By Kathleen M. Heide, Ph.D.
The mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut is a tragic event that is particularly painful as it comes at a time when people across the world are trying to focus on the upcoming holidays as the season of peace bringing good tidings of great joy.
Three factors about the Newtown school shooting are noteworthy. First, it was a mass murder. Second, it appears to have been precipitated by the killing of a parent (parricide). Third, it was committed by a 20-year old man. All of these factors are relevant in making sense of what appears to be inexplicable violence.
What drives a person to take an assault rifle into an elementary school and open fire on very young children and the teachers, some of whom died protecting them? Individuals in these cases are typically suicidally depressed, alienated, and isolated. They have often suffered a series of losses and are filled with a sense of rage. All too frequently they see themselves as having been wronged and want to play out their pain on a stage. The fact that mass shootings are routinely covered in depth by the media is not lost on them. They are typically aware that their name will go down in history for their destructive acts. Their murderous rampage is an act of power by an individual who feels powerless. Unable to make an impact on society in a positive way, the killer knows that he can impact the world through an act of death and destruction.
The fact that the first victim was reportedly the victim’s mother is significant. The first victims in other adolescent school shootings have also involved parents in some cases. My research and clinical practice has indicated that there are four types of parricide offenders.
- The first type is the severely abused parricide offender who kills out of desperation or terror; his or her motive is to stop the abuse. These individuals are often diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.
- The second type is the severely mentally ill parricide offender who kills because of an underlying serious mental illness. These individuals typically have a longstanding history of severe mental illness, often along the schizophrenia spectrum disorder or might be diagnosed as having depression or bi-polar disorder with psychotic features.
- The third type is the dangerously antisocial parricide offender who kills his or her parent to serve a selfish, instrumental reason. Reasons include killing to get their parents’ money, to date the boy or girl of their choice, and freedom to do what they want. These individuals are often diagnosed as having conduct disorder if under age 18 and antisocial personality disorder if over age 18. Some meet the diagnostic criteria of psychopathy. Psychopaths have interpersonal and affective deficits in additional to antisocial and other behavioral problems. They lack a connection to others and do not feel empathy. They do not feel guilty for their wrongdoing because they do not have a conscience.
- The fourth type is a parricide offender who appears to have a great deal of suppressed anger. If the anger erupts to a boiling point, the offspring may kill in an explosive rage often fueled by alcohol and/or drugs.
Interestingly, most parents are slain by their offspring in single victim-single offender incidents. Multiple victims incidents are rare. In an analysis of FBI data on thousands of parricide cases reported over a 32 year period, I found that on the average there were only 12 cases per year when a mother was killed along with other victims by a biological child. In more than 85% of these cases, the matricide offender was a son.
The actual number of victims involved in multiple victim parricide situations was small, usually two or three. Murders of the magnitude as seen in Newtown, CT that involved a parent as a first victim are exceedingly rare.
Assessment of the dynamics involved in the killing of parents is also important in terms of prognosis and risk assessment. The first victims of some serial murderers were family members, including parents. Serial murderers are defined as individuals who kill three or more victims in separate incidents with a cooling off period between them. If the parricide offender intended to kill his parent and derived satisfaction from doing so, he represents a great risk to society. (This type of killer is known as the Nihilistic Killer.)
The gunman’s age (in Newtown’s case, he was 20 years old) is also an important factor in understanding how an individual could engage in such horrific violence. Research has established that the brain is not fully developed until an individual reaches the age of 23 to 25 years old. The last area of the brain to develop is the pre-frontal cortex. This area of the brain is associated with thinking, judgment, and decision making. A 20-year-old man filled with rage would have great difficulty stopping, thinking, deliberating, and altering his course of action during his violent rampage. He is likely to be operating from the limbic system, the part of the brain associated with feelings. Adam Lanza was likely driven by raw feeling and out of control when he sprayed little children with rounds of gunfire. Simply put, it would be very difficult for him to put the brakes on and desist from his violent behavior.
Events like the shooting in Newtown leave society once again asking what can be done to stop the tide of senseless violence. Clearly Adam Lanza and other mass killers have been able to kill dozens of people in a matter of a few moments because of high powered weaponry. It is time to ask whether our nation can continue to allow assault weapons appropriate for our military to be easily available to citizens in our society. It is time for us to ask what can be done to increase access to mental health services to those who desperately need them. My prediction is, when the facts are more clearly known, risk factors will be identified in the case of Adam Lanza and missed opportunities to intervene to help Adam will be uncovered, contributing to the profound sadness that we are experiencing in the United States and across the world.
Kathleen M. Heide, Ph.D., is Professor of Criminology at the University of South Florida. Her lastest book, Understanding Parricide: When Sons and Daughters Kill Parents, was published in December 2012 by Oxford University Press.