These are not the Adam Lanzas or the Dylann Roofs, the Nikolas Cruzes or the Stephen Paddocks — mass shooters who opened fire on crowds of innocents, claimed scores of lives and commanded overwhelming attention. Attempting to understand the shooter’s troubled mind has become as much a part of the ritual that accompanies these horrific acts as the requisite “thoughts and prayers” sentiments; the candlelight vigils; the images of the forever-traumatized, grief-stricken loved ones; and the ineffectual political posturing. Recently, the FBI released a long-awaited study attempting to tease out what, if anything, these men — and they are usually men — have in common. The researchers concluded that mass shooters tend to go to familiar places, are often nursing a grudge so they target a particular person, typically are not mentally ill and use legally purchased weapons.
In terms of horror and headlines, mass shooters may own the narrative, but in terms of sheer numbers, they don’t. Only 346 of the 15,629 people who were killed by guns in 2017 — and these numbers do not include death by suicide — were victims of mass shooters. Instead, the roughly 43 victims of gun violence every day were killed by the kind of people profiled by Patinkin. Young, sometimes traumatized or mentally ill, in many cases inebriated or stoned, mostly male, living in places where access to guns does not require much effort, these are the lives that intersected, often impulsively, at exactly the wrong time with another’s. Each story is self-contained but also illuminates broader issues surrounding gun violence.
One recurring theme is how often important signals, which in retrospect seem inevitable cues to future tragedy, are ignored by counselors, police departments, schools, social welfare officials and military authorities. Brittany Aden, the only woman in the collection, was sadistically abused by her father and at the age of 15 was forced to answer the question of kill or be killed. Constantly begging for some intervention, she was just as constantly returned to the home of her abuser until she felt she had no other choice.
John Frizzle served in the Navy despite escalating evidence of serious mental illness. Consigned to maintenance work on a destroyer, he quietly nurtured a grandiose and heroic plan to assassinate Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, while at the same time visiting the hangar deck of the ship and contemplating suicide. He had been seen by military psychiatrists and spent time in a psychiatric hospital, but with little effect. After his dishonorable discharge following a string of petty crimes, in a state of inebriation and fixated on a mythical insurance policy that would solve all his problems, he shot his mother in the head (she survived). With both Aden and Frizzle, one can’t help but wonder what difference some meaningful intervention might have made.
In every case, the easy access to lethal weapons was often the difference between a murder and a bad encounter. For Lester Young Jr. from Hilton Head, S.C., the often-profitable crack epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s demanded the presence of a small arsenal. The only son of a close, working-class black family, his already rebellious life completely fell apart after his mother died when he was in high school. Unable to recover from the shock, Young opted to earn big, risky money as a drug dealer, a life that inevitably led to extreme violence, culminating in the murder of one of his customers on Christmas Eve.
Then there was Brandon Clancy, a star athlete and stellar student, who had just completed his freshman year at San Bernardino Valley College, which he attended with plans to be drafted after a year or two to play football for a top NCAA team. Guns were a part of the Clancy family life, and Brandon returned to school after winter break with a vintage sawed-off shotgun from his grandfather. San Bernadino was not the idyllic college campus of his dreams, and he had been unnerved by a few encounters with local tough guys. “He wanted to be able to brandish an intimidating weapon if it came down to it.” It “came down to it” after a night of drinking with some buddies at a club, a stupid encounter on the road and a gun that went off unexpectedly.
Everyone — except Alphonsus “Al” O’Connor, a Chicago police officer who killed a suspect in the line of duty — goes to trial and to prison. In another case, Marvin Gomez had led an exemplary life until he shot someone whom he truly believed had threatened him. Instead of joining most others in accepting a plea deal, he went to trial. The jury did not agree with his insistence that his was a justifiable homicide and found him guilty, and he was sentenced during his appeal. He eventually spent 2 1/2 harrowing years in prison before his sentence was overturned. Nonetheless, his ability to find work and reclaim what was once his life became nearly impossible, even more so with the shocking ending of his story.
Aside from providing a window into the lives of these ordinary people, Patinkin also paints a vivid picture of the unrelenting violence, dysfunction and sociology of our penal system. Frequently, religious faith and practice becomes the only means to survive.
Patinkin writes about these lives with bracing empathy, and he clearly engaged the trust of his subjects, whose perspective on their crimes is filled with horror and regret. But often the familiar good-kid-gone-bad trope skirts away from more rigorous questioning. Why would the otherwise great Brandon want a sawed-off shotgun at all?
Often the sheer drama of the narratives makes it easy to ignore some of the writing, with cringe-worthy purple moments such as: “The shame gurgled in Lester’s throat like a vile backwash.” More complicated is the re-creation of dialogue Patinkin could not possibly have heard. Exchanges in prison, with lawyers, between parents and children, victims and perpetrators may make for an energetic narrative, but at best they complicate and at worst undermine the credibility of the stories. It only adds to the list of cringe-worthy moments, such as Patinkin’s efforts to reconstruct the Irish brogue of O’Connor’s then-wife: “ ‘I figured ye could do wit one of deez, Alfie,’ she said sweetly, smiling.”
To his credit, Patinkin has told us six stories that no one else would. He acknowledges that he is in no way trying to overlook the central tragedy of the victims and their families, but he tries his best to force readers to realize that these shootings aren’t just random events, but a result of real troubles within the shooters and the society that produces, and generally ignores, them.
Narratives of the American Shooter
By Daniel J. Patinkin
Arcade. 304 pp. $24.99