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Delving Into What Kind Of Person Carries Out Mass Shootings


People are drawn to stories. That's how we make sense of the world, including horrible events in the world. As novelists know, what really makes a story is why things happen. It's not just that events take place in a certain order. We want to know why they did. If a tornado strikes a town, we wonder why some houses fell and others did not. And after a gunman opened fire at a high school in Florida last week, we naturally asked why he would do that. Dr. William Reid knows how hard it is to answer that question. He is a forensic psychiatrist who spent more than 20 hours interviewing James Holmes, the man who killed 12 people at a theater in Aurora, Colo., in 2012.

After all of that time spent with Holmes and all of that time spent exploring the written and otherwise record of his past, did you feel you understood why he did what he did?

WILLIAM REID: Neither I nor anyone else understands the true why. We try very much to come to some resolution in our minds, something that helps us settle the why. But the actual why, really, in my view, can never be known. Folks talk about whys in terms of - and I'm speaking of Holmes now - a girlfriend breakup, wanting to have a legacy, or some government conspiracy, or the medication made him do it or evil made him do it. Those may be satisfying for those people to consider, but they don't really tell us why, and they don't help us with prediction or prevention very much.

INSKEEP: I think I'm beginning to understand what you're saying. Many people break up with a girlfriend and don't shoot up a movie theater or whatever. Many people have mental illness and never pose a threat to anyone. That's part of the problem here, isn't it?

REID: You're exactly right. There is nothing that I've just mentioned that makes people or is reliably associated with people killing others. If I might talk about mental illness just a little bit - the mental illness is not very important in our preventing or predicting violence. Violent crime is very unusual in mentally ill people. After the fact, we see that some of the people who commit crimes like this are seriously mentally ill, but the assessment of that and the generalization of it to other mentally ill people is clouded by our social outrage and our finger-pointing. I am far more worried about substance abusers, and jealous husbands and ordinary crooks than I am about the mentally ill in terms of violence for myself or my family or my friends.

INSKEEP: Another question that has come up in this debate is whether this particular shooting could've been prevented because we have a young man who seems to have sent off many, many warning signs, and the FBI has acknowledged it did not follow its own protocols after being given some information. But it does raise a larger question. Do you think that someone about to commit a terrible act can typically be found out if just enough information was known?

REID: My view is, probably not, but when warning signs are discovered, then they should be reported and followed up as is appropriate for that situation. Holmes, for example, to get back to that - there was no reasonable way, in my opinion, that the shootings in the Aurora cinema could've been predicted or pinpointed. He spoke about his impulse to kill with mental health professionals, although in his words, he didn't tell them enough so that he would be locked up. Could things have been done differently? Sure. But looking for ways to monitor everyone so well that we always see the warning signs - A, I'm not sure we can do that, and B, I'm not sure that people here in the U.S. want to live in that kind of society. Again, those things are not up to me. I'm just a humble forensic psychiatrist.

INSKEEP: Dr. William Reid, thanks very much.

REID: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He interviewed James Holmes after the mass shooting in Colorado in 2012. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.