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Norwalk man tells police he had no intention to commit mass shooting after tip to FBI

Inside the condominium, authorities reported seizing a .40-caliber handgun, a .22-caliber rifle, a rifle scope with laser, firearm optics and flashlights, along with hundreds of rounds of ammunition. They also found body armor with a titanium plate, and tactical attire, police said.

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In Wake Of Mass Shootings More Churches Arming, Training Congregants

HASLET, Texas (CBSDFW.COM/AP) — Gun smoke clouded the sunny entrance of a Texas church on a recent Sunday.

Seven men wearing heavy vests and carrying pistols loaded with blanks ran toward the sound of the shots, stopping at the end of a long hallway. As one peeked into the foyer, the “bad guy” raised the muzzle of an AR-15, took aim and squeezed the trigger.

The simulated gunfight at the church in Haslet, about 15 miles north of Fort Worth, was part of a niche industry that trains civilians to protect their churches using the techniques and equipment of law enforcement. Rather than a bullet, the rifle fired a laser that hit Stephen Hatherley’s vest — triggering an electric shock the 60-year-old Navy veteran later described as a “tingle.”

The shootings this month killed more than 30 people at an El Paso Walmart and Dayton, Ohio entertainment district. But gunmen have also targeted houses of worships in recent years, including a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where more than two dozen people were shot dead in 2017.

On September 1 Senate Bill 535 will become law in Texas. It allows handgun holders to legally carry firearms in places of worship unless given “effective oral or written notice” or warning that weapons are banned.

The anxiety of one mass shooting after another has led some churches to start training and arming their worshippers with guns. Not all security experts support this approach, but it has gained momentum as congregations across the country grapple with how to secure spaces where welcoming strangers is a religious practice.

“Ten years ago, this industry was not a thing,” said David Riggall, a Texas police officer whose company trains churchgoers to volunteer as security guards. “I mean, sanctuary means a safe place.”

In 1993, Doug Walker said security wasn’t at the fore of his mind when, as a recent Baptist seminary graduate, he founded Fellowship of the Parks church in Fort Worth. But six years later, after a gunman killed seven people and took his own life at another church in the Texas city, the pastor said his thinking changed.

Today, the interdenominational church has four campuses and 3,000 worshippers on an average Sunday, Walker said. It has increased security as it has grown, asking off-duty police to carry weapons at church events. And it recently hired Riggall’s company, Sheepdog Defense Group, to train volunteers in first aid, threat assessment, de-escalation techniques, using a gun and tactical skills, such as clearing rooms during an active shooting.

Walker, 51, said there wasn’t a single event that prompted his church to decide its guards needed more training. But Riggall said that after mass shootings congregations reach out.

“Every time the news comes on and there’s another shooting in a school or church or something like that, the phone starts ringing,” Riggall said.

The 46-year-old police officer said that he and a colleague had the idea for the company after the 2012 mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. They started doing firearms trainings with parents and, after Riggall became certified under Texas law to train security guards, transitioned to churches.

The company incorporates Christian teachings into its courses and more than 90 people at 18 churches have completed the 70 hours of initial training and become state-licensed guards through its program, Riggall said. The so-called sheepdogs are insured and technically employed by the company. But they volunteer doing security at their own churches, which in turn pay Riggall.

On a Sunday in July, Brett Faulkner stood with an AR-15 in hand and his back to the cross in the sanctuary of Fellowship of the Parks campus in Haslet. He pointed the rifle at a young woman’s back and yelled at the armed men advancing into the room, “I’m going to kill this woman. It’s going to happen right now.”

Faulkner, a 46-year-old information technology worker, already completed a Sheepdog session but came to another church’s to play the bad guy and keep his skills sharp.

“It really just comes down to caring about the people in that building,” Faulkner said of choosing to guard his small Baptist church.

Faulkner said his congregation re-evaluated its security after recent mass shootings and went with Riggall’s company as a cost-effective option. “This is a good balance between the cost of paying professionals and relying on untrained volunteers,” he said.

Security professionals differ on what balance is right.

After 11 worshippers were shot dead during Shabbat morning services at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the city’s Jewish community has added layers of defenses.

Since that October attack, congregations that once felt guns were unnecessary or inappropriate have welcomed armed security, said Brad Orsini, security director for The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. But arming worshippers is not an approach the former FBI agent recommends.

“Carrying a firearm is an awesome responsibility,” said Orsini, who served in the Marine Corps before his nearly three decades with the FBI. “Because you have the ability to have a carry concealed permit does not make you a security expert. Because you have a firearm doesn’t necessarily mean you should be carrying it at the church on the weekend.”

Sheepdog Firearms, a Birmingham, Alabama-area gun range, offers police-style training to people looking to protect their churches. Owner David Youngstrom acknowledged the eight-hour course doesn’t produce experts.

But, he said, many of the roughly 40 Alabama churches that have sent people to take the class are small, rural congregations with limited means. For them, having armed volunteers can feel like the only option, he said.

And the trainings provide churches with evidence of having a security program in place if a tragedy turns into litigation. “It gives a good record for something that will hold up in court,” Youngstrom said.

Laws about carrying firearms in houses of worship vary from state to state. But as a general matter of liability, churches training members for security is not much different from a business hiring guards, according to Eugene Volokh, a professor at the UCLA School of Law.

A church could be sued if people were harmed because its security was badly trained, Volokh said, but also if it generally failed to protect people on its grounds. Both can be insured against and either is unlikely, he said.

Brian Higgins, a former police chief for Bergen County, New Jersey, and instructor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he’s seen varied approaches to firearms in his work consulting at houses of worship. Attitudes toward guns differ between urban and rural areas, as do the security needs, he said.

And churches comfortable arming members also draw lines to preserve an environment conducive to worship.

Fellowship of the Parks allows congregants to have concealed weapons in church. But Walker, the pastor, said that other than security, people carrying openly are asked to put their guns away or leave.

“If people open carry who are not uniformed that can be very unsettling,” Walker said. “You may not know if that person is a possible shooter or criminal, so we try to balance it.”

(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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The mystery of mass shooting motives: What if we never learn why?


Protestors turned up in both Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas as President Donald Trump visited following two mass shootings that left 31 dead.

Since the May 31 shooting in Virginia Beach, Virginia, that claimed his wife’s life along with 11 others, Jason Nixon said he has been in “a living hell.’’

Nixon, the father of three daughters ages 1, 6 and 13, takes them to bed amid nightly tears, then regularly wakes up with nightmares around 3 a.m. Last month he had his gallbladder removed after morning bouts of vomiting he was told were due to stress.

“My kids go to bed every night crying for their mom. Every night. It’s a Groundhog Day, over and over,’’ Nixon said. “It’s the most heart-wrenching thing.’’

The anguish is made all the more acute by the lack of official word on why DeWayne Craddock, a civil engineer who worked for the Virginia Beach public utilities department, launched the barrage that killed Kate Nixon, 10 fellow city employees and a contractor who was filing for a permit.

Craddock died after a gun battle with police. Authorities have not ascertained his motive, although Jason Nixon and others consider him a disgruntled employee seeking revenge for perceived slights at work.

As the U.S. grapples with a rash of mass murders underscored by the back-to-back shootings earlier this month in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio – which accounted for 31 deaths – the victims’ families are often left to wonder what prompted such brutal acts of violence.

Many times – even years after a shooting and a lengthy police investigation – there are no clear answers.

People pray and pay their respects at a makeshift memorial for victims of a shooting in El Paso, Texas. (Photo: Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images)

The alleged gunman who opened fire in an El Paso Walmart, Patrick Crusius, posted a hateful manifesto decrying what he called a “Hispanic invasion of Texas’’ and ranting against immigrants, so his motives, while contemptible, appear pretty clear.

So far that stands in contrast with Connor Betts, the shooting suspect in Dayton who was killed by police. There have been reports of misogynistic tendencies in his past and police said he had “a history of obsession with violent ideations,’’ but no specific reason for his assault has been pinpointed.

Similarly, attacks like last November’s slaughter at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, where 12 died; the shooting spree at Santa Fe (Texas) High School in May 2018 that cost 10 lives; and, most notoriously, the Las Vegas rampage of October 2017 in which 58 were killed, have rendered investigators unable to specify a motive.

Everyone ‘wants to know’ why

For the devastated relatives who have to pick up the pieces of a life lost or suddenly torn apart, such uncertainty can be distressing, leading to anxiety and depression.

“Every family of a victim, every injured victim I’ve ever dealt with wants to know,’’ said Kathryn Turman, assistant director of the FBI’s Victim Services Division. “Sometimes the motivation is obvious. Other times it’s not. I think every human mind struggles to try to make sense of what’s often a senseless tragedy.’’

Prompt action: New Zealanders have turned in more than 10,000 guns after mass shooting in Christchurch

Jonathan Metzl, a Vanderbilt sociology professor who studies gun violence, said it’s important from a societal standpoint to ask why these horrific events take place, an exercise that can also be part of the grieving process for victims’ loved ones.

But he also points out the answers can be “very complex and slippery,’’ far from the tidy, simple explanations that may fit into some people’s preconceived notions.

“In most cases we never know the answer,’’ Metzl said, “and in a way the narratives we hold on to are the ones that make sense to us, but they might not be the reasons why somebody would do something like this.’’


A man who fatally gunned down nine people outside a Dayton, Ohio, bar had long wrestled with mental illness that manifested itself in a fascination with tragedy, uncontrollable urges to unleash violence and suicidal thoughts.

Metzl argues that because mass shootings are so hard to anticipate, the focus should be on preventing everyday gun violence, which is much more predictable. That, in turn, may lower the frequency of mass murders.

“If the goal is to prevent future shootings,’’ he said, “the most important question is not always why did somebody do this, but what kind of policies can we put in place to prevent somebody who’s intent on doing something like this from doing a future act.’’

Last year the FBI published an examination of a study it had conducted covering active-shooter incidents – defined by the FBI as one or more people trying to kill others in a populated area – from 2000-2013. The review looked into pre-attack behaviors and motives in an effort to prevent or minimize the number of such tragedies in the future.

In 21% of the cases, investigators were unable to ascertain the reasons behind the bursts of violence, which were planned for at least a week 77% of the time.

That last figure may come as a surprise to those who believe mass shootings are often the result of a mentally unbalanced person “snapping.’’

Renewed hope: After Newtown, Pulse, Vegas stirred little change, gun-control advocates hope latest shootings push tougher laws

John Wyman, Behavioral Analysis Unit chief for the FBI, said shootings are actually “planned, predatory acts’’ usually prompted by a combination of factors that include stressors such as interpersonal conflicts, financial strain, mental health issues (though not necessarily illness), legal problems and substance abuse.

“It might have been so complex that the offenders themselves might have a hard time articulating why they did what they did,’’ Wyman said.

Post-shooting buzzwords

In many instances, such as the Las Vegas, Thousand Oaks, Virginia Beach and Dayton massacres, the perpetrator is not caught alive, depriving investigators of the prime source of information for the motive.

That was also the case in the carnage at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June 12, 2016. Omar Mateen, a security guard born in New York to Afghan immigrants, went into the gay bar and killed 49 people and injured 53 in the worst single-shooter incident the U.S. had seen to that point. Police finally gunned him down after a three-hour standoff.

Christine Leinonen, center, mother of Christopher ‘Drew’ Leinonen, who was killed in the Pulse attack in Orlando, speaks as she is comforted by Brandon Wolf, left, and Jose Arraigada, right, both survivors of the attack, during the 2016 Democratic National Convention. (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY)

The attack was initially believed to be motivated by homophobia, especially after some patrons said they had seen Mateen before and believed he was a closeted gay man. Later revelations, including statements Mateen made to crisis negotiators, pointed to his opposition to U.S. policy in the Middle East and possible allegiance to ISIS as the main reason.

The lack of clarity bothers Christine Leinonen, mother of Pulse victim Drew Leinonen, who says bluntly, “It wasn’t a gay shooting. It was a jihad.’’

Leinonen has become a gun-control activist and an advocate for the LGBTQ community in the wake of her son’s death. She resents Mateen’s actions being depicted as homophobic, believing the label has been exploited for money-raising purposes.

“It angers me because, until we name something accurately, we cannot even begin to try to solve it,’’ Leinonen said. “Whenever there’s a mass shooting, everybody just gives the buzzwords, ‘Oh, it’s mental health,’ and then no one does anything. But it’s not mental health. It’s easy access to guns.’’

To Leinonen’s point, after the recent bloodbaths in El Paso and Dayton, President Donald Trump proclaimed, “Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.’’

Dangerous merchandise: Some employees call on Walmart to stop selling guns in wake of mass shootings

A report released last year by the Small Arms Survey, a research project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, estimated there were more than 393 million civilian-owned firearms in the U.S. in 2017, or 46% of the world’s total. That averages out to more than a gun per person in a country with a population of 326 million, a little over 4% of the global total.

Figures released in December by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed an all-time high 39,773 people died by gunfire in America in 2017 – a rate of 12.2 per 100,000 that’s the highest in two decades. By comparison, Canada had a rate of 2.1 per 100,000; European countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany were below 1.

Suicides were the main driver of the increase in the U.S., accounting for about 60% of the gun deaths, while homicides made up of 37% of the total. The vast majority of those deaths did not take place through mass shootings, which tend to garner the most media attention and often elicit calls for stronger mental-health programs.

The ‘mental health’ label

Heather Littleton, associate professor of psychology at East Carolina University, is among the many experts who say mass shootings and mental illness are separate issues. Littleton said people with mental health problems have not shown more propensity than anybody else to go on a deadly rampage, and in fact are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators because they’re more vulnerable.

People protest near Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, on Aug. 7, 2019, before President Donald Trump’s visit to victims being treated at the hospital. (Photo: Meg Vogel, Cincinnati Enquirer via USA TODAY Network)

“Most people with mental illness aren’t violent,’’ Littleton said. “The label itself isn’t helpful, because that’s such a broad category, and I think it’s often harmful in that it contributes to stigmatizing.’’

Littleton was involved in a study of 300 women who were students at Virginia Tech during its 2007 shooting, which resulted in 32 deaths. None of the study’s participants was directly impacted, but a year later nearly 25% were still showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The more overwhelming and unfathomable the violence, the harder it is for people to manage,’’ Littleton said, noting that the shooting had a negative effect on how participants felt about themselves and the world.

Seeking a sense of closure

Experts say that for some people affected by gun violence, learning the motive provides a sense of closure, though not for all, especially since many find it hard to relate to what the attacker may feel.

USA on edge: Mass-shooting false alarms has a ‘hidden cost’ for police, community

Jay Lee, a family physician in Long Beach, California, who has counseled relatives of people killed in shootings and stabbings, said anxiety and depression are common traits among people who have lost loved ones to violence.

Birthdays, holidays and the anniversary of the fateful date are especially difficult to handle, he said, although everyone copes differently and some find comfort in their faith or value system.

“(Learning) the motive can be one piece of the healing,’’ said Lee, one the physicians who have called out gun violence as a public health issue. “I think more than anything people want to continue to remember the loved ones they’ve lost and would like to see something done about violence in general.’’

Family and friends watch as the casket of Virginia Beach shooting victim Kate Nixon is wheeled to a hearse after a funeral service at St. Gregory The Great Catholic Church in Virginia Beach , Virginia, on June 6, 2019. Nixon was killed along with 11 others during a mass shooting. (Photo: Steve Helber, AP)

Part of Nixon’s mission is making sure the memory of his wife – an engineer and compliance manager who was his rock during their 20 years of marriage – remains vivid.

Nixon said Kate shared with him complaints about the quality of Craddock’s work and his brusque manner. So Nixon was appalled when city officials characterized Craddock’s job performance as “satisfactory,’’ and he believes the massacre could have been prevented if the human resources department had intervened.

After initially resisting public calls by Nixon and others for an independent investigation, the city relented and that probe is now being conducted.

Asked what would bring him closure, Nixon said: “The truth would bring closure to me. So I can go to bed at night knowing I did everything I could do to get the truth out. So I know my wife didn’t die in vain, and her friends and co-workers didn’t die in vain.’’

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Man interested in committing mass shooting arrested in Connecticut

NORWALK, Conn. — Authorities say they’ve arrested a Connecticut man interested in committing a mass shooting and seized weapons and ammunition from his home.

Norwalk and FBI officials say 22-year-old Brandon Wagshol was charged Thursday with illegal possession of large capacity ammunition magazines. Police say they received a tip that Wagshol was trying to buy large-capacity rifle magazines from out of state.

Officials allege Wagshol was attempting to build a rifle with parts bought online. They say a Facebook posting showed his interest in committing a mass shooting.

Authorities say they seized firearms, body armor and other items from Wagshol’s home. They say the firearms are registered to his father.

Wagshol was held on $250,000 bail. It wasn’t immediately clear if he has a lawyer who could respond to the allegations.

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Lady Gaga Helps Schools in Communities Affected by Mass Shootings

Children from three communities affected by the latest mass shootings in the United States are starting a new school year. Singer Lady Gaga is trying to make their return to school a little happier and easier.

The Grammy-winning singer recently announced she would pay for several schoolroom projects in the cities of El Paso, Texas, Dayton, Ohio, and Gilroy, California.

In El Paso, there are new books for third-grade students, many of whom do not have any books at home. In Dayton, students with disabilities will have special chairs to help them stay calm. In Gilroy, fifth-graders are getting fun new tools for their science lessons.

Gaga’s aim is to bring a measure of hope to places affected by an especially violent week of mass killings. She wrote on her Facebook page, “I want to channel my confusion, frustration, and fury into hope.”

The money for the projects came from the singer’s Born This Way Foundation, in partnership with the nonprofit group DonorsChoose.

Back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton a week ago left 31 dead. Three more were killed when a gunman opened fire at a celebration in Gilroy the weekend before.

The dead included three school-aged young people. A 6-year-old boy, Stephen Romero, was playing at the Gilroy Garlic Festival when he was killed. A 13-year-old girl, Keyla Salazar, also was killed in Gilroy.

And, 15-year-old Javier Amir Rodriguez died in the shooting at an El Paso Walmart store. Many of the victims had gone to Walmart to buy supplies for the upcoming school year.

Supporting teachers, inspiring students

The DonorsChoose website says it “connects teachers in high-needs communities with donors who want to help.”

A public school teacher from New York City started the organization in 2000. He had wanted his students to read the famous American book Little House on the Prairie. But, he only had enough money to buy a single copy of the book for the classroom.

Gaga promised to pay for 162 school projects, including requests made by teachers from 125 classrooms in El Paso, 14 classrooms in Dayton and 23 classrooms in Gilroy. Other donors had already partly paid for some of the projects.

Among those that Gaga chose to fully finance is a $462 request for books at El Paso’s Whitaker Elementary School. Rebeca Blanco-Grijalva wrote in her appeal on DonorsChoose that she teaches third grade at a poor school. She described her students as “voracious readers.” But many of them do not have any books of their own to read at home.

That will soon change.

Another project hopes to help students with special needs at a school in Dayton. The $862 project will provide a room with an “active chair,” “wobble chair” and other furniture. The teacher of the class wrote on DonorsChoose, “My students live hard lives and come to school looking for love as much as they do an education.”

Gaga wrote on Facebook that the money for these and other projects will give teachers “the support they need to inspire their students to work together and bring their dreams to life.”

I’m Anne Ball.

The Reuters news agency reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

confusion – n. a situation in which people are uncertain about what to do or are unable to understand something clearly

frustration – n. a feeling of anger or annoyance caused by being unable to do something

fury – n. violent anger

voracious – adj. having or showing a tendency to consume a lot of something

wobble – v. to move with an unsteady side-to-side motion

furniture – n. chairs, tables, beds, etc., that are used to make a room ready for use

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5 people shot in Ogontz, 2 miles away from yesterday’s mass shooting

A standoff lasted for nearly eight hours around a rowhouse where the alleged shooter, Maurice Hill, was barricaded along with two officers who were trapped upstairs. The two officers and three people they had handcuffed were safely removed during a SWAT operation around 10 p.m., and Hill later surrendered.

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Americans, Mexicans unite at vigil for mass shooting victims

(EL PASO, Texas) — Thousands of Americans and Mexicans united in a torrent of tears in an El Paso, Texas baseball stadium Wednesday for a vigil honoring the 31 victims who perished in back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio.

Just 11 days after a 21-year-old man allegedly opened fire with a high-powered rifle at a Walmart store in El Paso, killing 22 people, including eight Mexican nationals, mourners from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border convened for the shared outpouring of grief and outrage.

“The event that brings us together represents the lowest, saddest expression of our times,” Mexican Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for North America Jesus Seade told the crowd that packed the 8,000-seat Southwest University Park baseball stadium Wednesday night in El Paso.

The bilingual service featured a mariachi band playing the somber song “Amore Eterno” (“Love Eternal”) and members of the El Paso Firefighters Pipes and Drums group performing the dirge “Amazing Grace.”

On the baseball stadium’s infield were votive candles in white paper bags forming 22 stars for those who were killed in the Aug. 3 mass shooting in El Paso and nine circles representing those slain the following day in a shooting rampage that occurred in a bustling entertainment district in Dayton, Ohio.

The somber event offered a pause from tensions between the two countries over calls by President Donald Trump, who visited El Paso last week, to strengthen the country’s southern border.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, received loud applause in the predominantly Democratic border town as he addressed the crowd, saying his administration is taking action to “dismantle the purveyors of hate.”

“As we gather tonight, we still cannot comprehend the evil that struck El Paso 11 days ago, the magnitude of the hate and racism, the sheer evil behind the act that took so many people,” Abbott said. “We may never fully understand the evil in this world or the hatred behind it, but here is what we do know: We know this evil will not overcome us. We will not allow our hearts to be hardened, and we will not allow hatred to stoke more hatred. Instead, we will conquer evil with goodness, and compassion and love for one another.”

Earlier Wednesday, Abbott announced he is creating a new domestic terrorism unit to “root out the extremist ideologies that fuel hatred and violence in our state.” He also said the state will pour more resources into investigating white nationalists groups.

The alleged El Paso mass shooter, Patrick Crusius, from a Dallas suburb more than 650 miles from El Paso, told investigators he was bent on killing as many Mexicans as he could when he stormed Walmart, where many parents and children had gathered for back-to-school shopping, police officials said.

The majority of those killed had Hispanic surnames or were from Mexico, including five from El Paso’s sister city, Ciudad Juarez.

Those killed ranged from age 15 to 90.

The killing rampage is being investigated as an act of domestic terrorism by federal agents and could result in the death penalty if Crusius, who is facing state capital murder charges, is convicted. Investigators said that prior to the attack Crusius posted an anti-immigrant diatribe online.

In a speech Wednesday in Oaxaca, Mexico, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he wants the United States to extradite Crusius to face justice south of the border.

“Hate will never overcome our love. Hate will never overcome who we are,” El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said at Wednesday’s vigil.

He implored the crowd to forever remember the victims, saying, “It is up to us not to let the world forget who they were.”

Among those joining Margo and other leaders on stage where the law enforcement officers who arrested Crucius, detectives who are investigating the shooting and first responders who treated those wounded in the tragedy. Mourners showed them their appreciation by cheering and applauding.

In a moving tribute to those slain, a sea of cellphones held up by mourners lit up the stadium as the names of the 22 El Paso victims were read aloud.

“They were grandparents, fundraising for their grandchildren’s soccer league; mothers and fathers who cared for their children so much that they used their bodies as shields to protect them; families shopping on a normal Saturday morning; and a son who was getting ready to attend 10th grade at Horizon High School,” Margo said. “They represent generations of El Pasoans and Mexicans that have lived in unison and harmony throughout our 350-year history.”

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

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El Paso, Texas, holds memorial service to mourn those killed in mass shooting

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott attended the memorial service in El Paso, Texas, on Wed., Aug. 14, 2019.

City of El Paso, Texas

The El Paso, Texas, community held a memorial service Wednesday at Southwest University Park in downtown El Paso. The event came nearly two weeks after a gunman massacred 22 people and wounded more than two dozen others at a Walmart.

The city described the event as “a memorial gathering for our region to unite in support of those injured and mourn those who have lost their lives.”

Meanwhile, authorities in El Paso say they have finished processing the scene at the Walmart and El Paso police said they will return control of the property to Walmart. Walmart spokeswoman LeMia Jenkins said the store remains a “secure location with controlled access.” She said a fence will remain around the store’s perimeter and that Walmart is using contracted security guards to prevent trespassing.

The city opened a center to help people with everything from counseling and financial assistance to figuring out how to get vehicles back after the Aug. 3 shooting.

Police say Patrick Crusius, 21, was targeting Mexicans when he carried out the shooting. He has been charged with capital murder.

El Paso suspect claims he was targeting Mexicans in deadly massacre

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Why Do False Flag Conspiracy Theories Follow Mass Shootings?

Source: Public Domain, Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

In the days following the spate of mass shootings around the country in August 2019, “false flag” conspiracy theories claiming the shootings didn’t happen or were staged by “crisis actors” predictably appeared, just as they did after other tragedies like Sandy Hook. Why does this happen? Dan Funke at reached out to me for answers for his article “Why Do Some People Think Mass Shootings are Staged Every Time?”

Here’s the full transcript of our interview:

According to your research, why do people believe these kinds of conspiracies? Is there a psychological reason that people share posts that claim shootings were faked? 

In order to understand the “psychology of conspiracy theories,” we have to start by acknowledging that about half of the U.S. population (as well as that of other countries) believes in at least one conspiracy theory. Unlike delusions, which, by definition, are for the most part not shared beliefs, conspiracy theories are usually shared by groups of people. We should also acknowledge that conspiracy theories occasionally turn out to be true. So belief in conspiracy theories is relatively normal and shouldn’t be conflated with being “crazy.”

That said, there has been considerable recent research in psychology to understand differences between those who believe in conspiracy theories and those who don’t. This body of research has revealed a number of different “cognitive quirks” of people who believe in conspiracy theories, like greater need for control, certainty, and “cognitive closure” (the desire to have an explanation for events when explanations are lacking) or the desire to be unique. Other research has found that those who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to have a cognitive bias called “hypersensitive agency detection” or “teleological thinking” whereby events are over-attributed to hidden forces, purposes, and motives. Finally, it has been found that lack of analytic thinking and something called “bullshit receptivity” — the tendency to be duped by superficially profound statements that are in reality meaningless — are overrepresented among those who believe in conspiracy theories.

In my own academic work, however, I have noted that these findings don’t necessarily apply to everyone who believes in conspiracy theories or across conspiracy theories of different themes. I like to model belief in conspiracy theories as a two-step process that starts with mistrust. When you don’t trust the authoritative account of things or when you don’t trust in traditional institutions of knowledge, this can result in an “epistemic vacuum” or “informational void” that one then tries to fill. In this day and age, people tend to do that through by online “research” as opposed to in-person conversation. As a result, they can find themselves diving down a rabbit-hole in which both information and misinformation abound. This is the second step of the conspiracy belief process. Note that in searching for explanations, many conspiracy theorists aren’t so much theorizing as they are trying to construct a story based on available information — I like to call them conspiracy “theists” rather than “theorists.” The man who took an automatic weapon into Comet Ping Pong looking for a Hillary Clinton-led child trafficking ring didn’t come up with that notion on his own; he learned online it from places like Reddit, 4Chan, and InfoWars.

Once you’re falling down the misinformation rabbit hole, “confirmation bias” — the tendency to seek out information that confirms pre-existing intuitions — tends to steer us toward certain kinds of information over others. For example, research suggests that “conspiracist ideation” — the general belief that hidden, nefarious forces are pulling the puppet strings of human events — may be one kind of pre-existing intuition that accounts for why people gravitate towards conspiracy theories and why belief in one conspiracy theory tends to predict belief in others. But the related cognitive process of “motivated reasoning” whereby we sift through evidence to reinforce our ideological beliefs rather than to find objective truth also accounts for why people are drawn towards particular conspiracy theories. According to this view, people might believe in false flag theories about Sandy Hook or some of the other more recent mass shootings based on pre-existing beliefs about gun rights and concerns about liberal politicians taking their guns away. Confirmation bias and motivated reasoning mean that we discard information that detracts from our narrative, but we also discount information to resolve cognitive dissonance. So, if we have a core belief that guns make us safer, then becoming a mass shooting denialist helps resolve evidence to the contrary. It’s basically a kind of gaslighting with a goal of downplaying the danger of guns.

Are there types of people who are more prone to shooting-related conspiracies than others?

Most of the research on conspiracy theory beliefs to date has tended to focus on “general conspiracist ideation” rather than belief in individual conspiracy theories. And so, I’m not aware of any specific research on conspiracy theories related to mass shootings, just as there has been little to no research on groups like Flat Earthers, or, as I sometimes call them, round earth conspiracy theorists.

But according to the motivated reasoning model, which is supported by good evidence, conspiracy theories with a political slant thrive because they align with political ideologies. Likewise, according to my model of mistrust as a core feature of conspiracy theories, the target of that mistrust shapes conspiracy theory beliefs. For example, Holocaust denialism is embraced by people with antisemitic attitudes. Similarly, people who are drawn to false flag conspiracies about mass shootings will predictably be those with strong beliefs about gun ownership and gun rights who are mistrustful of government in general and liberals in particular. This is exactly the kind of political ideology captured within QAnon conspiracy theorists and those who believe that the “Deep State” is operating behind the scenes to promote globalism and a New World Order. Add that to specific concerns about government coming to take one’s guns away and you have fertile ground for false flag conspiracies about mass shootings to take root.

This shouldn’t be taken to mean that only conservatives with right-wing ideologies are inclined to believe in conspiracy theories, as is sometimes claimed. Although there is some evidence to support this view, such findings are biased by questionnaires that only ask about conspiracy theories with conservative themes. Studies that ask about more varied conspiracy theories have found that both liberals and conservatives endorse conspiracy theories according to their respective ideologies.

Based on what you’ve seen, what factors most facilitate the spread of these conspiracies?

According to my model, the contagion of conspiracy theories is determined — in a reciprocal fashion — by lack of trust and availability of misinformation. When mistrust is high, such as when an opposing political party is in power or when there has been a violation of trust by an institution of authority, people will tend to gravitate more to conspiracy theories.

In terms of the spread of misinformation, the role of the internet is hard to ignore, particularly when considering the vast amount of information and misinformation out there, the conflation of objective news with editorial opinion, and a business model geared towards showing us what we want to see. Confirmation bias is already an artefact of human brains, but with the internet, we’re dealing with “confirmation bias on steroids.” Very few of us have ever been taught how to become more discerning consumers of online information and the media giants aren’t incentivized to improve the quality of information. On the contrary, misinformation is big business.

I mentioned at the start that delusional beliefs aren’t typically shared. Similarly, if an individual who is skeptical of official accounts and looking for alternative explanations mentions a conspiracy theory among friends or family, “trying it on for size,” they may very well get shot down. But the internet has become a safe haven for fringe beliefs such that it’s no longer difficult to find someone who might share a belief — about false flag operations, a flat earth, UFOs and alien abductions, or the Mandela Effect — and point you to others that are just as appealing, however improbable. In this way, an idiosyncratic belief can become a movement.

More posts about the psychology of conspiracy theories:

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