Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Rampage in Camden

Mass vs. Spree

In Who Killed Precious?, a book about the FBIs approach to mass murderers and serial killers, H. Paul Jeffers says that before Howard Unruhs rampage, mass murders in America were rare.  After Unruh, theres hardly been a year stained by it.  On Mass Murders, an American Justice documentary, it was claimed that mass murders have been on the rise over the past three decades and that around the country there are an average of two a month.  Two hundred people each year become victims, and seven of the ten worst cases in our history have occurred since 1980.  Many experts see this as a sign of the breakdown of social controls.

A mass murderer, according to the FBI Crime Classification Manual, is someone who kills four or more people in close succession in a single locale, or in closely related locales.  This differs from a spree killer, who may have similar motives and ambitions, but who tends to travel over a series of loosely related or unrelated locations.  Mass murderers come in two basic varieties: family killers such as John List, who slaughtered his mother, wife, and three children, or classic mass murderers, like Charles Whitman or Richard Speck.

Mass murderers are male, white, usually over 30, and generally own at least one gun.  Criminologist James Fox says the availability of guns has influenced the increase in mass murders because guns distance people from their crimesa desire common to mass murderers.  They want it to be easy and fast.

Mass Murderers are typically quite ordinary.    Theyre reclusive, have few if any friends, and have no criminal record.  However, they do not let go of past grievances and they tend to build and fester, with minor incidents being perceived as major offenses, and impersonal ones as personal.  Some stress, such as a broken relationship, a loss, or unemployment, may be the trigger that sets everything in motion.  They blame others for their failures and their motive is generally to strike back, to punish, and to exact as much damage as they can manage.  The higher the death toll, the better they have succeeded.  People who have been dismissing or ignoring them are not going to forget them now.  Their choice of targets is typically irrational, and often does not even include the one against whom they wanted vengeance.  Some, like Unruh, have shown signs of psychosis, but most have been judged sane at the time of the incident.

The time period for mass murder can be minutes, hours or days, and such people typically have a mental disorder, are frustrated, and their problems have increased to the point of having to act out aggressively.  Charles Whitman and James Huberty are held up as the typical example.  In 1966, Whitman took an arsenal up the tower at the University of Texas in Austin to take shots at unsuspecting people from above until he was killed.  In an hour and a half, he killed sixteen and wounded thirty.  He had also killed his wife and mother that day.  Huberty, crushed by unemployment, went hunting for humans at a McDonalds fast food restaurant in San Ysidro, California in 1984, killing 21 and wounding 19.

While the FBI manual says that because Unruh moved to different locations, his act was not classified as a mass murder, but other criminologists disagree.  His spate of killings was one of the shortest on record, it was a contained neighborhood, and he did not travel in the way that spree killers like Andrew Cunanan or Charles Starkweather did.  The manual calls Unruh a spree killer, but there is clearly disagreement on this classification.  Since the Crime Classification Manual has not been universally adopted the way the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has been in psychiatry, exactly how to classify Unruh seems unclear.

Other examples of killers like him include:

  • Martin Bryant On April 28, 1996, Bryant, 28, killed the two owners of Seaside Cottages in Australia, then took two semi-automatic rifles to a tourist area in Port Arthur, where in 15 seconds he shot and killed 20 people, wounding fifteen.  He then walked around shooting more, got into his car to drive a few hundred yards, killed more people, stole a car, killed more people, took a hostage, and went back to the cottages, where he killed several people driving by and then killed the hostage.  The police held him under siege overnight and he ran out when the building went up in flames.  His total in less than a day had been 35 dead, 18 wounded.  While he is considered a mass murderer, he did move around quite a bit and he killed people in a lot of different areas, but not in the manner in which classic spree killers do, who generally stretch things out over days or weeks.
  • Michael Ryan - In August 1987, Ryan, 27, a gun-loving, hypersensitive young man prone to exaggerated fantasies, took an AK-47 assault rifle and several other weapons on a shooting spree in Hungerford, England, killing 15 and wounding as many before retreating to his former school and turning the gun on himself.  He began in the woods, killing a woman who ran from him, then drove home to shoot the family dogs and grab ammunition.  When his car failed to start, he set fire to his house and began a two-mile walk through the streets of Hungerford, shooting both acquaintances and strangers.  When his mother found him and confronted him, he killed her, too.  She was his eighth victim, felled by four bullets.  Police set up blockades and inadvertently sent motorists directly into the killers path, where their cars were sprayed with bullets and many were killed.  Ryan even entered one home and shot an elderly man to death.  Finally he went into the John OGaunt School.  Surrounded by police, he demanded to know about his mother and his dog.  Before he shot himself in the head, among his last statements was, I wish I had stayed in bed.
  • Marc Lépine Enraged against feminists and believing that some woman got a position intended for him, militaristic Lepine armed himself on December 6, 1989 and committed the worst mass murder in Canadian history.  Most of the victims were women and all of them were strangers.  Lepine went to the Engineering school at the University of Montreal, separating the women from the men in one classroom before he started shooting.    Six died and three were wounded.  Then he left the classroom and roamed the building, now treading the line that divides mass from spree killers.  Like Unruh, he just kept walking and shooting when he found people.  Then he went into another classroom, killed more students and then plunged a knife into a woman struggling to survive a shot.  As a final gesture, he turned a pistol on himself.  Fourteen women had died; fifteen men and women had been wounded, and in the months to come, some people who had survived would kill themselves. 

Given these examples of killers who move around in a fairly tight area, either we need to pinpoint a better distinction between mass and spree killers or develop a new category into which to place those who appear to be not quite in either camp.  Most criminologists call Unruh a mass murderer, and his rampage does bear all the marks of a disgruntled, militaristic loner who decided to just act out.

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