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Opinion Hate is not at the root of most mass shootings

A man reads the Bible on Sunday at the site of a memorial honoring the victims of Saturday's shooting in Buffalo. (Joshua Bessex/AP)
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James Densley is a professor of criminal justice at Metro State University. Jillian Peterson is an associate professor of criminology at Hamline University. Together they run the Violence Project and are the authors of “The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic.”

With yet another young White man in police custody and charged with first-degree murder after a mass shooting — this time at a supermarket in Buffalo on Saturday — the police and the public are again asking: Why?

Law enforcement officials were quick to label the massacre, which left 10 people dead, a hate crime. The suspect, who has pleaded not guilty, is believed to have posted a manifesto online articulating fascist hate and far-right ideas. He also allegedly drove for more than three hours to the predominantly Black neighborhood where he unleashed his terror.

This is all eerily reminiscent of the August 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, in which the shooter posted a racist screed full of white supremacist talking points on social media, then drove more than 10 hours to a border community from his hometown near Dallas to fire at shoppers inside a Walmart. Most of the 23 people killed were Latinx. The shooter confessed that he was targeting “Mexicans.”

It’s easy to focus on the hateful ideology underpinning these shootings. But our research has shown that hate and “terrorism,” as they are commonly understood, are not what drive most mass shooters.

These perpetrators aren’t subject-matter experts in politics, ideology or religion. Their understanding of the “cause” said to motivate their actions is typically shallow and contradictory, is simply convenient.

Our dozens of interviews with perpetrators and the people who knew them do reveal, however, that shooters often have the same motivation: to cause as much death and destruction as possible so that a world that had otherwise ignored them would be forced to notice them and feel their anguish. Thus, the Buffalo shooter live-streamed his actions.

Our research shows that mass shooters walk a common route to violence through early childhood trauma. If they fail to achieve what they’ve been socialized to believe is their destiny — material wealth, success, power, happiness — as they age, they reach an existential crisis point.

When they no longer feel connected to the people and places around them, this becomes a suicidal crisis — except the thought of merely taking their own lives leaves them unfulfilled. As the sister of one perpetrator told us, her brother went from asking, “What’s wrong with me?” to asking, “What’s wrong with them?”

Hate comes late along this pathway. Searching for answers, angry men comb through the words and deeds of other angry men who came before, including past mass shooters. In the darkest corners of the Internet, they eventually find someone or something else to blame for their despair.

Perpetrators often choose scapegoats who represent their grievance with the world — people at their school, their workplace, a place of worship. In the case of Buffalo, it was a grocery store frequented by Black people.

Unfortunately, motives often become labels used to explain away the problem of mass shootings. Mental illness, for example, is not a motive. If a mass shooter has a mental health diagnosis, this doesn’t mean that their every action is related to that diagnosis or that their symptoms caused them to pull the trigger. In our research, only about 10 percent of mass shootings were directly motivated by psychotic hallucinations and delusions.

The hunt for motive is ultimately fruitless. In our comprehensive database of mass shooters of the past 50 years, one of the most common motives is “unknown.” All we can say with some degree of certainty is that no one living a fulfilled life perpetrates a mass shooting. These shootings are designed to be the perpetrator’s final act, and this is perhaps the most important point when it comes to preventing them.

Most mass shooters are actively suicidal. Whether they kill themselves, are killed by police, face the death penalty or spend the rest of their lives in prison, they have no plan for what comes next.

This is what makes mass shootings different from other gun crimes, such as robberies gone bad or domestic homicides. This is also why traditional deterrence measures, such as armed security or harsh criminal sanctions, do little to avert them.

This doesn’t mean mass shootings can’t be avoided. Rather, we need a different approach. There are many strategies to preempt mass shootings, none perfect on their own. These include improving access to mental health care and crisis support at schools and workplaces, expanding suicide prevention programs, holding media and social media companies accountable for hateful rhetoric on their platforms, and limiting access to firearms for high-risk individuals.

We are capable of action. Rather than hunting for motive, let’s stop the next tragedy by investing in solutions that will reach the next would-be shooter before he decides his only option is to pick up a gun.