Jillian Peterson teaches Criminology and Criminal Justice at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She co-founded The Violence Project with James Densley and they have compiled the most comprehensive mass shooter database in order to better understand the phenomenon and prevent future tragedies.
“One of my goals is to convince people that violence prevention is a way that we lead our lives every day. It doesn’t have to look like we think it looks. Preventing violence is really just about human connection and we’re all very capable of being part of it.”
“It was right after there was a string of mass shootings and there was a lot of conversations in the news about mental illness and mental health. I went looking to figure out what percentage of mass shooters actually have a mental illness or what we know about it and realized that we knew very, very little about who mass shooters are. We knew that they were on the rise. We knew that more and more people were dying and they were happening more often, but there was this rhetoric that they were just these kinds of evil monsters.
And that’s about as deep as we had gone with it.
I used to be an investigator and do life history investigations for people who had committed murders in New York city. I was really interested in how people do what they do. Where does violence come from? How do people get to the point where they’re going to do something that horrific? And so we started by making a list of every mass shooter who had killed four or more people for the last 50 years. It was about, at the time, 160 names. And then we came up with about a hundred different life history factors that we could look at for each of them. It was just an Excel spreadsheet and a group of volunteer students who weren’t getting paid and they weren’t doing it for credit. We just kind of started filling it in as a project, but as we kept going, it kind of started getting more attention.
It was something that nobody had done before, which was bizarre. And then we got a large grant from the U S department of justice to keep going with it and to really expand it. So we were able to pay students, we added more names, we added more variables. It became this really robust project. And with that grant also, we were able to travel and do interviews. So for the last three years, I’ve been traveling around the country, talking to perpetrators of mass shootings, talking to victims, to family members, to first responders and trying to really understand the phenomenon. And the entire goal is to prevent them from happening because I don’t think you can prevent something from happening until you really deeply understand why it’s happening.
So one of the interviews I did was with the high school girlfriend of a perpetrator of one of the most infamous mass shootings. And she said, literally, ‘I think our biggest mistake is calling them monsters because when they’re monsters, they’re not your brother and they’re not the kid you sit in class with and they’re not your coworker. And it’s something that some monstrous person does. It’s not someone that I know or who’s in my world.’
And the reality was, this was her high school boyfriend. And she never would have dreamed that this could have possibly happened, that he could go down this pathway. And so I think part of humanizing people who do awful things is saying this could be anyone.
When I worked in New York city, my job was to develop what we called bio-psycho-social developmental life histories of people facing the death penalty, which was basically going to Rikers Island and talking to people who were on trial for murder and trying to understand the pathway that gets them to the point of murder.
I was in my early twenties and these were people who had committed the most horrific murders. I mean, the stuff that Law & Order is based on. Just horrible, horrible things. And what was most profound for me about that experience was that they were still good people. I could connect with them. I could find goodness in them. I could sort of understand the pathway that got them to doing this horrible thing. And not that it excused it, not that they weren’t responsible, but in understanding that the fact that these were the people who had done the most horrific things that I’d ever heard and they still were good people, for me was really moving. That has been my driving force in my research. How do you tell these stories? How do you help humanize people? So we can actually prevent this from happening again. It’s interesting.
In New York I developed this saying that a lot of people in the office use, which was ‘the worse the crime, the worse the story,’ and it was always true that if it was the worst, worst crime, there was always this story that you could follow along. And not that it excused it, but it made some sense that there’s not just these evil babies born into the world that are there to just do horrible things, that people are just a product of what they’ve been through. And when you go through horrific things, you end up in a really horrific place.
As I approach this topic, I think it’s about humility and not assuming that you know, but just asking deep questions and listening deeply. It’s a delicate balance and I don’t want to offend victims. I don’t want to cause more harm in telling these stories, but I think we have to tell them.
I get a lot of emails from a lot of people who have strong opinions or their own theories. I have had one serious death threat. And so I work out of an unmarked office. You can’t find it. I walked around with a police officer for about a month. When you’re in this space, it triggers things for people and people who are hurting themselves decide to direct that at you.
I haven’t gotten pushback from victims. I think because we brought victims into this. I’ve done a lot of sit-down interviews with victims or family members of mass shootings, and really tried to be just as present and understand how powerful they are to the story, too. Many victims want this to never happen again. And so, as long as you are coming from that perspective about prevention and about hope, I find that I get a lot of support from them.
Our definition [of a mass shooting is] a really conservative definition. It’s the one used by the FBI, which is four or more people killed in a public space and they’re not family members and it’s not gang related and it’s not in the course of committing another felony. The most common type of mass shooting is actually a family in isolation where a husband typically kills his wife and kids and himself. Those are currently not in our database, but that’s actually our next project is to bring those in. It’s a different profile, but it’s absolutely worthy of study. When you bring those in, you get much bigger numbers, nearly double. We started out conservative trying to really capture just those people that are going into public spaces that are strangers with the intention of killing a lot of people, so that’s the definition that we’re using.
This is a male phenomenon. It’s 98 point something percent male. I think there’s two women in our database, and one of them did it with her husband.
I could teach an entire semester long class about why that is right in terms of biology and socialization and all these things. But I think it’s men who are disenfranchised, who feel like they haven’t kind of gotten what they’re owed, who are hopeless, who are actively suicidal. I think one of our main findings is that these are suicides. So nobody goes in with an escape plan. This is meant to be their final act. So it’s an angry suicide meant to cause harm and destruction and meant to create a name for themselves. There’s a performative element of wanting people to see how much pain that they were in.
We identified four main areas that we see as pieces to this. So one—and this is common amongst all of the mass shooters—childhood trauma and really significant early childhood trauma. So sexual abuse or physical abuse, parents committing suicide. Then you see a crisis point, which is sometimes a slow build, but it’s a noticeable crisis where people start acting differently than they usually do. Then there’s this script piece about it. Perpetrators study other perpetrators. They go in online hate groups. They read each other’s manifestos. They kind of find this community or something they connect with and it gives them feedback that this is a thing to do. And then the fourth is just opportunity, which is typically guns and the ability to get them.
I just finished writing a book and one of the chapters is called “Made in America.” And it kind of tries to outline what it is about America. You don’t see this in other countries at this rate. Certainly other countries have problems with violence, but not mass violence. This is a kind of uniquely American phenomenon. And I think there’s a few things. One is just, America is a violent place. The history of America is kind of a history of violence. I think we are a violent culture, but there’s also this piece of individualism and that American dream, like if I work hard, I get what I deserve. And these are a lot of individuals who they think they’ve worked hard and they think that they should get what they deserve and they’re not getting it. So they are angry that life hasn’t played out how they expected it to.
I think the other big piece is gun ownership. We just have so many guns in this country compared to any other country. So maybe there’s people who want to do it in Europe, but you can’t get by your arms the way that you can get them here. I do think there’s also the fame piece, that’s kind of uniquely American. There’s been perpetrators who check their Facebook while they were doing it to make sure it was going viral. There’s this element of writing these manifestos or creating these YouTube videos. You want people to be watching them. You know you won’t get to see it, but you want your face on every cable news channel. And so there’s this drive for fame that I think is also kind of uniquely American.
I think we’ve been really careful to say, we can find these patterns, but in no way, are we saying here’s the profile. You check this list and you’re going to see a mass shooter. In many ways, I think we’ve taken the wrong approach. When we talk about things like threat assessment teams in schools who are kind of looking for the next shooter versus saying, what we know is that these are members of our community. They’re kids that go to this school. They’re people who work in our workplaces, they are members of our churches and they are people who are in crisis. And it’s a crisis that is noticeable, they’re suicidal, and their behavior is changing. And maybe that crisis is going to cause them to commit a mass shooting. Probably not. Maybe a crisis is going to cause them to commit suicide or self-harm or use substances or, you know, strike their wife or something.
We tend to respond to those difficult things with a punitive view, as opposed to a reformative view. How do we shift that culture? I think, and this is where the data is very helpful.
When I take the data point that 80% of mass shooters are actively suicidal, and when someone’s suicidal, our traditional deterrent strategies don’t work. And so if you criminally charged someone that just makes them worse. You increase the likelihood that they’re going to commit violence. If you expel them or fire them again, you’ve increased the likelihood. You’re not helping at all. And so part of presenting the data, I think these are students in your school, they’re in crisis and they’re suicidal, criminally charging them is not going to help.
I wrote a piece for the LA times that described that four steps of trauma, crisis, script and access that ended up going viral on social media. And when I talked to the editor of the LA times, she said what was most fascinating about that piece is that it went crazy on both the extreme right and the extreme left. People were sharing it and talking about it on both sides of the political spectrum. When we anchor our conversations in data and in stories, in trends and statistics, the data doesn’t have an opinion. It’s not political. It just is what it is. And we’ve been able to have really productive conversations with people across the political spectrum when we anchor it that way, when we kind of get rid of the fear and the rhetoric and just say, here’s what we know, people draw the same conclusions about what needs to happen.
Also, in talking to mass shooters, we asked this question, “Is there anything or anyone that could have stopped this from happening?” Every single person we’ve talked to said, yes. None of them said, no. We’ve talked to people who had planned to do it, and didn’t. Some that even went to school with a gun in their backpack and didn’t end up taking it out. And the thing that stops them is always a human connection. Always, and it can be so small. Like it’s someone saying, how are you doing? Can I help you?
There’s a great Ted talk of a guy who almost did a mass shooting, who talks about how the day before, he went to his friend’s house and his mom had baked him a blueberry pie just because he was coming over. And that act was enough to get him through the moment. So to me, that’s really hopeful that people hit a breaking point and they can absolutely be brought through it. And that we all play a role in that. We might not even realize the power of what we’re doing when we reach out and connect with people. We can’t measure what we’re preventing. Sometimes it feels overwhelming and it takes these acts of Congress and all these things. But really, if you are just willing to kind of reach out and make connections that you wouldn’t normally make and check in on people that is incredibly powerful.
The next project that we’re doing is a project called off-ramps where we’re trying to think about the pathway to violence, where are the off-ramps and how do we train ourselves to think about helping people get off that track that they’re on. I don’t think you can blame anyone along that trajectory. It’s no one’s fault, but are there opportunities to be pulled off? And how do we see those? One of my goals is to convince people that violence prevention is a way that we lead our lives every day. It doesn’t have to look like we think it looks. Preventing violence is really just about human connection and we’re all very capable of being part of it.”
-Have you known someone who has committed a violent act?
-Is your inclination to treat someone who commits a violent act with punishment or reform?
-What are the methods of intervention you are familiar with when someone exhibits warning signs of harming themselves or others?
-What other resources can you familiarize yourself with and share with others?
-Are there methods of early intervention that you have seen to be effective in your community?
-How do you account for Dr. Peterson’s quote that 98% of mass shooters are male?
-How do we measure the things that have been prevented?
-How can we acknowledge our own role in rebuilding our social fabric without placing blame on victims when things go wrong?
-Has a small act of kindness or human connection ever pulled you from a difficult moment?