Already there are voices calling for increased gun control in the wake of Aaron Alexis’ murders of 12 people in the Washington Navy Yard yesterday. As Examiner reported, traditional gun control seems to be counterproductive in reducing crimes and mass killings, but an analysis of this and other shootings reveals several common threads between many perpetrators of rampage killings.Diagnoses are made more difficult by the fact that the killers in many of the rampages are often killed themselves, but in many cases, the killer had been diagnosed with some form of mental illness or can plausibly be considered to have an undiagnosed mental illness. Other factors, such as video games, movies, or broken families are also common.
Aaron Alexis is reported to have been undergoing treatment for mental illness with the Veterans Administration according to the Washington Times. The report indicates that Alexis had reported hearing voices in his head and suffered from paranoia. NBC News reports that Alexis had two prior arrests for gun related crimes. In 2004, he allegedly shot out the tires of another man’s car during “an anger-fueled ‘blackout’” in Seattle. In 2010, he was arrested in Texas for shooting his gun through the ceiling of his apartment. The bullet went through his ceiling into the apartment upstairs. Alexis told police that the shooting was accidental. According to Seattle police, Alexis was present at the September 11 attacks and was an “active participant in rescue attempts” [at the World Trade Center according to the Telegraph] and may have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The Daily Mail also reports that Alexis’ best friend, Nutpisit Suthamtewakul, 31, of Ft. Worth, said that Alexis was obsessed with violent video games. Mr. Suthamtewakul said that Alexis would often play “zombie” shooter games for much of the night. Mr. Suthamtewakul also said that Alexis was a “hard core drinker.”
Atlanta’s 11 Alive News also reported a third arrest in Georgia. On August 10, 2008, Alexis was arrested in DeKalb County for disorderly conduct. There was no indication that a weapon was used. He was also discharged from the Navy Reserve in 2011 for unspecified misconduct. None of this prevented Alexis from obtaining a security clearance to work as a navy contractor. CNN reported that Alexis’ security clearance was renewed in July.
The full details of Alexis’ family and childhood are not available, but reports of the family make no mention of his father. A Newsday article quoted a former neighbor of the family’s apartment in Brooklyn who noted that the family consisted of a mother, a daughter, and two boys. Mr. Alexis reportedly lived with his grandmother in Seattle.
In the case of last year’s shootings at Newtown, Ct., the Hartford Courant and NBC’s WPTV reported that Adam Lanza was a frequent player of violent first-person shooter video games. Police report that Lanza destroyed his computer before his rampage, so the exact extent of his video gaming may never be known. Lanza was known to have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism and had not seen his father since 2010.
Peter Bell, executive vice president of programs and services at Autism Speaks told PBS that some Asperger’s patients do have trouble controlling aggressive thoughts and behavior, but that there is no evidence linking the condition to violence. Nevertheless, Randi Rentz, a teacher specializing in Asperger’s, notes that some of her students exhibit hostility. There is also the possibility that other undiagnosed forms of mental illness were present along with the Asperger’s.
James Holmes, who went on a rampage in a movie theater showing “the Dark Knight” in Colorado in July 2012, apparently came from an intact family, but had seen three mental health professionals at the University of Colorado according to CBS News. Any diagnosis is unknown due to a gag order imposed by the judge in the case, but Holmes reportedly mailed a package to one of the school’s psychiatrists. Because of the gag order, not much information is available about Holmes’ mental state, but Fox News has reported that he was a frequent player of video games including “World of Warcraft,” a role-playing game. One friend told the Telegraph that Holmes preferred “Guitar Hero” to shooter games.
The Week reported that a local gun range owner flagged Holmes after he attempted to join the range. The man called Holmes’ answering machine “bizarre or freakish” and told employees to refer Holmes to him before letting him do anything there. In the months before the killing spree, Holmes’ grades had fallen and he had dropped out of graduate school. Apparently, one of the psychiatrists at the college had become concerned that Holmes might be a potential threat, but he dropped out before her concerns could be addressed according to a report from the local ABC affiliate.
Jared Lee Loughner, who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others in Tucson in January 2011, was both mentally ill and a video gamer. Several sources, including the Wall St. Journal, report Loughner’s obsession with games. Loughner had a long history of mental illness according to Time. He had made threatening and nonsensical comments to fellow students and teachers at his college. His tests and writings included bizarre and sometimes violent phrases. At times he seemed paranoid and unable to function socially. He was also a frequent user of marijuana which may have made his condition worse. He apparently was rejected for military service due to a failed drug test. He also had stalked several women and, at one point, was involuntarily committed to a mental institution.
A Wall St. Journal investigation of Loughner’s posts in online video game forums showed a number of disturbing posts. He pondered whether one should “hit a Handy Cap Child/Adult” [sic] and theorized that women enjoyed being raped. He also lamented his inability to find a job. According to the report, Loughner played role-playing video games such as “Starcraft,” “Diablo,” and “Earth: 2025.”
Cho Seung-Hui, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, had been diagnosed with mental health problems at an early age according to a well documented report on the massacre by the State of Virginia. In elementary school, he was diagnosed with emotional issues that led to communication problems. In middle school, he was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, lack of verbal skills and immaturity. In 1999, after the Columbine murders, Cho wrote a paper for his English class that indicated that he wanted to carry out a mass murder as well. He was diagnosed with selective mutism in social situations and depression. At this point, he was given a prescription for antidepressants, after which his condition improved.
Cho had an above average IQ and, with special accommodations in high school, his grades were high enough that he was accepted at Virginia Tech. In eleventh grade, he had improved enough that he was able to stop the counseling sessions and never resumed them after he graduated and began attending college.
As a college sophomore, Cho’s grades began to drop. He changed his major to English, a subject that he struggled with. He became disruptive in class and his creative writing assignments reflected dark and violent themes. He was accused of stalking a female student and had stabbed the carpet with a knife at a party. A friend reported that Cho had threatened to kill himself and Cho admitted to having depression and anxiety, although he denied having suicidal thoughts according to ABC News. Cho talked to three counselors, but failed to come to counseling appointments and pursue treatment. Throughout his school career, Cho was known for not speaking or speaking in barely audible tones.
Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the Columbine killers, reportedly had different motives and illnesses. According to an assessment published in Slate, Klebold may have suffered from depression while Harris was likely a psychopath. Based on his journal, a panel of psychologists, psychiatrists, and FBI agents point to Harris’ contempt for others and his total lack of empathy and conscience as evidence of his psychopathic tendencies. Dr. Peter Langman, formerly a clinical director at Kids Peace Hospital and author of “Why Kids Kill,” agrees. His analysis of the writings of Klebold and Harris agrees that Harris was a psychopath while Klebold apparently suffered from a variety of psychoses including depression, paranoia, delusions and disorganized thinking. The two teens famously enjoyed violent video games as well.
Michael Brandon Hill, the gunman who invaded a school in Decatur, Ga. last month, also had a history of mental illness and a criminal record according Examiner. A quick-thinking school receptionist was able to convince Hill to surrender after exchanging shots with police.
Dr. Harold Koplewicz wrote in the Huffington Post that 75 percent of psychiatric disorders appear by age 24 and that early intervention greatly improves the prognosis. Dr. Bill Knaus of the Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy network points out that many mentally ill people are not aware of their illness and therefore will not voluntarily seek help. A particularly dangerous time seems to be when people stop taking their medication, especially if they do so abruptly and without supervision.
After another person with a history of mental illness goes on a killing spree, there may be more bipartisan support for reform of mental health laws. Colorado is one of the few states to act on mental health reform so far. Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, reformed the state’s involuntary treatment laws in the wake of James Holmes’ killing spree.
A portion of this article was originally published on Jan. 16, 2013.