Early in the morning of Sept. 4, 1913, Ernst Wagner murdered his wife and four children in the town of Degerloch, Germany. Then he went to Muehlhausen, where he feared the townsmen were mocking him for having sex with an animal. He opened fire and hit 20 people, killing at least nine.
This is believed to be one of the first spectacular rampage murders of the 20th century. Over the next 60 years, there was about one or two of these spree killings per decade. Then the frequency of such killings began to shoot upward. There were at least nine of these rampages during the 1980s, according to history websites that track such things, including the 1982 case of a police officer in South Korea who massacred 57 people.
In the 1990s, there were at least 11 spectacular spree killings. Over the past decade, by my count, there have been at least 26 rampages. These include Robert Steinhauser’s murder of 16 people in Germany, Seung-Hui Cho’s murder of 32 at Virginia Tech, Anders Breivik’s shooting spree at a summer camp in Norway in which 69 died, and the killing of 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colo., last week, allegedly at the hands of James E. Holmes.
When you investigate the minds of these killers, you find yourself deep in a world of delusion, untreated schizophrenia and ferociously injured pride. George Hennard of Belton, Texas, was angry that women kept rejecting him. He drove his car through the window of a restaurant and began firing, killing 14 women and eight men.
Tim Kretschmer, 17, hoped to become a professional table tennis player but felt that the world didn’t appreciate his abilities, in that or anything else. He returned to the German school where he had graduated the year before, went straight for the top-floor chemistry labs, killed nine teenagers and then another six people during his escape.
It’s probably a mistake to think that we can ever know what “caused” these rampages. But when you read through the assessments that have been done by the FBI, the Secret Service and various psychologists, you see certain common motifs.
Many of the killers had an exaggerated sense of their own significance, which, they felt, was not properly recognized by the rest of the world. Many suffered a grievous blow to their self-esteem – a lost job, a divorce or a school failure – and decided to strike back in some showy way.
Many had suffered from severe depression or had attempted suicide. Many lived solitary lives, but most shared their violent fantasies with at least one person before they committed their crimes.
The killers generally felt tense before they acted but at peace and in control during the rampage. Some committed suicide when they were done. But a surprising number just gave up. They’d made the statement they wanted to make and hadn’t thought about what came after.
The crucial point is that the dynamics are internal, not external. These killers are primarily the product of psychological derangements, not sociological ones.
Yet, after every rampage, there are always people who want to use these events to indict whatever they don’t like about society. A few years ago, some writers tried to blame violent video games for a rash of killings. The problem is that rampage murderers tend to be older than regular murderers, and they tend not to be heavy video game users. Besides, there’s very little evidence that violent video games lead to real-life violence in the first place.
These days, people are trying to use the Aurora killings as a pretext to criticize America’s gun culture or to call for stricter gun control laws. (This doesn’t happen after European or Asian spree killings.) Personally, I’ve supported tighter gun control laws. But it’s not clear that those laws improve public safety. Researchers reviewing the gun control literature for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, were unable to show the laws are effective.
And gun control laws are probably even less germane in these cases. Rampage killers tend to be meticulous planners. If they can’t find an easy way to get a new gun, they’ll surely find a way to get one of the 200 million guns that already exist in this country. Or they’ll use a bomb or find another way.
Looking at guns, looking at video games – that’s starting from the wrong perspective. People who commit spree killings are usually suffering from severe mental disorders. The response, and the way to prevent future episodes, has to start with psychiatry, too.
The best way to prevent killing sprees is with relationships – when one person notices that a relative or neighbor is going off the rails and gets that person treatment before the barbarism takes control. But there also has to be a more aggressive system of treatment options, especially for men in their 20s.
The truly disturbed have always been with us, but their outbursts are now taking more malevolent forms.David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.