Denby Fawcett: The Lonely Backgrounds That Trigger Mass Shooters - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Opinion article badgeHawaii’s most infamous mass shooting happened 22 years ago.

Although that slaughter seems a distant memory, week after week we are saddened by public massacres elsewhere, the repeated shock of hearing about murderers who kill multiple victims, often strangers, often defenseless children.

Public shootings have become so commonplace that flags at Hawaii government buildings look to be perpetually flying at half-staff.

In Hawaii on Sunday, flags were at half-staff to memorialize the assassination of Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The week before, flags were lowered for the victims of the mass shooting at a July 4 parade in Highland Park, near Chicago. On May 24, flags were at half-staff in sorrow for 19 fourth graders and two teachers killed by a mass shooter at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Hawaii’s worst shooting occurred on Nov. 2, 1999, when Byran Uyesugi, an aggrieved Xerox copy machine repairman, walked into the second floor meeting room at Xerox on Nimitz Highway and shot to death seven of his fellow machine service technicians.

I covered that shooting and still find it difficult to understand how even an angry loner like Uyesugi could, seemingly without remorse, kill seven of the men he worked with every day.

New York Times’ opinion writer David Brooks in a column Thursday makes one of the best attempts I have read to explain what drives mass shooters.

He is writing about modern shooters after Uyesugi’s time but the topic he raises is pertinent today when most reports of mass shooting fail to explain exactly why the shooter did it in the first place.

Uyesugi shot people he knew in an office where he had worked for 10 years. Brooks is writing about the phenomenon of killers who fire assault-style weapons to kill people they usually have never met.

In his article, Brooks says the majority of shooters are not driven by an underlying disease, a diagnosed mental illness, but rather mostly by their own personal circumstances.

Like Uyesugi — who is now serving a life term without parole at Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona — mass killers are most often described as loners.

Many mass shooters are not mentally ill per se but suffer from isolation and loneliness. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2018

But Brooks says a more accurate description of them is “failed joiners.” The circumstances that put them in the path to violence is their thwarted desire to be noticed, to be liked for who they are, to be accepted by others.

“These young men are frequently ghosts. They often experience early childhood trauma, like abuse or extreme bullying. In school no one knows them. Boys and girls turn their backs on them … These young men often have no social skills,” Brooks writes.

I remember a group of gang members coming to the Legislature to testify in favor of a bill to fund a non-profit organization that was helping them extricate themselves from their lives of petty crime.

When a legislator asked one of the teens what made him join a gang, he said, “To be known.”  That is what most people want: to be known, to be accepted, to be part of something.

Brooks writes when a person who will become a shooter is ostracized, “They harden into their solitude. … Humans only realize how much they crave the recognition of the world when that recognition is withheld, and when it is, they crawl inward.”

They ruminate, feeling invisible. They wonder why others are enjoying themselves and they are not. Why they are excluded. They nurse grievances.

That is how Uyesugi was described in an evaluation done after his arrest. His path to violence apparently started after his mother died of cancer at about the same time he was transferred to a new work group at Xerox, where he started making angry accusations of harassment and machinery tampering against his co-workers.

That transitioned into paranoia. He started to see shadows and to accuse the Xerox repairmen of coming to his Nuuanu home, where he lived with his father, to take some of the goldfish he was raising to sell to pet stores.

Unable to placate him, the co-workers ostracized Uyesugi, which drove him further into isolation and despair to the point he began to make open threats against their lives.

Mass shooters often brazenly broadcast their intentions before they are actually carried out.

Brooks says social science studies show when the budding shooter becomes increasingly isolated, he turns his situation around — he is not the loser, the others around him are the losers.

“And here’s where victimhood turns into villainy. The ones who become mass shooters decide they are Superman, and it is the world that is full of ants. They decide to commit suicide in a way that will selfishly give them what they crave most: to be recognized, to be famous,” he writes. By taking down many other human beings, they acknowledge they too will have to die in the gunfire, but they will be known.

This is where access to guns becomes an important part of their plans. All of the mass shooters had access to high-powered weapons — usually more than one — easily obtained from gun shops or their family or friends. Uyesugi owned 25 guns including the Glock 17 semi-automatic pistol he used to kill his co-workers.

Even in a country like Japan with some of the strictest gun laws in the world, former Prime Minister Abe’s assassin armed himself by making his own lethal weapon out of wood and metal pipes — a gun so crude that at the time of the fatal shooting it was held together by black electrical tape. 

Brooks writes: “The guns seem to have some sort of psychological effect, too. For people who have felt impotent all their lives, the guns seem to provide an almost narcotic sense of power. Perhaps it is the pleasure they feel posing with their guns that pushes some of them over the edge. The guns are like serpents in the trees, whispering to them.”

A special threat assessment unit in the FBI has proven that some of the men planning to be mass shooters — although angry and determined — can be stopped from their murderous path if the circumstances are right.

Part of the program is to train everyone to be akamai bystanders — to report concerning behavior before it turns murderous.

In his article, Brooks mentioned a young shooter named “Trunk” for his prison nickname “Trunk Full of Guns.” A 2014 article in Esquire describes how his mass shooting agenda was thwarted when a police officer pulled him over on a routine stop to find him and two other accomplices, heavily armed with automatic weapons and knives, on their way to their planned killing.

Trunk pleaded guilty to carjacking, for which he completed a 10-year prison sentence. Now he is helping the FBI’s threat assessment unit prevent future mass shootings. He believes many would-be shooters — hurting like he was — want someone to stop them before they commit crimes that will result in their owns deaths or prison for life.

The FBI threat assessment unit depends on information from bystanders, family members, friends and teachers to alert them when they see a person behaving in a way that is concerning, such as buying weapons, becoming obsessed with violent video games, torturing animals or posting violent intentions on social media — all characteristics of budding mass killers.

Similar units are operating in different states. Last October, the Department of Homeland Security awarded University of Hawaii West Oahu $780,000 to set up a behavior intervention team tasked with creating units in schools and colleges to access, intervene and manage reported threats before they become a violent reality.

Part of the program is to train everyone to be akamai bystanders — to report concerning behavior before it turns murderous.

Mass shootings will continue to happen. There are not enough threat assessment units in the country to stop them. Even if there were, determined shooters will slip through the cracks. And friends and family who know the most about the concerning behavior can be the ones least likely to report it.

Still, there is comfort in knowing, if some of the would-be killers are found soon enough their path toward violence might be stopped.


Read this next:

Chad Blair: Why Hawaii Voters Should Know Exactly Who They Are Voting For


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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

Of course, the argument that assault rifles should not be banned because they are the only safeguard against a tyrannical government is always brought up by gun enthusiasts. One can only wonder if bands of US militiamen can stand a chance against a modern US military. Obviously, these gun enthusiasts believe that it can. To indulge that line of thinking, if militiamen can defeat the US military, isn't it also possible that a band of armed citizens can topple the current US government and establish their own tyrannical government? As violent extremism grows in the US, it seems that outcome is much more likely. What if the Jan 6th participants all had assault rifles while storming the Capitol? The possibility makes the "only defense against tyrannical government" argument moot imo, since it may be the cause of one as well.

Kahanalu · 4 months ago

When people are driven to murder by bullying, they kill the bullies. When people mass murder strangers, and children at that, their only possible motive is to create a spectacle with themselves at the center of media attention.The Parkland shooter was 19 years old with an inheritance of $900,000. When offered an opportunity to make a statement in court he said nothing about bullies but mentioned not having access to television while in jail.The Highland shooter reportedly would dress up like a character in a video game, and not a very nice character at that. It appears he found that character "cool" and worthy of modeling his life upon.These killers do it because they are empty-headed, vapid, vicious, cruel, self-absorbed, narcissists, who find some sort of glamour in the very public murder of strangers. In short, they think it is "cool" and that it gives them status.If they are lonely, then it is for the very best of reasons.

Scott_Israel · 4 months ago

While I agree that many killers have suffered trauma early on in their lives... withholding of love first, then often bullying and/or isolation/loneliness... some are just born psychopaths. It always amazes me that school administrators and the parents of bullies will dismiss such behavior with the age-old "boys will be boys" excuse, when the evidence consistently points to this permissive toleration of marginalization leading to very negative outcomes. At the end of the day, we get the society we deserve.

SleepyandDopey · 4 months ago

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