Hamline News

Shooting for answers

 A professor and her students conduct research to understand and prevent mass shootings.

By Marla Holt    

Adam Lanza. Dylann Roof. Stephen Paddock. We likely recognize these as names of perpetrators of mass shootings. We also can connect them to the sites where the murders they committed took place: Sandy Hook. Charleston. Las Vegas. But beyond that, we have no true understanding of why they carried out these horrific acts.

“We don’t have a grasp of who these people are and how they got to the point of committing mass murder,” said Jillian Peterson, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline. She and a small group of students are working to change that by building a database that tracks the psychosocial histories of 135 mass shooters.

Better and more thorough data will not only improve our knowledge of why mass shootings happen but could prove useful in policy decisions, Peterson said. “With clear data, we can begin to have more informed discussions around policy and work toward developing effective prevention strategies.”

Peterson’s group is researching public mass shootings with four or more victims, not family or gang-related, that have occurred since the 1960s. They code the shooters according to 50 variables, such as family structure, education and employment history, past trauma, mental illness, social media profiles, and the type of gun that was used. 

The research involves online sleuthing of public records, according to Kyle Knapp ’18 and Delphine Malard ’18, two of 12 students who volunteered to help with the project beginning last fall and continuing as part of a J-Term class taught by Peterson. Both students are planning to study forensic psychology in graduate school. 

Knapp worked on the histories of Nidal Hasan (Fort Hood), Elliot Rodger (Isla Vista), and Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech), among others. “We’re trying to put together as full a picture as we can of their lives from birth to death,” he said. After coding his findings for the database, Knapp speculates about each shooter’s motivation. 

“I don’t believe you can consider motive until you’ve tried to understand the stressors and turning points in the shooters’ lives,” Knapp said. “I’ve learned that understanding motive is complex and it’s really a convergence of biological, psychological, and social factors.”

Malard, who investigated the lives of nine mass shooters, including the Las Vegas shooter, said the project taught her to avoid speculation by conducting rigorous research.

“The information needs to be as accurate as possible,” she said. “It’s challenging because sometimes I have to make a call between a source saying one thing and another contradicting it. I have to decide which is the most trusted source.”

Once the group has finished collecting qualitative data, they can begin the task of data analysis: looking for clusters or patterns and attempting to identify actual predictors of mass shootings.

In her initial looks at the data, Peterson has been particularly intrigued by the idea of mass shootings as a form of suicide. 

“I’m struck by how many of the shooters’ profiles—white male, loner, hopeless—match those who commit suicide more than they match those who commit homicide,” she said. “They have no exit plan. It’s an interesting question and a whole different set of prevention strategies to investigate.”

Peterson hopes the database will be useful for researchers and scholars who are studying the phenomenon of mass shootings. She also is toying with the idea of eventually making the database public, with some hesitancy. 

“It’s risky because people can use data to say different things,” Peterson said. “For every school shooter who has a certain profile, there are a million people who have that exact same profile who don’t commit a mass shooting. Also, ... I’m very concerned about increasing the stigma of connecting mental illness to criminal behavior.”

Peterson and her students have received local and national media attention for their work on the database. This past October, they led an in-depth public discussion about their project following the shooting in Las Vegas, talking about individual and societal risk factors and discussing ideas of what communities can collectively do to prevent mass shootings. The event was attended by nearly 150 people.

“People are terrified by random and unpredictable violence,” Peterson said. “But these mass shooters aren’t just scary monsters. They’re human beings in whom something went awfully wrong. Knowledge is powerful, and I want to be part of the effort needed to understand what caused these shooters to do truly awful things.”