Predicting Mass Shooters Using the Web

Nikolas Cruz is the name on everyone’s lips for today, maybe for a few days, maybe a few weeks, after which we’ll move on to what life brings next. His details will gradually emerge…

UPDATE: Details have emerged, and it appears NIkolas Cruz fit perfectly the profile I develop below. He escaped by playing violent video games “eight, twelve, even fifteen hours a day. It was kill, kill, kill, blow up something, and kill some more, all day”.

…and a few of us will pay attention, but most of us will forget him, if not what he did.

Whether that’s good or bad is debatable.

Some people think our faulty public memory is a positive, depriving past mass killers of notoriety will deprive future mass killers of motivation.

If that’s you, think again; how many of these ring a bell?

Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Robert Steinhauser, Eric Auvinen, Robert Hawkins, Seung-Hui Cho, Tim Kretschmer, Jared Lee Loughner, James Holmes, Adam Lanza, Nehemiah Griego, Elliot Rodger, Christopher Harper-Mercer, Gavin Long, Allen Ivanov, David Sonboly (AKA Ali), and Michael and Robert Bever.

They killed 180 people (besides in some cases, themselves) and wounded hundreds more, yet few of us remember their names or anything else about them.

Given the reality of our poor public memory and the unfortunate reality of continued mass shootings, it seems the killers’ goals aren’t public notoriety.

That’s because we aren’t their audience — they are.

They aren’t playing to us, they’re playing to each other, and they don’t win by impressing us, they win by impressing each other. How impressive they find each other depends on perceptions of success — and coolness — the number of casualties inflicted and the perceived artfulness of their methods.

The day after Robert Hawkins shot up a shopping mall in Omaha, killing eight complete strangers (before killing himself) one of Hawkins’ teenage friends stunned a local television reporter by praising the murders and even Hawkins’ suicide saying, with an approving nod and smile, Hawkins had “gone out cool!”

Inside the strange social world of mass shooters the Columbine Killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are both criticized and idolized. They were cool, dressed in full length black coats, and they had firepower, although they lost mass killer points when their homemade bombs failed to go off, reducing both the potential body count and their coolness factor.

Still, their 1999 murder of thirteen and wounding of twenty-four has become the yardstick by which mass killers measure themselves. Within the mass killer microculture, Columbine Envy is a real thing. Thirteen is a minimum.

Less than thirteen is a fail.

The eighteen above names belong to mass killers, some of whom lived in countries with extremely tight gun controls, others in countries with loose controls. Some of whom were from broken homes, others had great parents. Some of whom were good students, others were failing, some of whom were white, others weren’t.

What, then, besides mass killing, did they have in common?

They were all young men. Were they all expressing the male version of what popular culture seems to be telling us is universal — young adult angst? Are we prepared to accept a certain percentage of young men simply have crossed wires, or if we cared to, could we learn something from the single thing all of these young men, every one of them, one-hundred percent, had in common?

They all shunned society and spent most of their spare time playing violent video games.

Yes, it’s true, even though they had almost nothing else in common, race, education, income, geography, nationality, language, size or shape, the one thing all these mass shooters had in common is: they were all devotees of violent first person shooter video games.

They all spent hours each day killing imaginary people with imaginary weapons.

Nature, or nurture?

Imaginary weapons aren’t dangerous, and doing away with imaginary people isn’t murder, but each of the young men on that list made the leap from murderous entertainment to murdering in real life. They each graduated from imaginary guns to real ones, and graphic mayhem to real murder.

If we stop them from getting guns, we’ll solve the problem…wrong.

The Bevers (as did Adam Lanza) failed a gun shop background check, they were too young. Instead of shooting their victims, the brothers were forced to kill all five with knives and hatchets. Lack of guns didn’t matter. They failed to achieve their goal of beating the Columbine killers only because one of their victims managed to dial 911 before dying.

Were all eighteen predestined to be mass killers, or did their video gaming usher them down that path? If they were predestined, could we somehow have identified them? If their gaming ushered them down the path, was there anything we could have done to stop them before they killed for real?

Could we have harnessed the games to help us fight back?

No, I’m not talking about games that shoot back, something more subtle. Let’s demand the companies selling these games build subroutines into their software and let us monitor their players. Let’s monitor how much time people spend playing violent first person shooter video games and how that affects them.

Might it not be wise for us to take an interest in someone whose life revolves around perfecting a game called “Baby Killer”, the goal of which is to kill as many grade school children as possible? Might we have caught on to Adam Lanza’s problem before he killed twenty-six teachers and children?

While it’s true, lots of people spend lots of time playing these games and never kill anyone, the people on the list spent huge amounts of time playing, almost to the exclusion of other life functions. They failed to connect with the real world around them, connecting with their violent digital worlds instead.

And all expressed murderous desires on social media, some even bragged about their hoped-for body counts.

Could we use the game to monitor not just their gaming, but to scan their social media interactions for key words and phrases, and when those key words or phrases occur, alert that gamer’s psychologist (the shooters were almost all seeing psychologists) and law enforcement — before it’s too late.

All of these teen (and young adult) mass killers left digital tracks on social media and face to face impressions with their private or school psychologists, and when asked, after the fact, in every case their peers thought each of these young men capable of going over the edge.

However, few said anything until it was too late, until the killer’d already gone over the edge.

Gavin Long’s friends described him as a legendary, unbeatable first person shooter video game fanatic who wrote books advocating violence and left social media messages about violent revolution, right up until the day he killed 3 cops in Baton Rouge.

If we’d been looking, could we have seen that coming? A first person shooter fanatic who wrote books and social media posts advocating violence — we wouldn’t have caught that if we’d been watching?


They were all seen as awkward social weirdos yet, of the millions of awkward social weirdos, only a tiny fraction of a percent go astray — the ones who play violent video games and — only a tiny fraction of violent video gamers go astray — the ones who shun society.

All these mass shooters fell within the nexus of violent video games and social awkwardness.

Is it possible to monitor this nexus, insert a trojan into video game licenses that taps into and monitors the users social media posts and formulates his psychological profile to warn us the violence in the game is spilling over into his social media life, and could be about to bleed over into his real life, that something may be going wrong with the player, before he kills?

Should World of War and Grand Theft Auto tap into players’ Facebook and Twitter accounts to see whether they are about to run off the rails?

We license and monitor drivers, we license and monitor teachers, we investigate, license and monitor gun owners, we monitor and sometimes charge people for making threats, why not tell violent video gamers “go ahead and practice pretend violence against pretend people, but if you do, to protect ourselves, we’re going to monitor your social media interactions”?

Couldn’t people who spend huge amounts of time practicing imaginary violence be asked to give up a small measure of privacy to protect the rest of us? Is that too much to ask?





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