If you go by the media coverage of the horrendous Las Vegas shootings, the most important thing now is to determine the precise motives of the shooter. The Internet is bristling with all manner of speculation: was the killer angry with this group or that? Did he act out of rage or hatred, etc.?
Yet these are probably the least useful questions to be asking now. Rather, we need to be thinking ahead to the mass-shooters-in-waiting—the “copy-cats” who will use the Las Vegas murders as a template for their own horrific schemes. And we have good reason to believe that the more publicity the Las Vegas shooter garners, the greater the motivation of copy-cats to “dethrone” him with the next mass shooting. (The reader will note that I do not use the Las Vegas shooter’s name in this piece).
Narcissism and Social Rejection
As my colleague, forensic psychiatrist Dr. James L. Knoll IV, has pointed out, narcissism and social rejection are established risk factors for aggressive behavior.1 Dr. Knoll further observes that media coverage given to mass shooting perpetrators “…has sent the message that committing a spectacular act of murder or killing is a great way to get attention.”1
One study by Dr. Paul Mullen2 examined the psychological profiles of five perpetrators of mass killings who were captured alive. Mullen found that, typically, these individuals were often bullied in childhood and had personalities marked by suspiciousness, obsessional traits, grandiosity, and persecutory beliefs. Generally, these were individuals who intended to kill as many people as they could and then to kill themselves—and they were influenced by heavily publicized cases of other mass shootings.
Only a very small percentage of gun-related killings are attributable to clinically-documented mental illness,3 and the personality profile suggested by Mullen is far too common to be of predictive value—it would yield countless “false positives” for potential mass shooters. But we can encourage more responsible media coverage of mass shootings in an effort to cut down on “copy-cat” killings.
Recently, Professors Adam Lankford and Eric Madfis have proposed four specific guidelines4 for reporting of mass killings: 1. Do not name the perpetrator. 2. Do not use photos or likenesses of the perpetrator. 3. Stop using the names, photos or likenesses of past perpetrators. 4. Report everything else about these crimes in as much detail as desired.
Given the “Wild West” character of the Internet, it may be unrealistic to expect widespread adherence to these idealistic guidelines. Yet we must push back against the tide of media hype and perverse glamour that washes over us in the wake of mass killings. As Lankford and Madfis observe, “…by no longer publishing the names or images of mass killers, the media would stop giving them the attention they often seek and likely deter some future perpetrators from attacking.”
1. Knoll JL: Mass Shootings: Research and Lessons, Psychiatric Times, October 4, 2017
2 Mullen PE. The autogenic (self-generated) massacre. Behav Sci Law. 2004;22:311-323.
3 Metzl JM, MacLeish KT: Mental Illness, Mass Shootings and the Politics of American Firearms. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4318286/
4 Lankford A, Madfis E: Don’t Name Them, Don’t Show Them, But Report Everything Else: A Pragmatic Proposal for Denying Mass Killers the Attention They Seek and Deterring Future Offenders (PDF Download Available). Available from here: [accessed Oct 4, 2017].