To prevent mass shootings, don’t bother with motive; do a forensic ACEs investigation

Because 18-year-old Payton Gendron provided in his 180-page diatribe a motive for shooting 10 people in Buffalo, NY, on Saturday night, police didn’t need to search for one, as they often have other in mass shootings. But using motive to prevent mass shootings will just get you a useless answer to the wrong question.

The right question is: What happened to this person? What happened to a beautiful baby boy to turn him into an 18-year-old killer spouting racist screed?

Steve Breen, San Diego Union Tribune

In those questions—and looking at the answers through the lens of positive and adverse childhood experiences—lie our solutions.

In a 2019 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.”

Research clearly shows that the road that leads from a precious infant becoming an abused or neglected child who grows up to become a distressed murderer is predictable. That was revealed in the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.

The ACE Study showed a remarkable link between 10 types of childhood trauma and being violent or a victim of violence, as well as experiencing the adult onset of chronic disease and mental illness. The ten types of childhood trauma include experiencing physical and emotional abuse, neglect, living with a family member who is addicted to alcohol or who is mentally ill, and witnessing domestic violence. (For more information, see PACEs Science 101 and What ACEs/PCEs Do You Have?) Subsequent ACE surveys include experiencing bullying, racism, the foster care system, living in a dangerous community, losing a family member to deportation and being a war refugee, among other traumatic experiences.

The point is — and the science is irrefutable now — just as a bullet rips through flesh and bone, a child experiencing ongoing encounters that cause toxic stress, without positive intervention to help the child, will suffer damage to the structure and function of their brain.

This toxic stress affects health and behavior. All 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, seven times more likely to be alcoholic and 1200 percent more likely to attempt suicide. 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.

The effects of ACEs begin showing up in childhood. Kids experiencing trauma act out. They can’t focus. They can’t sit still. Or they withdraw. Fight, flight or freeze—that’s a normal and expected response to trauma. So, they have difficulty learning. The schools that respond by suspending or expelling them just further traumatize them. When they get older, if they have no positive intervention from a caring adult at home or in school, in a clinic or other organization who is trained to understand trauma, they find unhealthy ways to cope. They turn to addictions of all types—alcohol and other drugs, violence, stealing, lying, overeating, gambling, thrill sports, etc.—to soothe themselves to endure their trauma and the effects of their trauma, such as depression or violence.

In the case of the Buffalo, NY, shooter, there were indications that the shooter’s ACE score was likely to be high: Last June, police were called to his high school for threatening statements, he threatened to shoot people at a high school graduation, and he was hospitalized for a day and a half for a mental health evaluation after doing a school project about murder-suicide. The New York Times reported that the gunman said in online posts that he spent 20 hours waiting for the evaluation and only met with someone for 15 minutes. “This proved to me that the US healthcare system is a joke,” he wrote.

The Washington Post depicted an isolated teen who had little interaction with his parents, both engineers. From the outside, their family looked typical and upper-middle class. They lived in a three-story home with a manicured lawn in a suburb outside Binghamton, NY. There were indications that all was not well in the family, however. In sixth grade, he had problems interacting with Black students and was suspended from school when a student said he’d called her the n-word. Things seemed to escalate over the years. He collected weapons and hid them from his parents. He violently killed a feral cat who was attacking his cat; he stabbed it several times and cut off its head. He skipped weeks of classes at his community college to drive to Buffalo to plan his attack, and lied to his parents when they asked him about it.

Just as it’s easy for a pedophile to groom a vulnerable and emotionally needy child, it’s easy for vulnerable and needy kids to be groomed in other harmful ways, such as through words and actions of people who propound hate and violence as solutions to real or imagined problems. White supremacy and racism fit into that category. So does terrorism, whether domestic or foreign. According to the Post article, Gendron did not consider himself to be a racist until he “began reading an anonymous Internet message board, 4chan, where users celebrate racist violence.”

Healthy people lead healthy lives and aren’t tempted to harm themselves or others. Healthy people have few or no ACEs, and many positive childhood experiences, such as nurturing parents, a safe environment in which to live, and other caring adults.

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

There are many ways to reduce violence, such as making guns less available and controlling hate speech on social media, but one approach that will help communities and organizations prevent another tragedy such as what happened in Buffalo—as well as the more than 200 other mass shootings so far this year—is to establish a forensic ACE review team, much like many states’ Child Death Review teams, to investigate every mass shooter’s adverse childhood experiences, as well as their positive childhood experiences (or more likely, the lack of them). You can begin to envision this approach in news articles that focus on “What do we know about the shooter?” The Washington Post article mentioned above is an example. Others from past shootings include the Los Angeles Times and the Ohio Dispatch.

This analysis would identify every step along the way where a family member, a school, a pediatrician, a coach, people in the faith-based community, police, foster care, child welfare, educators, 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. Troubled kids are usually a symptom of a troubled family and/or a troubled community. Kids’ actions are not theirs alone. All involved with a troubled child need education about how ACEs affect individuals, families and communities. And after identifying those intervention points, figure out solutions, then embed them in all of those organizations and communities to prevent other children from growing up to harm themselves or others.

The good news is that people can heal from trauma, including ACEs. The better news is that we can prevent it.

If you’re interested in becoming more involved in the PACEs science community, join our companion social network, PACEs Connection. Just go to PACEsConnection.comand click “Join”. PACEsConnection.com is the leading advocate for information about the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences (PACEs) and the rapidly expanding, global PACEs science movement. 

14 responses

  1. Pingback: Can We Prevent Mass Shootings? - The Mental Breakdown

  2. Pingback: Live By The AR-15, Die By The AR-15 | went2thebridge

  3. I have for many years believed that ALL children should undergo an annual ACEs checkup, just as they do (or ought to) a medical / physical checkup. It’s no less important, and would likely yield information at an early enough stage to warrant intervention. Jane, thanks for writing this.. spot on. And, of course, another utterly horrific and preventable tragedy.

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  4. I find there’s still too much platitudinous lip-service towards proactive mental illness prevention for males, as well as treatment. Various media will state the obvious, that society must open up its collective minds and common dialogue when it comes to far more progressively addressing the challenge of more fruitfully treating and preventing such illness in general; however, they will typically fail to address the problem of ill men, or even boys, refusing to open up and/or ask for help due to their fear of being perceived by peers, etcetera, as weak/non-masculine.

    The social ramifications exist all around us; indeed, it is endured, however silently, by males of/with whom we are aware/familiar or to whom so many of us are closely related.

    Even today, there remains a mentality, albeit perhaps a subconscious one: Men can take care of themselves, and boys often are basically little men.

    It could be evidence of a continuing subtle societal take-it-like-a-man mindset; one in which so many men, even with anonymity, prefer not to ‘complain’ to some stranger/author about his torturous childhood, as that is what ‘real men’ do.

    According to the author of The Highly Sensitive Man (2019, Tom Falkenstein, Ch.1):
    “At the same time, academics are telling us that ‘we know far less about the psychological and physical health of men than of women.’ Why is this? Michael Addis, a professor of psychology and a leading researcher into male identity and psychological health, has highlighted a deficit in our knowledge about men suffering from depression and argues that this has cultural, social, and historical roots.

    “If we look at whether gender affects how people experience depression, how they express it, and how it’s treated, it quickly becomes clear that gender has for a long time referred to women and not to men. According to Addis, this is because, socially and historically, men have been seen as the dominant group and thus representative of normal psychological health. Women have thus been understood as the nondominant group, which deviated from the norm, and they have been examined and understood from this perspective. One of the countless problems of this approach is that the experiences and specific challenges of the ‘dominant group,’ in this case men, have remained hidden. …

    “While it is true that a higher percentage of women than men will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or a depressive episode, the suicide rate among men is much higher. In the United States, the suicide rate is notably higher in men than in women. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men account for 77 percent of the forty-five thousand people who kill themselves every year in the United States. In fact, men commit suicide more than women everywhere in the world. Men are more likely to suffer from addiction, and when men discuss depressive symptoms with their doctor, they are less likely than women to be diagnosed with depression and consequently don’t receive adequate therapeutic and pharmacological treatment. …

    “This is backed up by numerous psychological studies over the last forty years that tell us that, despite huge social change, the stereotypical image of the ‘strong man’ is still firmly with us at all ages, in all ethnic groups, and among all socio-economic backgrounds. In the face of problems, men tend not to seek out emotional or professional help from other people. They use, more often than women, alcohol or drugs to numb unpleasant feelings and, in crises, tend to try to deal with things on their own, instead of searching out closeness or help from others.”

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  5. Pingback: To prevent mass shootings, don’t bother with motive; do a forensic ACEs investigation – ACEs Too High – Bullies and Bullets

  6. Well Done! Let’s hope the passion in your letter catches on. I have been following this website for about a year. This work is amazing and has been so very helpful to so many of us.

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  7. It is one thing to cope with A.C.E.S. But there is a much better solution that is to heal from them. The Pennebaker paradigm 1986 gives the instructions. With the research necessary limits of time and scope removed it becomes a self help therapy with objectively measured (proxy) positive psyche health improvements. “The most traumatic experience of your life” is simply a more generic expression of the Fratelli/Anda questionnaire.

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  8. When will people wake up and see what’s happening to our children. I’m in a battle with the Board of Education trying to make them see trauma in my grandson. I know trauma because I’ve lived it. I have begged for understanding and the more I explain, the more they blame it on bad behavior. He is a wonderful, loving, child but has flashbacks. No trauma-informed anyone where we live. 🙏

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    • Rita, sounds to me like you’re a wonderful ally for your grandson. Please don’t underestimate the power of your position in HIS life. If only all children living amidst trauma had a perceptive, loving, caring adult like yourself in their lives, THAT would make all the difference. (And I write from the lived experience of having had ZERO allies in my childhood/youth; I guarantee it would have made a huge impact!)

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  9. Pingback: To prevent mass shootings, don't bother with motive; do a forensic ACEs investigation « ACEs Too High - CatsArticle

  10. I’m very concerned about grooming for extremist groups in the US.. . and totally agree with this article and how vulnerable kids are when they have lived a life of trauma. Would you be willing to have a public conversation with me about this? I am part of a community where I wonder if your wisdom might be able to support others … I want to get the word out as much as possible.

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  11. Inspiring, Jane Ellen. I’ve been teaching kids and parents to become “Adrenal Ninjas” (Polyvagal Theory for Every(wo)man) ever since Felitti and Anda published their original study. Sooner or later early ACEs interventions are going to reach a Tipping Point (which only requires 25% of a cohort to attain!). So, I remain ever-hopeful.

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