Desperately seeking to make sense of senseless tragedies such as the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, people have two responses: Issue a passionate cry for gun control or an equally vociferous defense of the right to bear arms. With both sides convinced they have the only answer to this politically charged issue, the battle has moved from legislators to judges.
Let’s focus on the second answer — finding ways to stop potential shooters from wanting to kill.
To do that, we need to identify them before they wind up in crowded venues with loaded guns and lots of ammunition.
Easier said than done.
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Nevertheless, the difficulty hasn’t stopped us from looking for warning signs missed until after each mass shooting. With Nikolas Cruz, there were too many to count.
An important common factor with many perpetrators of unspeakable acts of violence is animal abuse. Abundant research reveals significant overlap between children who torment animals and adults who murder humans.
▪ The young Jeffrey Dahmer killed neighbors’ pets, impaling an animal’s head on a stick. As an adult, the “Milwaukee Cannibal” decapitated some human victims and raped, murdered and ate parts of 17 people.
▪ John Wayne Gacy, as a minor, he set turkeys on fire using gasoline-filled balloons. As a grown up, he killed 33 men and boys.
▪ As a child, Ted Bundy, mutilated dogs and cats. After turning 18, he murdered at least 30 women (probably closer to 100).
▪ When he was a kid, Kip Kinkel mutilated a cow and crammed firecrackers into cats’ mouths. The adult Kinkel murdered his parents before killing two and wounding 25 in an Oregon high school.
Not every child who mistreats an animal becomes a school shooter. And all school shooters are not animal abusers. Indeed, Adam Lanza, who, after slaying his mother, slaughtered 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, was a vegan because he didn’t want to hurt animals.
A few experts deny the connection, claiming “millions” of Americans abuse animals but only a handful became school shooters. Thus, they conclude animal abuse is not a good predictor.
Nevertheless, numerous studies provide clear evidence that children who brutalize animals are more likely to “graduate” to killing people than those who do not. The FBI seemed to agree when, in 2016, it started tracking animal abuse.
While mistreating an animal is never OK, what appears to be important for predicting future violence against people is the type of abuse. For example, nine of 10 school shooters killed nonhuman prey by strangling, bludgeoning, burning or mutilating — meaning they were in direct contact with their victims.
Arnold Arluke studied 23 school shooters from 1988 to 2012 and found that 43 percent had abused animals, mirroring statistics for serial killers. In a recent article, he explained the critical fact is, “These two categories of people treated animals differently than ordinary folks. Ninety percent of our animal-abusing school shooters committed cruelty in an up-close and personal manner.”
Unfortunately, Arluke notes, “No accurate or useful ‘profile’ of students who engaged in targeted school violence” exists. But, despite the complexity of predicting behavior and that, “Even more precise warning signs will not identify every future shooter … our research offers hope for spotting warning signs of — and thus preventing — at least some school shootings.”
What can we do? Listen to the experts.
Acknowledging most professionals consider animal abuse a warning, we should: Recognize animal abuse is a serious crime against animals, humans and society. When children are the perpetrators, require counseling and monitoring if necessary; pass laws making it everyone’s duty to report animal abuse, providing anonymity and immunity for good-faith reports; allocate money to combat mental illness to help the abusive child and protect all of us.
It is hard to feel sympathy for Nikolas Cruz.
However, what might have been had someone intervened when he was in elementary school and started abusing animals by shooting squirrels and chickens or, as a teenager, mutilating frogs, torturing his neighbor’s potbelly piglets and jamming sticks into rabbit holes to crush small animals?
Sadly, no one did.
Phyllis Coleman is a professor at the Shepard Broad College of Law, Fort Lauderdale. She was one of the first full-time law faculty members in the country to teach animal law.