Police didn’t need to search for a motive in the mass shooting that killed 10 Black people and wounded three others in Buffalo, NY, on May 14. That’s because the shooter, 18-year-old Payton Gendron, provided one in his racist, 180-page diatribe. But searching for a motive as a way to prevent mass shootings is a wasted exercise anyway: It will just get you a useless answer to the wrong question.
The right question is: What happened to this person? What happened to a beautiful baby boy to turn him into an 18-year-old killer spouting racist screed?
In those questions, and in looking at the answers through the lens of childhood experiences – both positive ones and adverse ones – lie true solutions.
In a 2019 Los Angeles Times article, “We have studied every mass shooting since 1966. Here’s what we’ve learned about the shooters,” Jillian Peterson and James Delaney wrote: “First, the vast majority of mass shooters in our study experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age. The nature of their exposure included parental suicide, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and/or severe bullying.”
Research clearly shows that the road that leads from a precious infant becoming an abused or neglected child who grows up to become a distressed murderer is predictable. That was revealed in the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.
The ACE Study showed a remarkable link between 10 types of childhood trauma and being violent or a victim of violence, as well as experiencing the adult onset of chronic disease and mental illness. The ten types of childhood trauma include experiencing physical and emotional abuse, neglect, living with a family member who is addicted to alcohol or who is mentally ill, and witnessing domestic violence. (For more information, see PACEs Science 101 and What ACEs/PCEs Do You Have?) Subsequent ACE surveys include experiencing bullying, racism, the foster care system, living in a dangerous community, losing a family member to deportation and being a war refugee, among other traumatic experiences.
Here’s the point, and the science is irrefutable now: Just as a bullet rips through flesh and bone, a child who experiences ongoing encounters that cause toxic stress – but doesn’t get positive intervention to help them – will suffer real, measurable damage to the structure and function of their brain.
This toxic stress affects health and behavior. All people have an ACE score of 0 to 10. Each type of trauma counts as one, no matter how many times it occurs. You can think of an ACE score as a cholesterol score for childhood trauma. For example, people with an ACE score of 4 are twice as likely to be smokers, seven times more likely to be alcoholic and 12 times more likely to attempt suicide. People with high ACE scores are more likely to be violent, to have more marriages, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, more depression, and more autoimmune diseases. A 2009 study showed that people with an ACE score of 6 or higher died, on average, almost 20 years earlier than those with no ACEs.
The effects of ACEs begin showing up in childhood. Kids experiencing trauma act out. They can’t focus. They can’t sit still. Or they withdraw. Fight, flight or freeze – that’s a normal and expected response to trauma. So, they have difficulty learning. The schools that respond by suspending or expelling them just further traumatize them. When they get older, if they have no positive intervention from a caring adult at home or in school, in a clinic or other organization who is trained to understand trauma, they find unhealthy ways to cope. They turn to addictions of all types – alcohol and other drugs, violence, stealing, lying, overeating, gambling, thrill sports, etc. – to soothe themselves to endure their trauma and the effects of their trauma, such as depression or violence.
In the case of the Buffalo shooter, there were indications that the shooter’s ACE score was likely to be high: Last June, police were called to his high school for threatening statements, he threatened to shoot people at a high school graduation, and he was hospitalized for a day and a half for a mental health evaluation after doing a school project about murder-suicide. The New York Times reported that the gunman said in online posts that he spent 20 hours waiting for the evaluation and only met with someone for 15 minutes. “This proved to me that the US healthcare system is a joke,” he wrote.
The Washington Post depicted an isolated teen who had little interaction with his parents, both engineers. From the outside, their family looked typical and upper-middle class. They lived in a three-story home with a manicured lawn in a suburb outside Binghamton, NY. There were indications that all was not well in the family, however. In sixth grade, he had problems interacting with Black students and was suspended from school when a student said he’d called her the n-word. Things seemed to escalate over the years. He collected weapons and hid them from his parents. He violently killed a feral cat who was attacking his cat; he stabbed it several times and cut off its head. He skipped weeks of classes at his community college to drive to Buffalo to plan his attack, and lied to his parents when they asked him about it.
Just as it’s easy for a pedophile to groom a vulnerable and emotionally needy child, it’s easy for vulnerable and needy kids to be groomed in other harmful ways, such as through words and actions of people who propound hate and violence as solutions to real or imagined problems. White supremacy and racism fit into that category. So does terrorism, whether domestic or foreign. According to the Post article, Gendron did not consider himself to be a racist until he “began reading an anonymous Internet message board, 4chan, where users celebrate racist violence.”
Healthy people lead healthy lives and aren’t tempted to harm themselves or others. Healthy people have few or no ACEs, and many positive childhood experiences, such as nurturing parents, a safe environment in which to live, and other caring adults.
We can’t predict if a kid with ACEs will express their toxic stress outwardly in violence to others, or turn inward to harm to themselves, or, in some cases, do both. But we know enough to say that damage will occur to themselves or others. So, we need to intervene at every step of the way to prevent harm. Warning signs will always show themselves, if we’re educated to see them.
If we address these signs, if our systems integrate practices based on PACEs science (the study of positive and adverse childhood experiences), we have a better shot at preventing not just violence such as mass shootings, but all the other ways childhood adversity can affect us as adults.
There are many ways to reduce violence, such as making guns less available and controlling hate speech on social media. But one approach that will help communities and organizations prevent another tragedy such as what happened in Buffalo – as well as the more than 200 other mass shootings so far this year – is to establish a forensic ACE review team.
Such a team would operate much like many states’ Child Death Review teams to investigate every mass shooter’s adverse childhood experiences, as well as their positive childhood experiences (or more likely, the lack of them). You can begin to envision this approach in news articles that focus on “What do we know about the shooter?” The Washington Post article mentioned above is an example. Others from past shootings include the Los Angeles Times and the Ohio Dispatch.
This analysis would identify every step along the way where a family member, a school, a pediatrician, a coach, people in the faith-based community, police, foster care, child welfare, educators, juvenile detention, probation, youth organizations, etc., could have intervened to help that child and/or their family when it was clear the kid was troubled.
Troubled kids are usually a symptom of a troubled family and/or a troubled community. Kids’ actions are not theirs alone. Everyone involved with a troubled child needs education about how ACEs affect individuals, families and communities. After identifying those intervention points, we can figure out solutions, then embed them in all of those organizations and communities that touch children’ lives. That’s how we prevent other children from growing up to harm themselves or others.
The good news is that people can heal from trauma, including ACEs. The better news is that we can prevent it.
Jane Stevens is a science journalist and publisher of PACEs Connection, a 55,000-member worldwide social network dedicated to educating people about the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences and to helping communities integrate practices based on the science into all their organizations, and editor of ACEsTooHigh.com, a news site for the general public.