Last week, an American gunned down 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. The shooting is being called the deadliest mass shooting in the United States. Many of us have seen many mass murders be given the title of deadliest mass shooting already, but those keep getting beat by newer and deadlier shootings.
Last year I interviewed Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, the parents of Jessica Redfield Ghawi who was killed in Aurora movie theater mass shooting in 2012. Lonnie told me that most mass murderers studied previous mass murderers and they try to beat scores, scores being the body counts. The Newtown shooter used the Aurora shooting as a bar to meet, for example.
I also interviewed Special Agent Michelle Lee, media coordinator at the San Antonio FBI who agreed.
“We’ve observed…many potential attackers express a contextually inappropriate interest – or in some cases a fixation – on past attacks and attackers,” she said.
In several completed attacks, she said, the shooter cited a past mass shooting as a contributing or inspirational motivator.
“For instance, Columbine remains a frequently cited event by many attackers who seek to emulate the shooters and eclipse the number of victims,” she said.
Right now the FBI’s study on whether or not the media’s portrayal of violent shooters could inspire others to violent acts has been mostly based on anecdotal evidence but despite that, Lee said, “because we feel like we have observed enough information, we think that it is something that takes place.”
She and Special Agent Christopher Combs (who previously acted as the lead for efforts to combat and respond to nationwide live shooter events) formed a relationship with Texas State University after Newtown to partner up for the “Don’t Name Them” campaign, which aims to influence media to report responsibility on mass shootings.
“We’re trying to reach out to media and make them aware and encourage them whenever possible to try to employ more responsible coverage of these events to try not to glamorize the subjects,” she said. “And a part of that is to avoid saying their names (of the shooters) and putting them in a position where others may feel that they would give them a platform or a venue to attract a lot of attention and infamy.”
When media broadcasts a killer’s rants, like when the Virginia Tech killer mailed his video manifesto to NBC and they aired it or when publications published the Isla Vista killer’s written manifesto, they are giving them what they want.
“They want the world to read their manifesto, to see their reasons why they claim that they committed these violent acts,” said Lee. “We would definitely discourage it.”
This brings up complications. People want to try to understand why and how such a tragedy could happen and how they can predict the next killer and protect their family.
“How can we answer those questions without feeding possibly just the morbid fascination for how someone could possibly do the unthinkable and in the process feed someone who might be on the edge in moving forward in committing a violent act themselves?” asked Lee.
The FBI has a history of protecting the victims, so it’s been difficult and frustrating for media outlets to reach out to victims in cases where the FBI is involved. Most of the FBI efforts when it comes to victims had been focused on protection, medical care and therapy and not engagement with the media. That is starting to change, at least with the San Antonio FBI.
“What we are trying to do now and in the past we would not even dream of even broaching the subject, is to find out with the victims how they are going to heal best,” said Lee. “We encourage those who feel comfortable to talk to the media.”
Lee said they tell the victims’ families that the public can either hear about their loved one and their life from them or the alternative: “They can hear a whole lot about the individual responsible for this violent act, which may lead to other violent shootings.”
She added that she never wants a victim’s family to feel pressured.
“We’re just letting them know that unfortunately this is how things may unfold. We’re just making them aware of it and letting them make the choices they are comfortable with.”
This is currently only something regional, specific to the Texas region but her and Special Agent Christopher Combs are hoping that other enforcement agencies will follow their lead.
“It’s something new that we’ve acknowledged that we need to do to help in our efforts encouraging media to report on these events responsibly.”
Victims had their own dreams, flaws, feelings of inadequacies and insecurities, their own painful memories of rejection. They are more than just a number in a body count.
Lonnie said that a few people, who may already be in a hateful state, seemed to put his daughter’s killer up on a pedestal. Perhaps it is because they saw themselves in him.
“It seems that it seems that most mass murderers have this in their minds that they’re not being treated fairly by their world,” said Lonnie. “Our society has slighted them in some way. It’s not giving them what they feel they’re entitled to.”
Humanizing the victims of mass shootings turns the attention back on them instead of focusing on the mass murderer. Focusing on a shooter’s issues only makes them more relatable to those in vulnerable states.
“She was a real person with real ambitions,” says Lonnie of Jessica. “We want the image of her to be a vivacious young person that was taken.”
Sandy paints a tragic story of her daughter, who had overcome a lot.
“Jessi had anorexia when she was younger. She got heart issues because of it and had to get two heart surgeries.”
Sandy said that Jessica got therapy all on her own, and faced her demons.
“Everything opened up for her because for the first time in many years she was able to think clearly,” said Sandy.
It was then that she was able to confront other issues she hadn’t been able to deal with before, such as coming to terms with the fact that she didn’t have a close relationship with her biological father. Lonnie is actually her stepfather. It was then that Jessica decided to focus on sports writing and sports journalism. She moved to Colorado to pursue it and succeed at it, only to have her life cut tragically short.