AS HUMANS, we are always

seeking answers. Asking “why?”

is part of our nature. In the event of any murder—especially a mass-murder—we instinctively search for the motive. News anchors commonly report on whether the killer’s motive is known yet, or whether investigators are still trying to determine it.

Finding these answers helps us in our need to understand these horrors.

But if we know the motive of one of these killers, does that necessarily help prevent the next mass murderer from killing? Does the motive actually matter?

Consider that motives in mass murders have reportedly varied—from political animus (on both sides of the aisle), to misogyny, to homophobia, anti-Semitism and racism. Yet not everyone with those attitudes, however abhorrent, turns violent.

There is no way to legislate the motives of the human heart, and society rightly shames all of those “-isms.” Killings throughout history have been motivated by a wide variety of depraved ideas, so perhaps the more important questions are what do mass killings have in common, and how can we address those factors, even if we can never extinguish all evil?

In 2018, the FBI published “A Study of Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 and 2013.” That study “examines specific behaviors that may precede an attack and that might be useful in identifying, assessing and managing those who may be on a pathway to violence.”

This study suggests we look for warning signs that a mass killing might be in the planning stages. In fact, the study says that 77 percent of the subjects spent a week or longer planning their attack.

Where motive can only be guessed in cases where the killer never speaks about it, behaviors can be seen and reported.

In the 2018 shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., it was the killer’s behaviors that predicted the violence, not his motive.

Two days after the shooting, the FBI acknowledged that it failed to act on a tip about the troubling behaviors of the killer. There are reports of school administrators not reacting properly to threats. Broward County sheriffs deputies had responded to calls at the killer’s house 39 times over the preceding seven years. He was cutting himself and posting pictures of self-harm.

All of these are instances of missed behaviors, not missed motives.

So how do we examine and address root causes in order to reduce and eliminate the incidence of these horrific events?

James Delaney and Jillian Peterson recently published their study on characteristics of every mass shooter since 1966. Their conclusion? “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.”

Delaney and Peterson’s conclusion is further bolstered by a study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente. This study examined those childhood stressors and traumatic experiences, known as Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE.

Higher ACE scores are not only associated with higher probabilities of auto-immune diseases, emphysema and even some cancers, but they are a consistent attribute of mass killers. And those with higher ACE scores who become violent can have a variety of motives.

While most people with a high ACE score go on to live normal and productive lives, there would certainly be significant societal (and individual) benefit from reducing the incidence of ACE. And the icing on the cake would be the reduction or elimination of—dare we hope—mass killings.

In those cases where someone has already been exposed to a high level of childhood trauma, the solution may be to foster resiliency skills.

Toward that end, Florida State University launched its Student Resilience Project in 2018 to provide support in the areas of grief, loss and depression. FSU has received great feedback about its program, and has received inquiries about it from around the world.

Seeking answers is part of the human condition. But if we can shift our perspective on mass murders from the motive of the killer to what kind of a childhood he had, might we be closer to stopping the next one?

Reducing ACE scores would have a positive impact for generations. Rather than focus too much on “why,” let’s focus on “how” to intervene. As Frederick Douglass said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Laura Carno is a visiting fellow at Independent Women’s Forum and the founder and executive director of FASTER Colorado. She wrote this for

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