Blindsided by a Mass Murder:  What does it take to change a social system?

Originally written for Navigating Systems, LLC.


A mass murder takes place in Las Vegas and LeBron James, takes to Twitter to ask, in my view, the most relevant question, “What the hell is going on people!?!?” LeBron, who excels in the high-powered world of sports systems, can see the whole social system unfold. He sees how when one is at their best they can interact with others to produce a winning team. He does not over focus on one or blame one person, as over focusing on the player who missed the last shot will increase emotionality and will not help the team.


Rather consider a systems view which encourages more logic and objectivity in observing as many factors affecting a situation as is possible: the strengths and weakness of the player who missed or made the last shot, how does the team interact with the player, what was the audience doing, who is in the audience, what is the player’s family life like, how were the coaches performing etc.? These are the kinds of questions which begin to give us a more complete picture of the multiple factors involved in success and failure. Then one can begin to hypothesize, to test, to guess at the best way to alter the system and then see if the system improves.  Decrease blame and you decrease emotional blindness to complex problems, like the creation of mass murders.

World class leaders acquire knowledge from the discipline of practice and yes, the pain of being blindsided, of seeing the team fall apart. As a team leader LeBron asks what are ‘we the people’ doing to change our behavior to solve complex problems?  Will we be lead astray by the polarizing headlines?  Can we override the impulse for a quick fix to consider how the social and political systems gives rise to gun violence?

The family is one factor that is often minimized, denied, and overlooked in most efforts to understand an individual’s pathway to violence. Can we know more about the pressure cooker called the family?  Can we understand the influence of family life on a mass murderer?  How does anyone’s identity become so twisted that they are willing to kill unknown others? How do relationships escalate, turning simple interactions into a chain reaction of fear, aggression, and cutoff, leading to revenge?

Focusing on the shooter without understanding the state of his relationships only gives limited knowledge. “Chasing down all those leads “helped create a better profile into the madness of this suspect,” McMahill said, but “we still do not have a clear motive or reason why.”[1]

Looking carefully at his family system may give more evidence of how he became such a recluse that family members say they had no idea that he was stockpiling guns and ammunition for years.  What was his gripe?  Does it have deep roots in his childhood? What would be your best guess as to where the pressure came from in his family history? What happened to his team?

Many other mass murders have left evidence that they were reacting to those who were trying to control them or leave them. Some evidence is circumstantial.  No one wants to say their mother made them do it.  In the Las Vegas case, the father was a violent guy when the shooter was young.  In his last act, the shooter became an even worse guy than his scary father. Violence is often linked with a reaction to those family members who disappoint, threaten or ignore us. Many people have unpleasant family relationships and somehow can maintain self-control and resist these kinds of impulses. Some cannot. The question is can we know who has control of their impulses?

“University of Michigan professor of social psychology Richard Nisbett, the world’s greatest authority on intelligence, plainly said that he’d rather have his son being high in self-control than intelligence….” He noted that anything that leads to social isolation leads the subject toward goals and activities that are violent in a very specific way.[2] The isolation needed for the shooter to collect an arsenal and isolation has been shown to be associated with other early life family dynamics.

Four factors that we will consider as basic to creating a disturbed person: exposure to violence, a neglectful confused family, social isolation, and lack of self-control.

A fifth factor to consider is the society that surrounds the person. After all it was not just this shooter that loved guns and killing people. Our society seems to glorify guns as a marker of freedom, not a tool of death. Consider that it takes 28 days to murder 59 people in Chicago.   This mass murderer killed 59 people (including himself) in ten minutes in Las Vegas.[3]

A sixth factor would be the amount of cutoff between people in the family. What do we know about the family life of this latest shooter?  We know precious little about what went on in his family. We do know the shooter was the oldest of four brothers and was in business with his youngest brother, Eric.  Apparently both became wealthy. But Eric, like all of us, is confused. He feels like his brother shot his family in the back. He feels like Mars just landed on Earth. How can this be? This person was not the brother he knew. But he was the brother that Eric did not know. Was it because they were geographically thousands of miles apart? Was it because the family had generations of cutoff, threats, and confusion between people? The current state of the family suggests this fear response has been going on for generations.  Clearly, people were so anxious that they couldn’t relate well enough to each other to be open about difficult things like a father in jail. How could they solve problems hiding basic truths? The shooter did not talk for twenty years to the brother closest in age to him.  These family members have been hiding out from one another for years.

We have no idea. We’re horrified. We’re bewildered …… We have no idea in the world. This fell out of the sky…. The fact that he had those kinds of weapons is just … where the hell did he get automatic weapons? He has no military background or anything like that.” [4]

There are real and scary reasons why family members cannot maintain contact.  The Adverse Childhood Experiences profile notes risk factors: an incarcerated household member, mental illness, physical or mental abuse, physical and emotional neglect. Three or more of these risk factors put children at higher risk of becoming socially isolated and troubled.[5]

Who was the shooter’s father? This father left the family when the shooter was 7 years old. The man was on the FBI’s most wanted list. Was the shooter reacting to his father? His brother Eric said of their father, “We didn’t grow up under his influence… [But we don’t know what went on in the first seven years of the shooter’s life.] His FBI Most Wanted poster warned that he was “diagnosed as psychopathic,” “reportedly has suicidal tendencies,” and “should be considered armed and very dangerous…It’s believed that he spent his remaining years in Texas, and died in 1998.[6]


Using a family systems approach, we are looking at many factors that might come together to form a hurricane or a mass murderer. So far, we have five factors that are involved in this man’s family life.  It not as simple as one factor, one cause, like saying that a child who has been threatened can then become like the aggressor and threaten others.[7]

After the father was arrested, the mother kept the arrest and the father’s whereabouts a secret. She told the children their father had died.  (Stephen, the oldest, was whisked away by neighbors when the police came to the house to arrest his father to spare him seeing his father arrested.) Many years later one of the brothers joined the military and found his father’s military record; he was alive but still unavailable to the family.  The shooter’s mother can make no more sense of her son’s actions at 90 years of age than she could when she was a younger woman. She seems to react to her husband with a “run for your life” attitude. The shooter had a violent father and a scared mother. Now what?

We know that a percentage of families have overt violence and children are threatened, beaten, or seduced. These children can then become violent towards others or they can become the opposite, a no-self, an agreeable spouse. The less emotional maturity in the family, the greater the need to force others to “be like me, be the way I demand that you be.” But if one is forced to go along with another they can eventually seek revenge. Did the shooter seek revenge?   Was he shooting his family in the back as Eric suggested?

Without training, most of us are blind to the interactive nature of the family’s relationship system.  If we cannot see the brewing storm, we cannot prepare or cope. If we see the system, then there are many more things we can do to alter the patterns of behavior that sustain the status quo. One can hypothesize that distance and the inability to relate is an automatic response to fear that must have been in this family for a long time, perhaps over generations.  As fear increases people become paralyzed, unable to factually observe the nature of the relationships and less able to solve problems.

In many cases like this, the family appears not to notice or feels helpless if one person is disappearing.  For the family to be aware and to take on the problems would not just be about fixing the one who is “the problem.” It would be about altering the way a system is reinforcing immaturity.  Maturity in families shows up in how people are in reasonable contact with family members and demonstrate the ability to take responsibility for one’s part in problems.

In a besieged family, the status quo and automatic behavior will rule. People tend to be distant and often totally cutoff from one another.  There is also often intense conflict and some version of “reciprocal functioning” where one does better at a cost to another. And there will always be a tendency to project blame onto the weaker ones and their functioning will go down, unless they are up to taking on the criticism. Change takes place when one person in the family has a desire to relate to others in a more thoughtful way, leading to a variety of new outcomes and not a continuation of old patterns.

A seventh factor is whether there is anyone in the family who is curious, wants to find out what has gone wrong, and what he or she can do about it? Is there a family leader? A family is like a team.  Teams and families can focus on one player as the problem and maybe the others get a free ride for a while. But the team (or family) is hurt by the one who is focused on as the problem.  Team members cannot focus on their own individual performance. Sometimes the “sick” one rules the team.  Understanding how each member acts to pull the team up or down gives us insights into the nature of the relationships that surround us.

Many say forget systems. Just blame the killer. He is crazy. No thinking needed.  Forget about chain reactions and how “we the people” are programmed to react.

Bowen described what goes on in families, but he did not tell us what to do about it. People in each generation have to decide what will I do now? The relationships between family members constitute a system in the sense that a reaction in one family member is followed by a predictable reaction in another, and that reaction is followed by a predictable reaction in another and then another in a chain-reaction pattern. [8] Murray Bowen

Something broke in his head is the only thing possible. Did he have a stroke?” he said. I’m hoping they cut open his brain and find something. There’s a data point missing.”[9] There is more than one data point missing. Because of the lack of details about the family, we do not know about this family’s relationships.

The eighth factor: Was there any kind of family support from relatives? We do not know the kind of support the mother may have found in her own family, or if there was contact with grandparents, or what happened to the father’s family? Distance, conflict, and cutoff are automatic behaviors regulating anxiety. They do not enable one to become a better observer of the chain reaction pattern in family relationships.

I could say “LeBron, see, this is all about the team, the family system team. The same problems that exist in the family also occurs in society.  Bowen called it the societal emotional process.   People are not held accountable for their part in problems, and they focus on others.  With a great team, each person works on their part. In a losing team, people blame one another. It is as simple and as difficult as that.”

People can learn to deal with the challenges if they can see them and reduce their fearfulness.  This is often the coach’s role who can see beyond the individual.   The coach sees how the team is working and helps the team see this as well.   When the team is under pressure a few will lose the ability to maintain their humanness: the ability to throw the ball accurately, to care for others, to face up to their part in problems, to talk over problems, to tolerate differences, to be respectful, and to hold others accountable. These more mature behaviors are the first to go as anxiety increases.

In general, people have a hard time understanding the emotional process in the family. They are blind to what goes on or to the consequences of the way people are treating each other.  It is so easy to take sides, to lose your objectivity so that some are “good” (they agree with me) and others “bad”. Polarization in the team is the first step to losing the game. People do not get along. They are not able to cooperate.  They are no longer a team.

The ninth factor: How do people relate to each other and is the anxiety high or low?

As anxiety increases people look for the leader who will dominate. They fall into habits of appeasing the other. They lose their backbone.  They go silent.  The first reaction to a threat is to appease the dominant one. But how long will this work?  Not long, if the dominant one feels threatened, loses a gamble, is called to task, or a bluff is called.  These are the kinds of actions that people react to: being controlled by others, being dominated, having their dominant status threatened. Both people need each other. The dominant one and the one who adapts.

The hypothesis is that the intense need for the other to submit to give meaning and life to another, is one reason the possible loss of the adaptive one, the mother, the girlfriend, can trigger a psychotic event. The core of the dominant person can be empty unless others fill them up.

Although the early family interactions are shrouded in the memory of those who are not talking, we can see a bit more about his family relationships in the shooter’s relationship with his girlfriend, as some of this took place in public.  Here is the way that the relationships between the shooter and his only close female companion played out. A report said Tuesday that Paddock had a habit of berating his girlfriend. “It happened a lot,” Esperanza Mendoza, supervisor of the local Starbucks outlet where they met, said Tuesday. “He would glare down at her and say — with a mean attitude — ‘You don’t need my casino card for this. I’m paying for your drink, just like I’m paying for you.’ Then she would softly say, ‘OK’ and step back behind him. He was so rude to her in front of us.”[10]  Clearly the shooter could achieve dominance by being critical and managed to convince his girlfriend not to wear chemical scents.  These are the kinds of dominance and appeasement behaviors that kept their relationship working. [11]

The lack of red flags leading up to the massacre make the observations from the Starbucks employees even more compelling, for they offer us a telling glimpse at how he treated his intimate partner. Over the past few years, a number of mass killers and violent terrorists have had one striking thing in common: They practiced their abuse on family members before targeting the public.[12]

What will change because of all the media attention? Not much, since family relationship functioning will continue to be ignored. The old fight with the National Rifle Association will NOT change. Despite a great deal of evidence that strict gun control laws work to decrease deaths, killing 59 people may not be enough to scare Congress into legislating about gun control.   (After all, after the deaths of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, no changes in gun laws occurred to say nothing of the other mass and other gun murders over the years.)  Congress may outlaw bump stocks, which are legal aftermarket accessories that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire as an automatic weapon. Chicago and other cities will continue to be the most popular places where shots are “not heard”.

A change that might work:  Anything that promotes greater awareness of relationships, that requires people to have to interact cooperatively, to achieve a common goal would make a difference in our society. Consider, one must have a written test, a road test and an eye test to drive a vehicle. Cars do kill more people than guns but there was no formidable opposition to make sure people passed a basic test to drive a car. Currently congress is under tremendous social and financial pressure from the NRA to decrease regulations.  Congress might prefer to continue to support building prisons and filling cemeteries rather than invent a new system that would alter the way people buy guns.

Statistics that give a context to mass shootings versus just plain shooting, suggest that many of these shots are never heard.  There are over 33,000 deaths from shootings through our great country. In addition, mass shootings make up only a tiny portion of America’s firearm deaths. “Americans are 20 times as likely to die from gun violence as citizens of other civilized countries.”[13]

Hijacked by emotional intensity:  The lone wolf attacks are full of drama that consumes the public for a time. The people feel anyone, anywhere can die. There is no rhyme or reason to it.  It’s random. The shock of the mass shootings inhibits us from making more rational decisions about shootings in general. And shock keeps us from seeing how the family comes to function as an incubator of violence.

If we were rational people would see that the greatest numbers of deaths using guns come from suicides. Yet we do not put resources and manpower into understanding suicides. Much more could be done to combat suicides and there would be a bigger pay off for the surviving family and friends. This is not just a mental health problem either. As we also ignore the ongoing numbers of deaths in our larger cities. I will suggest that when either a family or a society becomes more anxious and feels helpless the weak in society can become more disoriented. There is also the tendency to scape goat and cut off from those individuals who are just too difficult to relate to.

When families and social groups become overwhelmed and helpless they are drawn into emotional reactivity and begin to act and feel like: Those “people” have nothing to do with us.


So much attention goes to the violence inflicted on us by lone wolves where most often nothing can be done to predict who they are ahead of time. There seems no way to predict who is vulnerable to becoming an attacker (or being attacked) and no way to hold the friends and family of shooters responsible for knowing what their family members are up to. There is little awareness and no “reward” for getting to know people in your family. Very few people understand that getting to know the difficult and challenging people in your family is one way to build life sustaining relationships.

The rational approach is to deeply understand the way family relationships can deteriorate, putting all at greater risk. This requires expert testimony from family and friends. As a society, we would have to values family members who are willing and able to tell us what they witnessed and how they were manipulated by the intensity in the other. Hopefully they would get more positive attention than the shooter.  Hopefully we will not punish people who try to explain honestly what happens in the relationships with a shooter.

Emotionally people are mad at the shooter and their families. The way emotional reactivity functions, is to encourage us to focus on the shooter, blame the family and put some shooters in prisons. This encourages a blame and revenge orientation, not prevention, and continues the primitive emotional process of scapegoating the angry, the isolated and the weak.  Our prisons are already colossal failures.  Unless there is greater awareness of the danger of emotional isolations and just how it leads to violence, we may go on blaming others, polarizing society and ignoring our near and dear and eventually just bury the dead.

In so far as man is a cause-and-effect thinker, which is most of the time in calm periods and all of the time in tense periods, he is still as inaccurate, unrealistic, irrational, and overly righteous in his assignment of causality for his problems as were his ancestors who pursued a different kind of evil influence, who eliminated different kinds of witches and dragons, and who built different kinds of temples to influence benevolent spirits.[14]








[8] Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (pp. 206-207). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.




[12] In general, most mass shootings in the United States are related to domestic violence, according to research collected by Everytown for Gun Safety. Between 2009 and 2016, 54 percent of mass shootings ― defined as incidents where at least four people were killed, not including the perpetrator ― involved a perpetrator shooting a current or former intimate partner or family member. Before Sunday’s massacre, the two deadliest shootings of 2017 involved an estranged husband allegedly targeting his wife.


[14] Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 423). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.