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September 19, 2014

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Hate speech, concealed carry and the Joker: Three questions from the Miller murders

In the Facebook photo, Amanda Miller proudly displays the Christmas gifts she received last year from her grandmother: “Shooter’s Bible,” a popular firearms reference guide, and “Extreme Survival,” a guide for how to survive the wilderness, terrorism and other extreme conditions.

Amanda’s husband, Jerad Miller, received a toilet brush shaped like a gun.

The presents probably seemed innocuous at the time, but after the Millers went on a deadly shooting spree killing two Metro Police officers and a bystander, the gifts are more unsettling.

Amanda used Facebook mostly to muse about life and post pictures of cats. Jerad used it to share conspiracy theories and rant about his hatred of the government. Experts say social media likely emboldened him and fueled his paranoia.

“The Internet is incredibly important in radicalizing people,” said Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “There’s no buffer to tell you what’s true and what’s not.”

There always have been extremists, well before modern technology existed, but experts say the Internet has been a boon to fringe radicals who use it to communicate with like-minded people. And that can be a dangerous mix.

“Knowing that there are others out there like you can be incredibly empowering,” said Robert Futrell, a UNLV sociology professor who has studied the white power movement. “And when the rhetoric of those others supports the kinds of ideas that are predicated on hatred, violence (and) the idea that there is a fascist government that needs to be overthrown, sometimes the Jerad Millers of the world act on those ideas.”

It appears to be a common thread in the narrative of mass shootings: gunmen who leave a trail of violent and inciteful speech all over the Internet. By the time authorities find the posts, it often is too late.

Jerad Miller’s social media pages and postings are telling of the discourse in which he immersed himself. He subscribed to updates from anti-government groups. He wrote about wanting to stopping oppression with bloodshed and said he would “willingly die for liberty.”

He seemed to have operated almost exclusively within a radical echo chamber that affirmed and encouraged his extremism.

It’s hardly a new phenomenon. In 2002, Christopher Wolf, former chairman of the International Network Against Cyber-Hate, told the First Amendment Center that the instigators of hate crimes gained momentum from the Internet and used the Web to make “hatred seem normal and acceptable.”

The situation has gotten worse today, he said, because social media “provides a platform for so much interchange among these like-minded haters.”

On and offline, Miller’s rantings failed to raise red flags. While he ranted about his aggressively anti-government sentiments to friends, none found his remarks disturbing enough to warrant calling police.

Former FBI operative David Gletty suggested that media saturation has desensitized people to the idea of extreme violence.

“We’re just used to seeing car bombs go off in Iraq,” Gletty said. “Generally speaking, I believe it’s just because of an overload of information that’s available to everyone now.”

Concealed carry: Helpful or harmful?

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In an undated family photo, Joseph Wilcox is seen with younger sister C.J. Foster, center, and his mother, Debra Wilcox.

Joseph Robert Wilcox’s life ended trying to save others.

The 31-year-old Las Vegan was shopping at Wal-Mart when Jerad Miller burst in and fired a gunshot in the air. Wilcox, legally armed with a handgun, went after him.

He didn’t know that danger lurked nearby. Amanda Miller appeared from behind her husband and fired a fatal shot into Wilcox’s chest.

There’s no doubt that Wilcox, who once contemplated becoming a police officer, died a hero. But the question remains: did his handgun make him a target?

“You hope that by taking action, you will diminish the threat, but you don’t know if that will escalate the threat,” former Metro Police Lt. George Castro said. “No situation is identical.”

In mass shootings from 2000 to 2012 that ended before police arrived, potential victims stopped gunmen in a third of the cases, the FBI said. But of the 17 incidents, only three involved people shooting suspects. In the majority of cases, the potential victims subdued the shooter physically.

“While logical in theory, in the chaos of the moment, few gun owners would be prepared to mount an effective counterattack,” according to criminologist James Alan Fox, who has tracked mass shootings. “And in a crowded setting, such as the movie theater clouded with tear gas and smoke, it would be virtually impossible to distinguish the bad guy with a gun from the good guys with their guns.”

Had Wilcox left his gun at home, as he often did, he might still be alive. Then again, had he not taken action, the Millers may have killed others.

Experts suggest that if someone is going to carry a gun, they train for emergency situations. Concealed carry permit courses typically cover “stand your ground” scenarios and the “plus-one theory,” which warns that if there is one shooter, you should assume there’s a second shooter.

“Dynamic situations are taught so people can think critically of the situation before using deadly force,” Castro said.

Why the Joker

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Screenshot of a post from Jerad Miller's Facebook page. Jerad Miller and Amanda Miller shot and killed two Metro Police officers at a pizza restaurant in Las Vegas and killed another person at a nearby Wal-Mart on Sunday, June 8, 2014.

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In this July 23, 2012, file photo, James E. Holmes appears in Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, Colo. Nearly six months after a bloody rampage in a Colorado movie theater left 12 people dead, prosecutors went to court Monday Jan. 7, 2013, to outline their case against Holmes.

Less than two years ago, Jerad Miller stood dressed as the Joker in front of an American flag and announced his candidacy for president. In a breathless, rambling speech, he chastised his fellow citizens for voting “for tyranny” and promised to deliver a greater evil.

“If I’m the president, the Batman can’t do sh**,” he said in a 2012 YouTube video. “I’ll just be able to terrorize the entire nation and possibly the entire globe.”

The Joker, often portrayed innocently enough for Halloween or in cosplay, espouses anarchy and kills mercilessly. His persona has been embraced by some people who commit acts of mass violence.

Accused shooter James Holmes dressed as the character in July 2012 before killing 12 people and injuring 70 more in a suburban Denver movie theater during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.” A week later, a Maryland man allegedly calling himself the Joker threatened to shoot up his workplace.

Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University, said part of the appeal could be the Joker’s flippant attitude. He is notorious for making jokes out of serious situations.

“I think that is possibly why the Joker is a character that is adopted by these killers,” Levin said. “They are making light of their victims.”

It also could stem from the egoism of the killers, Levin said. A grisly murder that includes the Joker image adds to the headline-grabbing nature of the crime and fuels exactly what many of these killers are seeking: recognition.

“They want desperately to feel powerful and be infamous,” he said. “They may feel persecuted by society, and now it’s their turn to be in the spotlight.”

Heath Ledger’s Joker repeatedly states his desire to upset the social order through crime in dark videos he sends out as warnings. Ledger described his character as a “psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy.” Whatever Miller’s rationale for occasionally dressing up as the Joker, it appears his wife, Amanda, was in on it. Photos posted on social media show her dressed up as Harley Quinn, the Joker’s female sidekick who is hopelessly in love with him.

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