Mass Shootings and Anger

Posted:  July 24, 2022

Mass Shootings and Anger

Joe Pereira, LICSW, CAS

The recent tragic mass shootings in Uvalde, TX ,Buffalo, NY, and Highland Park, IL as well as the rash of mass shootings over the past several years has brought attention to the causes and circumstances that lead someone to engage in this type of act.  A focus has been whether untreated mental illness has been a major factor in causing someone to be a mass shooter.  A 2018 study by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit evaluated 63 active shooters between 2000 and 2013 and found that a quarter were known to have been diagnosed with any kind of mental illness. The study concluded, a formally diagnosed mental illness, “is not a very specific predictor of violence of any type, let alone targeted violence.”  It is also unlikely that these individuals “just snapped” and went on a rampage.  A more judicious explanation may be that an individual who commits a mass shooting is emotionally unstable but not necessarily mentally ill.  The person may be struggling with symptoms like depression, anxiety or paranoia and these symptoms are short-lived displays of behaviors and moods that would not qualify them for a formal diagnosis.

Another consideration is the role of anger as a motivating factor in these types of acts.  One might believe that the level of aggression perpetrated by a mass shooter must have an anger component.  However, based on the FBI study referenced above just about a third of the individuals evaluated showed overt signs of anger and aggression.  Despair, hopelessness, and self-hatred are influences in a person’s decision to be violent as well as obviously their access to firearms.  According to Peter Langman, a psychologist and author of the book, Warning Signs: Identifying School Shooters Before They Strike, in the months preceding the attack, mass shooters frequently experience social setbacks or personal failures which can include problems at work, financial strain and bullying that can lead to feeling overwhelmed and desperate.

While the specific feeling of anger may not be the cause of someone perpetrating a mass shooting, I believe a feeling of resentment may be an influence on someone’s behavior.  Resentment as I define it is “chronic anger.”  The dynamic of resentment is that a person experiences a sense of injustice or unfairness from another entity.  The entity could be a person, group of people, government agency, etc.  For the individual who has been subjected to the hurtful behavior, it also feels like it was purposefully perpetrated, and it involves an attack on one’s self esteem or dignity.  An additional factor is that one broods or ruminates about the other entity’s action- “That was done to me and it was not fair or just and I think this entity intended to hurt me.”  The event (or it could be a series of events) is replayed over and over in the person’s thought process.  This brooding leads to a strong sense of victimization. The third aspect of the resentment and the one that can lead to violence is a desire for what I call “reciprocated suffering.”  It is a belief that whoever may have cause the psychological pain needs to be punished for what they said or did or what they may have allowed, and they need to “suffer” in the same way the person who has been victimized is suffering. Often, the resentment is not overt so the individual may not be walking around as an “angry person”.

One can see this dynamic of resentment perhaps played out with individuals who engaged in mass killings in a school setting.  Many of them had a history of being bullied so they may have been responding from their emotional pain of being disregarded- “hurt people, hurt people.”  They may have targeted those who were the bullies but also the bystanders who they believe may have “allowed” it to happen.

There have been some efforts to try to use “threat assessments” as a way of identifying individuals who may pose a threat and to providing interventions before a violent incident to occur.  The field of threat assessment started in the eighties and nineties to recognize common characteristics of individuals who may engage in threatening and violent behavior such as stalking, workplace violence, and mass murder. While I am not familiar with the actual details of a formal threat assessment evaluation, it would be important to consider the extent that these assessments may determine the degree of resentment or chronic anger a person may have toward particular persons or other entities.

(Some material for this piece came from an article published in the Boston Globe on June 3, 2022 by Deanna Pan, “What drives mass shooters? Grievance, despair, and anger are more likely triggers than mental illness, experts say.”)

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About the Author

Joe Pereira, LICSW, CAS
I am a licensed clinical social worker and addictions specialist who has been practicing for over 30 years. I have provided therapy services in a number of different settings including correctional institutions, inpatient hospital units, community mental health centers, and employee assistance programs. I was a co-founder of Outlook Associates of New England in 1997 which was a practice started to assist persons with anger control problems. I am currently in private practice in Arlington, MA, and Boston, MA offering individual and group therapy in addition to training and consultation with a focus on anger management to adults and adolescents. I have given numerous trainings locally as well as nationally and internationally on the treatment of anger management problems as well as workplace safety, substance use disorders and stress management. I am also currently an adjunct instructor at the Boston University School of Social Work since 2013.