Rampage-killing conference focuses on finding causes and solutions based on data

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Experts in the fields of law, medicine and neuroscience spoke Friday at the Sandra Day O'Connor United States Courthouse on predicting and preventing rampage killings. Gary Marchant of ASU's Center for Law, Science and Innovation spoke at the beginning and conclusion of the conference. (Kimberly Koerth/DD)

Experts in the fields of law, medicine and neuroscience spoke Friday at the Sandra Day O’Connor United States Courthouse on predicting and preventing rampage killings. Gary Marchant of ASU’s Center for Law, Science and Innovation spoke at the beginning and conclusion of the conference. (Kimberly Koerth/DD)

Experts in medical, science and law fields from across the country discussed data-based reasons and possible solutions for mass shootings Friday at the Sandra Day O’Connor United States Courthouse.

The conference, titled “Before the Shooting Starts: Predicting and Preventing Rampage Killings,” which featured two keynote addresses and three panel discussions, came in the wake of several high-profile mass shootings including those in Newtown, Conn., and the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor gave a brief introduction citing the significance of research in this area.

“This is a topic that’s important to us in this room, in this state, in this country,” O’Connor said. “This is a topic we care about.”

Duke University psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor Jeffrey Swanson delivered the first keynote, titled “Mental Illness, Violence and Mass Shootings: On Finding the Haystack in a Needle.”

Swanson analyzed the correlation between certain mental-illness factors and violence. He said there is no set determination for those who will be violent, but there are factors that are related among those who are severely violent with mental instability, including age, gender, socioeconomic status, mental illness, substance abuse and institutional history.

“Mental illness and psychopathology does not occur in a vacuum,” Swanson said. “The risk for violence should not be considered in a vacuum because it’s embedded with and connected to all kinds of other risk factors.”

Swanson said awareness of the most common symptoms can help predict when a person will have highly violent traits. He cited Bruce Link’s theory of delusional violence, which states that it takes two different factors, excessive threat perception and lack of logical reasoning, for an individual with mental instability to likely act on violent urges.

He also discussed the theory of social contact. He cited a study that found that those who are more mentally stable see social interaction with family and friends as a positive force, while those who had more cognitive disturbance said more social interaction made their violence risk increase.

“Maybe we have to think about preventing the unpredictable,” Swanson said. “Maybe we have to get upstream to some of those early risk factors. For example, how to have healthy communities with fewer kids exposed to terrible trauma.”

Katherine Newman, James B. Knapp Dean of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, delivered the second keynote, titled “Why Terrible Things Happen in Perfect Places: The Pathways to Rampage Shootings.”

Newman focused on the aspect of community in correlation with school rampage shootings. She said, based on her own research, that these mass shootings, which were much fewer in number until the ’90s, have a dominant pattern of occurring in small, isolated, rural communities and virtually never occur in urban areas.

“The worst thing people worried about in communities like this is whether or not the school bus was going to be late,” Newman said.

She used two school shootings as examples for her presentation: the shootings in Jonesboro, Ark., in 1998 and in West Paducah, Ky., in 1997. Newman said the shooters in these situations have difficulty gaining social traction in the small communities that they live in, constantly having to deal with some form of rejection. There is usually one event that can be traced to their tipping point, and the shooters often hope to become infamous to fill that hole in their lives.

“Instead of being the kid we’re all looking for, the kid who is sort of dysfunctional and disruptive, these are kids who are flying entirely under that radar screen,” Newman said. “They don’t have disciplinary histories. If they have done things that bother people, they’ve done them in way that are so low-key that they tend not to be noticed at all.”

Newman said this leaves communities in the dark about the potential for danger. She referred to it as the “Jekyll and Hyde effect,” in which a student can seem normal to some but horrid to others. According to Newman, it’s the people who avoid saying anything — children and adults alike — that make the situation continue.

The panel discussions covered topics relating to the fields of neuroscience, clinical assessment and law and policy. They featured speakers from schools such as Harvard University and Stanford University, as well as legal and medical experts.

The conference was co-sponsored by ASU’s Center for Law, Science and Innovation, ASU’s Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics, the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona and the Steele Foundation.

Contact the reporter at rebecca.brisley@asu.edu