The Las Vegas Shooting – Why Mass Murderers are Difficult to Predict

I apologize, friends, for being late with my usual Tuesday post. I’d planned for another serial killer profile and was ready to get going on Monday morning when I woke to see the news splashed across the screen of my phone: “Shooting in Las Vegas.”  At the time there were ‘only’ 20 confirmed dead, but that number rose steadily throughout the day to it’s gruesome total of 59, with hundreds wounded. Like most of you, I feel as though it’s already been a long week, and metabolizing all the details is almost too much.

View from the Mandalay Bay Hotel

Yet, I feel that it’s incumbent upon me to say something… to try to explain the piece of this puzzle that I’m familiar with, in order to help others (who are far wiser than I), make sense of the madness.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, my day job for the past decade has been overseeing the assessment of future risk. My people evaluate prisoners for the possibility of parole and advise the Board of Parole Hearings on the inmate’s level of dangerousness. In fact, I’m part of one of the only specialized units in the entire United States that does this. Simply put,  trying to predict and prevent violence is my life.

And, yet, when I look at what we know about Stephen Paddock, I can’t help but think that I don’t think he would’ve been identified.

Here’s why:

When evaluating violence risk, the assessor is looking for several specific things.  The first of those is the person’s history. For instance, does the suspect have a history that evidences criminal behavior (even nonviolent criminal behavior such as shoplifting or DUI)? Has the suspect had contact with the criminal justice system (even if he was only arrested, but not convicted)?

In Paddock’s case, the answer to that is “No.”

Second, does the suspect have attitudes supportive of violence or espouse violence as an acceptable means to an end? For example, does the suspect voice threats or talk about how he would “solve” things in terms of enacting revenge or other similar scenarios? Are his relationships strained, heated, or fraught with difficult interactions? Has he been known to be difficult on the job or to have had many broken intimate relationships? Does he have a history of domestic violence?

From what we know so far, the answer in Paddock’s case is still, “No.”  He had a stable job, was successful, and had a long-term girlfriend with which he co-habitated.

Next, does the suspect have a rocky childhood or other similar trauma in his distant past that might serve to de-stablize him in the future? While largely unknown, it is assumed that (due to the lack of a criminal history and subsequent successful career), Stephen Paddock was clean in this regard as well. Though his biological father was a bank robber, he didn’t factor in Stephen’s life, and it’s unlikely that he had a big impact. Additionally, Paddock was age 64 when the shootings occurred, making him much less malleable and impulsive compared to younger perpetrators.

Or, was Paddock mentally unstable or hooked on drugs, either of which could have thrown him off to such an extent that he lost touch with reality?  Thus far, the evidence regarding this indicates that Paddock was mentally stable enough to not only hold down a high-powered job, but to plan the massacre beforehand and conceal his actions/motives from others.


Therefore, there is very little to indicate that Stephen Paddock would ever be violent during the course of his life. Without a criminal history, a documented domestic violence history, drug abuse, mental illness, or vocalization of attitudes supportive of violence, Stephen Paddock was just another guy.

He was a regular American white male who lived outside of Vegas. He had money, health, and a live-in girlfriend. To our knowledge, he didn’t have sketchy friends, a criminal history, or a ton of bad habits.

But he did snap.

It hasn’t been aired yet, but there was an incident or recent detail about Paddock’s life that has yet to be discovered…something that pushed him over the edge into an anger/disillusionment that allowed him to do what he did.  It was something that affected him so deeply that he lost all connection with his humanity and sense of belonging. It made him feel like an outsider looking in on a world that he could no longer inhabit – or even fathom. All he knew was that he felt compelled to instill his own panic, fear, and pain in others before taking himself out. To Paddock, a violent end was the only viable option left in a life that had ceased to have meaning.

In time, this will be studied and re-hashed over and over again by politicians, educators, and pundits of all stripes. Paddock’s life will be dissected in intricate detail to unravel the mind of the deadliest shooter in American history. And yet, in the end, the story will be the same:  a disillusioned, sad little man who couldn’t cope with his disappointment resorted to making the biggest statement he could imagine: To make every American feel unsafe no matter the circumstance or location. To make us all feel SMALL.

So, please – in this moment of irreparable grief and inconsolable sadness – remember this: throughout this tragedy, there were countless heroes. Police, first responders, civilians, and other victims helped the countless injured. They tended to the damage of the wounded and held the hands of the dying. Kids as young as twenty and adults as old as sixty helped others to safety and ran back into the fray again and again. They stood to gain absolutely nothing, but risked their lives anyway.

And there were scores of them.

Unlike Paddock, these heroes didn’t plan, or train, or dream about this day. They didn’t set up bunkers, or case their surroundings, or make sure that everything was just as they’d imagined. They had minutes – no, seconds – to respond to a war-like scenario in the middle of what was supposed to be a festival. They did it immediately, and they did it on instinct to save others, most of whom they didn’t even know. They stood up and faced down the most frightening and formidable foe that most of them had ever seen without even having time to think.

And THAT is the America I know.  It’s the America that is brave and headstrong and rebellious. It’s the America that reminds me that no matter how many weak, faceless monsters crawl out of the woodwork, we’ll still be here. Through our tears we’ll still be standing.

We’ll still be standing.

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