The Fallout From Naming A Mass Murderer

Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin refused to say the name of the man who killed nine people -- and a forensic psychologist says that's for the best

Oct 04, 2015 at 7:04 AM ET

Tragedies like the recent shooting in Oregon typically stir up collective feelings of sadness, anger or empathy for the victims and their families. The country mourns at vigils and on social media, and vow to rally support for an end to gun violence. For some, however, mass shootings and the killers behind them serve as inspiration for copycat killings. Those who sympathize with these types of killers are drawn to the notoriety and media attention that comes with committing heinous acts, according to a forensic psychologist and a former assistant attorney general for the state of New York.

“There is almost no question that the law of these tragic shootings that happen is that it probably incites another person to do so,” said Dr. Stephen Reich, who now leads the New York-based Forensic Psychology Group. “Needless to say, that individual who becomes a ‘copycat’ needs to have the underlying predisposition towards sadistic sociopathic behavior.”

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After nine people were killed by a lone gunman at Umpqua Community College on Thursday, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin briefed the media at a press conference held that evening, but refused to say the shooter’s name. “I will not give him the credit he probably sought before this horrific and cowardly act…but you will never hear me mention his name,” Hanlin told reporters. But providing the shooter with the credit and notoriety he may have sought is only part of the problem with shining the national spotlight on a mass murderer or rampage killer.

In many of the recent mass or rampage murders, the killers referenced shooters who came before them as sources of inspiration, and oftentimes glorify their murderous deeds as heroic acts they were driven to commit by a society that doesn’t accept them. Oregon shooter Chris Harper Mercer called out Vester Flanagan, the former TV reporter who gunned down two ex-colleagues during a live broadcast in August and posted videos of the shooting on Twitter. “On an interesting note, I have noticed that so many people like [Flanagan] are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are… A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight,” Mercer reportedly wrote in an August 31 blog post that is linked to his one of his online aliases.

Flanagan himself referenced four alleged mass murderers in a manifesto he sent to ABC News the morning of the shooting. One of them was Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old accused of killing nine people in a historically black church in Charleston in June. Flanagan also cited Seung-Hui Cho, the South Korean national who gunned down 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. He praised Cho in the manifesto by comparing him to two other infamous mass shooters. “That’s my boy right there. He got NEARLY double the amount that Eric Harris and Dylann [sic] Klebold got…just saying.”

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Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999 – an act that made them two of the most influential mass murderers in recent history. Since 1999, the Columbine killers were referenced at least 53 times by people who either launched successful school attacks or those whose planned attack was foiled by law enforcement, according to a Vocativ analysis of multiple media reports, which includes a list compiled by ABC News that catalogues school shootings since 1999. In many cases, the two killers are referred to as heroes.

According to a Stanford University database of mass shootings, at least 132 people have been killed in school-related shootings since Columbine, including the 32 people who were murdered by Cho at Virginia Tech, and the 28 people who were gunned down by Adam Lanza in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. Lanza had an obsession with the Columbine killers, according to the final law enforcement report on the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “Several video clips pertaining to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold” were found on his computer and “hundreds of documents, images, [and] videos pertaining to the Columbine H.S. massacre including what appears to be a complete copy of the investigation” were found in Lanza’s home following his killing spree.

A common refrain from those who knew the accused killers is that they saw the red flags from afar, and they knew “something was wrong” with them, Reich told Vocativ.

“It is frequently found that such individuals have long been identified as troubled individuals,” he said. “The problem remains that there is a vast chasm between identifying a troubled person and preventing such mass murders…the comment of the sheriff in Oregon is an exceedingly wise statement in denying publicity to the shooter. Sociopathic individuals who commit such mass murder have severe underlying personality disorders and are attracted to the notoriety involved.”