Trying To Better Detect Potential Mass Shooters After Las Vegas

Oct 6, 2017
Originally published on October 6, 2017 8:24 pm
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The U.S. has seen an increase in mass shootings over the last decade or so, and people who study this kind of violence say that's partly driven by the attention we pay to it. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Las Vegas.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Dr. Reid Meloy is a forensic psychologist at the University of California, San Diego. He studies what's called targeted violence. That includes mass shootings. And he has little doubt that what happened here in Las Vegas will eventually inspire copycats.

REID MELOY: I think given the gravity of it, the innovation of it and the number of individuals that have died that sadly it will.

KASTE: Because that's what's happened before. Events like Columbine or Virginia Tech are mentioned by later killers sometimes in the messages they leave behind and sometimes, when they survive, in interviews with Dr. Meloy.

MELOY: You see them identify with and wanting to be like individuals that have carried out these notorious acts and then have achieved a level of fame and notoriety that they've never had in their own lives.

KASTE: They identify with previous attackers, but they also feel an urge to surpass them. And Meloy says the media can sometimes intensify this sense of competition.

MELOY: The greatest cringe moment for me has been the characterization of this as somewhat of a scorecard.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It replaces the Pulse nightclub shooting last year in which 49 people were killed. Before that it was Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., back in 2007, 32 dead.

MELOY: And that sort of scorecard approach is something that can stimulate other individuals who perhaps are contemplating an act such as this.

KASTE: Meloy wishes the media wouldn't focus so much on an attacker's innovations - in Las Vegas, his use of modified rifles and high vantage point. Dramatic-sounding terms such as lone wolf are also a problem. But Meloy is less worried about the use of the attacker's actual name. Some outlets like CNN now have policies of leaving out the killer's name, but Meloy says that really doesn't matter as much as other factors.

MELOY: The visual imagery is much more important - the individual's face, looping the event over and over again, the panic on the part of the victims and the rapid fire of the weapons that he was using.

KASTE: Still, there are those who appreciate it when the media avoid using a killer's name. Dave Okada is a police lieutenant in Salem, Ore.

DAVE OKADA: It's the infamy that they seek. And we hear it all the time, that they're actually naming past attackers.

KASTE: Okada specializes in threat assessment. It's a growth area in American policing. What it means is that when someone's worried about someone else's violent intentions, Okada is the one who gets the call, especially in the days and weeks right after an attack like Las Vegas.

OKADA: The interest level is much higher. We find a lot of people calling and asking. I think we also have more people that will report people's concern about what - other people's behaviors.

KASTE: The public tends to be more alert to disturbing behavior soon after a high-profile attack like this. But the actual copycat attacks don't necessarily happen right away. Events like Las Vegas seem to have a longer-term effect, inspiring imitators months or even years after the fact. And yet it's right now that we're all paying attention.

Here on the sidewalk outside the Mandalay Bay, people are taking pictures, even selfies, with the broken-out windows in the background. Jennifer Gates is here to look, too, but she seems more ambivalent about why.

JENNIFER GATES: Morbid curiosity, kind of like I need an, you know, an answer, answers. But, I mean, I also would support, like, a complete blackout of any information on him.

KASTE: She says the risk of copycats is something that's been on her mind, too.

GATES: I don't even want to think about that. You know, that's...

KASTE: About the inspirational...

GATES: Yeah, the competition that it's - that it's going to spark for the next guy.

KASTE: It's important to point out that mass attacks like this account for only a tiny percentage of murders in America. If our yardstick is number of victims, this category of violence commands a disproportionate share of our attention. And researchers say that's exactly why it's so appealing to the perpetrators. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.