Despite the public outcry for red flag warnings as a method of mitigating gun violence and high lethality shooting incidents there is no single repository for cataloging red flag behavior when red flags are observed. In some cases, red flags are ever present in a one-sided, authoritarian relationship slug fest. One man we investigated posed with a Remington shotgun in his high school year book. A real gun guy.
Think about how difficult it would be to track and classify all the red flags we see in people all the time. As psychologists, it is something we do regularly. A dangerousness assessment is a component of every exam I do. If someone gives off signs that they may become violent, psychologists have a duty to warn potential victims and the local police. Who does the public call? Concerned citizens call police to do well-being checks almost daily – sometimes more than once. These are usually benign calls for service but domestic violence and dangerousness require greater understanding of the risks of harm to LEO’s and innocent family members. It is a fact, that someone usually knows that there is imminent risk of violence – even mass murder, and does nothing.
“I thought he might do something, like kill himself or something, but I never thought he’d take the kids”Sister of a Maine man who killed his family and then himself in 2011
As yet, there is no repository of “red flags”. People wrongly believe there is a single place where violent intentions are stored. Yet no. There is seemingly no red line, that if crossed, someone would be deemed too dangerous to own a weapon or perhaps be brought for early dangerousness assessment. The quotation above is from the psychological autopsy conducted after Steven Lake murdered his wife Amy and their two children in Dexter, Maine. Red flags are the antemortem behaviors that indicate growing affective instability. These are suggestive of an increased level of risk to intimate partners and often the general public. They are the clues that behavioral scientists hand out whenever the topic of dangerousness is brought up – we are reminded of all the red flags. I think the American public is tired of hearing about red flags because so often they are present in the retrospective after the murder victims have been laid to rest. The prior depression, suicidal behavior, various forms of interpersonal violence, availability of firearms, forced sex, choking, pathological jealousy, violation of restraining order, and threats of death are a few red flag warnings often overlooked. We will speak about the Uvalde killer and a couple others in the next few paragraphs. But bear in mind, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.
Just as violent spouses manifest a behavioral purulence, mass shooters often display a similarly angry predilection that is posted on the their chosen social media platform in the form of a host of miserable, cantankerous resentments. This resentment can take many forms and is often the road map into the underpinning of their anger and growing desire for violent recompense. These are not monitored by the dangerousness police, in fact, red flags are not collected, tallied, or catalogued at all. If the ad hoc red flags are laid out and the subject suddenly comes into contact with law enforcement and all the planets align, then a high lethality event may be averted serendipitously one day. But derailing a mass casualty event on the front end has been an inauspicious foist at best. These shooters inevitably fall through the cracks and very few have been stopped in their tracks because of red flags that rose to the level of containment. How is that possible?
In 2016, the knee jerk reaction is to attribute the recent Thousand Oaks, CA nightclub shooting to a “crazed gunman” that would unfairly place the blame on the mentally ill. Psychological experts believe mentally ill persons lack the higher order planning to execute the complex steps necessary for anything more than petty crime – more often associated with co-morbid substance abuse. It is the co-occuring illness of drug or alcohol addiction that is a confounding variable in all police-mental health encounters. The interaction of substance abuse disease, like alcoholism or opioid abuse and mental illness is complex. Persons with drug and alcohol addiction must be expected to become sober with the help of substance abuse treatment and family support. The risk of violence and suicide declines when sobriety can be maintained. It goes up when depressed and angry men drink more than they should.
Some social media platforms use algorithms to predict when someone may use violence based upon target words, internet search terms, and photos that may be posted. So far, none of these have helped to intercept a shooter from his intended targets. In the aftermath of high profile mass shooting, law enforcement and the FBI uncover pages and pages of antisocial ranting, hostile embitterment, ethnic hatred, and angry beliefs along with veiled threats. These often are directed at one person or group of people who are perceived to have wronged the shooter. Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho send his diatribe to the media in 2007. In the case of Steven Lake, his daily online diatribe about the unfairness of the court order protection always drew dozens of ‘likes‘ and comments that he was a good father and should “fight for his children”. The fast action by the victim’s employer and the Dexter police on the morning of the murders is likely what prevented a rampage. It is believed that Lake had an intended list of people he planned to murder.
Some mass shooters are engaged in group chat rooms where messages of violence and hatred are shared, bringing their fetid ideas to the drawing board. In these chat rooms, like-minded antisocial men and women hoard their reactionary fantasies decayed by the never ending bluster and beset in a de facto life filled with anger and decreased empathy. Video games contribute to aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the laboratory and in life (Boffey, Dana Foundation). So among the cartoon characters in the chat rooms are young men who are searching for meaning behind the call to war or other video games. They collectively create a sense of having been the victim of injustices and being driven to seek vengeance against anyone he believed had wronged them” assuming no responsibility whatsoever, according to Peter Langman, 2017.
Each time a person strikes out in a mass shooting the people who are tasked with understanding and identifying red flags that were present signaling the impending violent combustion. These are often easy to spot by those closest to the shooter. The possibility of mandating the report red flags is being debated. Like child and elder abuse, proponents of red flag warnings want mandated reporting laws for persons with direct knowledge of violent intensions when it becomes known. “And when it comes to mass shootings, those with mental illness account for “less than 1 % of all yearly gun-related homicides” a 2016 study found. Other studies indicate that people with mental disorders account for just 3-5 % of overall violence in the US” – Paul Appelbaum, M.D. taken from BBC by Rachel Newer 11-1-2018.
In May, 2014, Elliot Rodger, 22, posted a YouTube video declaring his intention to slaughter “those with a good life”. Elliot felt like girls he had dated were unkind to him. He wrote a manifesto over over 100 pages. These pages detailed his childhood, family problems, his inability to get a girlfriend, and his hatred of women, ethnic minorities and interracial couples. And it contained his plans for a massacre according to Andrew Springer, journalist who interviewed Peter Rodger, Elliot’s father. This occurred in Santa Barbara, CA, where his murderous rampage was posted using social media sites as a prequel to the killing of 6 college students including his two room mates – one of whom he stabbed 94 times. His therapist made a valiant effort to warn the possible victims of his violent intentions as the law requires.
In a case of nihilistic violence, Vester Flanagan, a television news reportely killed a female colleague and her cameraman while live on the air. “Like dozens of mass killers before him, the shooter embodied a deadly mix of resentment, delusion, and thwarted aspiration” according to Sarah Kaplan (Washington Post, August 27, 2015). The live twitter posts, videotaping the shooting, and horrific execution of the victims by Vester Flanagan on live television will be a specter for years to come in Virginia’s Roanoke market. Just as important may be the analysis of Flangan’s devolving mental status in the months and days leading up to the terminal event.
The case in Uvalde, TX is similar in that the shooter set his sites on children and teachers. Ostensibly, selecting a soft target to amplify his intent on bringing forth chaos, pain, and historic violence, like the Sandy Hook, CT killings in 2012 and Stoneham Douglas High School in Florida. Much of the aftermath scrutiny of the event will catalogue his social media presence and its potential for understanding what triggered the despicable attack and may have informed law enforcement about potential for exploding embitterment through violence. And the police response in this event remains under investigation because of the poorly executed breach and termination of the event. No one knows how long James Ramos may have exuded his intention when he purchased two AR-15 style rifles just days after he turned 18. One could infer that his plan was hatched months before given the timing of his gun purchases. Dr. Peter Langman described an accumulation of real or imagined injustices among the causal attributes of such gun violence as Uvalde, Sandy Hook, and so many others. Shooters are deeply driven to seek vengeance against anyone they believed had “wronged” them according to Langman in 2017. Interestingly, video game violence has not risen to the top of the list as a leading cause of mass killing although, “Violent video games provide a forum for learning and practicing aggressive solutions to conflict situations,” Anderson 2000.
Let us look at the most recent event in July 2022 where Robert Crimo III, known as Bobby, climbed to the roof of a structure overlooking the start of the July 4 parade in Highland Park, IL. He had a semiautomatic AR-15 style rifle that he legally purchased himself. And yet, in November 2019, police were called to his home because he was threatening to “kill everyone in his family”. He had the means and the mindset for such a crime that the Highland Park police removed 16 knives and a sword from his home in his possession. These were returned to him sometime later. In 2021, they were called to the home once again for now-18-year old named Bobby, who wanted to kill himself. The same person. In the Chicago Post interview, the senior Crimo downplayed his son, Bobby’s threats in that incident as a “childish outburst.” Not quite right. The red flags were there and if a red flag repository existed, he should not have been allowed to purchase or poses firearms. Whether or not he should have been contained in a mental health treatment facility is not known.
Containment of violent offenders is an important component of the criminal justice system. But what about those who are exhibiting red flags? Containment of violent citizens is also something to consider before they act on violent impulses. How do we protect their individual right to privacy? Someone usually knows what is likely to happen if something isn’t done to break the cycle of coercion and violence. In the Dexter case the killer’s sister knew. 12 hours before the murders she told her brother to “go get help”. But he could not. He was a gun guy. The fact that so many mass shooters are killed by law enforcement or kill themselves prevents analysis of broad psychological factors that may have triggered the terminal rage such as early childhood instability, loss of a love object, hostile embitterment, or a desire for blazing masculinity. And those who are captured such as James Holmes who was convicted of the 2012 Aurora, Colorado theater shooting in 2015. There was nothing that could be cited that correlated with the extent of violence and victims from that night in Aurora – 12 fatal and over 40 with severe injuries. A quick review reminds us that Holmes was a bright doctoral candidate in neuroscience prior to the massacre. “Studies have shown study that exposure to violent video games is positively related to adolescent aggression; however, normative beliefs about aggression have a mediating effect on exposure to violent video games and adolescent aggression, while the family environment regulates the first part of the mediation process.” In general, the research has not consistently supported the notion that violent video games contribute to aggressive behavior or mass shootings but some have offered modest correlation without espousing causality. Massachusetts has recently enacted an emergency red flag for people who are exhibiting the most violent behavior. It allows police to remove firearms and revoke a person’s license to carry a firearm. Known as the Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO), also known as a red flag law, is an order from a judge that suspends a person’s license to possess or carry a gun. That said, greater emphasis on the assessment dangerousness, along with mandated reporting just like in suspected cases of child or elder abuse and a DV offender registry may be worth considering. It is not an exact science but in case after case there are undeniable red flags and someone who knows what is going to happen because of an intimate and shared relationship. Look at the red flags and make a determination of risk. Containment including: no bail holds, loss of second amendment privilege, and GPS monitoring will instill greater responsibility in both violent citizens and shared criminal responsibility with those keeping the dangerous secret.
Anderson, C, Dill, K, (2000), Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the laboratory and in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 78, No. 4.
Anderson, C. A., and Carnagey, N. L. (2014). “The role of theory in the study of media violence: the general aggression model” in Media violence and children. ed. Gentile, D. A. (Westport, CT: Praeger), 103–133.
Boffey, P (2019) Do Violent Video Games Lead to Violence? Dana Foundation, Neuroethics Viewpoint.