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How do we prevent future Stephen Paddocks? After Vegas, way forward fraught with
James Alan Fox, Opinion columnist Published 3:15 a.m. ET Oct. 3, 2017 |
Updated 6:56 a.m. ET Oct. 3, 2017
Investigators believe Stephen
Paddock checked into the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino days before the
worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Here's what we know about the
suspected gunman. USA TODAY Thousands of Americans fit the profile of a mass
shooter. Seemingly straightforward strategies for deterring would-be killers
have their weaknesses.
The psychological autopsy of Stephen Paddock
is underway with the hope of uncovering why this seemingly ordinary
64-year-old resident of Mesquite, Nev., would open fire on a crowded Las
Vegas music festival, killing scores and wounding hundreds of country music
Paddock's brother has been interviewed anticipating that he
might share some insights into the mind and motives of a mass murderer. Did
he notice even with 20/20 hindsight any telltale warning signs of a troubled
and potentially violent individual?
Even though the gunman didn't
have a criminal record, his now deceased father had been on the FBI's 10
most-wanted list for bank robbery. People wondered, "Like father, like son?"
Paddock's girlfriend, who is out of the country, has also been a focus of
I have been involved in such efforts in a very central
way. In 2006, after Seattle's Capitol Hill shooting, I was enlisted by the
Seattle Police Department to head up an investigation of the circumstances
leading up to a post-rave massacre in which six were executed and two were
wounded by 28-year-old Kyle Huff.
Although the assailant showed many
of the characteristics common in mass murderers (for example, social
isolation, repeated failures, and the tendency to blame others for one's own
misfortunes), the details that we uncovered about his background and
motivation would only help put closure on the tragic event for those who
lost a loved one. In no way would our observations assist in identifying
future Kyle Huffs.
Even though Huff fit the common profile of a mass
shooter, so do thousands of Americans who would never attempt to pick up a
deadly weapon as a final act of payback against the world that had brought
them so much misery. There are countless Americans who fail at work and in
relationships, who have few friends and never smile, and who blame others
for all their problems. Many may even fantasize about getting even with
society. But acting on those thoughts is an extreme move that very few
If we attempt to seek out those disgruntled and
dispirited individuals, we could actually make matters worse. In the process
of intervention, they could feel targeted and persecuted, which would only
intensify their sense of resentment. Very few mass killers see themselves as
the problem. Their problem is with how others have mistreated them.
If prediction is not feasible, what about prevention through enhanced
security? In the immediate aftermath of Sunday's massacre, it would make
sense to take great precautions with big events at similar locations. Target
hardening might discourage a copycat, but in the long run, turning
entertainment venues into fortresses would be counterproductive.
Highly visible security can also make people feel vulnerable by implying
there is a target on their backs. And there is little to say that a
determined assailant would not find a way to breach security. Or crowds at
entrances and exits could become targets.
Moreover, the reduced risk
would be far outweighed by the increased inconvenience. It has been
suggested, for example, that the Mandalay Bay Resort where the sniper rented
his rooms could have employed metal detectors. Imagine the impact of having
guests and gamblers line up through a security checkpoint just to enter a
busy hotel/casino. Imagine all the travel golf bags that would have to be
emptied of their contents for inspection. Although some people might find
such measures comforting, many more would look for an alternative place to
At the end of the day, it is conceivable that we could reduce
the risk of bloodshed by employing extremely invasive screening methods and
imposing ethically questionable restrictions on anyone who even came close
to matching the common profile of a mass killer. That would require us to
forsake many of the personal freedoms that we Americans hold dear.
smarter place to focus our attention would be in preventing the more common
but less spectacular carnage inflicted with guns every day in America. For
instance, imposing universal background checks for all gun purchases and
limiting concealed-carry permits, expanding access to mental health services
and increasing support for folks going through job termination or marital
These are steps often proposed in the wake of mass shootings,
and they are the right things to do, but not necessarily for the reason
we're motivated to do them.
Ironically, for someone like Paddock, who
is determined to slaughter innocent people and take his own life, the
planning has just gone beyond the point where such well-intention efforts
can avert tragedy. But in the process of trying to prevent the next mass
killing, we can possibly improve the lives of countless Americans.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman
Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University
and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of
Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. Follow him on