Weeks since Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton: What if motives behind mass shootings never emerge?

Jorge L. Ortiz

Since the May 31 shooting in Virginia Beach, Virginia, that claimed his wife’s life along with 11 others, Jason Nixon said he has been in “a living hell.’’

Nixon, the father of three daughters ages 1, 6 and 13, takes them to bed amid nightly tears, then regularly wakes up with nightmares around 3 a.m. Last month he had his gallbladder removed after morning bouts of vomiting he was told were due to stress.

“My kids go to bed every night crying for their mom. Every night. It’s a Groundhog Day, over and over,’’ Nixon said. “It’s the most heart-wrenching thing.’’

The anguish is made all the more acute by the lack of official word on why DeWayne Craddock, a civil engineer who worked for the Virginia Beach public utilities department, launched the barrage that killed Kate Nixon, 10 fellow city employees and a contractor who was filing for a permit.

Craddock died after a gun battle with police. Authorities have not ascertained his motive, although Jason Nixon and others consider him a disgruntled employee seeking revenge for perceived slights at work.

As the U.S. grapples with a rash of mass murders underscored by the back-to-back shootings earlier this month in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio — which accounted for 31 deaths — the victims’ families are often left to wonder what prompted such brutal acts of violence.

Many times — even years after a shooting and a lengthy police investigation — there are no clear answers.

People pray and pay their respects at a makeshift memorial for victims of a shooting in El Paso, Texas.

The alleged gunman who opened fire in an El Paso Walmart, Patrick Crusius, posted a hateful manifesto decrying what he called a “Hispanic invasion of Texas’’ and ranting against immigrants, so his motives, while contemptible, appear pretty clear.

So far that stands in contrast with Connor Betts, the shooting suspect in Dayton who was killed by police. There have been reports of misogynistic tendencies in his past and police said he had “a history of obsession with violent ideations,’’ but no specific reason for his assault has been pinpointed.

Similarly, attacks like last November’s slaughter at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, where 12 died; the shooting spree at Santa Fe (Texas) High School in May 2018 that cost 10 lives; and, most notoriously, the Las Vegas rampage of October 2017 in which 58 were killed, have rendered investigators unable to specify a motive.

Everyone 'wants to know' why

For the devastated relatives who have to pick up the pieces of a life lost or suddenly torn apart, such uncertainty can be distressing, leading to anxiety and depression.

“Every family of a victim, every injured victim I’ve ever dealt with wants to know,’’ said Kathryn Turman, assistant director of the FBI’s Victim Services Division. “Sometimes the motivation is obvious. Other times it’s not. I think every human mind struggles to try to make sense of what’s often a senseless tragedy.’’

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Jonathan Metzl, a Vanderbilt sociology professor who studies gun violence, said it’s important from a societal standpoint to ask why these horrific events take place, an exercise that can also be part of the grieving process for victims’ loved ones.

But he also points out the answers can be “very complex and slippery,’’ far from the tidy, simple explanations that may fit into some people’s preconceived notions.

“In most cases we never know the answer,’’ Metzl said, “and in a way the narratives we hold on to are the ones that make sense to us, but they might not be the reasons why somebody would do something like this.’’

Metzl argues that because mass shootings are so hard to anticipate, the focus should be on preventing everyday gun violence, which is much more predictable. That, in turn, may lower the frequency of mass murders.

“If the goal is to prevent future shootings,’’ he said, “the most important question is not always why did somebody do this, but what kind of policies can we put in place to prevent somebody who’s intent on doing something like this from doing a future act.’’

Last year the FBI published an examination of a study it had conducted covering active-shooter incidents — defined by the FBI as one or more people trying to kill others in a populated area — from 2000-2013. The review looked into pre-attack behaviors and motives in an effort to prevent or minimize the number of such tragedies in the future.

In 21% of the cases, investigators were unable to ascertain the reasons behind the bursts of violence, which were planned for at least a week 77% of the time.

That last figure may come as a surprise to those who believe mass shootings are often the result of a mentally unbalanced person “snapping.’’

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John Wyman, Behavioral Analysis Unit chief for the FBI, said shootings are actually “planned, predatory acts’’ usually prompted by a combination of factors that include stressors such as interpersonal conflicts, financial strain, mental health issues (though not necessarily illness), legal problems and substance abuse.

“It might have been so complex that the offenders themselves might have a hard time articulating why they did what they did,’’ Wyman said.

Post-shooting buzzwords

In many instances, such as the Las Vegas, Thousand Oaks, Virginia Beach and Dayton massacres, the perpetrator is not caught alive, depriving investigators of the prime source of information for the motive.

That was also the case in the carnage at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June 12, 2016. Omar Mateen, a security guard born in New York to Afghan immigrants, went into the gay bar and killed 49 people and injured 53 in the worst single-shooter incident the U.S. had seen to that point. Police finally gunned him down after a three-hour standoff.

Christine Leinonen, center, mother of Christopher 'Drew' Leinonen, who was killed in the Pulse attack in Orlando, speaks as she is comforted by Brandon Wolf, left, and Jose Arraigada, right, both survivors of the attack, during the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

The attack was initially believed to be motivated by homophobia, especially after some patrons said they had seen Mateen before and believed he was a closeted gay man. Later revelations, including statements Mateen made to crisis negotiators, pointed to his opposition to U.S. policy in the Middle East and possible allegiance to ISIS as the main reason.

The lack of clarity bothers Christine Leinonen, mother of Pulse victim Drew Leinonen, who says bluntly, “It wasn’t a gay shooting. It was a jihad.’’

Leinonen has become a gun-control activist and an advocate for the LGBTQ community in the wake of her son’s death. She resents Mateen’s actions being depicted as homophobic, believing the label has been exploited for money-raising purposes.

“It angers me because, until we name something accurately, we cannot even begin to try to solve it,’’ Leinonen said. “Whenever there’s a mass shooting, everybody just gives the buzzwords, ‘Oh, it’s mental health,’ and then no one does anything. But it’s not mental health. It’s easy access to guns.’’

To Leinonen’s point, after the recent bloodbaths in El Paso and Dayton, President Donald Trump proclaimed, “Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.’’

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A report released last year by the Small Arms Survey, a research project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, estimated there were more than 393 million civilian-owned firearms in the U.S. in 2017, or 46% of the world's total. That averages out to more than a gun per person in a country with a population of 326 million, a little over 4% of the global total.

Figures released in December by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed an all-time high 39,773 people died by gunfire in America in 2017 – a rate of 12.2 per 100,000 that’s the highest in two decades. By comparison, Canada had a rate of 2.1 per 100,000; European countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany were below 1.

Suicides were the main driver of the increase in the U.S., accounting for about 60% of the gun deaths, while homicides made up of 37% of the total. The vast majority of those deaths did not take place through mass shootings, which tend to garner the most media attention and often elicit calls for stronger mental-health programs.

The 'mental health' label

Heather Littleton, professor of psychology at East Carolina University, is among the many experts who say mass shootings and mental illness are separate issues. Littleton said people with mental health problems have not shown more propensity than anybody else to go on a deadly rampage, and in fact are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators because they’re more vulnerable.

People protest near Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, on Aug. 7, 2019, before President Donald Trump's visit to victims being treated at the hospital.

“Most people with mental illness aren’t violent,’’ Littleton said. “The label itself isn’t helpful, because that’s such a broad category, and I think it’s often harmful in that it contributes to stigmatizing.’’

Littleton was involved in a study of 300 women who were students at Virginia Tech during its 2007 shooting, which resulted in 32 deaths. None of the study’s participants was directly impacted, but a year later nearly 25% were still showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The more overwhelming and unfathomable the violence, the harder it is for people to manage,’’ Littleton said, noting that the shooting had a negative effect on how participants felt about themselves and the world.

Seeking a sense of closure

Experts say that for some people affected by gun violence, learning the motive provides a sense of closure, though not for all, especially since many find it hard to relate to what the attacker may feel.

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Jay Lee, a family physician in Long Beach, California, who has counseled relatives of people killed in shootings and stabbings, said anxiety and depression are common traits among people who have lost loved ones to violence.

Birthdays, holidays and the anniversary of the fateful date are especially difficult to handle, he said, although everyone copes differently and some find comfort in their faith or value system.

“(Learning) the motive can be one piece of the healing,’’ said Lee, one the physicians who have called out gun violence as a public health issue. “I think more than anything people want to continue to remember the loved ones they’ve lost and would like to see something done about violence in general.’’

Family and friends watch as the casket of Virginia Beach shooting victim Kate Nixon is wheeled to a hearse after a funeral service at St. Gregory The Great Catholic Church in Virginia Beach , Virginia, on June 6, 2019. Nixon was killed along with 11 others during a mass shooting.

Part of Nixon’s mission is making sure the memory of his wife – an engineer and compliance manager who was his rock during their 20 years of marriage – remains vivid.

Nixon said Kate shared with him complaints about the quality of Craddock’s work and his brusque manner. So Nixon was appalled when city officials characterized Craddock’s job performance as “satisfactory,’’ and he believes the massacre could have been prevented if the human resources department had intervened.

After initially resisting public calls by Nixon and others for an independent investigation, the city relented and that probe is now being conducted.

Asked what would bring him closure, Nixon said: “The truth would bring closure to me. So I can go to bed at night knowing I did everything I could do to get the truth out. So I know my wife didn’t die in vain, and her friends and co-workers didn’t die in vain.’’

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Weeks after Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton: What if motives aren't found?