Ignoring Biological Bases of Senseless Violence

Did the Las Vegas shooter have a damaged brain?

Posted Oct 05, 2017

The Las Vegas shooting tragedy involved a lone shooter who rained bullets from the 32nd floor of a hotel down into a large crowd of people attending an outdoor concert, and killed nearly 60 people and injured many others. It differs from other recent mass killings in the US and elsewhere in that the shooter, a 64-year-old well-off professional gambler and real estate investor named Stephen Paddock, was not part of an organized movement and did not have any apparent political, racial, or religious agenda. Nor did he have a known history of criminal conduct, or serious mental illness. This lack of obvious motive could change as more becomes known (I write this only two days after the tragedy), but it is possible that the Las Vegas incident will continue to defy any search for a likely explanation.

There are relatively few historic antecedents to the Las Vegas rampage, but one that has been mentioned by several commentators took place in Texas a half-century earlier, when an engineering student and former marine named Charles Whitman lugged several firearms up to the 28th floor observation deck of the clock tower on the University of Texas campus and, shooting down from the tower, killed over a dozen strangers and injured many others walking or standing far below. One obvious difference is that Whitman had single-shot weapons and picked off his victims individually using sniper scopes, while Paddock had automatic weapons and fired indiscriminately into a tightly packed crowd of concert attendees.

But the most obvious similarity (aside from shooting down from a high perch and killing people whom they did not know) is that the motive for Whitman’s deranged action has never become fully known. One difference is that the night before the mass shooting spree, Whitman killed two people who he claimed to love—his wife and mother (both with a knife)--in order, according to notes he left, to spare them the embarrassment and pain of his planned rampage. Paddock’s rampage, for which he left no note, also reflected careful and meticulous planning, although he sent his girlfriend off on a lengthy trip to get her out of the way.  

Before the deadly incident Whitman did seek professional help from a UT mental health clinic for various symptoms, including killer headaches, but mainly because of this persistent obsession he expressed with shooting people from the tower. (Under current legal rulings, the psychiatrist to whom he expressed this idea likely would have had to notify the police, but in 1966 he probably felt constrained by confidentiality rules, but also by the fact that Whitman’s thoughts may not have yet crystallized into specific details, and so could be interpreted as pure fantasy). As is true of mental health professionals then, and to a large extent still today, speculation after the fact focused on Oedipal or other affective issues, such as Whitman’s hatred of a wife- (and child-) abusing father, and Paddock’s possible resentment of a bank robber father described in a wanted poster as a “psychopath” and who abandoned the family for years when on the run.

Charles Whitman did have anger issues, as reflected in being disciplined in the service for assaulting another Marine. He also told a friend of having struck his wife a couple of times and expressed fear that he was becoming like his father. But Whitman had no history of homicidal rage, and there was no reason to think he was capable of anything as heinous as killing his loved ones and then shooting innocent strangers. Similarly, although little is known at this point about Paddock’s history, he was generally described by neighbors and relatives in neutral or positive terms, and he (like Whitman) was seen as someone unlikely to kill anyone.   

A clue into the roots of Whitman’s behavior came during the autopsy (he was killed by multiple shotgun blasts from responding police officers) when a sizeable tumor was found in his brain, near the pituitary gland. Amazingly, the coroner’s report dismissed this finding as having anything to do with causing Whitman’s rampage. That opinion was altered, however, in the report of a commission convened by Texas’ governor to study the incident. The commission’s report noted that while knowledge of brain-behavior relationship was insufficient in 1966 to understand adequately the connection, they were quite certain that Whitman’s brain tumor played a role in explaining why he did what he did.

Although knowledge of the brain has obviously expanded exponentially in the past half century, it is still striking how the search for the roots of Stephen Paddock’s crime has failed to pay much, if any, attention to the possible role of brain or related biological (e.g., endocrine) conditions. For example, a well-known former FBI profiler opined on TV that based on currently available knowledge, none of the explanations used by profilers can begin to make sense of Stephen Paddock. That may continue to be the case after more becomes known, but to me this admission also tells me that biological factors such as brain tumors are not really part of the training or theoretical frameworks used by FBI profilers or, for that matter, of the psychiatrists who help to develop those frameworks. Interestingly, the most on-point mention of biological factors came from a layperson, Paddock’s distraught and perplexed younger brother Eric, when he stated to reporters, “I hope they find he had a brain tumor.” 

Copyright Stephen Greenspan