Why Gabriel Wortman shot and killed 22 people during a 13-hour rampage in Nova Scotia is a question many people want answered.
The public inquiry tasked with examining the killing spree has spent the past week hearing from researchers who say there are clear links between gender-based violence and mass killings.
The inquiry also released a series of reports detailing a history of violence in the gunman’s life – violence family members say he endured as a child and violence he perpetrated.
But legal experts who’ve been following the inquiry say it hasn’t done enough to contextualize this information or explain how it gets us any closer to understanding why the gunman did what he did.
“We have these world renowned experts that are ready to analyze the situation and we’re not asking them to do that,” said Adam Rodgers, a Nova Scotia criminal lawyer.
“We’re just sort of putting this information out into the public realm and saying, ‘All right, everybody, form your own conclusions.”
The inquiry, which began public proceedings in February and must submit its final report by December, is tasked with examining the role gender-based and intimate-partner violence had in the killing spree.
Expert witnesses who testified this week said there’s often a “continuity of violence” in the lives of mass killers.
This violence is almost always perpetrated by men and usually starts in the home, long before it spills out into the community.
The mass casualty crimes these men commit often begin with an attack against a woman: a wife, ex-wife, mother or grandmother.
The May 24 shooting in Uvalde, Texas, for example, began when the gunman shot his grandmother in the face. He then went on to shoot and kill 19 elementary school students and two teachers.
The Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Connecticut in 2012 began when the gunman killed his mother. He then killed 20 children and six adults.
The Nova Scotia killing spree began in a similar way, when the gunman violently assaulted his common-law spouse, Lisa Banfield, before killing 13 neighbours that same night and killing nine more people the next day.
But rather than explaining why these similarities matter, the inquiry has released thousands of pages of evidence and expert reports without making links or drawing any conclusions.
One report released by the inquiry detailed allegations of abuse within the gunman’s family going back at least four generations, including allegations the gunman was abused as a child. Two other reports detailed the gunman’s history of violence toward others and his history of abuse toward Banfield.
None of these reports explained how these details may have contributed to the gunman’s actions.
A lawyer for the inquiry also said the report about abuse within the gunman’s family wasn’t meant to “excuse or explain” his actions during the killing spree.
Experts who study criminal behaviour say understanding the gunman’s complete history is critical to explaining – not excusing – what happened during the April 2020 attack.
They say preventing similar crimes in the future requires a close examination of all the facts.
“The public is understandably uncomfortable with experiencing sympathetic feelings toward someone who engaged in such horrific acts,” said Ardath Whynacht, a sociologist at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B.
“But as someone who has worked in prisons for a long time, I have yet to meet anyone who engaged in such unspeakable acts who didn’t have a similar story.”
What are the risk factors?
Researchers have spent decades studying the origins of violent behaviour.
A study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1996 found that people who experienced multiple forms of childhood maltreatment were far more likely to engage in risky behaviour as adults, including activities associated with increased violence and aggression.
When compared to children raised in a nurturing environment, people who experienced this type of abuse were seven times more likely to experience long periods of depression as adults, seven times more likely to become alcoholics, 10 times more likely to become intravenous drug users, and 12 times more likely to attempt suicide.
A 2002 study published by the U.S. Department of Justice looked at the arrest records of roughly 900 people with histories of childhood maltreatment.
The study found that people abused as children were twice as likely to be arrested as adults and three times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes than people who weren’t abused as children.
Another paper, published in 2007, found severe forms of childhood abuse were “endemic” among death row inmates.
Similar findings have been made with respect to mass shooters.
After access to guns, a history of childhood maltreatment is the most common feature in the lives of American mass shooters, according to data collected by The Violence Project.
The researchers found that 92 per cent of American mass shooters were abused as children.
“We’re talking about perpetrators whose parents had committed very serious crimes that they themselves witnessed. We’re talking about parental suicide, horrific child abuse, neglect,” said James Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University, during a March 2021 interview with Global News.
It’s unknown whether the Nova Scotia gunman ever attempted suicide, but many people, including Banfield and the gunman’s father, have said the April 2020 killing spree was a form of self-annihilation.
The gunman also had a lengthy history of alcohol abuse.
According to medical records released by the inquiry, he told a doctor in 2009 that he drank “12 beers a day, five days a week.”
Banfield also told investigators the gunman hated his parents because of how they treated him when he was a child.
She said a violent altercation between the gunman and his father, Paul Wortman, erupted during a family vacation in Cuba when his father refused to acknowledge any past wrongs.
“If Paul would have owned everything and apologized to his son for all that he did, that might have made a difference,” Banfield said. “But to totally deny it and say it didn’t happen, that just perpetuated him being more angry and hateful and miserable.”
Paul, meanwhile, told police he never physically abused his son. But he did acknowledge having a “hell of a temper” and yelling a lot, which he said was “probably just as bad as hitting.”
Global News tried to contact Paul multiple times by phone and letter in the months after the killing spree. He did not respond to these questions.
How to prevent future violence
A better understanding of what causes violence, including mass violence, has many people thinking about different ways of stopping it.
Whynacht, the sociologist, said more money needs to be spent on safe and affordable housing for women fleeing abuse.
Canada also needs to improve its child welfare systems, she said, to make sure that when women report abuse, they aren’t at risk of losing their children.
“We already know what causes this kind of violence. We just don’t fund the programs we need to stop it,” she said
Erin Breen, a lawyer who represents a coalition of women’s groups at the inquiry, said there needs to be alternatives to the “pro-arrest, pro-charge, pro-prosecution” approach to ending gender-based and intimate-partner violence.
That doesn’t mean the criminal justice system won’t be necessary in some cases, she said, but for women who experience abuse and want to stay in their relationships, there must be ways of ending the violence that don’t involve calling the police.
“There’s got to be some really hard work done to rethink the systems that we have in place and to reassess how they’re actually contributing to the problem,” Breen said.
In addition to violence prevention programs, which Breen said are being developed for children as young as three years old, more money should be spent on men’s programming aimed at addressing the root causes of violent and aggressive behaviour.
“We’re constantly reacting. We’re feeding the problem as opposed to being preventative,” she said.
— with files from Global News’ Alex Kress as well as Sarah Ritchie, formerly with Global News
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
- Mental Health & Addictions Provincial Crisis Line: 1-888-429-8167
- Visit the Department of Justice’s Victim Services Directory for a list of support services for people experiencing abuse in your area.
- Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (toll-free) Available 24/7 or Text CONNECT 686868