I get really tired of how politicians and the press react to mass shootings: “What would drive someone to do this? It’s unfathomable!” And the obligatory quotes from neighbors and family members that they never saw this coming “He was a quiet guy who kept to himself.” They say. Not everyone, of course. In the immediate aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, there were a few stories that quote the workers at the coffee shop the shooter frequented describing the abusive way he talked to his girlfriend. There was one neighbor who was willing to say that the shooter was a sullen angry man. But those few admissions get quickly overwhelmed by the other quotes about what a quiet guy he was.
Yes, occasionally the press will focus on the shooter’s history of domestic abuse, as they are doing with the Texas shooter right now. But even then they keep saying how we will never know why he did it.
It’s right there. The history of abuse tells us plenty.
Not just about the Texas church shooter, but for other mass shooters. Time and again we find a history of domestic abuse. If you go find those interviews of the people who describe the shooters as quiet, you’ll also notice hints in the quotes to other traits of abusive people. They’ll say something like the person had a dark sense of humor when he did speak up. Or they’ll say he had a wicked tongue when someone got his dander up. But they’ll hasten to say how those moments were rare, and he only acted that way when he was provoked.
There are a few things going on here. First, we’ve all been socialized not to speak ill of the dead; the rationale being that this event is so painful for the family of the shooter, you don’t want to make them feel worse by truthfully describing what a sullen, angry, antisocial person their loved one was. That’s why you’ll sometimes see one or two candid interviews early, and then the same people will claim their comments were taken out of context. Seeing what they said in black and white and realizing the shooter’s family have seen it, too causes people to clam up.
Another part happens before this. There is a tendency to decide when someone in your social circle says something angry or hurtful that they are just joking. He didn’t really mean it when he said, “Someday someone’s going to sock you right in the mouth when you say stupid stuff like that.” Or the time he said, “If someone put a bullet between the eyes of every one of those bleeding heart lazy assholes, the world would be a better place.” Or the time he said, “You know none of those perverts have never worked an honest day in their life. If they all died nothing of value would be lost.” He was just teasing, we tell ourselves. He wasn’t actually threatening anyone or seriously wishing anyone dead.
So later, when he actually goes out and puts bullets in people, the folks that knew him talk about the dark sense of humor and so forth. They don’t want to think that the missed warning signs (which they did).
Abusers believe that the people they abuse deserve it. They believe that when anyone does anything that irritates them, or doesn’t conform to their ideas of how people behave that they are doing so with malicious intent toward the abuser. It can’t be that those other people are simply interested in different things, the abuser believes. They must be doing it to annoy him. That’s why abusers yell, “See what you made me do?” at their victims. They blame everything on other people. Everything, including their own unhappiness. If other people seem to be happy when the abuser isn’t, it’s because those other people are laughing at his expense, or irritating him on purpose, or causing other unpleasant things to happen the he has to deal with, and so on.
This is also one of the reasons why increasing mental health resources (the only thing that Republicans are willing to pretend to be willing to do after a mass shooting) isn’t going to do anything for the problem. The abuser doesn’t think anything is wrong with him. They’re never going to seek treatment for their anger and resentment. The few who do get ordered into anger management type programs (usually as a way to avoid felony charges after an abuse incident that got them arrested—and thereby letting them in most states retain their right to buy firearms) think of the treatment as punishment and a joke. They aren’t going to make a serious effort to change.
Another thing abusers do is target the loved ones of the people they are actually angry at. We see this in domestic abuse all the time. If punishing the spouse doesn’t seem to be making the the changes they want, then they’ll punish the kids or a family pet in order to hurt and motivate the primary victim. It serves the dual purpose of making all the frequent victims hostages to get what he wants, but it also hurts in a different way than a direct attack.
So in a situation like the Texas church shooter: he was angry at his wife and his mother-in-law. His mother-in-law attended that church. His wife also had connections to the church. Everyone there was either someone who his wife and mother-in-law cared for, or had provided mental and spiritual support to the wife and mother-in-law, or they were happy people when he (the abuser) was unhappy. It’s been reported he took his kids to a social event at the church just five days before the shooting. He may have already been planning the shooting. He may not have gotten that specific. The issue is that he was a violent, angry man who had many times before used violence to try to make people in his life do what he wanted, or to punish them for not being what he wanted. Going to the festival was a way to find out more about the mother-in-law who was, in his mind, interfering with his happiness. The more he knew, the more likely he’d be able to force a change.
And even in the case where specific people don’t have a connection to anyone he is angry at right now, remember, the abuser thinks that all of his problems are other people’s fault. He likely had a wide variety of definitions of the kinds of people he blamed for specific things in the world that he didn’t like. Seemingly random people at an event like that are “those kind” of people in his mind.
The motives are easy to fathom, if you take just a few minutes to learn about how abusers think.
Edited to Add:
A couple of things came across my feed after I wrote this. Well worth your time: