56 Fed. Probation 53 (1992)
Understanding Mass Murder: A Starting Point

handle is hein.journals/fedpro56 and id is 55 raw text is: Understanding Mass Murder:
A Starting Point

TrH     RE IS a great deal of misunderstanding
about mass murder. Often, the terms mass
murder, serial murder, and spree murder are
used interchangeably. But there are fundamental
differences in these three forms of multicide, the
killing of three or more victims. Motivation, antici-
pated gains, selection of victims, methods of murder,
and other important elements are unique to each
type. Here, one type of multicide-mass murder-is
What is Mass Murder?
Obviously, the complexities of mass murder cannot
be explained in a simple definition. However, briefly
stated, mass murder is the killing of a number of
persons at one time and in one place. What constitutes
a number of persons, however, has been the topic of
debate. Although some authorities have stipulated
four as the minimum number of victims necessary for
an incident to be called a mass murder (Hazelwood &
Douglas, 1980), others have set the number at three
(Holmes and DeBurger, 1985, 1988; Hickey, 1991).
Dietz also offers the number three .. . if we define
mass murder as the wilful injuring of five or more
persons of whom three or more are killed by a single
offender in a single incident (1986, p. 480).
The concern with numbers becomes complicated
when injured victims are factored into the definition.
Of course, if only two persons are killed and 30 are
saved by the heroic actions of medical personnel, is
this not also a mass murder? One can see the danger
of limiting the definition to the number of victims
Time is another critical element in the basic defin-
tion of mass murder. Typically, mass murder is a single
episodic act of violence, occurring at one time and in
one place. One such case occurred at a McDonald's
restaurant in San Ysidro, California. The victims, 40
in all (21 died), just happened to be in the one place,
the restaurant. Many similar situations have oc-
curred. However, one must recognize that incidents
may occur at slightly different times, say minutes or
even a few hours apart, and also at different locales,
perhaps only a few blocks away, and still constitute
mass murder. For example, a mass murderer may go
into a business establishment and kill several custom-
ers and then go across town and kill another person.
*Ronald M Holmes is professor, School of Justice Admini-
stration, University of Louisville. Stephen T. Holmes is re-
search assistant, University of Cincinnati.

This must be considered a single act of mass murder
despite the slightly varying times and locations.
Thus, a definition of mass murder should take into
consideration 1) the number of victims, 2) the location
of the murders, 3) the time of the killings, and 4) the
possibility of distance between murder sites. These
components become vitally important when differen-
tiating between mass murder, serial murder, and
spree murder. The determination of the type of homi-
cide holds the key to understanding the character of
the person who would commit such an act and enables
law enforcement to put into motion the procedures and
protocol called for in such a situation.
No matter how you define it, mass murder is neither
an American nor a modern phenomenon. Cases
spreading across history depict acts of mass murder.
In recent times, however, mass murder seems to be on
the increase--or is it? It may seem that such crimes
have escalated because of the manner in which they
are currently detected and reported. Table 1-which
shows the names, locations, and number of victims of
mass killers in the past 50 years in the United
States-gives some idea of the magnitude of mass
Differences Betueen Mass and Serial Murder
There are significant differences between mass and
serial killers. One difference is that mass murderers
often die at the scene of the multiple slayings. They
either commit suicide or place themselves in situ-
ations where they force the police to take lethal
action. Only occasionally do they turn themselves into
the police after the deed is done. Serial killers, on the
other hand, take great pains to avoid detection and
take elaborate measures to elude apprehension.
Community reaction to the two types of murders is
also different. Typically when a mass murder occurs,
the immediate community, as well as the rest of the
nation, is alerted to the event and shocked by it. The
community's panic is direct and severe but short-lived
in that the mass murder is almost always either ap-
prehended immediately or winds up dead. Shortly the
social climate returns to what is was before the inci-
dent. Such is not the case with serial murder. The
terror instilled by a serial murderer permeates the
community's consciousness. There is no perceived end
to the situation-it only ends when the killer is appre-
hended. Such situation existed in Seattle, which was
terrorized for more than a decade by the Green River
Killer, who murdered 49 women-some prostitutes,

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