Study Could Soon Bring Student Researchers Face-to-Face With Mass Shooters

November 08, 2018 06:45 PM

Thursday morning brought news of another mass shooting, this one in a bar in Thousand Oaks, California late Wednesday night that left 12 people dead.

It follows on the heels of a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue late last month in which 11 people were killed.


And it is yet another in a long string of increasingly-deadly such incidents in recent years that have left Americans asking why?

Stasia Higgins also wants to find answers to that question. 

It's why the Hamline junior signed on to be part of a research project at the school seeking to shed at least some new light on the subject.

"It's so important because they just keep happening," said Higgins, a criminal justice major. "And no one seems to really know why. But we have to do something. We can't just accept this as normal."

The project is being led by Dr. Jillian Peterson, a professor of criminal justice and the director of Hamline's Center for Justice and Law, and Dr. James Densley, an associate professor of criminal justice at Metro State.

It was triggered in part by the deadly shooting at the Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas last October, which left 58 people dead, making it the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

And the study will soon be expanding in important ways. Thanks to a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Justice Department, the group will begin traveling to meet in person with surviving mass shooters, as well as the survivors of previous mass shootings.

Only about 30 mass shooters meeting the study's criteria remain alive, Peterson said. But four have already consented to such an interview and the group is hoping to add at least one more.

"To me, being able to find out why something happened is so much less chilling than walking around not knowing," Peterson said. "It's important to find answers."

Higgins too believes interviewing those who perpetrated such horrible acts will provide new insight into why they occurred and how to head them off in the future.

"You can read a lot of articles on these shootings that will take a thread and run with it, then it turns out not to be true, or not entirely true," she said. "So you don't really know a person's motivation until you're able to sit down and talk with them in person."

The professors and students have already spent the past year creating a database on 151 mass shooters, using publicly available information to create life histories while searching for any common threads and warning signs that might be useful in trying to prevent such incidents from occurring.

"The data seems to support that these incidents aren't necessarily happening more frequently," said Densley, who first met Peterson when she was hired at Metro State before coming to Hamline. "But what is increasing is our awareness of them in real time through things like media coverage and social media.

"And the other thing that does seem to be shifting is that they are getting more deadly," he added. "Some of the most deadly mass shootings in history have all happened in the past decade."

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Each student is assigned individual shooters to research, then another student is assigned to the same shooter to both verify what's already been discovered and to see if anything new might be turned up.

All are working on a volunteer basis on their own time.

"The goal is to take 151 shooters and dig deep into their backgrounds to see if we can find patterns," said Peterson, who previously worked as an investigator on death-penalty cases in New York, creating psychosocial life histories of inmates in an effort to determine what factors led them to that point.

"Prevention is really a big motivating factor," she continued. "I have young kids and they go through lockdown drills once a month where they're hiding under their desks. It's important. But it also shows how little we really know that the best we can so sometimes is to try and prepare for what to do if it happens."

The group will present the findings of the first phase of its studies at an event scheduled for 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Friday in the Kay Frederick ballroom at the Klas Center at Hamline.

The event is open to the public.

"One of the things we've found is that suicidality plays a much bigger role than has maybe been realized," Peterson said. "Either people killing themselves on scene or being killed by police. And when you start to think of these as suicides as well as murders, it shifts your thinking a bit. They are angry suicides as much as they are angry homicides in some cases.

"Another thing we've seen is that a lot of people give warning signs," she added. "They will leak their plans somehow ahead of time. The younger the shooter is, the more likely they are to leak their plans. So it's a balancing act when it comes to how seriously to take that. Because a lot of kids will give warning signs who have no intention of carrying out something like this as well."

Higgins knows preventing all mass shootings may not be a realistic goal. But she said making an effort to try is what matters.

"That's why I want to be part of this," she said. "I'd love it if we found something that gave us a magic answer in all cases. But the most important thing is putting together the information and using it to do the best we can when it comes to prevention."

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Frank Rajkowski

Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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