Explanation in mass killings often elusive

| Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, 11:52 p.m.

Mass killers might target a school or similar place because of some personal connection or because the shooter believes he will be met with little resistance, psychiatrists and law enforcement experts said. Often, there is no logical reason.

“Sometimes there's a connection; one of the issues that's angered them is connected to that location. A second reason could be the location itself is soft — there's a lot of victims, it's easy to get into, he knows it and there's not many defenders,” said Larry Likar, chairman of the department of Justice, Law and Security at La Roche College who spent 23 years with the FBI.

Twenty-six people died, including 20 children, when a gunman opened fire Friday inside two classrooms at an Connecticut elementary school where his mother had worked as a teacher. The gunman committed suicide.

“There is no rule on this stuff. For an expert to say, ‘This is why it happened,' is very hard to do,” Likar said.

“Usually there's some form of justification, and they form this warrior image in their mind. They might have the body armor, several guns and that feeds into their fantasy. I think it helps them do it.”

Dr. Bruce Wright, chairman of the psychiatry department at St. Clair Hospital who has interviewed more than 100 killers for homicide cases in Allegheny County, said it's hard to judge what's in a mass-shooter's mind.

“Sometimes these people are very sick, intoxicated or high, but sometimes they're just evil people, bad people, and we can't explain it,” Wright said. “For plenty of people, there's no explanation. They have a lack of empathy. They have no kind of sense of regret or emotion.”

Law enforcement experts said they can only prepare for the worst. University of Pittsburgh police Chief Tim Delaney said as soon as he heard the news of the Connecticut shooting he thought of his department's response to the March 8 shootings at Western Psychiatric & Clinic that left one man dead. Delaney on Friday called the principal of Pitt's nearby Falk School, grades K-8, to reassure him, and he placed an officer out front.

“I did have a flashback. It brought the whole episode back. The first thing I thought of is when we encountered the (gunman) he was reloading both guns,” Delaney said. “Active-shooter training pays off. You pray that it doesn't happen, but you have to be prepared.”

Dealing with the aftermath of a shooting is just as important, said Carolyn Mears, an adjunct professor at the University of Denver, whose son survived the April 20, 1999, shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.

“I'm looking at the TV now and seeing the parents and knowing there's nothing to describe what they're going through,” said Mears, who published a book in May, “Reclaiming School in the Aftermath of Trauma.” “April 20 was when our tragedy began. Its effects are long-lasting.”

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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