Skip to main content

Looking into the minds of killers

By Jeffrey Swanson, Special to CNN
July 25, 2012 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
The public gets its first glimpse of James Holmes, 24, the suspect in the Colorado theater shooting during his initial court appearance Monday, July 23. With his hair dyed reddish-orange, Holmes, here with public defender Tamara Brady, showed little emotion. He is accused of opening fire in a movie theater Friday, July 20, in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 people and wounding 58 others. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/21/us/gallery/colorado-mourning-victims/index.html' target='_blank'>More photos: Mourning the victims of the Colorado theater massacre</a> The public gets its first glimpse of James Holmes, 24, the suspect in the Colorado theater shooting during his initial court appearance Monday, July 23. With his hair dyed reddish-orange, Holmes, here with public defender Tamara Brady, showed little emotion. He is accused of opening fire in a movie theater Friday, July 20, in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 people and wounding 58 others. More photos: Mourning the victims of the Colorado theater massacre
HIDE CAPTION
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
Colorado movie theater shooting
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • People are asking what triggered the Aurora shooting
  • Jeffrey Swanson: Looking inside the killer's mind will not turn up the answer
  • He says most violence is not caused by a major psychiatric condition
  • Swanson: True "reasons" that motivated killer's terrible act may be unknowable

Editor's note: Jeffrey Swanson is a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University's School of Medicine.

(CNN) -- A witness to the horrific shooting rampage in the Colorado movie theater called it "the longest minute" of his life. One can only imagine. But the second longest minute may be the waiting for someone -- the authorities, the pundits, the doctors -- to tell us "why" these killings happened. Police say James Holmes, a 24-year-old graduate student in a neurosciences program, called himself the Joker and rained merciless bullets on strangers watching a Batman movie. Why?

Colorado theater shooting suspect makes first court appearance

Already, the speculations are flooding in. There's a celebrity psychiatrist saying it was a "failure of empathy" likely rooted in the shooter's early life psychological pain. What about asking the accused shooter's parents? "Listen, these folks that are now flying to join their son in Colorado, if you were to ask them, 'What three things are you most sensitive about not telling people, about your family or your son's personal development, or the things that are most painful to relate' -- there's your answer."

Jeffrey Swanson
Jeffrey Swanson

Another psychiatrist thinks that people who commit crimes like this are "unfailingly unable to form satisfying sexual attachments, and their masculinity essentially gets replaced with their fascination for destruction."

Big Religion has also weighed in. "The product of pure evil ... a depraved individual taking his free will to the extreme," says the president of Focus on the Family. The head of the Southern Baptists commented that the incident "tells the truth about unbridled human sin."

They should all shut up. Let the police work. Let a competent clinician conduct a private evaluation. Let the professional reporters find out what really happened.

Suspect is a former camp counselor
What was the Colorado shooter's motive?
The mind of suspect James Holmes

Former colleague shocked that Holmes is theater shooting suspect

On the face of it, a deliberate rampage to kill strangers is the act of a deviant consciousness of some kind. But we don't know whether the accused killer's mind may have been driven by acute symptoms of a psychiatric disorder that impairs thought and perception of reality, by a personality misshaped through a troubled past, or by something else entirely. We simply don't know.

What we do know, based on the best available scientific evidence on the link between violence and mental illness in populations, is that most violence is not caused by a major psychiatric condition like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or depression. Psychiatric disorder accounts for only about 4% of violent behavior, across the spectrum from minor to serious assaultive acts. And the vast majority of people with serious mental illnesses do not behave violently.

If research on patterns of violence in populations tells us anything, it's that no single thing causes assaultive behavior. Even when serious psychopathology plays a role, it is almost never a sufficient explanation. Other variables -- personal background characteristics and life experience, features of the social environment, substance abuse -- all may interact to make violent acts statistically more likely. That makes it complicated to explain and very difficult to predict actions on an individual level.

Court appearance fuels theories about Colorado shooting suspect

After the fact, rare and appalling acts of violence somehow look predictable, and thus, preventable. It is natural to turn to the experts, but they always come up short. They are notoriously bad at forecasting even garden variety violence, to say nothing of finding the one-in-a-million would-be mass shooter.

When we total up the contributions of all the risk factors with known links to violent behavior, most of it is left unexplained. When we describe the common characteristics of mass shooters, we're left with a profile that fits tens of thousands of troubled young men who would never actually do such a senseless thing.

"When we describe the common characteristics of mass shooters, we're left with a profile that fits tens of thousands of troubled young men who would never actually do such a senseless thing."

Is Holmes a psychopath? The true "reasons" that motivated the terrible act of which he is accused may always remain obscure. But what should not be obscure is how easy it is for troubled young men legally to acquire a small arsenal of firearms in the United States. If Holmes hadn't been able to get his hands on the guns police say he used, this would be a different story .

Opinion: Mass murder and powerful firearms

People can disagree about whether 270 million firearms in private hands in the country is too many guns. But they should not disagree that 300,000 people dying from gunshots in the past decade is too many wasted lives. The notion of forbidding assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines -- machines specifically designed to kill multiple people in the twinkling of an eye -- is not about infringing the Second Amendment. It is about common sense and protecting the public. Such weapons were successfully legally banned in the United States from 1994 to 2004; they should be banned again.

Still, dangerous guns per se are not the only problem, and banning them is only part of the solution. We also need better means of identifying dangerous people who should not have access to guns.

Research shows that one of the highest risk times for violence in people who develop a psychotic illness is their first episode -- the period right before they establish any record with the formal mental health care system. Gun laws such as the federal Brady Act that are implemented through background record searches won't find these individuals. But even having a formal record of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization is no guarantee that the relevant information will be available at the point of purchase of a firearm.

Opinion: When will America wake up to gun violence?

In Colorado, only a tiny fraction (about 1%) of people who have gun-disqualifying mental health histories have been reported to the National Instant Check System, where they could be discovered in a routine background check of a prospective gun purchaser. A felony conviction is also supposed to disqualify people from buying a gun, but only 40% of murder suspects have such a previous record of conviction.

The present national moment of grief and soul searching should not become another occasion for oversimplifying the problem of gun violence and laying the blame on any one thing -- "it's the guns" or "it's untreated mental illness" or "it's the information system" or "it's the violent popular culture in society." It may be all of those things. We need to address all of the variables and come up with smart evidence-based policies. Looking inside the killer's head should not be the first place to start.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeffrey Swanson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1411 GMT (2211 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT