The Average Face of a Mass Shooter

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In 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School and started shooting. They killed 12 students and a teacher and injured an additional 24 people and left Americans horrified and heartbroken.
In 2012, Adam Lanza murdered 20 6- and 7-year-old children and six faculty members at Sandy Hook Elementary School; many parents and a nation were distressed.
Mass shootings have only gotten worse since then. In June 2016, 49 people were tragically killed in Orlando, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
Theories about causes and solutions abound. Some are moved to support stricter gun control policies, like Australia’s legislation. Others focus on bullying or a lack of proper mental health services. And others, such as gun rights advocates, insist guns save lives.
Who are these shooters – the men (because they are nearly always men) who rob us of our loved ones and our sense of security? Inspired by data shared by Mother Jones, we’ve attempted to understand who mass shooters really are.


Combine the faces of 39 mass shooters in America, and this is what you’ll see: An average-looking white man with dark hair and eyes.

The truth is that he could be anyone, a fact that perhaps lends credence to Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that mass shootings are a “slow-motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before.”


The mass shootings that terrify us the most are those that happen in our schools; they tear dozens of children from their families and destroy futures.
When we averaged the faces of school shooters, we again found a face that could belong to so many: A young white man with dark hair and eyes. A student, possibly. Even someone in his late teens or early 20s.
These are the Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds – young men who participated in school plays and worked as computer assistants, who went to prom and seemed to all the world just like any other high school students. That is, until the day they murdered 13 people and committed suicide in the high school library.


In 2012, a gunman killed six people at a sign company in Minneapolis, Minn. In 2010, an angry employee killed eight co-workers in Manchester, Conn. Workplace shootings are, according to our data, one of the most common types of shootings in the U.S.

It’s clear why 10 percent of people surveyed by The American Institute of Stress said they’re afraid of someone becoming violent at work.

Similar to our other facial averages, the average face of a mass workplace shooter was a nondescript, white man with dark hair and eyes. He may be a little older, but beyond that, he looks quite similar to the other profiles.


The Orlando nightclub shooting was the deadliest shooting in U.S. history, with 49 victims killed and another 53 wounded. Those who were left alive were forever changed. The shooter, Omar Mateen, was a longtime Florida resident of Afghan descent described as an angry guy – bullied as a kid, kicked out of the police academy for sleeping in class and then making a gun threat, and easily enraged by the smallest things.
The second deadliest shooting involved Seung-Hui Cho, a South Korean immigrant who killed 32 people and wounded 23 at Virginia Tech in 2007. Similarly, Cho showed signs of violence.
Both of these shooters obtained their guns legally, and both had serious personal demons; if you look into the histories of these killers, you’ll see mental health and/or violence were recurring themes. What would have happened had there been tighter gun control laws or armed civilians willing to protect and defend? As the data above show, the vast majority of shooters obtained their guns legally, but that doesn’t mean this is the only way these crimes could have been prevented.


The majority of mass shootings are committed by white men (56 percent) – more than three times as many as any other group.

One sociological study concluded that the privilege of being white, heterosexual, and male plays a key role. According to the study, these privileges “make subsequent … losses more unexpected and thus more painfully shameful,” and create a situation where perceived failures “result in a final cumulative act of violence to stave off subordinated masculinity.”

This makes sense when you look at killers like Dylann Roof, who unleashed his rage in a black church because he believed that black people had come to take over the country and “rape our women.”


When we look at the big picture – locations, racial profiles, and the number of victims associated with each mass shooting – a trend emerges. As the data show, mass shootings happen more often on the East and West Coast than anywhere else in the country. This makes sense when you consider that the majority of the U.S. population lives in these areas.



The terrible truth is that your life is most at risk in a mass shooting at a school or military site – places that should typically make you feel safe. While the majority of mass shootings happen in “other” locations, military sites and schools see the most related deaths (22 and 21 people respectively).


The truth is complicated. Most mass shooters are young, white men, and they tend to look like every other young, white male. Most of them obtained guns legally. They had friends and family who cared about them. They seemed like normal people until they committed their unthinkable crimes.

For some people, these faces will simply become caricatures of the firearm debate that illustrate shortcomings in America’s system. But families and friends of their victims will only see portraits of monsters.


For this campaign, we were inspired by Mother Jones’ List of Mass Shooters in America from 1982 to 2016. Using this list, we researched and fact-checked every event, calculated the total number of victims (wounded and killed), and, when applicable, removed the shooter from the totals. Additionally, we looked to see if weapons were obtained illegally or legally, where the shootings took place, and what the shooters looked like. A complete list of this information and sources can be viewed here.
The Average Faces: We tracked down images with the appropriate clarity for 46 of these shootings, “averaging” the images with PsychoMorph, a facial-averaging software. We segmented this into all shooters (39 total images), school shooters (17 total images), and workplace shooters (16 total images) to create three separate facial averages.

Note: Omar Mateen, born to Afghan natives, has been labeled among the “Other/Unclear” shooters due to the inconsistent regional and racial identification of Afghanistan and its citizens among reputable sources.

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