Opinion: Link between shootings and childhood trauma warrants research

Rick Murdock
An armed shooter stands near the Earle Cabell Federal Building Monday, June 17, 2019, in downtown Dallas. The shooter was hit and injured in an exchange of gunfire with federal officers outside the courthouse.

As we continue to connect the dots regarding gun violence, bringing the lens of adverse childhood experiences into play creates a meaningful context for public discussion.

What brings this relationship to mind are the studies funded by the National Institute of Justice, highlighted recently by the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 4, 2019. The studies cited relate to a data-base going back to 1966 of every mass shooter who killed four or more people in a public place, and every shooting incident at schools, workplaces, and places of worship since 1999. The researchers, from the Violence Project spent the past two years reviewing the life histories of mass shooters within this database with a goal to find new, data-driven pathways for preventing such shootings. Their research revealed four commonalities among the perpetrators of nearly all the mass shootings that they studied.

The first commonality is central to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). As quoted in the study: “First, the vast majority of mass shooters in our study experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age. The shooters exposure included parental suicide, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and/or severe bullying. The trauma was often a precursor to mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, thought disorders or suicidality.”

The other three commonalities are: 

  • Reaching a crisis point (what triggers the event)
  • Seeking validation of their motives (publicity/fame)
  • Having the means to carry out their plans (access to weapons)

We can draw three conclusions related to the shooters' childhood trauma and gun violence.

First, shooters experience multiple adverse experiences in early childhood. The impact of these experiences, referred to as toxic stress, negatively affects the development of the immune systems, leading toward a variety of future physical health issues. In addition, it affects the brain development, leading toward a variety of future addictive behaviors and conditions. Science shows that unless something is done to help them, children who experience trauma seek solutions that are viewed by others as harmful to themselves and potentially others.

Second, we know that surviving victims are affected. The perpetration of violence is, by definition, a traumatic experience. Care must be taken to create a buffering for those individuals.

Third, while we cannot draw a direct causal effect of childhood trauma and the shooters, there is anecdotal evidence that such relationships exist for different types of violence -- particularly sexual abuse.

Persons with childhood trauma, particularly related to witnessing sexual abuse as an adolescent, may themselves be perpetrators of sexual abuse as adults.

A similar phenomenon may be taking place with violence; this warrants research. If such a causal relationship is true, then we have a roadmap for preventing future shootings.

ACE scores are derived from adding up the number of traumatic childhood events a person may have experienced. The higher the score, the more likely it is the person will also become an addict, alcoholic or abuse their own children in some manner. 

Research shows the huge negative impact ACEs have on physical and mental health. 

We appreciate that many are calling for action against gun violence now — and the other commonalities cited in this op-ed may provide the justification for such action. But longer term, research may show that mass shootings are the result of an ACE cycle in our society.

Rick Murdock is the Michigan ACE Initiative Coordinator and former Executive Director of the Michigan Association of Health Plans.