What are the factors that motivate a mass shooter?
Washington Navy Yard shooting suspect Aaron Alexis had several characteristics common among mass killers, experts say: aggression, difficulties on the job, paranoia and anger problems.
Alexis reportedly went on a rampage Monday, killing 12 people in a commando-style attack at the Navy Yard, where he was beginning work as a civilian contractor.
“He did have some of the common factors that we see in adult mass murderers,” said Kathy Seifert, a Maryland-based psychologist who’s studied mass shooters for more than 30 years.
“He had a history of aggression,” she said, noting police reports in Fort Worth, Texas, where Alexis reportedly shot through the ceiling of his apartment, nearly hitting his upstairs neighbor; in Seattle, where he shot out the tires of a construction worker’s car; and a disorderly conduct charge in DeKalb County, Ga. He wasn’t prosecuted in any of the incidents.
Seifert said common characteristics of the mass killers she’d studied included aggression, mental health issues, difficulties on the job, difficulty getting along with people, anger issues and emotional outbursts.
“He had all of these,” she said. Asked what would trigger a killing spree, she said “there is often a stressor that person is not able to manage.”
Fort Worth friends reported that Alexis had complained about not being paid sufficiently for his work on a Navy contracting job in Japan.
He was honorably discharged from the Navy in Fort Worth in January 2011, according to a Navy official, through a program allowing early release of the enlisted. However, a Defense Department official who’s familiar with the Navy Yard investigation, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the commanding officer at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth had sought a general discharge for Alexis because of failings that included insubordination, disorderly conduct and an absence without leave.
It was concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue that, but the effort underscores Alexis’ reported problems in the workforce, where he was an avionics electrician.
“The pattern is a person who is a social reject, who failed at intimacy and could not connect with people,” said Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist who’s interviewed many mass killers.
The killings, Welner said, are a response to blaming everyone else for the shooters’ problems. “Destruction is an exaggerated expression of masculinity,” he said. “Mass killing always has a motivation, and the mass killer always wants you to know it.”
Although it’s unclear yet what motivated Alexis, Welner thinks it will be a story similar to the Virginia Tech, Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., and Tucson, Ariz., shooters – who he said told themselves, “My life isn’t going anywhere.”
Jack Levin, a co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University, said, “Almost every mass killer is motivated to get revenge.”
There have been a number of reports since Monday’s shootings that Alexis heard voices and sought treatment for it through Veterans Affairs and that he called police in Rhode Island in August complaining that someone on the plane he’d argued with, joined by others, was stalking him and sending vibrations to disorient him.
“The more random the massacre, the more likely the killer has serious mental health issues,” said Levin, who’s a psychologist.
If Alexis was, as Levin thinks, suffering from serious mental illness, that would be consistent with mass killers who try to kill as many people as possible.
“They are seeking revenge against all mankind,” Levin said. “In this case, everyone in the Navy.”
As for reports that Alexis was an avid player of violent video games, Welner and Levin said the games served to “desensitize” people to death.
“This is part of the training,” said Welner, who cites the killings of 77 people in Norway in 2011 by a video game-obsessed shooter. “It enables them to detach from the victims. It dehumanizes them in violence.”
Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist who’s the president of Threat Assessment Group, which tries to predict and prevent events like the one at the Navy Yard, said the “innovator” of mass killings was Charles Whitman, who killed two family members in 1966 and then shot 14 people to death from the University of Texas Bell Tower.
“He’s had many copycats ever since,” Dietz said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of Dr. Park Dietz, the president of Threat Assessment Group.