Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Body Language

Mass Shooters: A Radical Strategy

What does science say about mass shooters?

Key points

  • Are mass shooters suffering from mental illness? What does science say?
  • Commonly the triggering factor in mass shootings is a recent life crisis.
  • Proposed: a simple response to those who appear visibly distressed.

Mass shootings occur with ever-increasing frequency in our country. And they are so gruesome and tragic that we assume they must certainly be caused by mental illness. But are they?

A nonprofit, nonpartisan research center called The Violence Project, set up by psychologist Jillian Peterson and sociologist James Densley, gathers and disseminates data with the single goal of violence prevention. They have assembled a vast database of mass shooters and have studied them in depth. Their findings call into question the notion that mental illness is a major factor in causing mass shootings.

Medical sociologist Jeffrey Swanson of Duke University agrees. He has found that curing serious mental illness would decrease violence only by 4 percent.

The Violence Project contends that what most mass shooters do have in common is having suffered some recent life crisis, like a breakup, job loss, or grief—something that leaves them feeling completely overwhelmed and unable to cope.

The good news is that, when people are experiencing such cataclysmic personal traumas, it often registers in their facial expressions or body language.

It my sound naive or simplistic, but if you notice someone in your environment who looks as though they are extremely distressed, the best response might be a friendly greeting or some small gesture of kindness. Consider the following true story:

In 1972, a political rally in Nashville featured a regional political dignitary from Alabama. In the middle of his impassioned speech shots rang out, there were screams, and the speaker sank to the floor in a crumpled heap. The assassin’s bullet narrowly missed killing the speaker, but it did sever his spinal cord. And the victim spent the rest of his life in intense pain and never walked again.

The man who fired the shot was captured almost immediately. His name was Arthur Bremer. He had been stalking the area for over two weeks, living in his care for several days, waiting for the perfect moment. Police described his vehicle as a “hotel on wheels,” with a half-eaten sandwich, a portable radio with a police band, a women’s umbrella, a duffle bag with several changes of clothes, and, hidden in the back seat and trunk, a large supply of guns and ammunition.

Later, authorities also found a journal that Bremer had written. It was his personal diary, a document seething with rage and obsessed with violence and death. It contained all of Bremer’s plans for assassinations he hoped to commit.

The victim in Nashville wasn’t Bremer’s original target, Richard Nixon. But after following him for two weeks, he determined that Nixon was too carefully guarded to get a good shot. So, Bremer shifted his assassination plans to the victim in Nashville.

Bremer’s reason for choosing Nixon, and the dignitary from Alabama was not because of their politics. Bremer chose politicians, because they were extremely visible. He wanted the assassination to be a famous, horrendous, dramatic killing.

But also in Bremer’s diary, alongside pages of tormented outpourings, there was another entry. Written in Bremer’s own erratic handwriting, it told an amazing story:

Two years before, Bremer had decided that he would wage a bloody war against society. He was living in Milwaukee, and his plan was to stage a shootout in a highly public setting and kill as many people as possible. He spent days and weeks working out his murder strategy. After thoroughly researching the city, he identified the ideal location and the best time of day to carry out his plan. On the appointed day, in a state of fury, Bremer loaded up his car with guns and ammunition and set out to commit a mass murder.

But on the way, Bremer suddenly realized he was hungry. He decided to make a brief stop for a cup of coffee and a doughnut. Noticing a small greasy-spoon café, he pulled over and hurried in. It was completely empty inside, except for a waitress. Bremer sat down, ordered, and went back to his desperate, fevered thoughts.

The waitress came back with his order and started chatting with him. Not about anything “important” really, just chatting. Waitresses see lots of customers and often have a great ability to read people. The waitress was just being friendly, extending kindness to someone she could see was terribly troubled.

What happened next was amazing, verified by court documents.

In his journal, Bremer wrote that, after spending time in the café and talking to the friendly waitress, he lost interest in the mass murder and decided not to go through with it. He went back home.

No one knows how many innocent lives were saved that day because a waitress in a run-down café extended herself in kindness.

And, of course the waitress never knew. All she knew was that one day a man came into the restaurant looking very troubled, and since she had a little free time on her hands, she tried to cheer him up. What could be simpler?

So if you see someone today who looks like they might be troubled, try saying hello. Extend yourself in friendliness.

It might just save somebody’s life.

© 2022 David Evans

advertisement
More from David Evans
More from Psychology Today