The myth of motive in mass shootings


Photo: Vernon Bryant, Dallas Morning News

Almost the first thing you hear out of the mouths of police after a mass shooting is: “We’re looking for a motive.”

In Gilroy, CA, the FBI is investigating the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival as domestic terrorism. In El Paso, TX, police are describing the shooting as a possible hate crime and act of domestic terrorism, and focusing on the manifesto written by the shooter. Police in Dayton, OH, are still looking for a motive for why 24-year-old Connor Betts murdered nine people in 30 seconds.

But if we want to prevent shootings, asking about motive will just get you a useless answer to the wrong question. Police might feel as if they have an explanation for why 19-year-old Santino William Legan murdered three people, and why 21-year-old Patrick Crusius murdered 22 people. But motives don’t explain the roots of why those three young men, or any other mass shooters or bombers, foreign or domestic, start their journey as innocent babies and end up on a road to killing people. And in those roots, are our solutions.

If you use the lens of the science of adverse childhood experiences, the answer reveals itself, and usually pretty quickly.

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, “We have studied every mass shooting since 1966. Here’s what we’ve learned about the shooters”, Jillian Peterson and James Delaney wrote: “First, the vast majority of mass shooters in our study experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age. The nature of their exposure included parental suicide, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and/or severe bullying.”

Here’s why that’s important….it’s all about that road from cute baby to distressed murderer. Childhood trauma can lead people to becoming killers, if there’s no intervention. It can also lead to people having heart attacks, cancer, arthritis, becoming alcoholic and suicidal. That was originally revealed in the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.

The ACE Study showed a remarkable link between 10 types of childhood trauma — such as witnessing a mother being hit, living with a family member who is addicted to alcohol or who is mentally ill, living with a parent who is emotionally abusive, experiencing divorce — and the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, being violent or a victim of violence, among many other consequences. The study found that two-thirds of the more than 17,000 participants, who were mostly white, had an ACE score of at least one, and 12 percent had an ACE score of four or more. (For more information, see ACEs Science 101and Got Your ACE Score?) Subsequent ACE questionnaires include experiencing bullying, the foster care system, losing a family member to deportation and being a war refugee, among other traumatic experiences. ACEs are now divided into three types: adverse experiences in families, adverse community experiences, and adverse climate experiences.

The point is — and the science is irrefutable now — just as a bullet ripping through flesh and bone, if a kid experiences something that causes toxic stress, damage to the structure and function of the brain will occur. How, and if they heal, depends on a kid being given resilience from adult who is able to do so — parent, caregiver, teacher, coach, imam — as well as the health of the social and physical environment in which they live.

This is all part of ACEs science, which includes ACEs, the bad things that happen to you when you’re a kid; the toxic stress from ACEs that damage a kid’s brain; how that toxic stress affects their health and behavior; how toxic stress can be passed on from generation to generation through our genes; and, most important and relevant to how we prevent shootings, how the brain and body can heal.

Most pertinent here, is how toxic stress affects health and behavior. The data is startling: The more ACEs you have, the greater the risk for chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. People have an ACE score of 0 to 10. Each type of trauma counts as one, no matter how many times it occurs. You can think of an ACE score as a cholesterol score for childhood trauma. For example, people with an ACE score of 4 are twice as likely to be smokers and seven times more likely to be alcoholic. Having an ACE score of 4 increases the risk of emphysema or chronic bronchitis by nearly 400 percent, and attempted suicide by 1200 percent. People with high ACE scores are more likely to be violent, to have more marriages, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, more depression, and more autoimmune diseases. People with an ACE score of 6 or higher are at risk of their lifespan being shortened by 20 years.

Kids experiencing trauma act out. They can’t focus. Theycan’t sit still. Or they withdraw. Fight, flight or freeze– that’s a normal and expected response to trauma. So they can’t learn. The schools that respond by suspending or expelling them just further traumatize them, and drive them into the prison system.

When they get older, they cope by drinking, overeating, doing drugs, smoking, as well as over-achieving or engaging in thrill sports. To them, these are solutions. They’renot problems. Nicotine reduces anxiety. Food soothes. Some drugs, such as meth, are anti-depressants. So telling someone how bad smoking is for them isn’t likely to make much of an impression if it relieves anxiety.

I’d bet that the shooters’ ACE scores were pretty high.

Although we can’t predict if a kid with ACEs will express their toxic stress outwardly in violence to others, or turn inward to do more harm to themselves, or, in some cases, do both, we know enough to intervene at every step of the way…and should. Warning signs will always show themselves, if we’re educated to see them. And if we address these signs, we have a better shot at preventing not just violence, but all other ways childhood adversity can affect us as adults if our systems integrate practices based on ACEs science.

And there are plenty of examples of how integrating ACEs science in organizations and systems is diverting kids affected by ACEs from lives of violence and disease:

  • An elementary school in San Diego stops suspending and expelling students. They don’t need to. And the kids’ grades, test scores and attendance climb. Teachers are happier and less stressed.
  • A health clinic in Pueblo, Colorado, sees a 30 percent drop in visits to the emergency room.
  • A juvenile diversion program in Philadelphia reduces arrests from 1600 to 500 in three years.In San Diego, during the first year of a juvenile detention facility that was built to be trauma-informed from the ground up, there were no violent incidents whatsoever.
  • Pediatricians say they have a better relationship with parents and their kids. They can address developmental problem, identify family violence earlier, and help heal families.
  • After one year, family courts that integrate the Safe Babies Courts approach see 99 percent of the kids suffer no further abuse.
  • A family physician in Tennessee who treats people addicted to opioids sees that 99 percent of his patients are able to hold down a job.
  • Within 24 to 48 hours after a person recovers from an opioid overdose in Plymouth County, MA, a police officer visits and offers to take them to a rehab facility right then and there. And then says, “How about I treat you to dinner on the way?”
  • A batterer intervention program in Bakersfield, CA, sees recidivism rates fall from 60 percent to six percent.
  • In Cowlitz County, Washington, youth suicide and suicide attempts drop 98 percent.

But back to the myth, misconception and misdirection of motive: If not motive, what should we focus on instead? How about a forensic analysis of ACEs and resilience factors in mass shooters’ childhoods. You can begin to envision this approach in the news articles that focus on “What do we know about the shooter?” Here are examples from the Los Angeles Times and the Ohio Dispatch.

What I’m talking about is taking this approach further by identifying every step along the way that a family, a school, a pediatrician, a coach, people in the faith-based community, police, foster care, juvenile detention, probation, youth organizations, etc., could have intervened to help that child and/or their family when it was clear the kid was troubled. (And troubled kids are often a symptom of a troubled family and/or a troubled community, which need help.) And after figuring out the solutions, embedding those new healing practices in all of those organizations.

I’m not advocating this approach to blame families, organizations, systems or communities; I’m advocating doing this so that our organizations and systems can move from blame, shame and punishment in changing human behavior, to understanding, nurturing and healing.


  1. Hi Jane, Am sending you this powerful post, with the response from my Oakland son-in-law teacher. Our work is so important! Thanks again for what you are doing. I’m writing an article about ACEs which I will send you in a few days. Blessings, Louise

    > Begin forwarded message: > > From: David Caven > Subject: Re: The Baggage Activity – In case you didn’t see my FB post > Date: August 27, 2019 at 6:03:28 AM PDT > To: Louise Hart > > A few teachers at my school have done a similar activity – called “I wish I could tell someone…” These are important ways for educators to access the trauma their students experience – some of them on a daily basis. “It’s not like when I was a kid.” > >


  2. Excellent exploration of why ACE factors ought to be empirically studied as a contributory factor for mass shootings. It’s the old adage “Hurt people hurt people.” Some of perpetrators may not be able to articulate a motive. Or if they have a motive, it’s may be emanating from their ACEs experience.

    As important as ACEs factors may be, I want to pose several cautionary questions / considerations:

    1) Given that US rates of this violence are so high compared to other developed countries, how do US ACEs score compare? Are our ACEs scores similarly significantly higher?

    2) How do we tease out the impact of racist and hate-filled ideologies and rhetoric, often espoused by people who do not appear to have high ACEs scores? In fact, the leaders and perpetrators appear to be trying to maintain a more privileged position in society. Researchers might explore whether a high ACE score more likely inclines a person to be a victim than an aggressor.

    3) If there is a correlation between gun violence and ACEs, how do we prevent people with high ACE scores from being stigmatized as potentially violent, when the vast majority of people with high ACEs are not violent (similar to the concerns of stigmatizing mental illness)?

    4) And if there is a proven relationship between mass shootings and ACEs, in addition to building resilience to remediate ACEs / trauma, can we also invest in prevention? By helping teens learn how to create healthy families in high school health education classes – before they conceive a child – there is an opportunity to reduce the prevalence of each of the factors. Imagine if our next generation of children could begin life with a significantly reduced risk of ACEs experiences!

    Thank you, Jane, for initiating conversation on this very important topic!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great post, Jane Ellen, and good food for thought. It is true that most mass shooters have a history of developmental trauma. However, so does roughly a quarter of the population, and 99% of that group will never become a shooter. So I don’t believe it’s trauma that triggers them to pull the trigger, but rather that trauma creates a susceptibility to become disconnected from society, and then influenced by hate speech. Even then, being hateful can only result in a mass shooting because we’ve made it far too easy to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Jane, This is an important perspective on getting to the real causes of violence. In years past we used to do “psychological autopsies” in our community when someone too their own life, to look at all the causes both personal, interpersonal, and social that led up to the even of suicide. It would be great to have something similar with these mass shootings that are getting everyone’s attention, but very little real understanding of causes. I’d like to see us begin with looking at the ACEs of the killers and trace the impact of the ACEs and see the factors had led from there until the killings. Perhaps a group could be organized in the ACE network to pull together the facts and put the puzzle pieces together. I’d be interested in people’s thoughts.


  5. I feel strongly that separation from the mother in the first weeks, in preparation for adoption is a massive stress that gets over looked, also that not everyone who has these awful stresses, turns into a mass murderer, often times the one they torcher is themselves,
    with low self worth, inability to feel loved or the right to take up space in this world. As someone who was separated at 5 weeks and adopted after 5 months, because I got sick, classic now with the new research as to why I got sick had my stomach cut open at 8 weeks near death.
    My life has played out classical, from the neuro pathways I hooked up at this black time, while being adopted was the highlight, the patterns in that short period 62years later are playing out in my life, the life that has attracted bullying all through school and in my work life, inability to commit totally in relationship, unable to believe I was “ “really” loved… sexual abuse, physical abuse, all the whole shocked as to why anyone would do these things to me, I now realise it is then playing up just how much respect I have for my ecsistance or any sense of worth. I think it was Melane Kline who said it is the deepest humiliation you can inflict on a child to abandon it. I think way more of us turn it inside than put it out.
    I would love to hook up with anyone doing work on adoption and the effects of, to prevent the pattern I have set up, now I am back to being alone with no family, I am sick with a no energy illness and the only treatment offered is antidepressants, have MCPTSD and have little hope for this physical life, as I can’t work… I feel an edge that could be shattered and broken through and to be able to step into a whole life, I can’t do it alone. But God


    • In light of this comment, please note the new field of epigenetics shows us that CNS changes in response to trauma in the mother or the child can happen even in utero. Yes, the majority of trauma-exposed children do not go on to be mass killers, however, the epigenetic changes are there, they cause havoc in their lives, and in light of Dr Perry’s tremendous work with trauma — as he expounds in “The Boy that Was Raised as a Dog,” — we must be cognizant that for many, and possibly most of the traumatized kids with whom we deal, the only salvation and healing for them is a loving, compassionate, and accepting community (as Dr Perry shares in his text). Now, the question is…where is that community? How do we form it? How do we make it or utilize existing forms of community?


      • I’ve found many communities of love and acceptance, and Yes, healing, in the Woman-Positive, Pagan-tending, Open-minded, Nature-oriented communities on Facebook.
        They can also be found at and around book stores, crystal shops and New Thought Churches, among other places.
        Many teachers would be delighted to expand their ability (feelings of permission) to “work with” their students, too.


    • Susie,
      So sorry to read your story. You have gone through a lot and survived! That is resilience! I believe there is hope for your life and encourage you to never give up. As we know from epigenetics, trauma can be passed from one generation to the next. What you have experienced could be coming from generations way before you. It may seem daunting as you may not know even where to start. I hope now that you know what the cause is you can begin to learn strategies so that you can begin to change the story of your life. Hope you can find a friend, therapist, or a mentor to help you along the way!


  6. Tweets: Kids experiencing trauma act out. They can’t focus. Theycan’t sit still. Or they withdraw. Fight, flight or freeze– that’s a normal and expected response to trauma. So they can’t learn. The schools that respond by suspending or expelling them just further traumatize them, and drive them into the prison system.

    When they get older, they cope by drinking, overeating, doing drugs, smoking, as well as over-achieving or engaging in thrill sports. To them, these are solutions. They’renot problems. Nicotine reduces anxiety. Food soothes. Some drugs, such as meth, are anti-depressants. So telling someone how bad smoking is for them isn’t likely to make much of an impression if it relieves anxiety.

    This excites me! ACEs are now divided into three types: adverse experiences in families, adverse community experiences, and adverse climate experiences.

    Jane, is there a new test that covers these new categories?

    You “did good”, Jane! Yeah!


    P.S. Where is your office located?


    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Louise. ACEs Connection is a virtual office, so our staff members live in many parts of the US. Re ACEs surveys, many have expanded the questions to capture the ACEs of the demographic they’re surveying.


  7. EXACTLY!!!!! I was a previous educator who continues to witness the same insanity I grew up in continue where they heavily medicate kids who show signs of ACE and place mental illness labels on them. They don’t like that I’ve shined a light in this area because the more diagnoses the more money! Share share share because it’s so true and our nation is callous to this factual information!!!! I wrote a book and will be published soon and have included my blog link to anyone interested in following my link@ Keep sharing what you’re sharing because the media also will not acknowledge this!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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