July 20, 2012 -- Many Americans wonder whether a shooter can be spotted before he commits a violent act. That question likely resurfaced after a 24-year-old gunman allegedly opened fire during a screening of the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises, in Aurora, Colo. Twelve people died and dozens were injured in the shooting.
Are there signs, symptoms, a profile? Can parents safeguard their children from these people -- or be sure their child is not developing into one?
WebMD turned to Jack Levin, PhD, the Irving and Betty Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Northeastern University in Boston. He has written numerous books on violence, including Serial Killers and Sadistic Murderers -- Up Close and Personal, and Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.
Is there a profile of these mass murderers?
"There is a profile, but here is the problem with the profile," he says. "It applies not only to mass killers but to millions of other people who have never hurt anyone. So you have to be careful where you apply it."
Even so, certain characteristics do point to the possibility of being a mass murderer, Levin says.
"The first is chronic depression, over a long period of time," he says. "The second is social isolation -- having no place to turn when you get into trouble. The third is blaming everyone else for your problems."
Those who blame only themselves, he says, are more apt to commit suicide if they become very troubled.
"There is almost always a catastrophic loss -- the loss of a job, relationship, money in the stock market, being deeply in debt,'' Levin says.
Any specific warning signs in childhood?
"One of the warning signs is animal abuse," Levin says. "Not just any animal abuse. There is all kinds of animal abuse, [such as] shooting birds with BB guns, that doesn't mean much."
"There is one kind that is very rare and seems to be a warning sign: inflicting pain and suffering on a dog or a cat, with personal contact -- stabbing, mutilation, suffocating."
"When you see this sadistic cruelty that is inflicted on a dog or a cat, especially when it is repeated, you should take it very seriously," Levin tells WebMD. "It's a rehearsal."
"Often, for example, the killer or the criminal will use the same method on the human being later on that he used on animals as a child," he says. "There is a link between animal abuse and human violence."
"Parents need to see it as a red flag. Call someone. Do something about it."
Is there a ''danger zone" for these problems?
Pay special attention to the teen and young adult years, 18 to 25, Levin says. Those are often the times when serious mental health issues emerge.
"We don't spend enough time to think about how difficult it is for teenagers to make the transition into adulthood," he says. "But that is the period of time when symptoms of schizophrenia develop, when the rate of suicide is much higher."
Did the Colorado shooting suspect's mom know his plan?
According to some news reports, the suspect's mother said, "You've got the right person," after her son's arrest.
Levin speculates that she probably knew he was having difficulties.
"After the fact, she [allegedly] said, 'You've got the right person' because she recognized the possibility that he could commit that hideous act," he says. "I don't think we should hold it against her. It is unfathomable to think anyone in our family can kill a dozen people."
What else can parents do?
Parents should overcome any denial or reluctance to get involved if it's someone else's child. "We should intervene when our children are troubled long before they become troublesome," he says.
"We should intervene when we see someone, a child or even an adult, who is in trouble, who feels powerless, who is crying out for our help. We should do it not because we think he is going to murder someone but because it is the right thing to do."