Elderly suspects in California shootings defy the typical profile of mass shooters

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As California and the United States reel from two devastating mass shootings in three days that left 18 people dead and many more injured, detectives scour crime scenes in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay for motives.

One aspect they will have to grapple with that sets California’s tragedies apart from the grim pack of American gun homicides is the older age of the shooters. In both cases, the alleged killers were between the ages of 60 and 70, making them a very rare group.

Related: Monterey Park gunman: Police ask why he attacked the dance hall he frequented

On Sunday, Huu Can Tran was found dead in a white van after committing suicide following a shooting the night before at a Monterey Park dance studio that killed 11 people. He turned 72.

Then, on Monday afternoon, at two separate locations in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, a gunman opened fire, killing seven people. The suspect, who was arrested and alleged to be cooperating with police, Zhao Chunli, was 67.

According to the authoritative database the Violence Project, which tracks all mass shootings in which four or more victims died in a public space, the ages of this week’s California suspects place them among the top three persons on record in nearly 60 years. Of the 168 events specified by the project between 1966 and 2020, the previous oldest shooter, who killed five people in a store in Kentucky in 1981, was 70.

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Overall, the Violence Project estimates that the average age for mass shooters in modern times is 34 years old. In the last three years under the reign of the pandemic, that figure has dropped dramatically to just 21.

The project’s executive director, Jillian Peterson, said the senior age of the California suspects was “strikingly rare.”

“This is a stunningly different profile that I didn’t see coming,” she said.

Given the rarity of the subjects, researchers know relatively little about the older perpetrators of mass public shootings. As with any such event in the US, there is always an increased risk of copycat attacks in the days following a massacre.

That may have been a factor in Half Moon Bay shortly after the Monterey Park shooting, not only in the nature of the attack itself, but also in the age of the suspect.

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Peterson said one aspect of older shooters’ actions — most of the mass shooters are indeed men, the database suggests about 98% are male — was that, unlike younger killers, they don’t seem to be motivated by a desire to have a . ​certain ideology or message.

“Older shooters don’t seem to leave manifestos or videos explaining why they did this, as younger offenders often do,” Peterson said. “For the younger people, the purpose of the recordings is to send a message to the world — here’s my anger, here’s my pain — and they’re working to get that to go viral.”

In contrast, such a performance element of the violence is often absent or less visible in the older cohort. “We don’t see that here,” Peterson said.

“In fact, the motive is really confusing. I suspect it’s more interpersonally driven because we don’t see that broader message.”

In addition to the age of the suspects, Californians must come to terms with how such a gruesome pair of shootings could have happened in a state with one of the strictest gun control laws in America. A scorecard compiled by Giffords, the gun safety campaign led by former Congressman Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head in an attempted murder in 2011, gives an “A” grade to what common sense calls gun laws for just two states – California and New Jersey.

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Questions will be asked about how the Monterey Park killer was able to wield a 9mm semi-automatic assault weapon of the type that is strictly prohibited in California. The tragedy underscores the challenges of the patchwork of laws in a country that largely leaves decisions about gun regulation to individual states.

On the other hand, California can continue to take comfort in the fact that despite this week’s disasters, its relatively tough approach to gun safety is clearly having a positive impact. According to the Centers for Disease Control, California’s gun death rate is 8.5 per 100,000 people — the seventh lowest in the US.

In contrast, states that pride themselves on their loose approach to gun ownership, such as Louisiana and Mississippi, have gun death rates of 26.3 and 28.6 in every 100,000, respectively.

Conversely, even California has a disastrous record compared to societies where guns are not ubiquitous as in the US. In continental Europe, about 7,000 people die from gunshot wounds each year.

That’s a death rate of just 0.9 per 100,000 people.

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