Myths of the Mall Attack
Much of what you’ve heard about the Oregon mall shooting has been debunked.
Jacob Tyler Roberts, the suspect in the Clackamas Town Center mall shootings.
Photo by Clackamas Co. Sheriff's Office via Getty Images
Thanks to mobile phones, Twitter, and instant publishing, you can read all about the latest mass shooting within minutes. But much of what you’re reading, even days afterward, is false. First come the inference-riddled hearsay accounts from confused marginal witnesses. Then come the speculating journalists. Then come the political axe-grinders, cherry-picking reported details to validate their agendas. The latest case is Tuesday’s attack in a shopping mall near Portland, Ore. Here’s how the errors and escalations have played out so far.
1. Multiple shooters and victims. “Shoppers described potential suspects ranging from a guy in a hockey mask to youths in white masks,” said a report on Oregon Live, the web site of the Portland Oregonian, 40 minutes after the shooter’s death. “Initial reports indicated that four to six people may require medical attention.” Twenty minutes later, the site hedged: “It is not clear whether the shooting was the work of a single gunman or if others were involved.” A later bulletin said, “Conflicting reports suggested the possibility of multiple gunmen and a half-dozen or more casualties.” But by Tuesday night, the extra gunmen had evaporated, and the body count was down to two, plus the shooter and a wounded victim.
2. Killer at large. More than an hour after the shots were fired, a mall employee was passing along reports “that the shooter remained on the loose and that security said the shooter was alive and likely was in Macy’s or Forever 21.” But by Wednesday, the sheriff’s office said the whole thing had ended much sooner, with the shooter “found dead by responding law-enforcement personnel—22 minutes after the first 911 call.”
3. Revenge motive. Based on witness accounts, a local TV anchor postulated that since the killer was jogging toward the food court, “It almost seems like maybe he was on a mission. He maybe knew who he was going to find.” At a Tuesday evening press conference, a reporter pressed the theory: “We’ve heard some statements from some people on the scene that the shooter may have recently have been fired from a job at the mall, possibly in the food court.” But by Wednesday, police had found no relationship between the perpetrator and his victims. And the food service job he had quit last month—he wasn’t fired—was at a sandwich shop six miles away.
4. The weapon. Initial witness reports described an “automatic weapon.” Ceasefire Oregon, a gun-control group, pounced on the story: “Our communities can never be safe while the gun industry profits from arming the deranged and the dangerous with increasingly lethal weapons.” The group touted its efforts “to require background checks for every gun sold.” An Oregon state senator called for new legislation so “people can't go waltzing into a gun shop and buying a 50-round magazine.” But it turns out the weapon was semi-automatic, and the shooter—who had no criminal record—didn’t buy it. According to the sheriff’s office, “The rifle was stolen.”
5. Bulletproof vest. “Witnesses described the gunman as wearing a white mask and body armor,” USA Today reported Tuesday. Five hours after the shootings, Fox News reported that “multiple witnesses, including one sheriff's deputy, say he had body armor on.” Three hours later, ABC's Nightline concurred: “Eyewitnesses say the gunman wore what appeared to be body armor.”
Criminal use of body armor is a real problem. But I’ve learned not to trust initial reports of it. Five months ago, after the Aurora, Col., movie theater massacre, the local police chief declared flatly that the killer was wearing “a ballistic helmet, a tactical ballistic vest, ballistic leggings, a throat protector, and a groin protector.” I cited his statement as evidence. But then a receipt turned up indicating that the shooter had bought a non-bullet-resistant assault vest. Law enforcement authorities, silenced by a gag order, still haven’t confirmed that the vest on the receipt is the one the Aurora shooter wore. But it’s a reasonable presumption. So this week, when the TV networks started squawking about a bulletproof vest in Oregon, I waited. Sure enough, the sheriff’s office announced Wednesday that the shooter “was wearing a load-bearing vest, NOT a bulletproof vest, as has been reported.”
6. Nobody thought it would happen here. People always say this after a random attack. Tuesday evening, a mall bystander told Oregon Live, “You'd never think that'd happen here.” But the local cops did think it might happen there. According to the sheriff’s office, “Personnel were well-prepared for this incident because they had practiced active-shooter techniques at [the mall] earlier this year.”
7. Video games. By Wednesday morning, this was the hot speculation:
A nationally recognized former attorney and outspoken voice against violent video games says police should consider the role of gaming in the shooting … Jack Thompson, a disbarred attorney who represented victims in the Paducah School shootings and several other high-profile shootings, said he would be "stunned" if the shooter in Tuesday's mall shooting had not trained using video games. His main concern: Grand Theft Auto, a game involving "mall rampages," scenarios where the player storms a mall, shooting randomly at the shoppers inside. "Given this guy's method, his age group and the randomness of it, it's more likely than not that he rehearsed for this on games,” Thompson said.
Count me skeptical. The shooter did play video games, but so did his friends (and practically everyone else in his cohort—look at the sales figures for Grand Theft Auto). They also watched movies and went out drinking together. Once these corrupting influences have been chewed over, the mass-murder shrinks can move on to the shooter's interests in Dexter and metalcore. There’s always another hunch to peddle.
William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.