This story is part of a KXAN series of reports called “Stop Mass Shootings,” providing context and exploring solutions surrounding gun violence in the wake of the deadly Uvalde school shooting. We want our reports to be a resource for Texans, as well as for lawmakers who are convening a month after the events in Uvalde to discuss how the state should move forward. Explore all “Stop Mass Shootings” stories by clicking here.

AUSTIN (KXAN) – A database of research on mass shooters is providing perspective on the 18-year-old who shot and killed 19 students and two teachers more than a month ago in Uvalde.

In 2018, the National Institute of Justice, the research agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, awarded over $300,000 to The Violence Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center to conduct “a multi-level, multi-method investigation of the psycho-social life histories of mass shooters,” according to NIJ.

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After two years of research, The Violence Project completed and released its comprehensive database of all public mass shooting incidents. Those are defined by The Congressional Research Service as:

“A multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered with firearms”, not including the shooter(s), “within one event, and [where] at least some of the murders occurred in a public location or locations in close geographical proximity (e.g., a workplace, school, restaurant, or other public settings), and the murders are not attributable to any other underlying criminal activity or commonplace circumstance (armed robbery, criminal competition, insurance fraud, argument, or romantic triangle).”

The database The Violence Project created currently profiles 179 mass shooters from 1966 to 2022 across more than 100 variables such as weapons used and method of purchase, communications prior to the incidents, social and criminal history, as well as mental health.

The database begins with the 1966 mass shooting carried out by Charles Whitman at the University of Texas in Austin and is continuously being updated. The most recent incident coded in the database KXAN received is the mass shooting that occurred in Buffalo, New York, on May 15, 2022.

Profile of Uvalde shooter vs. past mass shooters

KXAN compiled everything currently known about the 18-year-old Uvalde gunman, Salvador Ramos, and cross-referenced this information with The Violence Project’s database to compare Ramos’ profile to the 182 mass shooters in the data.

We analyzed more than two dozen applicable variables based on information KXAN has about Ramos’ history and the circumstances leading up to the shooting.

These variables focus on elements related to education, family dynamics, history of crime or violence and possible motives or factors associated with mass shootings.

Education

According to testimony from Mike Morath, Texas Education Agency Commissioner, during the Texas Senate’s ‘Protect All Texans’ special committee hearing, Ramos was a “chronically absent” student since the sixth grade, and only passed one class during his last year of school.

Ramos ultimately withdrew from high school during his senior year of high school, investigators said.

KXAN reviewed The Violence Project’s findings related to the education levels of the 179 mass shooters in its data and found the level of education varied across all the shooters.

However, when looking solely at the level of education among those who carried out mass shootings at K-12 schools, the data shows the majority never completed high school.

Education level for all 179 mass shooters profiled by The Violence Project, compared to the education levels for the mass shooters that targeted K-12 schools. Source: KXAN, The Violence Project

Crisis and Mental Illness

“Mental health issues were common among those who engaged in mass shootings, with psychosis playing a minor role in nearly one third of the cases, but a primary role 10% of the time,” according to NIJ. “The data indicate, however, that nearly all persons who engage in mass shootings were in state of crisis in the days or weeks preceding the shooting.”

Among The Violence Project’s key findings across all of the mass shooters it profiled was evidence showing the majority of mass shooters had exhibited signs of being in a crisis or had experienced recent stressors or triggering events leading up to the shooting.

Percentage of all mass shooters who experienced signs of crisis, stressor, or triggering event prior to the shooting. Source: KXAN, The Violence Project

Was Ramos in a state of crisis? Here’s what we know:

  1. Ramos began exhibiting truant behavior in the sixth grade, according to Morath’s testimony during the Texas Senate’s Protect All Texans’ special committee hearing.
  2. NewsNation spoke to a neighbor of Ramos who reported Ramos was bullied throughout school.
  3. Ramos was failing all but one class during his senior of high school, according to Morath.
  4. Investigators report that he withdrew from high school and never graduated.
  5. Investigators report he quit his job in the fast-food industry weeks before the shooting occurred.
  6. DPS Director Steve McCraw stated several people including past teachers were scared of him.
  7. Investigators’ reports indicate “family issues” were possibly present when he moved in with his grandmother following a dispute with his mother.

Exploring Motives

According to The Violence Project data, the motives or grievances leading to mass shootings vary across the board. The motives for nearly a quarter of the 179 mass shooters remains unknown.

Chart outlining the known grievances and motivations for each of the 179 mass shooters profiled in The Violence Project data. Source: KXAN, The Violence Project

While investigators have yet to establish a clear motive Ramos, the information currently available could suggest the following:

  1. Fame Seeking: In addition to investigators reports regarding Ramos’ communications on social media, KXAN previously reported details about Ramos from a “friend” of his on the social media app Yubo. Ramos frequently made comments such as, “You’ll know who I am. You’ll know what I did. You’ll remember my name,” according to Sean Colvin, who knew Ramos for nearly a year via Yubo.
  2. Generalized Anger: Multiple reports from people who knew Ramos described him as an angry and argumentative person. One neighbor told NewsNation Ramos “was just mad at the world.” Colvin described Ramos as an angry person who was always arguing with people, but at other times appeared emotionless.
  3. Interpersonal Conflict/Relationship Issues: Neighbors told NewsNation Ramos was bullied throughout school and experienced issues with his mother, which led to him moving in with his grandmother. According to the The New York Times, Ramos’ previous manager stated “he went out of his way to keep to himself.”

Weapons used and purchase method

According to the database, the 179 mass shooters possessed a combined 388 firearms at the time of the incident, 263 of which were used during the shootings.

Firearms used included:

  • 133 Handguns (51%)
  • 64 Assault Rifles (24%)
  • 32 Rifles (12%)
  • 32 Shotguns (12%)

“77% of those who engaged in mass shootings purchased at least some of their guns legally, while illegal purchases were made by 13% of those committing mass shootings. In cases involving K-12 school shootings, over 80% of individuals who engaged in shootings stole guns from family members,” according to NIJ.

KXAN further analyzed The Violence Project data and found nearly 60% of the assault rifles were purchased legally through a Federal Firearms Dealer, and almost 30% of assault rifles were purchased illegally.

Investigators’ reports found Ramos purchased two assault rifles legally after turning 18.

The NIJ found these findings support safe gun storage measures and the implementation of “red flag” laws for family members and law enforcement to petition state courts to order firearms be temporarily removed.

“Warning Signs – Leakage”

The database defines “leakage” as any communication to a third party of a person’s intent to do harm prior to the incident.

KXAN analyzed the database and found 44% of mass shooters communicated their intent in advance. According to the data, over half of these communications occurred in person, most commonly with a wife or girlfriend, a coworker or a friend.

“About 70% of individuals who perpetrated mass shootings knew at least some of their victims. In particular, K-12 school and workplace shooters were ‘insiders’ — current or former students and employees,” according to The Violence Project.

On Tuesday at a Texas Senate subcommittee hearing on the Uvalde shooting, DPS Director Steve McCraw said Ramos made “disturbing” statements to acquaintances in private messages online before the massacre, but they were not reported to law enforcement.

KXAN previously reported Ramos referenced school shootings, guns and exhibited threatening behavior towards others on the social media platform Yubo, Colvin said.

Additionally, early on in the investigation, Gov. Greg Abbott and public safety leaders released details, saying the shooter used Facebook to detail his plans just 30 minutes before the attack.

The NIJ says these trends provide opportunities for interventions such as anonymous reporting systems and holistic threat assessment approaches.