James Holmes was meticulous in his preparations. He shopped at different gun stores and hid his online purchases from colleagues and neighbors. It may well be that no gun ban or background check could prevent such a determined man--one with no criminal record and with uncommon student achievement in neuroscience--from acquiring assault weapons. And so the Holmes case raises a crucial question: Is there a way to identify and stop mass killers before they unleash themselves?
The study of mass murderers is at once fascinating and frustrating. After Columbine, the Secret Service and the FBI undertook months-long projects that were designed to create methods to spot mass killers before they act. The Secret Service study, the more influential one, looked at 41 attackers in 37 school massacres. The data showed that mass shooters don't usually act impulsively and rarely make threats against enemies. But they do tend to have experience with firearms.
In short, mass murderers are a vexing and diverse lot. For instance, the typical mass killer said nothing suspicious to friends or family members but signaled his intent to third parties--especially, in the cases of the kids who shot up their schools, classmates they liked. On July 25, a report emerged, citing a law-enforcement source, that Holmes had taken the time to send a troubling package to a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado at Denver, where Holmes worked. He apparently sent drawings of his intended massacre.
In 2004 the journal Behavioral Sciences & the Law published an authoritative paper by a team of psychologists led by Reid Meloy, a professor at the University of California, San Diego. For the past decade, Meloy has been a consultant for the FBI's counterintelligence division.
In the paper, Meloy and his colleagues offered both sociological traits and behavioral clues that are associated with mass violence. Some of the factors they identified: A criminal history. The No. 1 predictor of violent crime is previous violent behavior. (For his part, Holmes had only a speeding ticket.)
A sense of victimization.
Most adolescents who shoot up their schools say they were bullied. Most adult mass murderers say girlfriends or relatives had recently rejected them or that they had been persecuted at work.
An age in the 20s.
According to the Meloy paper, the average age of mass killers is 27. (Holmes is 24.)
Other factors come up as well--for instance, preoccupation with fantasy is a common feature of mass killers, and Holmes is reported to have played video games ad libitum. But none of these facets can distinguish a burnout from a psychopath. "We can't pinpoint these people in the aggregate," says Stephen Holmes (no relation), a criminal-justice professor at the University of Central Florida. "And then the debate becomes a circular argument. If they weren't going to use an AK-47, they would have found some other instrument ... The type of havoc is almost irrelevant. It's their will to do it."