For reasons that are not entirely clear even to themselves, news media in the United States (print as well as television) go out of their way to make sure every lone gunman and solitary crazed killer is identified by his full name, regardless of how he is called by relatives, friends and neighbors.
According to at least one broadcast journalism writing textbook, the reason for this is that a person is more likely to have the same two-part name as someone else than the same three-part name. So it lets John Henry Booth or Mark Lindsay Chapman not have to wonder why everyone is looking at him funny. TV reporters also generally read the police report verbatim, figuring they can't be sued for slander if they merely report what is in a public document. Also note that this might be an American thing—in most European countries, middle names aren't that common, or used even if people have them, and people in Hispanic countries often have four names. Naming conventions in non-western countries are a whole different topic altogether. Furthermore, in many European countries, middle name is often associated with sophistication, so it usually does not suit common criminals, though it can be a part of a Professional Killer's image.
Note that this isn't the case for just any handgun-wielding punk who makes the news. It takes a special crime that catches the public's attention. "Ordinary" shooters—as well as the rare sympathetic figure—are accorded less formal (and less obsessive) address by the media.
An interesting case in point would be that of New York's so-called "Subway Vigilante" in 1984. When his actions were still viewed as a shocking unmotivated attack, the news media consistently referred to him by his full name, "Bernhard Hugo Goetz". However, as his story came out and public opinion shifted more and more in his favor, the news programs began calling him just "Bernhard Goetz" and finally "Bernie".
Also note that none of them has an Embarrassing Middle Name. (Then again, would you really laugh at someone about to kill you?)
- The Dragon in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only is called "Emile Leopold Locque".
- The lone sniper played by Mark Wahlberg in movie Shooter rejoices in the name of Bob Lee Swagger. Lee referencing no other than Lee Harvey Oswald. He's actually being framed though.
- Parodied in Scooby-Doo when at the end Velma reports they had captured Scrappy Cornelius Doo.
- In The Bourne Identity, the alias created to perform the political assassination is that of John Michael Kane.
- John Lithgow as Earl Talbot Blake in Ricochet.
- Referenced in The Fast and the Furious when Dom checks Brian's wallet.
Dom: "Brian Earl Spilner. Sounds like a serial killer."
- In a variant (serial killer, not gunman) there's Charles Lee Ray (referencing Manson, Oswald and the guy who killed MLK), later known as Chucky, from Child's Play.
- One of the assorted crazy connections thrown out in the movie Conspiracy Theory is noting that successful assassins are remembered by their full names, but unsuccessful ones by just two.
- One character makes an implicit accusation about a murder to another character by asking what his middle name is.
- Karl Ruprecht Kroenen in Hellboy.
- An Anti-Hero or Anti-Villain example is Richard B. Riddick.
- Serial killer Daryll Lee Callum in Copycat.
- At the start of Tragedy Girls, Sadie and McKayla capture a Serial Killer, then go through his pockets. They find his ID, which tells them his name is, "Lehmann Orson Lowell."
Sadie: Good name for the media!
- Even though he's not a villain, the vengeful father from A Time to Kill who shoots two brutal rapists is named Carl Lee Hailey.
- In the book All-American Girl, the title character saves the president from an assassin named Larry Wayne Rogers.
- Aversion: The eponymous assassin of The Day of the Jackal is known only by his code name.
- Lewis Black, in his autobiography Nothing's Sacred, tells about how his high-school guidance counselor botched his college application process, forcing him to spend his first year at his safety school, University of Maryland.
Not a day went by that I didn't dream of killing my high-school guidance counselor. I was this close to inspiring the kind of headlines usually reserved for people with three names. People like John Wayne Gacy and Mark David Chapman. "Student, Lewis Niles Black, sought in gruesome death of counselor; Police find brilliant essay."
- John Wayne Cleaver.
- Lampshaded in Gone Girl; the media referring to Nick as Lance Nicholas Dunne is recognised as an extremely bad sign, and he is greatly relieved when they simply call him Nick Dunne (which is the name he prefers in daily life).
- The X-Files had tons of these, including Eugene Victor Tooms, Luther Lee Boggs, Warren James Dupre, Darin Peter Oswald, Robert Patrick Modell (presumably not named after Robert Patrick, who wouldn't join the cast for another 5 years), John Lee Roche, and Wilson Pinker Rawls. All are aversions as they're serial killers, not assassins.
- Then, of course, there is John Fitzgerald Byers, who is part of a group called The Lone Gunmen.
- And the Gunmen's sometimes-ally, sometimes rival, who goes by "Yves Adele Harlow" or some other alias that is an anagram of Lee Harvey Oswald...probably just to mess with the Gunmen.
- Criminal Minds sometimes inverts this trope giving us serial killers with three names. The most (in)famous ones are Floyd Feylinn Ferrel and Jason Clark Battle.
- On Burn Notice, when the gang runs up against a serial killer, Sam suggests they call him by "Dennis Wayne Barfield" for that extra serial-killer flavor.
- Buckwheat's assassin in the famous "Buckwheat has been shot" sketches on Saturday Night Live was named John David Stutts.
- Dr. Charles Henry Moffett, the evil creator of Airwolf
- The Dollhouse episode "Omega" referenced and lampshaded this, when looking at the file of Alpha's original personality:
Adelle: Carl William Kraft.Paul: Three names. Always ominous.
- Lampshaded in Law & Order: Criminal Intent season 6 episode "Endgame", with regard to a serial killer.
Detective Robert Goren: As serial killers go, this Mark Ford Brady is well within the hash marks.Captain Danny Ross: Right down to having three names.
- Also occurs in the episode "False-Hearted Judges" with shooter Lloyd Anson Wilkes.
- Riffed on in a Cold Open to an episode of The Arsenio Hall Show when Billy Ray Cyrus was the musical guest.
- Lampshaded in one episode of The Closer:
Detective Gabriel: So, we found no blood or weapons in Jesse Ray Moore's truck.Detective Landry: Why'd they always have three names?
- Discussed in The Nanny; When Fran thinks that Niles is about to snap and kill the family, Val goes over all the warning signs with her, when they get to the three name rule, Fran stops for a second because nobody actually knows what his middle and last name is. She eventually decided to grasp a fringe of logic to make him fit this rule.
Fran: "Niles... The killer!" *Both Gasp*
- Invoked in the "Hair of the Dog" episode of MythBusters, with Jamie in the role of an escaped convict attempting to evade the bloodhound. Adam, playing the part of a law officer in pursuit, referred to Jamie as "James Franklin Hyneman", complete with wanted poster.
- Hannibal: Garrett Jacob Hobbes, The Minnesota Shrike. Expanded from his mentions in the book and movie.
- Sports writer Bill Simmons has stated that every New England Patriots fan refers to the player that injured Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Stevan Ridley, using his middle name: Bernard Karmell Pollard.
- Spoofed by Otis Lee Crenshaw, who suggests some people are just born with a 'Death Row name'; if your parents christened you 'Wayne Lee Turner', you've been marked down since day one, you are going to kill someone and fry for it. He then suggests changing your name before you kill someone, to something like 'Jizz Biscuits Murphy' or something equally stupid, so you get laughed out of the courtroom before your trial can begin.
- The backstory of Mass Effect mentions a gunman named Michael Moser Lang who assassinated the presidents of the United North American States and China with a powerful submachine gun several years before the events of the first game. (Both at once. The Chinese president tackled the American, trying to shove him out of the way, and the slugs fatally penetrated both bodies. It's implied he only intended to kill the American.) Shepard gets his/her hands on the original weapon (and a copy) in Mass Effect 2.
- Shelly De Killer from Ace Attorney is a Professional Killer in disguise of Butler/ ice cream seller which eventually killed Juan Corrida, and his client was no more than Matt Engarde, then he discovers that Matt wanted to blackmail Shelly, and he decided to search Matt instead of working for him, though, he's also Affably Evil because he's a man of word, and never breaks a promise until he's betrayed just like Matt, also, this is demonstrated when In Ace Attorney Investigations Miles Edgeworth 2 he helps Miles to discover the truth about the assesination of his Arch-Enemy: Ethan Rooke. Ultimately, at the end of the game he forgives the life of Simon because Sirhan Dogen interrupts him from murdering Simon
- When a real-life serial killer's identity is finally established, it's common for the news media to report the full name of the killer, including his middle name, even if the killer never used his middle name in his life. Westley Allan Dodd and John Wayne Gacy are examples. Thus, serial killers tend to be remembered as people with three names. This may vary when the middle name is an awkward one.
- As noted in the description, if your name happened to be John Mark Gacy, you'd probably appreciate them making this distinction. The majority of people (in the US, at least) do have a middle name, even if they never use it (or, alternatively, use it exclusively and never use their first name) and most of their friends don't know what the unused name is.
- It can lead to a Hitler Ate Sugar sort of effect; people have changed their names because they shared it with a serial killer.
- One of the American Wild West's greatest real killers was the poorly remembered John Wesley Hardin. He is commonly credited with inventing throwing cards into the air and shooting them as they fall, for instance, but was also said to practice his quick-draw in front of a mirror for hours a day. Then, there was the whole shooting a man for snoring too loudly thing.
- He's probably better known for inspiring the name (and the name only) of a Bob Dylan album (John Wesley Harding).
- A running reference in Chuck Shepherd's News of the Weird column is that there seem to be an awful lot of murderers with the middle name "Wayne".
- Mehmet Ali Ağca, who shot (but didn't kill) Pope John Paul II in 1981 and previously murdered journalist Abdi İpekçi.
- Jerry Seinfeld, on the allegations that his wife was plagiarizing another author's cookbook idea (each book happens to be about making tasty—yet inconspicuously healthy—meals for their kids; Missy Chase Lapine's is "The Sneaky Chef", while Jessica Seinfeld's is "Deceptively Delicious"). Seinfeld, in his wife's defense, appeared on talk shows joking around at how he's noticed assassins tend to often have, like Lapine, three names—Mark David Chapman, James Earl Ray, etc. (This, naturally, caused a bit of a stink.)
- Christopher Wayne Hudson, who shot three people in the Melbourne CBD in 2007, killing one.
- Wild West outlaw John Joel Glanton
- John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the Washington, DC snipers in 2002.
- Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech shooter.
- Although in this case, it's just because he was Korean-American, rather than any preference on the part of the media; it's quite common for traditional Korean names to be structured in such a manner, more akin to a double-barreled given name than separate given and middle names.
- But definitely Played Straight for an earlier killer at Virginia Tech: a local crook named William Morva who murdered two people and spent a day or so on the lam in 2006, causing brief hubbub and the cancellation of a day's classes. Though Morva was known before and after the incident as "William Morva," for the couple of days surrounding the murders he was always "William Charles Morva."
- The murderer of John Lennon, Mark David Chapman.
- When they cast for a Lennon biography movie in 1985, they were going with an actor billed Mark Lindsay until someone found out the actor's full name was Mark Lindsay Chapman. Even though his middle name wasn't David and he had changed his name earlier in his career because of a similarly-named actor already in the business, it was enough for the film producers to take him off the production and hire another actor. Mark Lindsay Chapman went on to have a steady career in television anyway.
- Kevin James Loibl, fan-turned-assassin of Christina Grimmie.
- James Earl Ray, assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Curiously, the victim in this case is also usually known by three names, albeit for a different reason (his father had changed both of their names from "Michael" to "Martin Luther" to honor the Protestant reformer.
- In Presidential assassins it's 50/50, but the three-named ones are a lot more famous due to the Lincoln/Kennedy assassinations being a major part of American history, unlike the Garfield/McKinley ones note Note that the ones with two names are more commonly Older Than Radio—probably because the habit of using all three names has to do with broadcast media's habits, rather than those of print (where saving space is a paramount concern and a middle name would not be included unless absolutely necessary).
- John Wilkes Booth assassin of President Abraham Lincoln (he used his middle name, as "John Wilkes" was a reference to a famous Radical/Whig politician in his father's native England, to whom he was distantly related)
- Lee Harvey Oswald assassin of President John F. Kennedy
- Leon Czolgosz assassin of President William McKinley (his middle name was "Frank," but he never used it.)
- Charles J. Guiteau assassin of President James Garfield (his middle name was Julius, but he never used it)
- Sara Jane Moore, who attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford.
- Ford's other would-be assassin, Lynette Fromme is commonly referred to as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, so the trope still applies, sort of. (Her real middle name was Alice).
- Robert William Pickton, a Canadian pig farmer convicted of killing 6 women and charged with killing 20 more.
- Jared Lee Loughner, the man who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and more than a dozen other people, killing six (Giffords survived) on January 8, 2011.
- Johnny Paul Penry, convicted of killing Pamela Carpenter (sister of Washington Redskins player Mark Moseley).
- This trope seems to apply to a number of serial arsonists as well. But a few examples are Paul Kenneth Keller, John Leonard Orr, Cayetano Santos Godino and Bruce George Peter Lee.
- Classic example of how this prevents overlap with Name's the Same: Joel (Patrick) Courtney (b.1966), rapist and serial killer, not to be confused with Joel Courtney (b.1996), star of Super 8. To make matters worse the former's TruTV Crime Library page is headlined "Bad Actor".
- The man arrested for the 2011 Norway massacre has been named as Anders Behring Breivik, despite being European where this trope is not usually in effect.
- Michael Robert Ryan, who shot 16 people in Hungerford, England in 1987.
- For whatever reason, TV news reports related to the LA Riots frequently referred to Rodney King as "motorist Rodney King," as though owning and driving a car were still a novelty in 1992. Even Wikipedia called him a motorist for the longest time (it now refers to him as a construction worker).
- Brenda Ann Spencer, who shot dead 2 and injured 9 others in 1979. The Boomtown Rats song "I Don't Like Mondays" was written about her the same year (her "reason" for doing it).
- Averted with Adam (Peter) Lanza, perpetrator of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The confusion that this caused in the media shows the usefulness of the trope. When the perpetrator's first name was initially reported as "Ryan", unrelated people named Ryan Lanza were harassed on Facebook and Twitter and reporters surrounded the house of another guy who also happened to have the same first and last name (and a different middle name, as well as being a few years older).
- Santana High School shooter Charles Andrew "Andy" Williams.
- Gary Scott Pennington, who killed a teacher and a custodian and took his classroom hostage.
- James Eagan Holmes, the perpetrator of the 2012 Colorado theater shooting. Most news sources, however, refer to him simply as "James Holmes," almost never calling him by his full name.
- Zig-zagged with Fanny Yefimovna Kaplan, the gunwoman who supposedly tried to kill Vladimir Lenin. She did have three names according to the standard Russian naming convention, but she is universally known to history as "Fanny Kaplan", without the Yefimovna patronymic.
- David Malcolm Gray, the perpetrator of the 1990 Aramoana massacre in New Zealand.
- Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was convicted of the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's 20-month old son. While the media referred to him by his full name, his family and friends never called him by his first name.