Behind the Motives of Mass Shooters

Most politicians are looking at the means or the opportunity behind mass shootings. Instead we need to change a culture that motivates such shootings.

In the wake of the most recent horror, the mass shooting at an elementary school in Texas, I have heard two kinds of responses. Lawyers are used to saying that to commit a crime you need means, opportunity, and motive. So then, some people want to limit or eliminate the means by passing more restrictive gun laws, or by eliminating the right of private persons to bear arms altogether. The latter, no doubt, would require a constitutional amendment, which, given American history and culture, and given the fact that many people still use guns to put some food on the table, stands little likelihood of passing.  

As for the more restrictive laws, perhaps we need to reconsider the age of majority, as we appear to be raising plenty of people who reach twenty years of age but who still possess the emotional maturity of a disgruntled and antisocial elementary school student. The boy in Texas, a dropout with no medical history of mental illness, procured his gun legally. 

Some people will say that the kind of gun the boy used should be banned. It was a semiautomatic, meaning that you need to release the trigger and press it again to shoot another bullet, but you do not have to eject the cartridge yourself. Hunters commonly use such rifles. Ranchers and farmers, I have heard, use them against prairie dogs and other vermin and marauders. Would it be unconstitutional to require a reason for their purchase—a hunter’s license, for example, or an explanatory letter? Probably.

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Others focus on the opportunity. They say, with some justification, that if you post a heavily armed guard at the door of the school, gunmen would be deterred because such people are cowards, picking on the unarmed, and what they fear most is not death but abject failure and embarrassment. I think it would work, but the image is appalling. 

It is also a tacit admission that we are no longer a real society but a sort of morbid aggregate, wherein people do not trust each other. You cannot walk down your street at night without looking over your shoulder, or without the cell phone in your pocket, ready to call the police. The conditions are like those of a civil war.

May we then look to the motive? Why would someone want to take a gun to a school and start shooting—often killing strangers, indiscriminately?

 “Evil,” you might say, “is irrational, and so it cannot be explained, and as long as man exists, evil will be among us because ‘the heart of man is evil from his youth.’” I see in my mind’s eye a small gathering of Amish children in a schoolroom, repeating that very verse from Genesis along with their teacher, “The heart of man is evil from his youth,” before she rings the bell and they go out to play their innocent games on the grounds. Yet Amish children do not go on shooting sprees.

All killers have a motive, even if it is a mad one. Let me rephrase the question.  Why would someone want to take a gun to a large, impersonal institution; one characterized, for many, by continual indignities and humiliations; the site of envy and jealousy, lust and treachery, avarice and ambition; a place built like a factory or a prison, where the very fact of his person seems to have been obliterated—the place, or the type of place, where he was never noticed except to be harassed or penalized or ordered from room to room; a place where he was certainly never loved? 

For how can you love a thousand children, most of whose names you will not even know? Name for me a single institution anywhere in the long history of the world, until our time, to which children would be made subject by the many hundreds, or by more than a thousand?

I am not saying that such institutions necessarily invite such hatred and vindictiveness that the occasional mad young person will take it out in mass murder. It appears to me, rather, that we have several coinciding factors that make such a horror conceivable. 

Let us go back in time. When my parents were teenagers, many a public school had a shooting club, yet there were no mass murders. And many high school boys, when I was a teenager, would bring their rifles to school during deer season so that they could go hunting afterward without having to drive home first, and yet there were no mass shootings. Why not?

Most obviously, our families were intact. That meant there was a father in the home—not in prison, not off with his latest bedmate somewhere, not languishing in a city far away and working himself thin to pay off an adulterous wife and her new bedmate. The father stands for authority. The neurologists and the endocrinologists themselves tell us what the father in the home does, by the unwitting action of the body, to the temperaments of the children. And that does not begin to describe the moral direction he gives, to restrain, channel, and direct the aggressions of his sons; and to be a rock of reliability for his daughters, so that they need neither fear the male sex nor rush toward it for affirmation.

We also generally accepted a clear moral law to govern the passions, especially the most unruly and self-destructive, namely the sexual. I recall a book I read once, from the 1950s, in which a liberal doctor, speaking to high school boys, told them that it was unmanly for them to put pressure on girls to have sex, or even to do much less than that, and that it was wrong in any case to do the child-making thing before they had provided the haven of marriage for the children they were going to make. 

A few years later, the name of God would be scrubbed out of the official school day, rather as you might scrub out certain foul words some boys are fond of from the lavatory stalls. God is the maker and the guarantor of moral order, and when you commit yourself to a practical atheism, you commit yourself to moral chaos. Sociality tries to take the place of moral law in the land of nihilism: you should do thus and so because that is what nice people do. And a few boys here and there will say, and they will not be wholly wrong about it, “To hell with sociality and nice people.”

But that brings me back to the form of the school. It is pathological. Form and function reveal one another. The school, built neither like a town hall nor like a church, must rely, as a prison does, upon force, compulsion, to keep the resultant chaos under the lid. 

But make no mistake. To the extent that the school is necessarily impersonal, far too large for the small and vulnerable charges who must go there, fostering anonymity and its resultant moral alleyways and interconnecting basements, denying the claims of a personal God, and attempting to educate children whose personal lives have met the wrecking ball of family breakdown, or whose families were never fully enough formed in the first place to meet that wrecking ball, it is itself chaotic. It really is a place to loathe, to detest. Schools should not be so.

And then we come to the person. You may have means, opportunity, and even motive to commit a crime, and still you do not commit it. To take that final step, to give yourself over to the evil one, you must despair. Will it be controversial for me to say here that not all the best secular intentions in the world can give you cause for hope? Optimism is the art of the charlatan, or the self-deception of the fool: read Melville’s The Confidence-Man, the villain who plays upon his victims’ avarice by selling not faith but confidence, confidence in human goodness. 

Our shooter knows very well that people are not good, and they are not to be trusted. You cannot persuade the young man with the gun that he has reason for secular optimism. He doesn’t. He is not going to be a rich lawyer or doctor or engineer. You cannot persuade him that he should love people, with “love” meaning not what Christ showed on the Cross, but rather a sort of easygoing good feeling. He doesn’t have that feeling, and he doesn’t want it. He spews it out of his mouth.

He needs hope. Where will he get it? From nothing that resembles either his shambles of a home or that even more chaotic four-square rule-ridden prisoner-forming thing called school. We know where he might get it. We know where it is to be had. Let us be more open about offering that hope. It is the only lifeline.

[Photo Credit: Getty Images]


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