CENTENNIAL – Across thousands of pieces of evidence, hundreds of witnesses and dozens of hours of video-recorded interviews, the Aurora movie theater murder trial churned out a nearly unprecedented amount of information about a mass shooter.
Now, researchers are hoping they can use some of that information to understand better the motivations and methods of the people who commit such a crime.
“I do think that there are some lessons, some larger lessons, that can be drawn from the (James) Holmes case,” said Grant Duwe, a researcher with the Minnesota Department of Corrections who is an expert in mass public shootings.
But Duwe and another expert said what was learned during the trial may not help in answering the ultimate question: How do you stop an attack from happening?
Though mass public shootings have become a seemingly regular occurrence – at least three attacks made national news during the length of the theater shootings trial – mass shooters such as Holmes are rarely brought before juries. People who commit mass killings are more likely to die at the scene than to be caught.
That made the theater-shooting trial – in addition to bringing justice for the 12 people slain and 70 wounded in the July 2012 attack on the Century Aurora 16 theater – an opportunity for researchers.
And, Duwe said, it did confirm some larger patterns among mass shooters that researchers have earlier identified.
Testimony at trial established that Holmes suffers from a mental illness, had recently suffered a catastrophic setback, had made previous statements about wanting to kill people and had spent ample time preparing for the attack. All of those are commonly seen in other shootings, Duwe said. For instance, he said about a third of mass shooters made threats before their attack and nearly two-thirds suffered from mental illness.
The challenge, said Jonathan Metzl, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, is that even such a lengthy combination of factors does not accurately predict whether someone will commit a mass shooting.
People with serious mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, he said. And threats aren’t always predictive of action.
He suggested a more effective strategy for preventing mass attacks would be to focus on the things mass shooters do to prepare for attacks– such as rapidly amassing firearms and ammunition.
“The true tragedy of this case and one of the things we learned is just how hard it is to prevent random mass shootings,” he said.