Decoding the Mind of a Serial Shooter

Is it the breakdown of the family, mental illness or the so-called ‘gun culture’ in the U.S. that leads to these tragedies? Experts and clergy weigh in.

Noah Harpham the shooter in an Oct. 31 spree in Colorado Springs, Colo., that left four dead, including Harpham, was gravely disturbed by the divorce of his parents.
Noah Harpham the shooter in an Oct. 31 spree in Colorado Springs, Colo., that left four dead, including Harpham, was gravely disturbed by the divorce of his parents. (photo: YouTube/Noah Harpham)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A Halloween killing spree in the heart of this city has Americans asking for the second time in a month why angry male shooters have become a recurring phenomenon throughout the United States. Some blame guns. Others blame mental illness or a combination of the two.

Maybe broken families are in the mix, say experts observing how nearly all angry-male massacres — including the two in October — involve suspects from divorced or notoriously dysfunctional households.

The latest tragedy involves Noah Harpham, a 33-year-old who blogged angrily about his father days before shooting three victims at random while walking through a downtown neighborhood. Police responded immediately to a 911 call and killed him in a shootout.

The shooter’s mother, Christian author Heather Kopp, wrote two years before the shootings about the havoc her divorce had wrought in Harpham’s life. The article, titled “Should Christian Parents Promise Not to Divorce?” appeared at The Huffington Post.

Kopp described finishing a manuscript for her critically acclaimed book about Harpham, titled Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up With a Christian Drunk. She shared a copy with Harpham, a recovering alcoholic, who invited her and his father to dinner to offer feedback on the book.

Harpham told the divorced parents he liked the manuscript but was disappointed by one serious omission.

“It was something you left out,” Kopp told his mother, as she recounted for Huffington Post, “about how you and dad promised you’d never, ever divorce.”

Kopp conceded in her article how she and Harpham’s father had, indeed, assured the boy and his brother they never had to worry about the couple breaking up because “God hates divorce.” She added: “We practically swore on a stack of Bibles. And then we got divorced.”

Noah was 11 and his younger brother was 8 when their parents divorced. Each parent remarried, and Kopp thought things had worked out for everyone involved. That night at dinner, then-31-year-old Noah made clear things had not worked out for him.

“Noah wasn’t talking about outcome,” Kopp wrote. “He was talking about how, as a child, his parents had made an adamant, repeated, hand-on-our-hearts promise to him — only to break it. He was talking about how betrayed and hurt he’d felt then.”


The Missing Father Factor

W. Bradford Wilcox, a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, says society lacks solid data or social science linking the phenomenon of anger shootings to familial dysfunction. But, he said, the majority of contemporary angry male shooters are brought up in dysfunctional or broken homes.

Unmanaged and misguided emotional distress, combined with easy access to deadly weapons, can be a recipe for disaster.

“We know that young men from non-intact families, where dads are not in the picture, are more likely to end up delinquent and more likely to end up in jail by the time they are 30,” Wilcox told the Register. “We know that neighborhoods in cities, towns and states with higher percentages of single-parent homes tend to have more violent crime compared to cities, towns and states with stronger marriages. In general, strong families equal less crime and violence.”

Wilcox said loving, attentive fathers in the home are able to instill restraint in boys.

“Girls suffer emotionally from family dysfunction, but are less likely to react with violence,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox thinks good fathers teach boys how to cope with emotional challenges. Lacking adequate parental guidance and stability, he said, children may be more heavily influenced by violence portrayed in video games and other media.

Oregon’s Umpqua College shooter, 26-year-old Christopher Harper-Mercer, had been estranged from his father for about two years before shooting 18 people Oct. 1, killing a teacher, eight students and injuring nine others. The shooter, who killed himself after incurring injuries in a shootout with police, left a type-written note at the crime scene that said his life was a deck of cards stacked against him.

Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old who killed six and injured 14 in 2014, near the University of California-Santa Barbara, left a manifesto that blamed his broken home for his anger and the mass murder-suicide that ensued.

“Very shortly after my seventh birthday, the news came,” the shooter wrote. “I believe it was my mother who told me that she and my father were getting a divorce; my mother, who only a few months before told me that such a thing will never happen. I was absolutely shocked, outraged and, above all, overwhelmed.”


A Serious National Conversation

Each time another angry male shooter goes on a rampage Robert Vegvary relives the day, 33 years ago, when one of his students snapped.

It was 1982, and high-school sophomore Richard John Jahnke was planning a bloodbath. He armed himself with the family’s mini-14 rifle, a Colt .45 automatic pistol, a .30-.06 rifle, a .38 revolver, two speed loaders, a Marine knife and a 12-guage, pump-action, sawed-off shotgun.

When his father arrived at the family’s home in Cheyenne, Wyo., Jahnke shot him three times with the shotgun and tried to flee the scene with his younger sister. It became the topic of a book, a documentary and stories in The New York Times, Time, Rolling Stone and other big media.

“If we are to have a serious national conversation on this issue, we must look beyond just the guns,” said Vegvary, a former school counselor and retired military officer in Colorado Springs. “Why are we producing more and more emotionally crippled people who are overcome by the normal stresses of life and act on their frustrations or failures by killing others?”

Back then, focus was on the boy’s family. People knew it was in shambles, and media wanted to know why social services and the public school did not do more to intervene.

In the words of an attorney, quoted by Rolling Stone, it was a case of “the American family gone crazy.” The article described a distant, negligent and abusive dad.

“I think some of what we’re seeing has a lot do with breakdown of the family and the lack of good fathers and role models for boys,” Vegvary said. “Richard’s family was absolutely dysfunctional.”

Whether it is unstable home life or other factors, Vegvary said anger-motivated shootings highlight an increasing lack of emotional control among a small but dangerous percentage of young men.

“When I was a child, boys were taught it was our job to deal with bad situations, pick up the pieces and get on with life,” Vegvary said. “Today, we are seeing a generation in which people have not been given the skills to deal with the normal circumstances life gives them. Normal things, like rejection by popular girls, are causing some young men to go off the deep end. No one has taught them how to manage emotional hardship.”

He believes the lack of solid family structure may partly explain why modern schools provide bullying workshops, trying to instill coping mechanisms that were traditionally taught in the home, church or by the community.

“I saw one anti-bullying program where they rounded up kids, took them outside and released balloons into the air,” Vegvary said. “Like that’s going to help anything. Society is resorting to some strange attempts to help young generations deal with common challenges.”

Even though most anger-motivated crimes involve suspects from broken homes, the topic is seldom mentioned in modern media or around the water cooler. The Oregon shooter’s absent father blamed guns, as did President Barack Obama. Mental health is a centerpiece of post-massacre public discourse, but seldom discussed in a context of family instability.

“That’s because most Americans have personal experience with divorce or have friends or relatives who are divorced,” Wilcox said. “So I think there is a reluctance to focus our attention on this dimension of American life as a potential part of the problem.”


Highlighting Importance of Family

Father José Manuel Campos Garcia, pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Roseburg, Ore., said the Umpqua massacre has highlighted the importance of family. Among the deceased is Lucero Alcaraz, who was an active St. Joseph’s parishioner and 19-year-old honor student at Umpqua.

“We are trying to make sense out of it, but there is not really a way,” Father Garcia told the Register. “It is really difficult to rationalize something so sad, and we are all just so overtaken by sadness. It’s taking a big toll on the whole community.”

Alcaraz leaves behind a strong Catholic family, consisting of a mother, father and six siblings.

Father Garcia doesn’t know much about the young man who killed her, but has heard about the divorce and estrangement.

“All families have problems,” Father Garcia said. “We, as a society and a Church, need to strengthen family values. We need families that nurture and care for children and for the communities around them.”

Garcia says the death of Alcaraz has already made his parish families stronger.

“This has absolutely had the effect of pulling families together,” Father Garcia said. “We have been reminded, in a tragic way, to remember just how beautiful human life is. We appreciate the need to be united and to grow in our human family to really care for each other and to stick together. We are appreciating and loving one another more because of this.”

Register correspondent Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.