Workplace Shootings: Rare, Horrifying, and Totally Unpredictable

Police say Omar Thornton killed eight others and then shot himself. Click to view our gallery of other mass shootings. WFSB TV

Nine people died Tuesday when a disgruntled employee opened fire at a Connecticut beer distributor, killing himself as police arrived. Allegedly, Omar Thornton was about to be fired for stealing beer, and had previously accused co-workers of racism—accusations that he says went unanswered by management.

Mass shootings always make big headlines, but they're only a small fraction of the murders committed each year. Of the 15,000 average annual homicides, less than 1 percent are mass killings. But as the economy tanks and jobs are scarce, the rates of these killings increase. So says Jack Levine, the Brudnick professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University.

"Almost all of these vengeful killers have suffered some catastrophic loss," says Levine. "It's always the loss of the job or a loss of a lot of money in the stock market." The more lost jobs, the more likely an employee will be triggered to commit a violent crime.

Once the loss occurs, there's a lot of blame to go around. "These people tend to be conspiratorial," says Levine. "In their mind, it's not just their boss but the guy sitting at the next desk" who contributed to the employee's termination, which is why everyone is the target when the shooting begins. Racism may or may not have occurred at this company, but it's a motivating trigger used to justify the shooting. (Many types of mass shooters see themselves as victims: recall George Sodini, the mass shooter who killed several women in a Pittsburgh-area gym because he felt that women had denied him the companionship to which he somehow felt entitled. As far as the race of the shooter goes, Levine notes that 70 percent of mass shooters are white, which is proportionate with the percentage of white people in the population, not a statement about the racial demographics of mass shooters.)

And while the men who perpetrate these shootings—and the killers are usually men, but not always—are not well, they're also not psychotic, making it difficult to weed out potential shooters during job interviews or prescreenings. "Most of the pathology is situational," says Levine. "These tests can fail to detect someone who might open fire because of the frustrations that come with the job."

To combat disgruntled workers, Levine says, some companies have been employing more compassionate firing processes, a practice during the recession of the '90s. While it's not the employer's fault or responsibility when a shooting occurs, more humane human resources can avoid a variety of problems and may deter shootings.

Unfortunately, there are few other options. "We might like to think there are warning signs," says Levine, but that's not the case. While troubled individuals who need help can be identified, there's no way of figuring out what slight percentage of those people may turn into killers. "We can't identify these people beforehand," says Levine. "We can identify people who are depressed, but what are we going to do—lock up thousands of people for the sins of a handful?"

But that these crimes occur by the handful doesn't make them any less devastating. "Even if it's rare, eight people were killed in one fell swoop, and that's a huge body count," says Levine.