Mark Follman

Mark Follman

National Affairs Editor

Mark Follman is the national affairs editor at Mother Jones. He is a former editor of Salon and a cofounder of MediaBugs. His reporting and commentary have also appeared in the New York Times, The AtlanticRolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and on Fox News, MSNBC, and NPR's All Things Considered and Fresh Air. Since 2012, his in-depth investigations into mass shootings, child gun deaths, and the financial costs of gun violence have been honored with multiple national journalism awards.

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Surveillance footage from the Washington Navy Yard.

Each time another mass shooting takes place, gun rights advocates are quick to blame the attack on the prohibition of firearms in public places. Their argument claims to explain both the motive behind mass shootings and how they play out: The killers deliberately choose locations where guns are forbidden, they say, and therefore no "good guy with a gun" is on hand to stop the attack. Conservatives' response to the massacre at the Washington Navy Yard was no exception. (Never mind the heavy security at the military installation.) As Fox News' Martha MacCallum put it, "On a military base, you're not allowed to carry weapons," and "someone working or familiar with the area probably would know that."

Her speculation may have sounded vaguely plausible, but it had no basis in fact. As I explained in a piece in USA Today earlier this year, in scores of mass shooting cases over the last three decades there isn't a single one in which the killer is known to have targeted a location because it banned guns. To the contrary, evidence in the vast majority of cases shows the motive was clearly otherwise, from workplace revenge to hate crime to a killer's obsession with his former school.

We now have the same understanding of the Navy Yard mass shooter, thanks to an FBI report released on Wednesday, which includes evidence pertaining to Aaron Alexis' state of mind. Not only was he plagued by serious mental illness, as previous news reports suggested, but Alexis also had no expectation of entering a venue that was free of firearms. According to the FBI's analysis of evidence it recovered from his belongings, "There are indicators that Alexis was prepared to die during the attack and that he accepted death as the inevitable consequence of his actions."

That finding fits with a clear pattern in the data we gathered in our mass shootings investigation: The perpetrators weren't looking for a safe, gun-free place to carry out their attacks—most of them were on suicide missions.

The FBI on Wednesday also released some eerie surveillance footage of Alexis entering the Navy Yard premises and moving with stealth through the corridors of Building 197 as he stalked his victims. We'll never fully know what was going through his disturbed mind, of course, but judge for yourself whether he was acting like a person who believed he was operating in a place full of defenseless sitting ducks:

The Santa Monica Mass Shooter: A Familiar Profile

A surveillance photo of Zawahri entering the Santa Monica College library.

Update, June 12, 9:25 p.m. PDT: Citing unnamed law enforcement officials, the Los Angeles Times reported late Wednesday that the semiautomatic rifle used in the Santa Monica rampage appears to have been assembled from various parts, possibly to circumvent California's laws prohibiting such weapons. Whether the killer built the weapon himself or obtained it whole is unclear. The rifle "appeared to be modified so that it could fire more rounds," according to the LA Times. In fact, it's relatively easy to make your own assault rifle, as reporter Bryan Schatz demonstrated recently while investigating a "build party"—in southern California—for this Mother Jones story.

More details have emerged about John Zawahri, who murdered five people and wounded several others in a gun rampage on Friday before police shot him dead on the campus of Santa Monica College. He is the kind of mass killer we've come to see all too often in recent years, from his gender and age to the type of weapons he used to his mental-health history. With our in-depth investigation of 62 mass shootings over the last 30 years we identified strong patterns among the killers, and Zawahri fits several of them:

Shooter's identity: Zawahri, an American-born son of Lebanese immigrants, was an adult male, age 23. All but one of the killers in the cases we analyzed were male, most of them young adult to middle-age.

Weapons used: Zawahri committed the killings using an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle and high-capacity magazines. According to the LA Times, investigators say he carried nearly 40 magazines capable of holding 30 bullets each. Some were in a duffel bag along with a handgun; he also wore ammunition strapped to his chest and thighs. Zawahri fired about 100 rounds during an approximately 15-minute rampage and was carrying more than 1,000 rounds with him, according to law enforcement officials. As our study showed, more than half of all mass shooters had assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and many were armed with multiple guns:

The data we gathered also shows that most mass shooters—nearly 80 percent of them—obtained their weapons legally. We don't yet know how Zawahri got his guns; law enforcement officials say they're in the process of tracing them. But it's possible he obtained them using the internet: As early as 2006, according to the LA Times, word had spread among Zawahri's high school classmates and teachers that he'd spent time surfing for assault weapons online. It remains very easy to buy guns on the internet, a key issue addressed by the legislation mandating broader background checks that died in the Senate in April.

Mental-health problems: Zawahri had shown troubling signs years ago, according to the LA Times. In 2006, a teacher learned of Zawahri's interest in assault weapons—as well as violent threats he'd voiced about specific classmates—and reported Zawahri to school authorities, who informed the police. Soon after, Zawahri was admitted to UCLA's psychiatric ward for a brief period. In the 62 cases we studied, a majority of the killers had mental health problems, with many showing signs of it prior to their attacks.

There's another pattern that Zawahri fits: Like the young male killers in Newtown, Aurora, and Columbine before him, he was apparently into video games. According to the LA Times, his school transcripts show that he was "sporadically" enrolled in an entertainment technology program in 2009 and 2010, taking courses in animation and video game development. But as Erik Kain cautions in an in-depth explainer on violent video games published on our site today, that fact may ultimately tell us nothing about what caused Zawahri to bring horror to Santa Monica late last week.

This post has been updated. Also see our full award-winning special report on mass shootings in America.

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