Are Mass Killers Krazy?

About 20% are, say mental health professionals. But what about the rest?


By Dan Gifford

According to those who have studied mass murders, we have talked ourselves into two anecdotal false belief camps about their cause and the way to end them. One is that military style firearms are the culprit and that banning them will do the trick. The other is that the killers are mentally ill and that their identification and removal from society is the ticket. Problem is, those suppositions are untrue on even cursory examination. Same for most proposed law change solutions. Not only would they be ineffective, most expert opinion holds, they would require an expansion of police powers to the point of quashing constitutional rights and fundamentally altering the relationship of the individual to the government.


If so, why didn't we have mass shootings when military semi-auto and fully automatic weaponry with 30 round or larger magazines was far more available than now and background check vetting was a promise to “be responsible for the gun's resale only to those on the side of law and order,” according to an Auto-Ordinance Company ad?

Auto-Ordinance made the Thompson sub machine gun aka, the "Tommy Gun," the "chopper," the "Chicago typewriter" etc.

That was the sub machine gun used in the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre of rival gangsters by Al Capone gunmen.

Gangster Vincent Daniels (facing camera), alias Danielski, explained how easy they were to get to a Chicago Tribune reporter: “It is no trouble to buy machine guns. All I had to do was to send to New York for them and they were shipped to me.” Chicago's then deputy police chief estimated gangs owned over 500 machine guns in Chicago alone. Almost 40 years later, not much had changed.

The gun in this famous 1967 photo has a 30 round magazine. It was and is owned by hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans and could be legally purchased for around $20 by mail, few if any questions asked, long before the AR-15 or the AK-47 (remember that previous bogeyman?) were invented. It's an M1 carbine, an arm that was widely used by American and allied troops from W.W.II to the present day. Some that look just like this one are machine guns -- and plenty of those and other full auto war weapons were lying around people's houses in addition to being rather easy to buy.

In an America where the likes of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt said she religiously packed a pistol and boys commonly received a rifle or shotgun on their 12 birthday, my friends and I knew of about 15 fully operational machine guns in my hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina during the 1950s, 60s and 70s as well as others in Durham, Raleigh and other towns.

The same was true in major cities where I lived like Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston and those weapons are probably still around. Assuming the touted relationship between military style weapons and mass shootings, why were they not used to do that until fairly recently?

The likely answer is that a collection of societal values and self controls that made such acts unthinkable were still in place and popular culture -- even in shoot 'em up TV and movie westerns and crime shows -- reinforced them. More on that down the page, but in the absence of those values, calls for more "gun control" follow every high profile murder incident with confiscation of all privately owned firearms being the ultimate goal.

That is indeed the known objective because the founder of the modern “gun control” movement, the late Nelson “Pete” Shields, said so and his successors continue to say so. Not publicly, mind you. Such candor is reserved for people like me while on the board of the ACLU of Southern California. The language for public consumption is guiled as "reasonable gun control."

Washington Post pundit Charles Krauthammer is an exception to that deception. He openly stated and justified the anti-Second Amendment lobby confiscation objective when the Clinton administration's "assault weapons" law ban was up for repeal in 1996.

"[E]ven a cynic must marvel at the all-round phoniness of the debate over repeal of the assault weapons ban. … The claim of the advocates that banning these 19 types of 'assault weapons' will reduce the crime rate is laughable. … In fact, the assault weapons ban will have no significant effect either on the crime rate or on personal security. Nonetheless, it is a good idea, though for reasons its proponents dare not enunciate. I am not up for reelection. So let me elaborate the real logic of the ban. … Its only real justification is not to reduce crime but to desensitize the public to the regulation of weapons in preparation for their ultimate confiscation. … Yes, Sarah Brady is doing God's work. Yes, in the end America must follow the way of other democracies and disarm."

You may agree or disagree with Krauthammer but you must laud his candor. The ACLU frankness for public consumption is that it refuses to view the Second Amendment as an individual right despite two Supreme Court decisions ruled it is. So if the Second it isn’t an individual right in the ACLU view and that of other like thinkers, it is open to unlimited restriction. That means game on for Shields’ plan.

That plan calls for Second Amendment death by a thousand accumulated "reasonable restrictions." So, no matter what “gun control” laws are passed today for the sake of public safety, there will always be a demand for some other “reasonable restriction” tomorrow that must be enacted for the sake of public safety until both the right is meaningless and the legal property of individuals has been officially seized without compensation as advocated recently by NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson in a Black Press USA column.

Measures like that used to be opposed by many of America's prominent intellects like H.L. Mencken and major newspapers for reasons that are derided today. For instance, when legislation was proposed to ban machine guns from private possession at a time when Chicago's deputy police chief said gangs there alone owned 500 or more of them, the 1934 Chicago Tribune editorial board opposed it:

"In the revolutionary war the people were able to gain their liberties because when they tried for them possession of firearms was common and many of the citizens knew how to use them. A disarmed population of people familiar with weapons would not have had much chance. In 1789 the weapons in general use would be long rifles, muskets, and clumsy pistols. The people were entitled to have the best weapons they could make or purchase. Now the best weapons for individuals are machine guns and automatic rifles. Use which can be made of these is indicated by law, but it is not the possession of which is properly an offense under the constitution. [snip] It is notorious that when restrictions are put upon the possession of firearms or any particular kind of weapon they never are effective against the criminal classes but only put the peaceable man at a disadvantage or in a false position before the law. The prohibition does not bother the enemy of society but it makes a technical offender of the decent citizen. The man who would not misuse a weapon is the man who is injured. The drive for public security is thus given the wrong direction."

Those who like the idea of bans, confiscations or "reasonable restriction" deception on Second Amendment rights should consider the current level of "reasonable restrictions" enacted by our current crop of speech Nazis at Google, newsrooms and universities great and small next to the question posed by University of Texas constitutional law professor Sanford Levinson in his 1989 Yale Law Review piece The Embarrassing Second Amendment: "If the Second Amendment isn't worth the paper it's written on, what price the First?" Or the rest?


That's the solution many have proposed even though those who have done the most research on mass killers say the vast majority of them are not mentally ill or insane in the legal or psychiatric sense that they do not know right from wrong and cannot distinguish fantasy from reality or have uncontrollable impulsive behavior. But even if all mass killers were legally insane or suspected of being so, Dewey Cornell, director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project notes that civil commitment laws can make it nearly impossible to hospitalize adults involuntarily, even if those around them feel threatened. Liza Gold, a forensic psychiatrist at the Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington says the reason is that civil commitment laws have been fashioned to protect civil liberties. For that, thank the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and their diagnosed schizophrenic paranoid client, Billie Boggs.


That was the nom du media of Joyce Brown, a self described "street woman" (not a "homeless woman") who viewed a New York City sidewalk ventilation grate as her home. She threw her feces at passerby, engaged in loud profane rants and appeared at times as if she would assault pedestrians. I know she was that bad because I saw her and did stories about those antics. Then one day, New York City Mayor Ed Koch sent police around during the late 1980s to take those living on the street, many of them clear psychotics like Boggs, to a shelter so they wouldn't freeze in an approaching subzero storm, but she refused to go. Her removal by force to Bellevue mental hospital where she received involuntary medication that made her "sane" for a time became a cause celebre for NYCLU and ACLU lawyers who filed a lawsuit against Boggs' involuntary commitment. In a decision that had far reaching legal consequences for forced psychiatric care that have crippled involuntary psychiatric commitments of the mentally ill around the country ever since, the New York State Supreme Court ordered Boggs released.

In a USA Today article, Gold summed up our present predicament regarding the mentally ill: "In the past, you could just go to a magistrate and say, 'My wife is crazy, you need to put her away, '"People could be held involuntarily for extended lengths of time, even without receiving treatment, just because they were perceived as 'crazy.'" Now, Gold says, "All states generally require (someone) provide clear and convincing evidence that someone is imminently dangerous to themselves or others," And "imminent" is typically interpreted to mean the past 24 to 72 hours." How did that happen? Blame the 60s which put the social foundation for the Boggs decision in place says Washington, DC attorney Joseph Scalia: "Like most bad ideas sprouted in the 1960s, poor judgment coupled with the fever of the civil rights movement thought it would be a good idea to give crazy people 'rights' and let them live in the community."

It's a position I often heard at The Johns Hopkins School of Epidemiology and Public Health where my mother was a professor during that time. That idea would lead to the Boggs decision and spawn the oft repeated myth that a heartless California Governor Ronald Reagan closed the mental hospitals and kicked the patients onto the streets. Scalia: "Now, 60 years later and 'off their meds,' they terrorize their families and hold entire communities hostage. In an earlier, 'less enlightened' time they would have been committed and cared for in a mental hospital at the taxpayers expense. People like the Parkland shooter, the Sandy Hook shooter, the Arizona Congresswoman shooter, the Denver theater shooter (dressed like the Joker no less) would have all been put away a long time ago. The homeless, who self-medicate with booze and illegal drugs, the machete killers, the subway pushers all would have been brooding from within the confines of their local mental institution."

So if the majority of mass killers are not psychotic, why do they kill and what can be done to stop them? “It’s important to recognize there’s no one answer to that" says Peter Langman, a psychologist who has done much research on mass killings and written two books on the subject. But the first step is to identify the profile of those who have killed. Langman's research in addition to that of University of California, San Diego, psychiatry professor Reid Meloy and others show that the typical mass killer is a white male in his 20s to early 40s who has shown violent or antisocial behavior before and who believes his life sucks.

It’s very typical for the killers to feel disempowered, notes Langman. They usually feel like rejected losers in that things are going badly for them at work or in personal relationships. Young males find that situation very tough to deal with and tend to blame others for whatever isn't going right. To that, add narcissism expressed as a desire to have notoriety lift them from obscurity says San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge. Narcissism among young boys has increased, her research found. Likely suspects mentioned for that include helicopter parenting, unearned praise and or reality television. The millennial and snowflake generations are much more sensitive to rejection than their predecessors.

Some 40 or 50 years ago, children wanted to be astronauts or doctors or lawyers. Now, fame is at the top of the desire list Twenge found. Chris Harper-Mercer, the 26-year-old student at Oregon's Umpqua Community College who murdered a professor and eight students in 2015 is an apparent typical example of that desire. He posted online his admiration for the notoriety a former television station employee received when he shot and killed two former coworkers: “A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone,” Harper-Mercer wrote. “His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”

The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell nicely described how such acts have become accepted behavior in the minds of potential murderers. “The riot has now engulfed the boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement. The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.”

If Gladwell is right -- and I fear he is -- "if you see something, say something" may save lives -- assuming police take action when warned and don't just sit on their butts as has been the case in many mass murders. But "see something, say something" may also have a downside. It may condition citizens to become informants and portend an overzealous American Stasi SWAT state of secret dossiers and preventive detention gulags supported by snitches.


Dan Gifford is a national Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated film producer and former reporter for CNN, The MacNeil Lehrer News Hour and ABC News. Bio: IMDB: