PhotoThe San Bernardino shooting that left 14 dead was the 355th mass shooting this year. It is producing the usual arguments for and against gun control and immigration reform, but researchers say there may be something even more sinister at work.

"Guns, clearly, are the elephant in the room," said Dr. Mary Ellen O'Toole, Ph.D., director of the Forensic Science Program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "But in addition, from a behavioral perspective, the 'character' and morality of people in this country appears to be seriously degrading.

"The lack of compassion, lack of guilt and empathy, an embrace of violence as a method to handle world problems, and a generalized world hatred push those people towards guns to carry out their desire for human destruction," O'Toole said.

The San Bernardino attack was the first "mission-oriented" shooting to include a female, which shows, said O'Toole, that mass shooting crimes are morphing and not abating.

Mission-oriented shooter

As described in "The Mission-Oriented Shooter: A New Type of Mass Killer," a recent article by O'Toole, a mission-oriented shooter is a person whose mission is to kill as many people as possible, or to achieve maximum lethality. These particular crimes are well planned and can involve months and even years of preparation. 

"Shootings involving mission-oriented females may be a new threshold which should be concerning to all of us, and the incident in San Bernardino might just be a hybrid, and a harbinger, of shootings to come," said O'Toole, who is also editor-in-chief of Violence and Gender, a peer-reviewed journal.

A "hybrid" means a spinoff from other cases of mass murder. "Like a cancer," says O'Toole, "this crime is moving and growing in insidious ways, and is resistant to 'treatment.'"

Brain health

O'Toole's article appeared last April in the journal Violence and Gender, published by the Avielle Foundation, whose mission is to prevent violence by fostering brain science research and community involvement and education.

"We at The Avielle Foundation are horrified and, honestly, sick of expressing our infinite heartbreak," said Jeremy Richman, PhD, the foundation's founder and director.

"We must actively pursue solutions to preventing violence," Richman said. "We need to be comfortable advocating for our own brain health and that of our loved ones. How many more innocent people have to die, how many bright lives will be destroyed, how many more families will forever grieve before an overwhelming tide of support occurs to make change? We must push for brain health advocacy and research. We are all responsible for meaningful change."

Violence and Gender is the only peer-reviewed journal focused on the understanding, prediction, and prevention of acts of violence and the role that gender plays in those acts.

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