More police refusing to name shooters for fear of copycats

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Oregon Sheriff Won't Name Campus Gunman


The sheriff detailed how a shooter armed with several guns walked into a Thursday morning writing class at a rural Oregon community college and killed nine people. He described how investigators found still more weapons at the man's home.

But when it came time to reveal the shooter's name, Sheriff John Hanlin adamantly refused, saying, "I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act."

READ MORE: Officials say Oregon shooter handed hate-filled writings to survivor

Like Hanlin, law enforcement officials are recently refusing to name mass shooters, hoping that not immediately identifying them will reduce the chance of their notoriety and keep their actions from inspiring others.

There's little research to suggest the practice prevents copycats. And criminologists and ethicists worry that withholding names will make it harder to assess a mass killer's motivations and spot trends that could help prevent future violence.

Knowing the names "and their histories, lets us better understand the larger social patterns, policies and tensions leading up to their crimes," said Vanderbilt University professor Jonathan Metzl, who called the effort understandable but misguided.

Families of mass shooting victims have long urged journalists to avoid using the gunmen's names and photos in public, saying the sight of them renews their pain and turns troubled murderers into celebrities.

Photos from the scene of the shooting in Oregon:

33 PHOTOS
Oregon school shooting, scene photos
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More police refusing to name shooters for fear of copycats

Chris Harper-Mercer, 26

Photo via Myspace 

Authorities respond to a report of a shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Michael Sullivan /The News-Review via AP)
Police search students outside Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, following a deadly shooting at the college. (Mike Sullivan/Roseburg News-Review via AP)
Students, staff and faculty are evacuated from Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, after a deadly shooting. (Michael Sullivan/The News-Review via AP)
Authorities carry a shooting victim away from the scene after a gunman opened fire at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Mike Sullivan/Roseburg News-Review via AP)
Authorities move from building to building to secure the campus at Umpqua Community College after a report of a deadly shooting, in Roseburg, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Michael Sullivan/The News-Review via AP) 
Students, staff and faculty are evacuated from Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. after a deadlyshooting Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Michael Sullivan /The News-Review via AP) 
Members of law enforcement have a meeting at the local fairgrounds after a deadly shooting at Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
People hold signs for free rides as friends and family wait for students at the local fairgrounds after a deadly shooting at Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
Friends and family leave the county fairgrounds in Roseburg, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, following a deadly shooting at nearby Umpqua Community College. Students and faculty were bused to the fairgrounds where counselors were available and some parents waited for their children. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
Hannah Miles, a student at Umqua Community College, looks outward during an interview in Roseburg, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. Miles says she was in the classroom next door to a deadly shooting on the campus. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
Friends and family are reunited with students at the local fairgrounds after a deadly shooting at Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
A woman is comforted as friends and family wait for students at the local fairgrounds after a shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
People gather at a road block near the entrance to Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, following a deadly shooting at the campus. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
Friends and family are reunited with students at the local fairgrounds after a deadly shooting at Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
People wait for information at the local fairgrounds after a deadly shooting at Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
A woman is comforted as friends and family wait for students at the local fairgrounds after a shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
A woman speaks on her cellphone as friends and family are reunited with students at the local fairgrounds after a deadly shooting at Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
Friends and family are reunited with students at the local fairgrounds after a deadly shooting at Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
Hannah Miles, center, is reunited with her sister Hailey Miles, left, and father Gary Miles, right, after a shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
People wait for information at the local fairgrounds after a deadly shooting at Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
Two woman wait outside Umpqua Community College campus after a shooting at the school in Roseburg, Ore., on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
Map locates Roseburg, Oregon, where a shooting took place; 1c x 2 inches; with BC-US--Oregon School Shooting; ETA 4 p.m. ; 3c x 3 1/2 inches; 146 mm x 88 mm;
People wait for information at the local fairgrounds after a deadly shooting at Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
Police search students outside Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, following a deadly shooting at the southwestern Oregon community college. (Mike Sullivan/Roseburg News-Review via AP)
A bullet casing is marked at the scene of a deadly shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Michael Sullivan/The News-Review via AP)
Paramedics return to their ambulances after delivering patients to Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg, Ore., following a deadly shooting at Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Aaron Yost/Roseburg News-Review via AP)
A patient is wheeled into the emergency room at Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg, Ore., following a deadly shooting at Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Aaron Yost/Roseburg News-Review via AP)
Journalist raises their hands as White House Press secretary Josh Earnest speaks to the media during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. Earnest responded to a report of multiple shootings at Umpqua Community College in central Oregon. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama speaks in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, about the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., about 180 miles south of Portland. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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Last year, a police chief in Washington state would not identify a 15-year-old boy who killed himself and four friends at a high school, saying, "I will not promote the motivation by spending any time on the shooter."

A sheriff in suburban Denver refused to speak the name of a high school senior who killed himself and a classmate in December 2013, saying "he deserves no recognition."

And throughout the four-month trial of Colorado theater shooter James Holmes, prosecutors repeatedly referred to him as "that guy," pointing to Holmes seated at the defense table, over angry objections from his attorneys.

The grandmother of a female student who survived the rampage at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, said the shooter gave another student a package to deliver to authorities. However, it is unclear whether Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer sought notoriety.

Media organizations routinely name mass shooters, reasoning that the name is the key detail that helps unravel and answer broader questions about the killer's motivations and hold government accountable.

Only with a name can the public know, for example, whether a killer shouldn't have been able to buy a gun or if authorities missed red flags.

Photos from the vigils honoring the victims of the shooting:

26 PHOTOS
Oregon school shooting vigils, Umpqua Community College
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More police refusing to name shooters for fear of copycats
Balloons, flowers and notes of community support rest along a fence near Umpqua Community College, Monday, Oct. 12, 2015, in Roseburg, Ore. Monday was the first day back to campus for students since the deadliest shooting in state history on Oct. 1. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP, Pool)
Cards hang at Umpqua Community College, Monday, Oct. 12, 2015, in Roseburg, Ore. Monday was the first day back to campus for students since the deadliest shooting in state history on Oct. 1. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP, Pool)
A black ribbon is seen painted on the field of Autzen Stadium commemorating the victims of the campus shooting at Umpqua Community College before an NCAA college football game between Washington State and Oregon Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
Charley Thompson, left, and his wife Rachel Thompson embrace as they place flowers at a makeshift memorial near the road leading to Umpqua Community College, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Roseburg, Ore. Armed with multiple guns, Chris Harper Mercer walked in a classroom at the community college, Thursday, and opened fire, killing several and wounding several others. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Brittany Gaddis prays during a prayer vigil Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Winston, Ore. The vigil was held in honor of the victims of the fatal shooting at Umpqua Community College on Thursday. (AP Photo/John Locher)
ROSE BURG, OR - OCTOBER 09: A general view of a makeshift memorial including flowers and drawings outside Snyder Hall on the Umpqua Community College Campus on October 9, 2015 in Roseburg, Oregon. Snyder Hall is where a gunman killed eight students and a writing teacher and injured nine others in a campus shooting on October 1, 2015. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
ROSE BURG, OR - OCTOBER 09: A close up of hearts with the names of the victims are part of a makeshift memorial near the campus of Umpqua Community College Campus on October 9, 2015 in Roseburg, Oregon. A gunman killed eight students and a writing teacher and injured nine others in a campus there in a shooting on October 1, 2015. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
ROSE BURG, OR - OCTOBER 09: A general view of a makeshift memorial and black plastic tarp outside Snyder Hall on the Umpqua Community College Campus on October 9, 2015 in Roseburg, Oregon. Snyder Hall is where a gunman killed eight students and a writing teacher and injured nine others in a campus shooting on October 1, 2015. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
ROSE BURG, OR - OCTOBER 09: A general view of a makeshift memorial near the campus of Umpqua Community College Campus on October 9, 2015 in Roseburg, Oregon. A gunman killed eight students and a writing teacher and injured nine others in a campus there in a shooting on October 1, 2015. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
ROSE BURG, OR - OCTOBER 09: Bayleigh Case (4) of Roseburg look at the flowers and balloons at a makeshift memorial near the campus of Umpqua Community College Campus on October 9, 2015 in Roseburg, Oregon. A gunman killed eight students and a writing teacher and injured nine others in a campus there in a shooting on October 1, 2015. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Kristen Sterner, left, and Carrissa Welding, both students of Umpqua Community College, embrace each other during a candle light vigil for those killed during a fatal shooting at the college, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, in Roseburg, Ore. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Hundreds of people gather for a vigil in Roseburg, Oregon on October 1, 2015, for ten people killed and seven others wounded in a shooting at a community college in the western US state of Oregon. The 26-year-old gunman, identified by US media as Chris Harper Mercer, was killed following a shootout with police. A visibly angry President Barack Obama made an impassioned plea for gun control in the wake of the shooting, blasting Congress for its failure to act in the face of 'routine' mass killings. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman cries while holding her daughter during a vigil in Roseburg, Oregon on October 1, 2015, for ten people killed and seven others wounded in a shooting at a community college in the western US state of Oregon. The shooter -- identified by US media as Chris Harper Mercer, 26 -- opened fire in a classroom at Umpqua Community College in rural Roseburg, then moved to other rooms methodically gunning down his victims, witnesses said. AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
A girl prays during a vigil in Roseburg, Oregon on October 1, 2015, for ten people killed and seven others wounded in a shooting at a community college in the western US state of Oregon. The 26-year-old gunman, identified by US media as Chris Harper Mercer, was killed following a shootout with police. A visibly angry President Barack Obama made an impassioned plea for gun control in the wake of the shooting, blasting Congress for its failure to act in the face of 'routine' mass killings. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Diana Nicolay, a former employee of Umpqua Community College, wears a school sweatshirt during a candlelight vigil for those killed during a fatal shooting at the school Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Meriah Calvert, left, of Roseburg, Ore., and an unidentified woman pray by candles spelling out the initials for Umpqua Community College after a candlelight vigil Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, in Roseburg, Ore. A man opened fire at the school before dying in a shootout with police. (AP Photo/John Locher)
A young woman reacts during a vigil in Roseburg, Oregon on October 1, 2015, for ten people killed and seven others wounded in a shooting at a community college in the western US state of Oregon. The shooter -- identified by US media as Chris Harper Mercer, 26 -- opened fire in a classroom at Umpqua Community College in rural Roseburg, then moved to other rooms methodically gunning down his victims, witnesses said. AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
People hold candles during a vigil in Roseburg, Oregon on October 1, 2015, for ten people killed and seven others wounded in a shooting at a community college in the western US state of Oregon. The shooter -- identified by US media as Chris Harper Mercer, 26 -- opened fire in a classroom at Umpqua Community College in rural Roseburg, then moved to other rooms methodically gunning down his victims, witnesses said. AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Mourners react during a vigil in Roseburg, Oregon on October 1, 2015, for ten people killed and seven others wounded in a shooting at a community college in the western US state of Oregon. The 26-year-old gunman, identified by US media as Chris Harper Mercer, was killed following a shootout with police. A visibly angry President Barack Obama made an impassioned plea for gun control in the wake of the shooting, blasting Congress for its failure to act in the face of 'routine' mass killings. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
ROSEBURG, OREGON - OCTOBER 1: Governor Kate Brown of Oregon attends at a candlelight vigil for the victims of a shooting at Umpqua Community College October 1, 2015 in Roseburg, Oregon. According to reports, 10 were killed and 20 injured when a gunman opened fire at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. (Photo by Michael Lloyd/Getty Images)
Umpqua Community College student Nichole Zamarripa, right, is consoled during a candlelight vigil for those killed during a shooting at the school, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, in Roseburg, Ore. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Mourners hold up candles during a candlelight vigil at Stewart Park, in Roseburg, Ore., for those killed during a fatal shooting at nearby Umpqua Community College, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
A girl who allegedly had multiple family members involved in a shooting at her college campus, reacts during a vigil in Roseburg, Oregon on October 1, 2015, for ten people have been confirmed killed and seven others wounded in a shooting at a community college in the western US state of Oregon, a local official said. The 26-year-old gunman, identified by US media as Chris Harper Mercer, was killed following a shootout with police. A visibly angry President Barack Obama made an impassioned plea for gun control in the wake of the shooting, blasting Congress for its failure to act in the face of 'routine' mass killings. AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Kevin Crawford embraces his wife, Pam, during a candle light vigil for those killed during a shooting at Umpqua Community College, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, in Roseburg, Ore. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Candles spelling UCC for Umpqua Community College, are displayed at a candlelight vigil for those killed during a fatal shooting at the school, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, in Roseburg, Ore. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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"We wouldn't know his criminal history. We wouldn't know his educational history. We wouldn't know his social history," said Kelly McBride, a vice president at The Poynter Institute and an expert in media ethics.

The Associated Press includes the names of the perpetrators or suspects involved, except in situations involving minors, AP Standards Editor Thomas Kent said. "The names are a matter of public record, and reporting names eliminates the possibility of rumors spreading about who the person involved may or may not be," he said.

Law enforcement officials point to a recently released study suggesting a "contagion effect" after mass shootings that garner national and international headlines. Similar incidents were more likely to happen within an average of 13 days, said the study's lead author Sherry Towers, a research professor at Arizona State University.

Researchers' analysis came largely from news reports, she said.

Towers acknowledged that it's impossible to say whether publicizing gunmen's identities caused more violence, as their names were part of every news story. Police and news agencies would have to agree not to publish the names of shooters for a period of time in order to accurately study the impact, she said.

Researchers say the reasons for concern are obvious.

Harper-Mercer's social media profiles suggested he tracked other mass shootings. In one post, he appeared to urge readers to watch the online footage of a man shooting two former colleagues live on TV in Virginia, noting "the more people you kill, the more you're in the limelight."

The victims of the mass shooting:

11 PHOTOS
Oregon Shooting Vics
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More police refusing to name shooters for fear of copycats
The photos of three of the victims of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College are displayed at a news conference, Friday, Oct. 2, 2015, in Roseburg, Ore. In the photos, from left, are Quinn Cooper, 18, Lucas Eibel,18, center, and Jason Johnson, 33. They were among those killed when Chris Harper Mercer, walked into a class at the community college, Thursday, and opened fire. At left is Portland Police Sgt. Pete Simpson.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Jason Johnson, 33, got his HS diploma this year. He was killed on his 4th day of community college. #UCCshooting http://t.co/raTGL02wc4
Quinn Glen Cooper, 18, of Roseburg just graduated high school in June. http://t.co/EG1QOUqciE http://t.co/3BFQGEXEsc
Lucas Eibel, 18-year-old quadruplet, animal lover, among those mourned in Oregon #UCCShooting http://t.co/8TDTLWpTYO http://t.co/Jz1xuU1gBC
Lucero Alcaraz, 19 was in UCC’s honors program & wanted to be a pediatric nurse http://t.co/ZeRYokMuEe #UCCShooting http://t.co/TwWL8B7KGv
The Victims: #UCCshooting victim Kim Saltmarsh Dietz. Her daughter is also a UCC student, unharmed, but lost mom. http://t.co/gRIfB43rK4
Oregon shooting victim Lawrence Levine had simple needs, complex mind #UCCShooting http://t.co/3HE31w3rro http://t.co/gijgrMoBPi
Sarena Dawn Moore, 44, is being mourned by her sons and other family members. #UCCShooting http://t.co/EG1QOUqciE http://t.co/RyYBeG7VbD
We remember Kim Saltmarsh Dietz, 59, Sarena Dawn Moore, 44, Treven Taylor Anspach, 20 #UCCShooting http://t.co/xRcxM0F50T
“She had the biggest heart, an amazing soul.” Rebecka Ann Carnes was 18. #UCCShooting http://t.co/RXuq4AADvx http://t.co/laKRU5vCZW
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Adam Lanza, who killed 26 students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, was obsessed with the 1999 bloodbath at Columbine High in Colorado and other mass killings, keeping a spreadsheet that ranked them.

Shooters inspire each other, so police are right not to put a spotlight on them, said Pete Blair of Texas State University's Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center.

Blair led an effort called "Don't Name Them" that was endorsed by the FBI. Later this month, Blair will tell police at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference to focus less on the gunman and more on victims after high-profile crimes, whose names are often forgotten.

Some researchers say a name alone is not enough to motivate a mass killer.

Getting attention might be part of the goal, but most mass killers are driven by a number of other factors, including mental illness, anger, revenge and fear, said Grant Duwe, a Minnesota corrections official who wrote the book "Mass Murder in the United States: A History."

His study of mass shootings throughout history was aided by news reports that named the perpetrators.

So "if the media had a policy of refusing to name who was responsible for carrying out a mass killing, it might have made my (research) a lot harder, to try to identify all the information associated with a case," he said.

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