The headlines were almost identical; the crimes near carbon copies of one another.
“Gunman opens fire on La. movie theater, injuring several before killing himself,” The Washington Post reported on July 23.
“Hatchet-wielding man attacks Tennessee movie theater before being killed by police,” The Post echoed on Wednesday night.
Two movie theater attacks in less than two weeks, just as the country tuned in to the trial of America’s most infamous movie theater killer, James Holmes.
The parents of one of Holmes’s victims believe that his theater shooting spree, that killed 12 and injured another 70, is inspiring others to do the same.
“Think about it,” said Tom Teves, the father of Alex Teves, who was shot in the head by Holmes on July 20, 2012. “Since [the trial] started getting a lot of attention again, we’ve had two shootings in two weeks.
“They are basically copycats.”
To be fair, Teves warned us.
He and his wife, Caren, have been asking the media not to obsess over the identity of shooters like Holmes ever since the Aurora slayings more than three years ago. The couple started a campaign, called No Notoriety, calling on journalists to focus on the victims and not the perpetrators.
The couple does not mention Holmes by name. In interviews, they say “it” rather than refer directly to the man who killed their son in cold blood.
One reason is basic fairness.
“They are basically the scum of the earth,” Teves told The Washington Post in a phone interview from Colorado, where he traveled to support his wife as she testified Wednesday in Holmes’s sentencing hearing. “Stop making these things into heroes.”
But on an even more important level, Teves said it’s about public safety. He and his wife argue that high-profile mass killings like the one that claimed their son motivate other would-be murderers to pick up a gun, especially if the media makes a meal of the killer’s story.
“All the data shows it clearly,” Teves said of copycat attacks. “It’s unequivocal.”
That’s why Teves and his wife went to the media earlier this year when the Holmes trial was in full swing.
“One shooter inspires another,” Caren Teves told Yahoo News in April, warning of “a contagion effect.”
“I fear there’s going to be another shooting,” Tom Teves said.
“You watch,” he told Yahoo. “There’ll be one. I pray to God every night that I’m wrong, but I don’t think that I am.”
He wasn’t, and so there was one.
And then another one.
First came the July 23 episode in Lafayette, La., when 59-year-old John Russell Houser stood up in a showing of the comedy “Trainwreck” and started shooting into the darkness. Houser killed 21-year-old Mayci Breaux and 33-year-old Jillian Johnson and injured nine others before turning his gun on himself and taking his own life, according to authorities.
The shooting came just three days after the third anniversary of the Aurora movie theater attack, and as jurors were deliberating whether to sentence Holmes to death. (Testimony is widening down, closing arguments in the penalty phase could begin Thursday and jury deliberations regarding the penalty could begin Friday, according to the Associated Press.)
History seemed to repeat itself yet again on Wednesday when Vincente David Montano, 29, launched a bizarre and brazen attack of his own in a Nashville movie theater showing the dystopian film “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
This is the ax carried by today's movie theater suspect pic.twitter.com/2rHVb8WnyM
— Metro Nashville PD (@MNPDNashville) August 5, 2015
Montanto began “blasting” theater-goers with pepper spray before attacking them with a hatchet and a pistol, according to police. It was only after police had fatally shot Montano that they realized his pistol was a replica that only fired airsoft pellets.
(The Nashville nightmare also occurred three weeks after and only 130 miles away from where Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez killed four Marines and a Navy sailor on July 16.)
“We knew it was going to happen,” Tom Teves said of what he calls two copycat attacks. “I’m just happy it took this long.”
Teves believes that copycat movie theater attacks would have come sooner if not for other news stories that distracted the nation such as the mass shooting at a black church in Charleston, S.C., or the flood of sexual assault allegations against comedian Bill Cosby.
This is the gun the movie theater suspect had. Although it looks like a real firearm, it is an airsoft pistol. pic.twitter.com/mixi9LGc9Y
— Metro Nashville PD (@MNPDNashville) August 6, 2015
The Teveses are not alone in arguing that acts like Holmes’s can push others to kill.
A number of studies have suggested that suicides can be contagious. The phenomenon is sometimes called the “Werther Effect” after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” in which the titular character commits suicide after being romantically rejected. When the novel was published, it allegedly inspired similarly spurned readers to also kill themselves.
The same theory has been applied to mass shootings.
“The higher the shock value, predictably, the higher the ensuing media coverage, which fuels interest in the shooter and creates a whirlwind of attention and spectacle,” Zeynep Tufekci wrote on Atlantic.com in December of 2012 shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre. “… Sensational news coverage is, increasingly, part of the mix of events that contributes to these rampages.”
“Rampage shooters have often been captivated by the idea that they will become posthumously famous,” Adam Lankford wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times around the same time. Columbine High School shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold fantasized about which famous movie directors would want the rights to their life story, according to Lankford. “’Isn’t it fun to get the respect that we’re going to deserve?’” Harris remarked, according to Lankford.
Adam Lanza, who killed 20 kids and six adults during the Sandy Hook shooting spree, kept a binder of “newspaper clippings about shootings of school children dating back to 1891,” according to Mother Jones.
Even the Federal Bureau of Investigation believes that copycat mass killings are real.
“School shootings and other violent incidents that receive intense media attention can generate threats or copycat violence elsewhere,” Mary Ellen O’Toole wrote in a 2000 FBI report. “Copycat behavior is very common, in fact. Anecdotal evidence strongly indicates that threats increase in schools nationwide after a shooting has occurred anywhere in the United States. Students, teachers, school administrators and law enforcement officials should be more vigilant in noting disturbing student behavior in the days and weeks or even several months following a heavily publicized incident elsewhere in the country.”
The idea that mass killings can be contagious is also backed up by math.
Employing the same statistical models used to predict earthquake aftershocks, a team of researchers recently investigated whether mass killings inspire copycat attacks.
“What we found is that a significant fraction of these mass killings and school shootings appear to be caused by contagion,” Sherry Towers, a professor of math and computational sciences at Arizona State University, who led the study told The Post in a telephone interview.
It’s impossible to know the motivation of a particular attack without a confession or a suicide note, she said. But it would be “natural” for Wednesday’s attack to be a copycat because of its close similarity to theater attacks in Lafayette and Aurora as well as its proximity to the Chattanooga massacre.
“This is exactly the type of pattern that is the hallmark of contagion, where you have a whole bunch of these tragedies unusually bunched together in time,” Towers said.
Her study also found that shootings that did not make national news — usually because they had three or fewer victims — didn’t appear to inspire copycats.
“It was only the … mostly high-profile events that did get national media attention, those are the ones where we saw contagion,” she said, adding that “contagion lasted on average about two weeks after these kinds of events.”
But media coverage isn’t entirely to blame, Towers said. Other factors, especially a state’s rate of gun ownership, influenced the likelihood of shootings.
Her study was, itself, inspired by a spate of shootings. Towers was about to attend a meeting at Purdue University when the event was canceled because of an on-campus shooting. It was the fourth such shooting nationwide that month, leaving Towers to wonder if it was more than just coincidence.
The study, published last month in the journal PLOS ONE, was surprisingly difficult, Towers said. Not because of the math, however, but because of the emotion.
“We had to go through the media reports of all these shootings,” she said. “You have to … read about what exactly was going on and how many people were killed and when kids are getting killed and it’s just really tough. It’s really hard. You realize this isn’t just an academic analysis. These are real events that happened. People died.”
Towers said she and her team tried to “quantify something that people have been suspecting for a long time.” But they were hindered by the paucity of data. “What’s needed is a database,” she said. Relying on media reports means that researchers “don’t get the full picture of whether [shooters] had mental issues, whether they obtained their firearm legally or illegally, what events lead up to the event. That’s all missing and that’s all useful data in trying to untangle what causes these things.”
Why isn’t there a database?
“There is a federal freeze on funding for gun violence research … so that hampers things,” Towers said. “You can’t create a database unless you have money to do so. And there is a push not to have a database because it could potentially infringe on Second Amendment rights.”
While Towers focuses on the data for signs of contagion, the Teveses continue to call out the media for coverage they say helps create copycat killers.
“You could make the argument that they kind of want this to happen because it creates continuous, compelling content for free,” Tom Teves said. “Except it’s not free. It’s not free for the families of those two young girls who died [in Lafayette]. It’s not free for them at all, let me tell you. It’s the most expensive thing that ever happened in their lives.”
Teves spoke to The Post from the airport as he prepared to board a flight back to Arizona. Before hanging up, he shifted the conversation back to the trial of his own son’s killer, who he again refused to dignify with a name.
“This thing did it for infamy,” he said of Holmes. “If you study the trial, the only time it took any interest at all, was when it saw pictures of itself, when it saw pictures of its guns, when it saw pictures of its bombs. It couldn’t care less about the people it killed.”
There is only one way to stop the contagion, Teves said. Focus on the victims, not their killers.
“Don’t give them the motivation to go do it.”