Professor  Craig Jackson reflects on the Cumbrian Shooting tragedy in 2010. He suggests that mass shootings committed by single perpetrators against strangers are still increasing in frequency, but that the psycholopathogy of such perpetrators is slowly being understood more fully. Depression and suicidal tendencies are not predictors of mass shooters – but personality flaws may be the key.

Five years ago, 2 June was a dry and seasonable Wednesday. It was a day that had seen me visiting a Buckinghamshire prison. Visiting prisons provides a strange feeling of being disconnected from the usual gadgets and devices for a day. When I left the confines of the prison at the end of the day, I got into my car and re-connected to the outside world via the radio and mobile phone. Turning my phone back on brought a deluge of voicemails and text messages from various journalists and TV news channels. My spirits sank immediately, because I knew that this intense level of contact from TV stations usually meant only one thing had happened: a serious mass shooting must have occurred.

June 2 2010 had indeed seen such a tragic incident occur – 52-year-old Derrick Bird had started a shooting spree earlier that day which saw him murder his brother, then the family solicitor, as well as broadening the killings to former taxi driving associates and then strangers who he encountered on his driving rampage through Cumbria. After killing 12 people and injuring 11 more, Bird then shot and killed himself before he could be caught. The crime brought back memories of the killings in Hungerford in 1987 and Dunblane in 1996 not least of all because of the immediate similarities involving lone and disaffected males bearing grudges against their local community.

Since Bird’s mass killing, there have been dozens more mass shootings of strangers by men with similar withdrawn and angry personalities. Some of these include: Omar Thornton killed eight co-workers in Manchester, Connecticut after a workplace disciplinary issue on August 3 2010; Anders Breivik killed 77 people by bombing and shooting on July 22 2011 in Norway; Scott Dekraai killed eight adults in a shooting in Seal Beach, California on October 12 2011; James Holmes shot and killed 12 adults in the Century Plaza cinema in Aurora Colorado on July 20 2012; Adam Lanza killed 20 children and 7 adults at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown Connecticut on December 14 2012; Aaron Alexis entered a naval yard in Washington and shot dead 12 personnel on September 16 2013.

Despite the unbelievable nature of such mass shootings and the disbelief when the victims are innocent strangers or children, some are quick to ascribe external causes to such extreme killings, but these rarely prove to be reliable. Over the years a number of these false attributions behind mass shootings have included depression, autism, drug-use, misogyny, video games, goth-metal, and even brain tumours.

My own research and studying of mass shooters increasingly convinces me that any ‘mental health problems’ of the killers are a red-herring in the hunt for explanations – and the causes are more to do with the personality flaws of the killers. These characteristics are observed by me to some extent or other in all of the mass shooters I have studied via what I call ‘psychological autopsies’ of the offenders. Such flaws are namely a combination of extreme narcissism, as well as a behavioural-style of blaming others for any setbacks or problems, and an inability to cope with life’s difficulties (neuroticism). Some preliminary results of my research have shown that people with extremely high levels of narcissism, when compared with normal “controls”, show lower levels of compassion to other people, but more tellingly show greater levels of empathy with infamous mass shooters.

This was again reiterated in the aftermath of the A-320 Germanwings air crash in March 2015 when all 150 people onboard were killed after it appeared that the pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed the aircraft. Although clearly not a mass shooting, this was clearly a mass killing (and not just a suicide), and observers were quick to link the killings with Lubitz’s history of depression or suicidal thoughts. However these issues were secondary to Lubitz’s personality problems; an exacting perfectionist and narcissist who could not cope with the threat of losing his high prestige pilot job because of his health problems and poor work performance. Because of this, others were made to suffer the consequences.

In the seven years that I have been studying mass shooters and their crimes, I have rarely seen a more dignified collective response made by a community following such tragedy, than that shown by the West Cumbrian villages and communities. The memorial service in the immediacy of the shooting, although swamped by media, remained full of reverence. Because of the unusual use of his car in his shootings, Bird was able to spread death throughout the West Cumbrian villages and towns of Whitehaven, Egremont, Gosforth, Seascale and finally Boot. This was a mass shooting with no focal point or “ground zero” where people could flock to for solace. Despite that, the dispersed yet collective grief of the dozens of injured and murdered people in such small communities was dignified by their public thanking of the police and emergency services for their efforts. This was despite existing grief from recent floods and fatal road crashes that blighted Cumbria in the first few months of 2010. Bird himself was also described by many who knew him as a decent person and regular family man (although separated from his wife) and this inability to demonise him may also have helped the community successfully come to terms with the actions of a man who was not evil, but merely fatally flawed. The daughter of one of Bird’s victims explained five years ago that “Bird was not well, and you can’t be angry with someone who’s not well can you”.

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Craig Jackson

Craig Jackson

Head of Psychology Division at Birmingham City University