since at least the 1990s, every decade’s mass-shooting casualty count has topped the ones prior. Some 75 people fell victim to these types of shootings in the 1980s, compared to 149 in the 1990s and 160 in the 2000s. In the years between 2010 and 2017, at least 370 fell victim. (Another source claims a death count of 260 for 2018, but appears to use a different methodology and sourcing than the previous linked article, explaining the discrepancy between the two reports where other years are involved.)
There is another way to measure the proliferation of mass shootings, however, and one that has little to do with numbers. As a country, we have become increasingly accustomed to their presence in the headlines and the 24-hour news cycle. With the sheer number of events occurring and thus making the news, an effect known as “compassion fatigue” occurs, with repeated occurrence effectively numbing our minds to the realities of the tragedy.Dying in a mass shooting is 3 times more likely than dying at the hands of a “foreign-born terrorist” and nearly 6 times more likely than falling victim to a “cataclysmic storm,” or tornado. Click To Tweet
In all, these events have contributed to a national landscape where the average citizen has a 1-in-11,125 chance of dying in a mass shooting. That is over three times more likely than dying at the hands of a “foreign-born terrorist,” according to Business Insider, and nearly six times more likely than falling victim to a “cataclysmic storm,” or tornado. Given the unpredictable, strike-anywhere nature of the crime and gut-punch feeling it inflicts on affected communities, this leaves civic leaders, law enforcement, and other first responders with little to do but prepare for the worst—and pray they never need to deploy the tools and training they acquired in the name of stopping mass-casualty shootings.
Can psychological profiles prevent mass shootings?
Turning again to the “walk of death,” the similarities between the 1949 shooting and today’s mass shooting events do not stop at the tone Unruh took with the reporter, or the look on his face as news photographers swarmed the arrest scene. According to a Smithsonian article recounting the event, Unruh’s psychological profile also matched the one most commonly ascribed to modern mass shooters. He held a, “rigid temperament,” per an expert quoted in the piece, carried deep frustrations regarding the way his loved ones and society treated him, and knew how to hold a grudge. This is a combination the expert calls a “recipe for internal combustion.”
The number of present-day shootings involving perpetrators investigated by law enforcement, or otherwise known to be a danger, prior to their misdeeds raises a number of questions. Do mass shooters all engage in certain behaviors or carry certain traits? Are the known behavioral consistencies exclusive only to shooters or do other segments of the population exhibit them? Moreover, if such predictors do exist, what can law enforcement do to contain them within the scope of the law? With the sheer number of events occurring and thus making the news, an effect known as “compassion fatigue” occurs, effectively numbing our minds to the realities mass-casualty shootings. Click To Tweet
Not surprisingly, answers on the matter are far from clear. Although Psychology Today characterizes the average mass shooter as a paranoid, envious “injustice collector,” who reacts poorly to rejection and reverts to violent fantasy to overcome feelings of loneliness, these internal traits do not necessarily manifest in similar outward expressions. Consider the apparent substantial differences between the Parkland and Las Vegas shooters, who effectively lived in different worlds prior to their respective shootings, whether they carried the same internal traits or not. The former appeared on the FBI’s radar after making shooting threats, for instance, while the latter had attained some degree of financial independence and appeared to leave few, if any, hints regarding his true inner machinations.
The Psychology Today piece also reiterates the fact that many people carry these traits, including violent fantasy, without ever expressing them in such a terrible manner. This leads to perhaps the biggest challenge law enforcement faces when dealing with a potential shooter: resources are limited, and you cannot charge someone who has not done—or at least conspired to do—anything.
The Pulse Nightclub shooting, in which 53 victims fell victim to a murderer linked to the terrorist group, ISIS, typifies the issue. The FBI investigated the perpetrator for 10 months prior to the massacre due to his connection with a certain mosque; the agency’s determination that he “was not a threat” drew significant derision in hindsight, but in reality, there was little authorities could have done within the framework of the law. Since they discovered no credible information that suggested he was planning a mass shooting, and had neither the resources nor the legal imperative to keep him under constant watch, there was little the federal agency could do but shift their focus to other investigative targets. As then-FBI Director James Comey said when the news broke, the FBI does not, “keep people under investigation indefinitely,” a practice he, “would hope most American people would want.”
Revised approach, training, may lead to mitigated impact
If communities and the responders who serve them have few preventative measures to combat mass shootings, their reactions to active shooting events are analyzed, revised, and refined for maximum effect. This is the lesson that afflicted communities and onlookers alike have absorbed in the wake of a deadly 2018, and the silver lining—if such a thing is possible in relation to such horrendous events—is that the early results show promise. Not surprisingly, answers on the matter are far from clear - many people carry ‘shooter’ traits, including violent fantasy, without ever expressing them in such a terrible manner. Click To Tweet
Take, for instance, the September shooting at the Middleton, Wisconsin-based software company, WTS Paradigm. While four unassuming workers being harmed is a tragedy in its own right, there is also little doubt the outcome could have been far worse in a “target-rich environment” like a white-collar workplace; instead, local officers were able to engage and kill the suspect without loss of life or further injury to civilians or law enforcement personnel.
As the above-linked article notes, much of what we know about mass shooting events is written in blood. They unfold quickly, often brutally so, to the point they routinely end in the murderer killing himself or willingly ending the rampage before responders arrive. Active shooters also tend to work alone, keeping their plans to themselves until the moment they launch their attacks. Although certain shooters have professed their plans in hidden manifestos or public, largely unviewed, websites and video blogs, it is just as common to hear stunned friends and loved ones say they never would have expected the killer to lash out the way they did.Mass shooting events are written in blood. They unfold quickly, often brutally so, to the point they routinely end in the murderer killing himself or willingly ending the rampage before responders arrive. Click To Tweet
The changes agencies have made in response to these facts would have sounded like sacrilege to many departments even a few years ago. Instead of using lifesaving minutes assembling and deploying SWAT units, agencies—and, in the case of institutions with resource officers, schools themselves—instruct officers to rush the scene and engage the shooter directly. Officers given this direction are usually trained in effective response and neutralization methods, allowing them to capitalize on the workplaces, schools, and other populated environments in which potential mass killers may appear.
While unconventional, the approach negates some of the element-of-surprise that often provides a significant advantage for the shooter. Just as importantly, effective training and smart selection of tactical gear (including tactical tourniquets, extra handgun ammunition, and bulletproof vests) minimizes some of the risk a solo- or duo-response officer faces in charging a scene without a large squad at their back. If it is a dangerous situation (and it undoubtedly is), it arguably presents the least risk any outcome an active-shooter event could generate; a “lesser-of-two-evils” approach that is sadly necessary in a country beset by similar happenings.
In WTS Paradigm’s case, this very mindset undoubtedly saved lives. Officers arrived within three minutes of the initial 911 call, breached the perimeter 60 seconds later, and drew the potential killer’s attention away from his coworkers before ultimately shooting and killing him. Considering the time it takes to deploy a SWAT team, particularly in an area where mass-response events are not the norm, one could hardly hope for a better outcome, injuries to the shooter’s four coworkers notwithstanding. By training officers to react promptly, and charge into a scene —and by passing tools needed to promote safety — law enforcement departments ensure that lives forfeited during mass shooting events are not lost in vain. Click To Tweet
Conclusion: For active shooters, there are no clear answers—only better response
All too often, discussions surrounding mass shooting events devolves into the usual political tug-of-war over topics such as gun control, mental health care, and the amount of reach law enforcement should have in combatting the problem. These are all topics worthy of discussion, but they also tend to ignore the ground-level reality of the situation: Long-term measures might fix the situation in the future, but an active shooter that appears today must be dealt with immediately.
Whatever future changes come about, situations like the Middleton shooting show promise in stopping active shootings today. By training officers to react promptly, and charge into a scene more terrifying than most people will encounter in their lives—and by passing along the skills and tools needed to promote safety while doing it—departments ensure that lives forfeited during mass shooting events are not lost in vain. They also display a crucial ability to view the industry critically, adapt to new information, and employ evolved tactics in the face of a dire threat. In a country of 325 million, perpetually profiling every person with the potential psychological traits of an active shooter is both impractical and inconsistent with the freedoms our citizens enjoy. Considering this, smarter training and faster, more qualified response seems to be the most practical middle ground possible.