Motive Control

10.14.15 5:05 AM ET

Would-Be Killers, Click Here for Help

A Yale researcher has launched an online resource for would-be mass shooters—prompted by his own brush with the impulse to kill.

As a teenager seeking revenge, he once came close to murder. Now this Yale researcher wants to target potential killers before they go too far.

James Kimmel Jr., a psychiatry lecturer, launched a website to convince people not to act on their homicidal urges, after a student shooter massacred 10 people at an Oregon community college this month.

The site, SavingCain.org, suggests that would-be murderers’ desires for revenge could be biological—and as addictive as narcotics. Kimmel said he wants to save lives by tilting the national conversation beyond gun control to “motive control.”

“We’re aware of suicide prevention websites, but what about sites for people who are considering committing murder?” Kimmel told The Daily Beast. “That’s something that needs to be corrected, to help dissuade them from taking that last, fatal step.”

The Ivy League researcher’s project assures people grappling with violent thoughts that they’re not evil, but dealing with a life-threatening emergency. The site also includes digits for the national crisis hotline.

“We’re using that kind of language, as opposed to saying, ‘You’re terrible, you’re subhuman,’” Kimmel said. “There’s been no website like this, or seeming effort to reach out to people right before they’re about to kill.”

“It’s sort of a grand social experiment,” he added.

The top of his website begins, “If you are thinking about killing or mass murder ... read this site first. It will only take about 5 minutes.”

“SAVE LIVES (including your own),” the page implores. “It’s not too late; your life matters (and so do the lives of the people you would kill.)​​”

Kimmel then recounts the world’s first murder: the biblical parable of Cain and Abel. In the story, a jealous crop farmer slays his shepherd brother because God favors the younger sibling. “Cain was filled with rage. And he had every reason to be,” Kimmel writes.

The researcher said he knows this rage all too well. When Kimmel was growing up on a central Pennsylvania farm, high school bullies pushed him to the brink.

Words and taunting turned physical, and then into attacks on Kimmel’s home. He woke one night to a gunshot in the dark. The next morning, as he fed the farm animals, he found his beloved beagle in her pen, dead with a bullet hole in her head.

A week later, Kimmel’s tormentors blew up his mailbox. At that moment, he grabbed a loaded revolver, jumped into his car and chased them. With the bullies cornered into a barn, Kimmel sat in the vehicle and flashed the brights on them. But as he gripped the trigger of his gun, he stopped himself and drove away.

“I had a flash of realization that if I killed them, I’d be killing myself—either figuratively or literally or both,” Kimmel told The Daily Beast. “I could see into my future. It was just enough to make me go, ‘No, you’re just going to make it worse.’”

Kimmel eventually pursued his thirst for justice by becoming a prosecutor and a civil litigator. He developed the Nonjustice System, which combines elements of a 12-step recovery program with legal system role-playing to help people safely explore their need for retaliation.

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“I was filled with desire for revenge,” Kimmel said. “You hear this with mass shooters. This is where I sympathize a little bit.”

On SavingCain.org, the researcher assures potential gunmen, “If you are thinking about killing, you are not ‘evil,’” and cites studies suggesting the overwhelming appetite for justice is an addictive disorder.

In one 2004 study, Swiss researchers discovered the dorsal striatum—the part of the brain activated by desserts, narcotics or sex—is activated when people feel wronged and inflict punishments. British scientists confirmed this two years later, but added that the phenomenon is more pronounced in men than women.

“The sobering fact is that humans get high from killing,” Kimmel said. He added, “Because that craving is so strong, biologically we now think, it’s clearly analogous to craving for an addict.”

He noted details in news reports about the Umpqua Community College shooter, Chris Harper-Mercer. The 26-year-old had ranted about not having a girlfriend and believed the world was against him.

In one report, survivors of the shooting said Harper-Mercer smiled before he fired on his victims. 

While he can’t know for sure, Kimmel said the chilling smile is a clue that the gunman “was getting high by doing this at the moment. He was deriving great pleasure from destroying these people.”

“It’s horrifying to think about,” he added. “The mind instantly wants to go, ‘He must be beyond evil. He was smiling as he was doing this.’ But science could indicate he was completely in the throes of addiction.”

When asked whether Kimmel’s site—which also includes links to videos by the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh—could work on would-be killers, experts said it certainly doesn’t make things worse.

Louis Schlesinger, a forensic psychologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said Kimmel’s website was “a creative idea” and wouldn’t dismiss it.

“Many homicides are planned. People think about it for a long period of time before they act,” Schlesinger told The Daily Beast. “Some are spontaneous, but there’s a lot who want to kill people and just toy with the idea. Maybe it will help these people.”