Why do mass shooters even target children and strangers?

Why does someone like the suspect in Tuesday's Rancho Tehama rampage try to kill everyone in site, even strangers and children?

For most, it's a question that defies reason: Why does someone like the suspect in Tuesday's Rancho Tehama rampage try to kill everyone in site, even strangers and children? 

Usually there's one of a few things going on, psychologists interviewed by the Record Searchlight Wednesday said: they're either trying — like animals — to recapture dominance or honor through violence, subscribing to extremist ideology that justifies the violence, or just so paranoid that they think everyone is conspiring against them.

"You are becoming life or death," said Arie Kruglanski, distinguished psychology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. "That is a way of, in some strange way, asserting your dominance and importance. And these people are probably desperate for that kind of feeling."

Investigators haven't figured out whether that's what motivated the Rancho Tehama shooter, 44-year-old Kevin Janson Neal. They say Neal shot his wife Monday, then targeted people at random throughout the tiny community southwest of Red Bluff on Tuesday, killing four more of them and injuring 10, including children. 

Most shooters don't have a history of serious mental illness, and — like in Neal's case — studies have found that over half of their rampages start with a domestic incident, said J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist and consultant for the FBI.

"Their actual lives are swimming in misery," he said. "This is a final statement."

For some mass killers, feelings of injustice from those personal or workplace spats are so severe that it warps their sense of rational thought. That means seemingly random victims may actually be part of a "paranoid pseudo-community": a group that can include strangers and even children because the suspect sees conspiracy everywhere, Meloy said.

"There’s an active belief that there are other people conspiring against them, and that tends to feed the anger and feed the suspicions and hyper-vigilance," he said. "From the outside, it looks like these strangers are randomly selected. But from inside the paranoid perspective, they are a part of this community of conspirators . . . That could involve just opportunistic victims that are out on the street."

Targeting children may also tie back to the dominance theory, and it's possible the children weren't targeted themselves but to make their parents suffer, Kruglanski said 

"He wanted to hurt other people, and therefore assert his great power," Kruglanski said. "And what can hurt other people more than killing their children?"

Another theory about children: If Neal was deeply unhappy, he could have just been bitter that kids are usually carefree. 

"In contrast to the happiness of the children, he may feel particularly unhappy and humiliated," Kruglanski said. "And, 'I’m going to show them that I am the power the make them unhappy.'"

Still, Richard Cooter, chair of George Washington University's Forensic Psychology Program, said each case is different, and you can't necessarily inject logic into a deranged mind. 

"You can't logically figure it out," he said. "Clearly, little kids in the school have nothing to do with this. And so at that point, it’s just sort of generalized rage." 

Cooter said it's possible Neal killing his wife made him realize he would be going to prison, so he figured he may as well die — but get his revenge on a society perceived as unfair first. 

"You can probably assume that, whatever it was, it got out of control, and at the time that it was really out of control, that he just decided to go out in a blaze of glory," Cooter said. 

Kruglanski believes America's "cultural narrative" around guns can foster the feelings that mass shooters dwell on. 

"In our culture, where guns are used for self-protection, self-protection is a way of disallowing others to humiliate you, to take your property, to divest you of your rights," he said. "Self-protection is more than self-protection: It’s assertion of your honor and, in our country, unfortunately, we have this idea that guns are for protection, for honor, for significance. And I think that adds fuel to the rage and to the sense of empowerment that guns will bring you."

How do we make it stop?

Preventing mass killings with a profile is challenging, Cooter said. 

"There are a lot of people who have grievances, who are loners, who will never hurt anybody. And so if you said, 'There’s your profile,' you’d end up . . . identifying all sorts of people who will never be dangerous to anybody," he said. 

Another problem: Meloy said people with mental illnesses that cause paranoia can be treated with medications, but there's no such remedy for someone whose ingrained world-view is behind it, like in those with paranoid personality disorder. 

"For the individuals who are paranoid, they often present great difficulties for law enforcement because they will engage in behaviors that will (warrant) law enforcement attention, but then confirm their paranoid beliefs," he said. "They’re very, very difficult cases for law enforcement to manage."

Tehama County authorities have already said as much about Neal, whom they had on their radar as "not law enforcement-friendly." 

"It appears that there were a lot of warning behaviors in this particular case," Meloy said. "Fundamentally, the mass murderers cannot be predicted specifically, but there are steps that can be taken to prevent them . . . (including) a concerted effort to both involve law enforcement as well as involve mental health professionals in individuals that raise concern in people’s minds."

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