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October 24, 2014

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What now? Three mass shootings in a week leave communities wondering how to react

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A screenshot from Jerad Miller’s Youtube video joker presidential declaration.

Funeral Services for Metro Officer Igor Soldo

Metro Motorcycle Officers are joined by those from other area departments as they lead the body of slain Metro Officer Igor Soldo to the Palm Mortuary for funeral services on Thursday, June 12, 2014. Launch slideshow »

Jerad Miller Facebook Posts

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. Launch slideshow »

Incidents in 2014

Already this year, 20 people have died in public attacks.

• Jan. 14 — A man entered Martin’s Super Market in Elkhart, Ind., and opened fire, killing an employee and shopper. Investigators said shooter Shawn Bair was suicidal and mentally ill.

• Jan. 30 — Megan Grunwald, 17, and her boyfriend, Jose Garcia-Jauregui, 27, went on a 50-mile crime spree near Nephi, Utah, killing a local sheriff and wounding a deputy. Garcia-Jauregui died in a shootout with officers; Grunwald was charged with aggravated murder.

• April 1 — Three people were killed and 16 others wounded in a shooting at Fort Hood Army Base in Texas. Spc. Ivan Lopez fired more than 35 shots before killing himself.

• April 4 — Twenty-one students and a security guard were stabbed by a student on a violent rampage at Franklin Regional High School outside Pittsburgh, Pa. Alex Hribal, 16, was charged with attempted homicide and aggravated assault.

• April 13 — Three people were killed in the affluent suburb of Overland Park, Kan., after a gunman went on a shooting spree near a Jewish Community Center. Frazier Glenn Cross, 73, a white supremacist, is accused of the killings.

• May 23 — Elliot Rodger killed six students at UC Santa Barbara before killing himself. Rodger said in taped and written messages before his death he felt jilted by women and put down by male students.

• June 5 — A gunman killed a student and injured three others at Seattle Pacific University in Washington. Aaron Ybarra was apprehended after a student security monitor subdued him as Ybarra stopped to reload his gun.

• June 8 — Jerad Miller, 31, and Amanda Miller, 22, shot and killed two Metro Police officers at a Cici’s Pizza in Las Vegas and a shopper at a nearby Wal-Mart before being killed.

• June 10 — A 15-year-old student at Reynolds High School near Portland, Ore., came to school with a rifle, semi-automatic handgun, nine loaded magazines and a large knife. Jared Padgett shot and killed another student before killing himself.

— Rebecca Clifford-Cruz

A History of Violence

Mass murder is nothing new. People have been publicly killing innocents for hundreds of years.

• Indigenous Malaysians coined the term amok centuries ago to describe people — typically men who had shown no previous signs of violence — using swords or daggers to kill or injure large numbers of people in unprovoked attacks. The incidents most often took place in crowded areas and ended with the perpetrator committing suicide.

• The word berserk was used to describe Norsemen who fought in an uncontrollable, trance-like rage. Sagas describe the Berserkers as ravenous men who looted, plundered and killed indiscriminately.

• In 1764, in the earliest known U.S. school shooting, a group of Lenape American Indians entered a log schoolhouse near Greencastle, Pa., and clubbed and scalped its headmaster and 11 students.

• In 1891, an elderly man, without provocation or warning, fired a shotgun at children playing in front of a parochial school in Newburgh, N.Y. None of the children were killed, but several were injured.

• In 1913, a German man fatally stabbed his wife and four children, then drove to a nearby town where he set several fires and shot 20 people, nine of whom died. The gunman was beaten unconscious by furious villagers.

• In 1914, an anarchist seeking revenge for perceived wrongs wandered around his small Italian town killing people with a shotgun. He murdered six men and one woman.

• In 1938, a 21-year-old Japanese man killed 30 people with a shotgun, Japanese sword and axe before killing himself. Feeling spurned by women, the killer cut electricity to his village, decapitated his grandmother with an axe, then murdered 29 neighbors.

Right-wing extremism against police

The number of police officers in the United States murdered by right-wing extremists more than doubled in the 1990s and increased by 50 percent during the first decade of the 2000s.

• 16 police officers have been killed by right-wing activists since 2009.

• 30 police officers have been shot by right-wing activists from 2009 through 2013.

• 43 violent incidents involving domestic extremists and police occurred from 2009 through 2013.

Of these incidents:

• 39 of those were perpetrated by people with extreme right-wing ideology

• 21 were committed by white supremacists

• 17 were spearheaded by anti-government extremists

Source: The Anti-Defamation League

It happens now more than once a month, and every time, it leaves us bewildered.

It typically starts out quietly.

Larry Burnette sat near the staircase of the Oak Tree Apartment complex, smoking a cigarette and sipping his morning coffee, when his new neighbor, a shy woman half his age, showed up with a cat. She introduced herself as Amanda Miller, a 22-year-old from Indiana who had just packed up her life and moved to Las Vegas with her husband. The couple hoped to start a new life in the desert. Amanda Miller seemed optimistic about the future, a newfound footing in the west.

Minutes into their conversation, Amanda’s husband, Jerad Miller, walked downstairs and introduced himself. He was energetic and charismatic, Burnette said. Over the next four months, the trio regularly ate dinner together and partied over drinks.

“Amanda was a quiet person — until you got a few beers in her,” Burnette said. “Jerad was always talking about the government.”

Jerad Miller wasn’t shy about his disdain for authority. He hated cops and talked about it often. Burnette would tell him to calm down but never thought about calling police. He believed the hateful rants came from a man just blowing off steam.

That’s why it was such a shock when Burnette flipped on the television June 8 and learned that the Millers had shot and killed two Metro Police officers at a pizza parlor in the name of revolution before holing up in a Wal-Mart and fatally shooting a customer. “I’m dumbfounded,” Burnette said.

The Miller murders represent two more marks on a timeline loaded with mass killings and acts of domestic terrorism that have plagued every corner of the country. Worse, experts say the trend will continue, which raises the questions: Why has mass murder become a staple in the United States? What causes people to go on killing sprees? And, what can we do to stop them?

EXTREMISM RISING

As suicide bombings and public killings rip apart communities in far-off corners of the world, a local form of extremism is plowing its way through American soil.

Fueled by radical beliefs about race, the government and the law, it’s the kind of extremism that led “sovereign citizens” David Allen Brutsche and his roommate, Devon Campbell Newman, to plot to kidnap and kill police officers in Las Vegas. Investigators foiled their plan in August 2013, but the pair said they had intended to randomly kidnap a police officer, keep him in a makeshift jail in a vacant house, “try” him in “common law” court and then murder him.

On a less violent front, it’s the sentiment that led thousands of armed militiamen, willing to shoot and kill if they had to, to flood a remote ranch in Southern Nevada to engage in a paramilitary-style armed stand-off with Bureau of Land Management officers who tried to force cattleman Cliven Bundy to pay grazing fees. The Millers reportedly traveled to Bunkerville to support Bundy.

“(The extremists’) whole thing is the government shouldn’t have authority,” said Phyllis Friedman, Nevada director of the Anti-Defamation League. “And police are the ultimate pigs, if you want to go back to 1960s vernacular.”

Extremists often view local officers as extensions of the federal government, making them targets. “A lot of people are mad at the federal government,” retired Metro Police officer Ray Berni said. “They equate local law enforcement to federal law enforcement, and they don’t believe they have to obey the law.”

Complicating the situation, it’s impossible to predict when extremists will strike, experts say. Most violent extremists became radicalized long before committing a crime, and all it takes is a trigger — the loss of a job, a jail sentence or poorly timed news report — to set them off.

“I call them human bombs,” said David Gletty, a former FBI operative who worked undercover monitoring hate groups. “Just like terrorists put bombs on themselves, the timers are set. Something triggers them. They have the full intent to die.”

As for the Millers, “They had problems before they came to Las Vegas,” Gletty said. “They were programmed before they got here.”

But these events aren’t solely the province of extremism. Fatal public assaults by troubled killers dot our landscape like so many pins on a map.

KILLINGS ON THE RISE?

Two days after the Millers’ shooting spree, a gunman opened fire at a high school near Portland, Ore. Jared Padgett, 15, a student at the school, fatally shot another boy before killing himself.

Less than a week earlier, a gunman at Seattle Pacific University, a small Christian college, killed one student and injured three others.

In May, six students at the University of California at Santa Barbara were killed by Elliot Rodger, who vowed retribution for what he saw as rejection from women.

During a single week in January, gunmen shot up a grocery store, a movie theater and two schools in four separate incidents across the country.

And the list goes on.

Despite what seems to many to be an increasing frequency of mass killings, the number of active shooter events, defined as involving one or more people whose primary motive is the mass murder of strangers in a confined or populated area, has remained steady in recent years. The number of incidents jumped 300 percent in the latter part of the first decade in the 2000s but hasn’t ballooned since.

From 2000 to 2008, there were an average of five mass killings each year in America, according to an FBI report. Since 2009, there have been an average 16 per year — more than one a month. The number of people injured or killed in school shootings has remained level, according to the Department of Education.

Those numbers include only acts of large-scale public violence against strangers. If you count domestic incidents, gang violence, targeted attacks and other crimes, the numbers skyrocket.

WHY THE UPSWING?

There’s no single reason on which experts pin the rise. Rather, they blame a confluence of modern realities: an increase in bullying, a broken mental health system, a thriving gun culture, a revolving-door justice system, a volatile political climate and the very foundation of America itself — freedom of thought and speech.

In a 2001 study examining 34 mass murderers with an average age of 17, social scientists found that almost half were bullied. It’s a story we’ve seen play out over and over again, as was the case with Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who marched into Columbine High School on Adolf Hitler’s birthday and committed one of the bloodiest school massacres in history.

A majority of the bullied murderers described themselves as “loners.” Some, like Harris and Klebold, also were bullies themselves.

And bullying isn’t limited to schools. Christopher Dorner, the disgraced Los Angeles police officer who hunted down five former colleagues after writing an 11,000-word manifesto denouncing the LAPD, complained often about what he perceived to be bullying. Several psychologists who reviewed the case said he didn’t appear to be mentally ill.

While many perpetrators in mass killings have mental health issues, mental illness isn’t a prerequisite for murder, nor is it a guarantee of violence. “You don’t have to be crazy to kill somebody,” said Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In fact, only 5 to 10 percent of people with mental illness commit violent acts. “For every violent perpetrator of mass killings who has a history of mental disorders … there are hundreds of individuals who have similar profiles who do not become violent,” wrote Dr. William Dikel, a forensic psychiatrist and student mental health expert who has studied school shootings.

That dichotomy, however, contributes to the problem. It’s often difficult for mental health professionals to predict violence until it is too late.

Many of the mass killers desire infamy and know that the more brazen their act, the more media attention it will draw. Some use knives or other weapons, but the vast majority choose guns. President Barack Obama reflected on America’s lack of gun control this month in the wake of the recent violence.

“We’re the only developed country on earth where this happens, and it happens now once a week,” the president said. “The country has to do some soul-searching about this. This is becoming the norm.”

“Our levels of gun violence are off the charts,” Obama continued. “There’s no advanced developed country on earth that would put up with this. ... The United States does not have a monopoly on crazy people. It’s not the only country that has psychosis, and yet we kill each other in these mass shootings at rates that are exponentially higher than anyplace else. What’s the difference? The difference is these guys can stack up a bunch of ammunition in their houses.”

Obama isn’t likely to make much headway in boosting restrictions on firearms. Congress has little appetite for stronger laws, especially in this election year.

Moreover, the public is split in opinion about gun rights, and mass shootings do little to sway their thinking. Americans, who fall almost evenly in favor of and against gun ownership, voted in almost the exact same ratios immediately after the Aurora, Colo., and Virginia Tech shootings, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Stricter laws also aren’t likely to curb mass public violence, some experts say. Gun ownership in the United States already is declining overall, with firearms at or near an all-time low. But mass shootings keep occurring.

“Tighter restrictions on gun purchasing — for example, eliminating multiple gun sales and closing the gun-show loophole — may help reduce America’s gun violence problem generally, but mass murder is unlike most other forms of violent conflict,” wrote criminologist James Alan Fox, a professor at Northeastern University who has tracked mass shootings. “Mass killers are determined, deliberate and dead-set on murder. They plan methodically to execute their victims, finding the means no matter what laws or other impediments the state attempts to place in their way. To them, the will to kill cannot be denied.”

Domestic terror incidents and mass killings spiked in 2009, when Obama took over the White House. The election of a Democratic black man likely set many extremists off, experts said.

America’s “changing demographics is the No. 1 thing,” Beirich said. “If you’re a white supremacist and the country is turning brown, you’re going to freak out.”

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

Sadly, experts say it’s difficult to imagine a world where mass murders do not exist. They date back hundreds of years and likely will continue for hundreds more.

“It’s going to happen more and more,” Gletty said.

Speaking up if you see something amiss is one way to try to help. “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is one,” Berni said. “Don’t wait until you get home to make a call: pull over where it’s safe, and make the call.”

If the authorities have a strong enough tip and a name, they can investigate to determine if there’s a threat.

But even that system isn’t foolproof. The parents of the young man accused of going on a shooting rampage last month in Isla Vista near UC Santa Barbara had alerted police about disturbing videos he posted online. Officers interviewed him three times and said they found him to be “perfectly polite.”

Similarly, Metro Police had contact with the Millers three times in the months leading up to the shooting and saw no red flags.

“The interaction was normal,” Clark County Assistant Sheriff Kevin McMahill said. “There were no anti-government or anti-police (statements.) They did not feel through the interview that the suspects were a ... potential threat.”

Restrictions already are in place to prevent high-risk people such as felons from owning guns, but criminals with an intent to kill easily can find ways around them. Jerad Miller, for example, had an extensive rap sheet that included arrests for guns, drugs, assault, theft and harassment.

And these days, one high-powered assault weapon that can shoot hundreds of rounds in a minute is all it takes.

More mental health services for people who feel angry and alienated can help, as numerous studies show that school counseling and violence prevention programs have been effective at teaching young people how to resolve conflicts without violence. But most experts say it’s impossible to prevent people from committing crimes. There’s no instruction manual for curbing large-scale violence and domestic terrorism.

“Many of the well-intentioned proposals coming in response to the recent spike in mass shootings may do much to impact the level of violent crime that plagues our nation daily,” Fox and co-author Monica DeLateur wrote in a 2013 study published in “Homicide Studies.” “We shouldn’t, however, expect such efforts to take a big bite out of crime in its most extreme form.”

Enhanced background checks haven’t been proven as a means of keeping weapons out of the hands of potential murderers. A study of 93 mass shootings from 2009 through September 2013 by Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that none of the assailants were prohibited by federal law from possessing firearms because of mental illness. Conversely, Fox and DeLateur found that expanding mental health services also may do little to prevent mass shootings as such services still may fail to reach people on the fringe, who tend to blame others for their shortcomings rather than themselves.

A truly effective solution, Fox and DeLateur argue, may be possible only as the result of drastic policies that our society may not be able or willing to accommodate.

“Taking a nibble out of the risk of mass murder, however small, would still be a worthy goal for the nation,” they wrote. “However … eliminating the risk of mass murder would involve extreme steps that we are unable or unwilling to take — abolishing the Second Amendment, achieving full employment, restoring our sense of community, and rounding up anyone who looks or acts at all suspicious. Mass murder just may be a price we must pay for living in a society where personal freedom is so highly valued.”

Andrea Domanick contributed to this report.

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