A week after six people were killed in a seemingly random act of murder in Kalamazoo, in western Michigan, little evidence has emerged to suggest a motive or explanation.
But according to experts, if suspect Jason Dalton’s actions turn out to have been truly random, the Kalamazoo shooting will be an extreme anomaly amongst incidents of gun violence.
“It’s not a spontaneous decision,” said criminologist James Alan Fox of the decision to engage in a mass public shooting. “People just don’t snap … and just don’t happen to have semi-automatic handguns and a bunch of ammunition in the car, just in case. They usually plan it.”
That seemed likely to have been in the case in Hesston, the Kansas town where on Thursday an employee shot three people dead at his workplace before being shot dead himself.
In Michigan, Dalton, 45, was arraigned on Monday. Six people died and two were wounded at three locations across the Kalamazoo county area late last Saturday. Law enforcement officials have yet to uncover a motive, and Dalton’s record reveals next to nothing.
Dalton had been married for 20 years and had two children, and had only a handful traffic tickets to his name. Law enforcement officials said this week Dalton had not obtained a concealed pistol license, which may have revealed red flags through an application process with a county gun board. Michigan governor Rick Snyder signed a law in December that eliminated the gun license screening process.
Kalamazoo county undersheriff Paul Matyas said Dalton’s wife noted that he “seemed down” a couple days prior to the shooting. But when asked, Matyas said, Dalton had responded that “he was fine”.
Dalton’s wife may have said the family had no financial issues but, Fox said, “that may be from her perspective.
“But you can still have lots of situations of men who feel that they should be doing better; that, sure, there’s food on the table, but maybe he feels underemployed.
“Maybe he feels that he wasn’t getting the breaks, advancement at work. That doesn’t mean there’s financial problems. Someone could still feel that they’re being underemployed.”
Dalton drove for the car service Uber. Before the first shooting occurred in Kalamazoo, around 6pm, police said he picked up a rider who reported that he began acting and driving erratically, after taking a phone call.
Matyas told the Guardian on Thursday: “We can’t establish a positive link between that phone call or any phone call for that matter that may have set him off.”
The family’s attorney, Paul Vlachos, told ABC News that Dalton’s wife noticed he “seemed depressed and down” in the days leading up to the shooting, “which was not his normal behavior”.
“Jason by all accounts was a fairly gregarious character … there was nothing to indicate that something like that would occur,” said Vlachos.
Experts predicted that a clearer explanation would emerge, but said the inability to glean any sort of indicator from his record is atypical.
It’s uncommon for a mass public shooter to simply kill “at random”, said Fox. “Generally, what you find there is someone who has a sense that their world … is unfair.”
Indiscriminate mass public shootings – in which four or more people are killed – have increased over the last decade, according to a study released last year by the Congressional Research Service – from 4.1 per year in the 2000s to 4.5 annually between 2010 and 2014.
Police said Dalton legally purchased the 9mm semiautomatic handgun recovered from his vehicle – as, according to a years-long investigation by Mother Jones, do most mass public shooting killers.
Thomas G Bowers, an emeritus associate professor at Penn State Harrisburg who has studied mass shootings, said shooters can be motivated by a “failure” to adapt to change.
“Mental health histories are fairly common, depression’s real common, some … people shade into a psychosis,” he said.
But, on the surface, Dalton seems to be a “little unusual”, he said.
“Some aspects fit – he’s a young-ish male – and there may have been some sort of stressor happening recently,” Bowers said. “But I don’t know if there was any real threat to his adaptation or adjustment or anything like that.”
Dalton’s family has denied there were ongoing familial or financial issues.
“He sounds atypical,” Bowers said.
Mass shooters sometimes do not show any warning signs, Fox said, and “even when there are warning signs, they’re not always so clear until after the fact that we could even anticipate that someone was going to go on a rampage”.
Typically, observers can pinpoint an issue a shooter was dealing with, he said, because “people who are happy don’t do this; people who are unhappy do this”.
“We don’t know what he’s unhappy about,” he said. “We don’t know why he feels he’s been slighted in some way, or why society has to pay.”
“Unless he never speaks about it, then we might not know, but my guess is that we will eventually. I would be very surprised if he had absolutely no reason – if he decided one day, ‘I think I’ll go out and do this tonight.’”