Mass murder, typically described as four or more unlawful killings in a single event and location, is among the most heinous acts in which humans engage. In the United States, acts of mass murder, particularly mass shootings, sow fear among individuals and shape culture—and culture wars—more broadly.
From 2014 to 2021, there were 3,388 mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive. In 2022 alone, from January to mid-June, there were 267.
Mass shootings raise questions about the psychology of violence, the emotional aftermath for those affected and the broader public, child development and parenting approaches, and how to move through a world in which these atrocities occur over and over again.
To the vast majority of us, it is unfathomable why someone would commit mass murder. Seeking to identify the motivation behind shootings may help us to better understand them, and sometimes, to stop them.
The individual motives for mass murder vary greatly. A common motivation is retaliation or revenge; others include grandiosity and the desire for attention or fame. On rare occasion, a mass murder occurs when the perpetrator, who may be deeply troubled, suffers a psychotic break from reality and strikes out at his perceived tormentors.
Unlike serial killers, mass murderers are frequently, but not always, killed at the scene of the crime. Sometimes they are shot by law enforcement officers called to the scene, while other times mass murderers take their own lives in a final and deliberate act of suicide.
Mass murder is frequently an act of vengeance against society committed by a desperate and fatalistic individual who has no intention of going away quietly or returning to kill another day.
Mass murder and serial murder are two different types of crime with different motivations and goals on the part of the perpetrator. Definitions of serial murder share common elements, but they differ on specific requirements such as the number of murders required, the types of motivation, and the temporal aspects of the murders. Typically, definitions of serial murder specify a certain number of murders, varying from two to ten victims. The classic definition of serial murder required a period of time to elapse between the murders.
Mass murder, by contrast, is the act of murdering multiple people, typically simultaneously or over a relatively short period of time. Mass murder may be committed by either individuals or organizations. Mass murder may also be defined as the intentional and indiscriminate murder of a large number of people by government agents. The FBI defines mass murder of this type as killing four or more persons with no cooling-off period between the murders.
There is no single profile of the “lone wolf terrorist,” but research suggests that several characteristics are common. These include vocational problems, high stress levels, problems with intimate partner relationships, social awkwardness, violent communication, high intelligence, and a mental illness. Many lone actors have had difficulties functioning adequately in everyday life and maintaining healthy relationships. However, not all group members have every characteristic, such as mental illness. (Only a small minority of people with mental illnesses are violent.)
A copycat crime is a criminal act that is modeled after or inspired by a previous crime that has been reported in the media or published in fiction. Few copycat crimes are exact replicas of the event that inspired them. Instead, the imitator lifts and copies certain elements—motivation, technique, or setting. While most copycat crimes occur within two years of the initial incident, a crime can occur anytime after the original crime.
For individuals predisposed to violence, crime-related media can lead to violence in two ways. First, it can lower people’s natural inhibition against killing by allowing them to create psychological distance from what they’re about to do. Taking on a persona or character makes it easier to harm others. Second, crime media can be a teaching tool, directing the motivated person to discover where, what, and how to succeed. It can also reinforce the notion that reproducing the original crime, or “outdoing it,” will lead to the attention and publicity that the first received.
Crimes can easily be misidentified as copycats. Therefore, the only way to determine if a crime is a copycat crime is to catch the criminal and find out why they did it. Such research found that 22 percent of a sample of incarcerated criminals admitted having committed a copycat crime. Approximately 20 percent of the criminals saw the media as a valuable resource for learning how to commit a crime.
Several motivations help explain why some people turn violent. Humans have basic psychological needs, and if those needs consistently aren’t met in someone’s job, relationships or life, they may turn to other strategies—like substance use, self-harm, or violence—to remove or redirect their frustration. These psychological needs include:
• Goal attainment: People may turn to violence when they believe they lack of control over their life and the outcomes they want are unattainable.
• Instant gratification: The inability to consider long-term consequences. The consequences of a shooting, by contrast, are instantaneous.
• Recognition of competence: Competence serves as the foundation for accomplishment and recognition. Killers are often described as loners who experienced disrespect and little recognition. Committing horrific crimes, however, leads to immediate global recognition.
• Social reciprocity: The desire for payback may continue until a maligned individual believes they have corrected any perceived inequity.
• Lack of emotional intelligence: Individuals who commit aggression generally lack the ability to regulate their emotions.
Mental illness is often deemed the culprit after a mass shooting. Yet research consistently demonstrates that there is a weak link between mass shootings and mental illness. Research also shows that people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the perpetrator.
A study published in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law examined the mental health histories of 176 mass shooters between 1966 and 2020. The research showed that psychosis was deemed to have played a major role in 11 percent of shootings, a moderate role in 9 percent of cases, and a minor role in 11 percent of cases. The role of psychosis in mass shootings has been relatively stable over time, even as the number of mass shootings has risen sharply in the past few years.
The results indicate that while mental illness is often blamed for the recent rise in mass shootings, psychosis alone doesn't appear to be a significant factor.
While not all murderers are psychopaths and not all psychopaths are murderers, psychopaths commit a disproportionate number of murders. Furthermore, murderers generally seem to have unusually high levels of psychopathic traits compared to most people. Psychopathic traits, such as lack of empathy, callousness, coldness, recklessness, and a criminal lifestyle facilitate the commission of the most horrific crimes.
Researchers performed a meta-analysis of 22 studies of more than 2,600 homicide offenders in six countries, in which each offender’s psychopathy score was assessed. They found that the average psychopathy scale score for someone who had committed murder in these studies was 21.1. The average score in the general non-offender population is 4 or 5. This means that all the offenders were at least somewhat higher than the community average and that most murderers studied could be considered at least moderately psychopathic.
Mass shootings encompass a wide array of experiences and emotions. Some lose loved ones. Some witness the horrors firsthand. Some grieve from afar, dealing with the secondhand emotions of grief, sadness, and anger.
Each person’s experience is unique. Biology, coping skills, past experiences, level of social and emotional support, and other factors impact the ability to cope and heal following a tragedy. For example, attending a support group for grieving families may be helpful and supportive for some yet stressful re-traumatizing for others.
Those affected by a mass shooting may feel irritable, sad, angry, anxious, shameful, regretful, or helpless, among other emotions. They may eventually feel stronger, empowered, or driven. They may weave in and out of these feelings at different points in time. They may feel like they were in a dream or altered state, as if they were detached from their body. Some people refer to it as an “out of body experience,” as if the experience was happening to someone else.
What people were directly exposed to and how it affected them will impact how they feel. If they lost a loved one, they may be going through various stages of grief. All people experience this differently, and there’s no right or wrong way to grieve.
Exposure to gun violence affects children in ways beyond the direct impact of mass shootings in schools. First, gun violence impacts children through their parents. For example, mothers who are exposed to gun violence experience more mental health problems, such as depression, than do mothers who aren’t exposed. Second, children who have direct exposure to gun violence experience more mental health issues than other children, including psychological distress, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Support through therapy or groupwork is always available for children who are struggling.
Everyone responds differently, and it’s normal to feel a range of difficult emotions. People may feel profoundly sad and mournful, anxious about the possibility of gun violence directly affecting them in the future, or angry and enraged at the killer or political system in place. It’s normal to feel conflicted between wanting to read about the shooting and honor the victims while simultaneously feeling exhausted or fearful of the emotional toll.
People may contend with challenging questions such as: “Why can’t I stop thinking about the shooting?” “Am I numb? Have I become so hardened that I’m immune to this?” “How could I wish that the shooter was dead?” These thoughts can be distressing or unsettling, and even challenge people’s ideas of who they are.
After a mass shooting, people can try to cope by acknowledging and processing their emotions, supporting the victims, taking action if that’s personally important, and striving to live meaningfully and mindfully. To reflect on how to live meaningfully, people can think about whether they exercise care and compassion toward others, spend enough time with loved ones, practice gratitude for what they have, take risks and challenge themselves, define their purpose and goals, and take care of themselves on a regular basis.
“Parents don't need to be told how to talk to their children in the aftermath of mass shootings,” writes Psychology Today blogger Katherine Nguyen Williams, Ph.D. “They need to be told, with truth and confidence, that their children can go to school without being shot and killed while learning their fractions.”
And yet parents are forced to confront mass shootings with their children—again and again. They must think about how to explain mass shootings in age appropriate way, how to quell their child’s fears, and how to cope with their own emotions. A strong relationship with their parent is what helps children to persevere.
In the aftermath of a school shooting, parents should proactively communicate with and comfort their children. Steps include:
• Prepare for the discussion: Before you talk to a child or teenager, prepare what you want to share with them and what you don’t. Collect yourself so you can be calm, truthful, and authentic.
• Initiate conversation: Ask what your kids are feeling and listen carefully so you can respond to their concerns, misconceptions, and fears truthfully. Explain that you will create ongoing opportunities to talk.
• Limit exposure to media: Seeing graphic, disturbing footage repeatedly can be harmful long-term.
• Keep routines in place: Routines are reassuring to children.
• Monitor your child: Signs that they may be struggling include persistent fear, stress, regressive behaviors, difficulty concentrating, sleeping, or eating, and stomachaches or headaches. You may want to find a therapist for your child.
• Discuss your concerns: Balance honesty about your emotions with measured calm. You may want to discuss actions being taken or safety plans in place.
• Take action: For example, this may include supporting the victims or taking political action.
• Take care of yourself: Eating well, sleeping well, journaling, meditating, support from loved ones and therapy can help you stay strong for your children.
Parents should plan in advance what they want to share or not share with their children. This should be based on the child’s age and developmental ability to process difficult life situations. In general, telling children the horrific details of school shootings is not necessary or helpful, while making clear that you want them to feel safe talking to you about school violence is important.
Choose a quiet time and location for the conversation. Begin by asking open-ended questions and listening to their answers. You may want to start by saying something like, “Have you heard anything about kids getting hurt at school?” If your child was directly affected, start with something like, “What happened today was a really big deal. How are you feeling about it? Can you tell me about your experience?”
Listen carefully and reflect back what you heard to validate their experience. Ask follow-up questions as needed. Be honest and share your feelings. Emphasize that people are working to help keep your child as safe as possible. Make clear that you are always available to talk.
In the weeks following a shooting, parents can monitor their children for signals that they may be struggling. Signs include avoiding school, social isolation, difficulty concentrating, increased tantrums, regressive behaviors, the inability to sleep or eat, and consistent stomachaches or headaches. These behaviors may portend anxiety, depression, or other conditions, and parents may want to seek support from a mental health professional.
For students who were involved in a school shooting themselves, the transition back to school is complex. Many don’t believe that children should be forced back to school if they are scared; instead, they should be eased into school with the support of school staff and mental health staff. Parents and educators should create spaces to discuss the event, allowing children to express their needs and help identify approaches to navigate their challenges. After incidents of trauma and community violence, kids may find it meaningful to know how they can be helpful. And keep in mind that most people who experience symptoms after a traumatic event don’t go on to develop a mental health condition such as PTSD. Children are resilient.