Las Vegas Shooting: What Controversial Genetics Theories Suggest About the Motive

The suspect behind the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday might have been at higher risk for criminal behavior because his father was apparently once on the FBI's most-wanted list, according to controversial theories about links between crime and genetics.

Stephen Paddock is suspected of killing 58 people who were attending a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip, and himself, on Sunday. His brother, Eric Paddock, told reporters that their father was once on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. The father, Patrick Benjamin Paddock, also known as Benjamin Hoskins Paddock, was arrested in 1960 for robbing banks and sentenced to 20 years in prison, according to archival newspaper accounts. In 1968, he escaped from prison, and he remained on the run until 1978. An FBI notice said he "should be considered armed and very dangerous."

The Las Vegas suspect did not grow up around his father, the brother told reporters. "I didn't know him, we didn't know him. He was in jail and broken out of jail," he said. But studies dating back decades, along with more recent ones, suggest that criminal behavior could be linked to genetic factors, even in cases in which the person did not grow up around the parent.

Related: Stephen Paddock's Father Was Apparently on FBI's Most-Wanted List

"I was really blown away by the fact that his father had this history, and it's really hard to argue that this would have nothing to do with Stephen Paddock's behavior," says Deborah Denno, a professor and the founding director of the Neuroscience and Law Center at the Fordham University School of Law in New York City. "He may have inherited certain attributes from his father that would lead to greater impulsivity."

For more than a century, theorists have considered whether people inherit criminal tendencies. In 1905, the director of a Swiss psychiatric institution studied the subject after he noticed how people staying at the institution tended to have the same family names. Four decades later, in 1945, the psychiatrist and criminologist Arthur N. Foxe looked at the issue. But he concluded in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, "We still do not have any proof of a special physical inheritance in criminotic behavior.... There then is left only the programmatic viewpoint of the study of heredity and environment even further." Thirty years after that, researchers wrote in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior that even though the evidence suggests environmental elements play a role, "hereditary factors are also implicated in criminality."

Researchers made more progress in the 1980s. In 1981, scholars from the University of Southern California looked at data for adopted children in Denmark whose adoptive parents had no criminal backgrounds. For the adopted children whose biological fathers were not criminals, 13.5 percent went on to get criminal convictions, according to a report in The New York Times about the findings. But for those whose biological fathers were criminals, the figure rose to 20 percent.

In 2011, a criminologist again analyzed adopted children. Kevin Beaver from Florida State University concluded in the journal Biological Psychiatry, "Adoptees who have a biological father or a biological mother who have been arrested previously are significantly more likely to be arrested, sentenced to probation, incarcerated and arrested multiple times."

10_05_Las_Vegas_shooting_father A couple stops on the Las Vegas Strip on October 4 to look at the two broken windows in the Mandalay Bay hotel, from which a gunman attacked a country music festival. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty

Crime experts are careful to point out that it is not necessarily criminal tendencies that might move between generations, but traits and behaviors associated with them, such as low intelligence, alcoholism, antisocial behavior and psychopathy. "There's not a crime gene," says Denno, the Fordham professor. "But people do inherit attributes from their immediate family, as well as their distant family, that may heighten the likelihood that they may engage in impulsive behavior, and some of that impulsive behavior may be law-breaking." For the Paddock case, she says, "this is maybe perhaps filling in some explanatory gaps here."

The experts also note that the genetic factors are only part of understanding why someone might commit a crime. "It's not just genetics alone. We all inherit attributes from our family that could be negative," Denno says, "but if you're in a certain environment...then that kind of behavior can be transformative."

J.C. Barnes, an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati who has published studies on genetics and crime, agrees. "Behavioral outcomes are highly complex with a mixture of hundreds of thousands of genetic influences, along with environmental influences," he says. "It would be impossible to say whether the Vegas shooter was compelled to do this because of some genetic influence. We just don't know."

10_06_Las_Vegas_shooting_father_02 Suspected Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock lived in this house in Mesquite, Nevada. Gabe Ginsberg/Getty

Other scholars have disputed the ideas about crime and genetics altogether. In 1992, the National Institutes of Health withdrew funds for a conference on genetic factors in crime amid objections over the event. "Genetic theories of criminality have been especially controversial within the field of criminology because of the eugenic policies that they inspired that were implemented during the Nazi era," Australian researchers Katherine Morley and Wayne Hall wrote in 2003.

"I don't think the science is very strong," says Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics and the founding head of the division of medical ethics at the New York University School of Medicine. "There are so many variables driving behavior that it's hard to sort them out and say what the hereditary element might be." Those include poverty, gender, child abuse and neglect, early development, malnutrition, education and family structure, all of which correlate to crime, according to Caplan. The suggestion is "very dangerous," he adds, because it could lead to "stereotyping kids from families that have criminal pasts" and ignoring societal responsibilities to prevent crime.

Those objections haven't stopped defense attorneys from using the gene theories in court. Lawyers for murderer Stephen Mobley argued that he was prone to violence because of his family history. The argument was unsuccessful, and the state of Georgia executed him in 2005. When defending Jared Loughner, the murderer who attempted to kill former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2011, Judy Clarke detailed his family history going back to the 19th century and claimed that his relatives had suffered from mental illness.

On Friday, law enforcement still had no motive for the Las Vegas shooting. But new details had emerged, including how the suspect rented two rooms facing different directions in the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, and that he had gambled tens of thousands of dollars a day prior to the shooting. A fund for victims and their families has surpassed $9 million.

Caplan, from New York University, points out that people are desperate for answers following the shooting. "This guy," he says about Paddock, "is a mystery to us."

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