Psychological profiling of snipers have been conspicuously inaccurate as the offender is difficult to define due to a variety of situational aspects and motivations underlying this behavior, and a general lack of data and research. Some generalizations and conclusions are however possible that could provide leads to an investigator.
The psychology of sniper offenders is fascinating, but elusive as not much statistics and academic literature is available. A sniper might indulge in his actions for various reasons, including professional career, killing for profit, or to commit serial or spree murders. For the purpose of this discussion, I will focus on the serial sniper, as briefly mentioned by Bartol and Bartol (2008) as a homicidal offender type.
The criminal behavior of an offender provides clues to likely personality traits, preferences, movements, psychological state, and background. The serial sniper, or media term L.D.S.K. (long-distance serial killer), commits an impersonal crime where distance is maintained from the victims and personal contact is almost always none (Meyer, 2008). The behavior of a sniper is organized and the crime requires some technical expertise and meticulous planning (Douglas, Burgess, Burgess, & Ressler, 2006). It is usually accepted that the offender has some military training and background, or engages in sports hunting. He is commonly assumed a loner, either single or divorced with impaired social skills, and experienced a stressor such as losing his job that triggered his criminal behavior. The sniper’s victims are usually indiscriminate, selected purely by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. A serial sniper is not associated with uncontrollable hate or anger and takes time to plan his attacks for maximum value and opportunity. He might be harboring a grudge and seek to terrorize a community and seek a psychological response. Snipers are however notoriously difficult to analyze and profile as historical statistics and data is too insufficient to draw reliable conclusions. According to Devery (2009), this is indeed a common problem amongst criminal profilers, as a reliance on statistics is preferred above the painstaking analysis of behavioral and crime scene evidence.
Two criminal theories that may describe the development and actions of a sniper are strain and attachment theory. When individuals cannot achieve success goals, strain or pressure is experienced (Akers, & Sellers, 2004). If the resulting discomfort is severe enough, this might act as a trigger to engage in criminal behavior in order to escape or vent the negative feelings, and sometimes to create a new sense of purpose and self-value. Attachment theory might be related in the developmental pathway, but refers specifically to the nature, success or failure of attachments that the offender has formed with family, peers, and other significant individuals in his life. Repeated failures to form positive attachments with role models in a child’s life might isolate him from social interaction, result in a lack of social skills and low self-esteem, and increase resentfulness and an increased need to fit in and prove himself. Such individuals might be drawn to military careers to seek an accepted role in a structured community, but be devastated when they are rejected or fail in such an environment. According to Hayslett-McCall and Bernard (2002), there is a definite link between attachment disruption at a young age, and male criminal behavior. These attachment problems might cause an individual to continue to pursue relationships and achievements for which he is not socially equipped, and failure could culminate in criminal activities such a serial sniping.
Akers, R. L., & Sellers, C. S. (2004). Criminological theories: Introduction, evaluation, and application (4th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury Publishing Company.
Bartol, C.R. & Bartol, A.M. (2008). Criminal behavior: A psychosocial approach (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.
Devery, C. (2009). Criminal profiling: Problems and prospects. NSW Police Force. Retrieved from http://ceps.anu.edu.au/events/criminal_investigations_workshop/papers/Chris%20Devery%20-%20Criminal%20Profiling.pdf.
Douglas, J. E., Burgess, A. W., Burgess, A. G., & Ressler, R. K. (2006). Crime classification manual (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Hayslett-McCall, K. L., & Bernard, T. J. (2002). Attachment, masculinity, and self-control: A theory of male crime rates. Theoretical Criminology, 6(1), 5-33. doi:10.1177/136248060200600101
Meyer, C. B. (2008). The recent sniper murders in the U.S. and profiling. Swiss Criminal Scientific Profiling Research. Retrieved from http://www.criminalprofiling.ch/sniper.html.