Mass murder is the killing of four or more individuals at one given time or in a fairly short period of time, and in one place (in a single incident). Although often confused with serial murder—the killing of three or more people over a period of time, with intervals between murders—criminologists distinguish between the two. A variety of motivating factors drive mass murderers, for example, disgruntled employees lash out against a corporation or organization, violence is driven by intolerance of racial or sexual orientation, or an individual responds to perceived injustices.
Mass murder is generally premeditated and deliberate, not impulsive or spontaneous, with firearms most often used, enabling the individual to kill more easily as many people as possible. Oftentimes the perpetrator, after carrying out the murders, commits suicide or engages in a shootout with law enforcement, ensuring death (referred to as “suicide-by-cop”).
Characteristics of Mass Murderers
Typically, social isolation occurs in conjunction with some trigger event, most often work or relationship related. Precipitating factors often include love rejection or some form of loss, like getting fired. Women who commit multiple murders typically target their families, most often their children. These women often view their domestic status as central in their lives, and with any threat to that status (or perceived threat), they react violently. They tend to view their relationship with their children as one of complete ownership. Men, on the other hand, more often target the entire family unit or other close relationships they maintain, such as coworkers.
Mass Murderer Typologies
Mass murderers fit numerous profiles and typologies. Among these, disciples follow the commands of a leader; initiation into a gang or cult killings would fall into this category. The killings are typically committed in close proximity to the leader’s “headquarters,” and the selection of victims may be known solely to the leader, for a particular symbolic significance.
Family annihilators generally view their families as extensions of themselves, and as such feel that the family shares in their misery and the killing then holds no greater significance than a suicide. Annihilators also tend to exhibit the greatest degree of mental instability, and the killings result from an eruption of violence; suicide or suicide-by-cop is often the final result.
Disgruntled employees are often former employees or individuals who may have recently lost their jobs. The targets are coworkers and former bosses, but these murderers often kill randomly throughout the workplace.
Pseudocommandos typically amass a large number and variety of weapons, including firearms, rifles, and grenades. They view society or some aspect of it with distaste and want to “get back at it.” Typically, a great deal of planning is involved, and victims tend to be selected at random.
Political or hate killings are motivated by some ideological cause or by a hatred of a particular group. Anger or revenge killings are often very personal, directed against specific targets that the killers believe wronged them.
In general, mass murder incidents vary widely in terms of motivation, situational characteristics, and offender characteristics.
- Kelleher, Michael D. 1997. Flash Point: The American Mass Murderer. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Palermo, George B. 1997. “The Berserk Syndrome: A Review of Mass Murder.” Aggression and Violent Behavior 2:1-8.
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