Criminologist James Alan Fox on who shoots, and why.
By Megan McArdle | The Daily Beast | February 1, 2013
Mass shootings are rising. They’re committed by lunatics who suddenly snap and start shooting at random. If only we had better gun laws or mental health screenings, we wouldn’t have so many tragedies.
Stop. Almost everything you think you know about mass shootings is wrong. This morning, I sat down for an IM interview with Northeastern University Criminologist James Alan Fox, who has been studying mass murder for years, and has authored two books on the subject: Extreme Killing, and Violence and Security on Campus.
Megan: First of all, thanks for doing this. Second of all, can you start off by talking a bit about yourself? How did you start studying mass shootings?
James Alan Fox: I started studying mass murder in the early 1980s (along with Northeastern University colleague Jack Levin) to see if there were any common traits and characteristics to the crimes or the perpetrators. There had been a pervasive sense back then that mass murderers were crazed lunatics who suddenly snapped, went berserk, and killed indiscriminately. By studying 42 cases that had occurred in recent years (recent back then, anyway), we found that many common assumption were quite off the mark.
Megan: How so?
James Alan Fox: Mass murderers are extraordinarily ordinary.
Most mass killers kill people they know, with a clear-cut motive. They typically plan their crimes in advance, often weeks or months in advance. They are calm, deliberate and determined to get justice for what they perceive to be unfair treatment.
The idea that they suddenly snap actually makes little sense. They snap and just so happen to have 2 AK-47′s and 2000 rounds of ammunition around for just such an occasion? Hardly.
Megan: We can see the evidence of planning, but how do we know their motive? Do they typically leave behind an explanation?
James Alan Fox: Yes, they often do leave behind an explanation, or articulate it if they survive. Or they make it clear while they are doing their shooting.
And, by the way, they can be very selective, e.g., Joseph Wesbecker passed by some people in his way (saying, “not you, Joe”) while killing 8 and wounding 12. He had a sense of the good guys versus the enemy.
Another example is a gunman in Wakefield, MA (Michael McDermott), who went to his workplace during Christmas to bring his weapon there while no one was around. The next day, he went to work and started shooting–but only those in HR and accounting whom he blamed for teaming up with the IRS to garnish his wages for unpaid taxes.
Most of the time, the motive is to get even with those they hold responsible for their misfortunes. Usually people at work or at home, or sometimes a class of people (women, Jews, immigrants, whites, blacks, etc) . . . so the victims are chosen randomly, but not the type of victim, or the place to find them.
The rarest form is the completely random attack committed by someone who in their paranoid thinking suspects that the whole world s corrupt and unfair.
Megan: So they plan for a long time and they typically see themselves as victims of some sort of terrible injustice. Is that why so many of these shootings happen at school or work? I remember high school as a place of great injustice . . .
James Alan Fox: Yes, schools, workplaces, and residences. And do you ever notice how often witnesses say “he was smiling; and looked so calm” That’s because they had been through this in their mind for so long that they’re extremely comfortable with the plan.
Actually there have been adults who return to their old school where things hadn’t gone so well for them. Of course, we think of Adam Lanza. But a very similar case occurred back in 1989. Patrick Purdy killed 5 and wounded 29 at an elementary school in Stockton CA. That case didn’t quite have the same impact for several reasons. One, of course, is that the victims were poor Southeast Asians, not upper middle class white folks from a nice community in CT.
And, back then, mass shootings weren’t covered live as they unfolded. The technology didn’t exist back then nor did the 24 hour cable channels who could devote all their attention to it.
Megan: That brings up a question that some people have been asking about media coverage.
Obviously, it makes the tragedies more immediate. But does it also encourage copycatting? Does the 24-hour news cycle make it more likely that we’ll have follow-on events?
James Alan Fox: To some small degree. Copycatting does exist, of course. And the nature of the coverage matters. There is a big and important distinction between shedding light on a crime and a spotlight on the criminal.
For example, the attention given to Sueng Hui Cho (VA Tech) with his fearsome pose. Not just in the tabloids, but above the fold in that NY paper whose motto is “all the news that’s fit to print”. It does turn monsters into celebrities.
Take the coverage of Columbine: cover of Time with the pictures and headline “Monsters next door.” Sure, as adults we saw Klebold and Harris as monsters, but there would have been a few alienated adolescents who saw them as heroes . . . not only did they get even with the jocks, and the nasty teachers, but they’re famous for it.
Megan: What evidence do we have about copycatting? Are there cases where we can document the killers being inspired by other famous shooters?
James Alan Fox: Yes . . . For example, back in the 1980s when we had the string of postal shootings, there were a couple who spoke or wrote about other postal rampages that had preceded their own. Also, take the case of Jamie Wilson of South Carolina. He was a big fan of Laurie Dann (a school shooter in Winetka, Illinois). He talked about her all the time, had clippings about her case.
After he went on a shooting spree similar to hers, the police went to his apartment and found photos of Dann (on the cover of People) around his apartment. Joseph Wesbecker left open on this coffee table a magazine story (I think it was Newsweek but it may have been Time) about a mass shooting at the McDonald’s in San Ysidro, CA. He then went to commit his own rampage…
And speaking of People Magazine; Levin and I did a study a few years ago content analyzing the covers of People from its inception. It started out featuring people who did good things and deserved attention, but soon trended toward murderers and rapists. Jeffrey Dahmer was on the cover several times….even made the list of 100 moist intriguing people of century
Megan: I had not idea. That’s pretty disturbing
James Alan Fox: They have improved in the past few years.
Megan: I’d like to talk about how we count mass shooters, which has been a bit of an issue over the last week or so. Mother Jones had a widely cited analysis showing that mass shootings are on the rise. But you’ve disputed that, saying that their count is unreasonably restrictive.
James Alan Fox: Yes, that’s right. If one examines the full range of cases–all shootings with at least four victims killed, the numbers have been trendless. Over the past 35 years, there has been an average of jut under 20 incidents per year. Of course, most were not as well-publicized, or as large-scale, as Sandy Hook.
I understand that Mother Jones was trying to isolate “random” massacres, but their criteria were sometimes arbitrary and not even applied consistently. For example, they wanted to limit their pool to cases involving a lone gunman, but made exceptions for two well-known school shootings (each committed by a pair of students) that they wanted to include.
Given how difficult it to accomplish the task of defining “random”, I would opt for including all mass shootings. Besides, if 7 or 10 or 14 are killed in a not-so-random shooting spree, is this any less important or devastating?
I do applaud their effort to build a database that includes details on each case, but they would have been better off not limiting he pool based on questionable criteria
Megan: It seems that they were trying to control for the shootings by young men in gangs. But one question is whether they’re really that different: are gang shootings purely economic? Or are they, too, often about injustice and disrespect?
James Alan Fox: Great question (and observation). Gang shootings are often about revenge, not at all distinct from someone who avenges a termination or missed promotion by shooting up his worksite
Megan: In general, I was taught that either you say “we’re including anything that meets a certain number of these criteria” or “we’re excluding anything that doesn’t meet all these criteria”. Mother Jones is mostly using criteria of exclusion, except when it seems to produce some sort of absurd result (like excluding Columbine), at which point they shift to criteria of inclusion. I’ve always been taught that this is a big no-no in analysis
James Alan Fox: I would agree that this is improper.
I’m not making a distinction between inclusion criteria v exclusion criteria. My concern is that whatever decision rules are to be employed need 1) to be clear-cut and unambiguous, and 2) followed as closely as possible.
If you wanted to create a database and analysis of family massacres, you’d be on solid footing. Decide on a definition of massacre (by victim count) and decide whether family includes extended kin or not.
If you wanted to write a book about workplace massacres, you would need only to decide whether to include shootings by clients/customers and other intruders, in addition to those by current or former employees.
Megan: So you have been saying that many of the most popular remedies for mass shootings won’t work. They aren’t all identifiably crazy before the shooting, so mental health screenings for gun buyers won’t stop them. Neither will waiting periods, because they’re long-term planners. And restricting certain scary guns (an “assault weapons ban”) won’t have much effect, because they’ll just pick another gun.
Which leaves the question: is there anything that would work?
James Alan Fox: Let me say, first, that expanding mental health services would be a good thing, even though it would have little effect on mass murder, because these guys typically see the problem in someone else, certainly not themselves.
Also, certain sensible gun policy changes would take a bit out of ordinary crime, but at most a nibble out of mass murder.
These are very determined and deliberate people who will almost always persevere no matter what impediments we place in their way.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. We will probably enhance the well-being of countless Americans in the process. So mass shootings may motivate us to take important steps: they are the right things to do, but we’re not so much doing them for the right reason.
We have seen a tremendous eclipse of community. People no longer know their neighbors, much less are aware of when they may lose their job or are kicked out of school. The best thing we can do is be proactive in intervening in the lives of those around us who are in need of support. We need to assist people who are troubled before they make trouble
As an aside… It concerns me at some level that we know are eager to help those with psychological problems when we see what happened in Sandy Hook and Aurora. We should want o help those who suffer because we are concerned about THEM, not just because we are concerned about those they might kill
Megan: Last question: is there any question I should have asked you, but didn’t?
(It’s okay to say no!)
James Alan Fox: Yes, there is one more thing
I’m often asked if there is a profile of the mass murderer. Well, there is. Typically a white male who has a history of frustration and failure, who is socially isolated and lacking support systems, who externalizes blame onto others, who suffers some loss or disappointment perceived to be catastrophic, and has access to a powerful enough weapon (usually, but not necessarily a gun).
The follow-up question I usually get is whether we can therefore identify mass murderers in advance, and the answer is a resounding “no.”
Although there is a profile, thousands of citizens fit the profile yet will never hurt anyone, much less kill a crowd of people.
“And what about the warning signs?” people ask. Well there are warning signs, but they don’t come into focus until after the fact when hindsight is 20/20. There are “yellow flags” that only turn into red ones once the blood has spilled.
Part of the reason for lack of predictability is the rarity of mass murder. Rare events simple cannot be predicted in a reliable fashion. For example, plane crashes typically happen in bad weather, but bad weather is not a reliable predictor of a plane crash.
The danger in trying to round up all those who might have the potential for mass murder is that it could even intensify their sense of persecution and precipitate the very act we are trying to prevent. We should intervene when needed, but not in a way seen as punitive.
So there are things we should do: sensible gun policies, expanded mental health services, proactively reaching out to those who need our support, changing the tone of media coverage to avoid playing up the perpetrator as someone worthy of attention. However, when people say we need to do X, Y, or Z to ensure that something like Sandy Hook will never happen again, well, they should prepare to be bitterly disappointed.
Unfortunately, mass shootings will occur even if we take these steps. We cannot eliminate the risk; the best we can do is reduce it a bit.
And if that happens (reduce the risk a bit), how will we know that we did? If mass shootings drop in 2013 (which they will likely do), does that mean we made a difference? Or just that a spike was followed by a more moderate level of occurrence? If the number of mass murders drops from 20 per year to about 16 per year for a few years in a row, does that mean that the trends is downward? Or that it is a random fluctuation from the average?
We may never know if our preventive efforts make a difference, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying. My only fear is that the momentum following Sandy Hook will dissipate and disappoint those of use who are hoping for change in practice or policy
Want to learn more? You can find James Alan Fox on his blog, Crime and Punishment.
By James Alan Fox | The Boston Globe | November 8, 2012
It has been nearly two years since 24-year-old Jared Lee Loughner opened fire upon a crowded plaza in Tucson, killing six and wounding several others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Yet, after all the legal maneuvering, Loughner received sentence that guarantees he will never again walk free.
Mass murderers like Loughner or Winchester’s Thomas Mortimer deserve nothing less than life imprisonment given the enormity of their crimes. While absolutely fair and appropriate for such atrocities, there are many other offenders, particularly here in Massachusetts, who receive the very same fate but who arguably deserve something less extreme.
In Massachusetts all defendants convicted of first degree murder are sent away to prison for life without the possibility of parole, regardless of any mitigating circumstances surrounding the offense or the offender. By contrast, two dozen states having life without parole on the books include it among a group of alternative sentences depending on the circumstances of the offense and the offender.
As one of the states that prohibits parole for first degree murderers, Massachusetts ranks high on the list in terms of the percentage of its incarcerated population having no hope of ever walking free (except for the very remote possibility of executive clemency). As of 2008 (see table below), according to statistics compiled by the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., 8.7% of the Massachusetts state prison population was under a life without parole sentence, a level that ranked third (behind Louisiana and Pennsylvania) and was four times the national average.
Of course, many states employ a more extreme sanction — the death penalty — among the possible sentences for first degree murder. Might the inordinately high proportion of whole-lifers in Massachusetts be a statistical artifact of our refusal to put these offenders to death?
Apparently, our extreme usage of life without parole cannot so easily be dismissed. Even when adding to the mix all those murderers given a death sentence (either executed or on death row), Massachusetts still stands at the high-end in sentencing murderers to die in prison either by natural causes or by action of the state executioner.
If the most severe punishment is to be reserved for the “worst of the worst,” then life without parole makes sense for serial killers, mass murderers, certain repeat violent offenders, and those who rape or torture victims before murdering them. However, in Massachusetts life without parole eligibility is mandatory for cases of felony murder, even though homicide may not have been part of the plan. It is also mandatory for those convicted in joint ventures, even if they were not the one to pull the trigger or plunge the knife.
Many other states allow for parole eligibility as a sentencing option for murder, if the circumstances warrant it. Included among the states that allow penalty short of life without parole are Mississippi and Texas, but not Massachusetts.
So maybe it is time for Massachusetts to infuse some flexibility into sentences for first degree murder by permitting parole consideration after, say after 30 years, in those cases where mitigation outweighs aggravation. Such factors as being a first offender, suffering from psychological conditions that fall outside of the narrow definition of legal insanity, being the follower in a group-perpetrated homicide or voluntarily surrendering and confessing to the crime should matter.
Giving judges or juries options besides life without parole has several advantages, and not just for the offender. Parole eligibility would encourage participation in drug rehab and other treatment programs currently eschewed by those who have no prospect of ever walking free. Parole, as a strong incentive for pro-social behavior, helps to maintain institutional order. Also, why keep locked up large numbers of aging prisoners (with their expensive health needs) whose criminality is well in the past and thereby limiting available for younger, more active offenders? Prison space is an expensive commodity; we should utilize it more wisely and sparingly.
Importantly, whatever the justification for granting parole eligibility may be in a particular case, that is not the same as parole release. Parole is never a guarantee; inmates should be released only if they earn it.
Of course, as victim advocates say, there’s no parole for those who were murdered. And some say that paroling murderers adds insult to injury. However, many other Western nations do not employ life without parole (or the death penalty). Apparently, many reasonable people do not believe that murderers must necessarily forfeit their life or their freedom.
Here in the U.S., we often dismiss long prison sentences as “mere slaps on the wrist” or “county club vacations” when neither characterization even comes close to the truth. Ask anyone who has spent decades deprived of their freedom.
So it is about time to reintroduce rationality into the sentencing process, even for murder. Not all murders are the same in severity, and not all murderers are the same in dangerousness. So while life without the possibility of parole is justifiable for some first-degree murderers, like Loughner, it is certainly not appropriate for all.
State-by-State Comparison of Life without Parole
|State||Prison Population||Lifers||LWOP||Percent LWOP||Executed||LWOP or Executed||Percent LWOP/Exec|
Adapated from A. Nellis, Throwing Away the Key: The Expansion of Life Without Parole Sentences in the United States. The Federal Sentencing Reporter, 2010. Data for Illinois and Utah unavailable.
By James Alan Fox | Boston.com | September 25, 2012
The third time will be anything but a charm for a 48-year-old Texas inmate who will return to the state’s execution chamber after twice before coming within hours of getting the needle. Cleve Foster, a former army recruiter who was convicted a decade ago of murdering a Ft. Worth woman, will repeat today a bizarre death ritual that has become all too familiar.
One again, Foster will be escorted by van the hour-long trip from his prison cell in West Livingston to the lethal injection chamber in Huntsville. Once again he will sit in silent solitude awaiting his fate and praying that the U.S. Supreme Court will intercede as it had twice before. Once again he will be served a last meal, whether or not justice will be served afterwards. Only this time, Foster will not have his choice of menu, as this long-practice gesture of mercy was banned last year by order of Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
If the death sentence is indeed carried out today, Foster will also be given his opportunity for some final words before poison is injected into his veins. Some condemned prisoners take this occasion to add insults to injury, while others invoke their right to remain silent. Sometimes inmates confess to their crimes, if only as a last gasp attempt to purge their conscience or offer some small measure of solace to the surviving victims. And, of course, many use the occasion to protest their innocence right down to the bitter end, as Foster will likely do.
Inmate Foster has insisted on his innocence throughout his trial and incarceration. Apparently, his fate was sealed on the basis of DNA evidence, the very type of proof that tends to convince even the most skeptical of jurors. After all, it is science, and who can argue with that?
Since first being used as evidence in criminal cases some 25 years ago, DNA has become a valuable tool for implicating violent offenders as well as for exonerating hundreds of incarcerated prisoners who had been found guilty based on weak or controversial evidence years before these genetic markers were used forensically.
Despite the unparalleled power to prove guilt or innocence, reliance on DNA evidence has its downside. The science of DNA may be indisputable, but the testing and analysis are performed by people, even though assisted by highly reliable lab equipment. And humans are far from infallible — prone to mistake, or worse, given to malice. Juries may be swayed by the science, without fully considering those who present it.
Here in Massachusetts, the criminal justice system is reeling from the recent Jamaica Plain lab scandal in which potentially thousands of drug tests were tainted by human error and incompetence. Years ago while governor, Mitt Romney attempted to push through the Massachusetts legislature his model for a “fool-proof” death penalty, one that was largely informed and guided by science.
While pondering whether Cleve Foster was possibly convicted in a Texas court based on scientific evidence produced by someone overworked, poorly trained or inadequately supervised, we should be relieved that that Massachusetts courts are spared this most profound, life-and-death element of doubt.
By James Alan Fox | Crime and Punishment | blog for Boston.com | September 5, 2012
On stage in front of thousands of delighted delegates to the DNC in Charlotte, Governor Deval Patrick detailed the many ways in which his predecessor in the corner office on Beacon Hill failed the citizens of Massachusetts. And there was much to Governor Mitt Romney’s record for Patrick to work with.
Never mind Mitt Romney’s outrageous attempts to abuse the Commonwealth as the butt of his anti-liberal barbs, even while still holding the state’s highest elective office, as he toured the country garnering momentum for his eventual run for the Presidency. According to Patrick, Mitt Romney left the Commonwealth in worse shape than when he assumed the leadership post four years earlier. Not only did Romney raise fees and cut education, but Massachusetts ranked 47th in job creation during his term as Governor.
There is, however, one failure to Romney’s administration — and a significant one according to his own assessment — for which we in Massachusetts have benefited, at least financially. And that is Romney’s unsuccessful bid to restore capital punishment in Massachusetts.
I vividly recall Romney’s speech in which he announced his intention not to seek re-election. Apparently, he had accomplished so many of his goals, including instituting universal health insurance. But his one big disappointment was not realizing his dream of bringing back the death penalty to liberal Massachusetts.
Romney’s failure in this attempt was not for lack of effort on his part. Commissioning a talented group of scientists and attorneys to develop best practices, Romney touted his proposal for a virtually “fool-proof” system for administering the death penalty as the “Gold Standard,” a model for the nation. With layer upon layer of procedural safeguards designed to eliminate the risk of error, it was a gold standard alright. But the gold was more reflective of the tremendous price tag for implementing the complex approach to punishing a small handful of criminals. Had Romney been successful in reinstituting capital punishment along these lines, there’s no telling how much worse off financially the state would be today.
Curiously, even while Romney endeavored to reinstitute the Massachusetts death penalty, several other states moved in the opposite direction, abolishing the barbaric and useless practice partially if not largely because of the tremendous cost. Apparently, this is just one more way in which Millionaire Mitt was out of touch and out of step. Thank goodness that Romney failed in one particular area of job creation — and that is the position of state executioner.
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