TAMPA — In homes and offices across the Tampa Bay area, people are trying to understand what caused a fatal shooting during an argument over texting in a Pasco County movie theater.
The allegations, as reported by investigators, are now well-known: A former Tampa police officer asked a man sitting near him in the movie to stop texting. An argument ensued, a box of popcorn was thrown, and the retired officer shot and killed the texter as both their wives watched.
But answers remain elusive. Why did Curtis Reeves Jr., a trained police officer, carry a gun into a theater? Why was husband and father Chad Oulson shot over something as trivial as texting? And why didn't one of the men simply move to another seat to defuse the confrontation?
Such senseless shootings, escalating from minor disputes, are becoming an all-too familiar pattern in the modern landscape.
Think of Trevor Dooley, the 72-year-old man who shot and killed David James, 41, in September 2010 during an argument over a teenager skateboarding on a basketball court in Valrico.
Or Darrell Strong, 27, arrested in November after a shooting attempt involving a parking space at a Home Depot on Dale Mabry Highway.
Or Jerome Edward Hayes, who was thrown out of an Adamo Drive topless club in July after an argument with another man, laid in wait for him, then fired a fatal shot while driving on Interstate 4 — at the wrong man, investigators said.
Experts, evaluating what facts they have about these cases, say a number of factors could have come into play in the theater shooting. Psychiatrist Prakash Masand said Reeves showed signs of a personality disorder called extreme narcissistic injury. People with this disorder have feelings of grandiosity, lack empathy and have a sense of entitlement, Masand said. They also feel a need for admiration and tend to exploit other people.
“When you have people with this personality disorder, when someone confronts them or challenges their sense of entitlement and grandiosity, they tend to lash out in a manner that's often disproportionate to this event,” said Masand, president of New York-based Global Medical Education, an online educational resource for medical professionals.
Such a disorder, when combined with Reeves' police background, could be a deadly combination, Masand said.
“The individual was an ex-police officer; he was used to people listening to what he said when he was active,” Masand said. “It was out of character for someone to confront him and challenge him. He responded in a grossly disproportionate manner.”
Paul Spector, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, agreed that Reeves' background as an authority figure, accustomed to people listening to him, could have played a part in his violent reaction when Oulson reportedly continued to text after being asked to quit.
“So he asked this guy politely to stop, the guy defied him, and (Reeves') typical pattern as a police officer is not to back down and walk away from it,” Spector said.
Also, Masand said, Reeves' age, 71, could have been a contributing factor. As people get older, their brain's prefrontal cortex suffers some degeneration. Among other things, this brain region is responsible for regulating behavior and suppressing emotional or sexual urges.
“We all have our sweet grandparents or uncles who say the most inappropriate things at a family gathering,” Masand said. “It's actually a neurological problem. The front of the brain loses its ability to inhibit impulses.”
Still, Spector points out that most acts of murder or violence are committed by young people.
Do the recent Tampa area incidents portend a societal wave of senseless killings?
For an answer, Spector points to a decline of a decade and more in violent crime overall, including murder, both locally and nationally. If people perceive that more people are being killed in inconsequential disputes, it may be because the incidents make more of a splash with the 24-hour news cycle.
What's more, the setting for Monday's slaying — a movie theater in a middle-class community — touched a nerve for many, Spector said.
“In Chicago there are murders every day, but they usually take place in poor areas and nobody pays attention to them,” he said. “If every day in the United States somebody was shot in a movie theater, this probably wouldn't have been a story. The reason it's a story is because it's not that common.”
Masand thinks these types of shootings are indeed growing more common, and he blames a society that seeks instant gratification.
With smartphones and apps that effortlessly secure reservations at restaurants or seats at a concert, the world seems to be at our fingertips. When it isn't, people sometimes react badly.
Increasing incidents of road rage are an example of this phenomenon, he said.
“It's a society of instant gratification, more of a sense of entitlement than it was 20, 30 or 50 years ago,” Masand said. “People were more caring about the people around them then. They were more likely to have empathy. I think as a society we are a lot more selfish than we were 20 years ago or 30 years ago.”