The complexity of School Shooters

By Peter Langman, Ph.D

In the wake of the horrific attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, people around the world are once again pondering the causes of school shootings. As a psychologist who has studied and written about school shootings for years, it is clear to me that there is no one thing we can point to as the cause. It isn’t video games or bullying or easy access to guns.

Nor can we even talk about school shootings as a single phenomenon. Shootings have been committed by students, former students, faculty, staff, parents and outsiders with no connection to the schools they have attacked. Some shooters targeted specific people, some randomly gunned down whoever was in the vicinity and some attacks included both targeted and random victims. As examples, at the University of Arizona, Robert Flores shot the three professors he had conflicts with regarding his grades. In contrast, Steven Kazmierczak shot random people he didn’t know at Northern Illinois University. And Luke Woodham, in Pearl, Miss., first shot his ex-girlfriend then shot people indiscriminately.

Motivations for the attacks vary widely, including seeking revenge for perceived injustices, venting long-accumulated rage, acting out extremist ideologies and paranoid delusions, pursuing fame, obliterating people who represent the success the shooters long for and envy or experiencing the sadistic thrill of having the power of life and death. There are many differences in what the shooters do and why they do it.

There is no profile of a school shooter because their backgrounds, personalities and life histories vary dramatically. Dylan Klebold owned his own BMW and lived in a house with its own swimming pool, tennis court and basketball court; Asa Coon lived in squalor and filth in Cleveland. Some of the shooters’ parents were married, some divorced and some were never married. Some shooters did well in school while others struggled and repeated grades. Some shooters were bullied and some were the bullies.

The lack of a profile does not mean, however, that there are no common threads among the shooters. In fact, most shooters can be classified as one of three types: psychopathic, psychotic or traumatized. In a nutshell, psychopathic shooters are severely narcissistic, with deficits in their ability to feel guilt, remorse or empathy. They live for themselves, meet their needs at others’ expense and often have a sadistic streak. Eric Harris, one of the Columbine shooters, was a psychopathic shooter.

In contrast, psychotic shooters are not fully in touch with reality. They may experience hallucinations, usually in the form of voices telling them what to do, and they often have delusions of grandeur and/or paranoia. In addition, they have poor social skills and feel profoundly alienated from those around them. Many of them end up being diagnosed schizophrenic. Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, was a psychotic shooter.

Whereas psychotic and psychopathic shooters come from essentially stable, intact families, the traumatized shooters come from chaotic, unstable and abusive homes. These shooters had violent, substance-abusing parents who in many cases had criminal histories. The shooters grew up amid physical abuse and neglect and often were sexually abused outside of the home. On top of this, they tended to be bullied at school. Jeffrey Weise, the shooter in Red Lake, Minn., was a traumatized shooter.

These three categories of shooters, however, do not by themselves explain school shootings because most people who fall into one of these three categories never commit murder. Thus, there are other factors. Recognizing the different types of shooters, however, does provide insight into their basic functioning, shedding light on why they are vulnerable to committing acts of violence when their stresses accumulate beyond the breaking point.

It is common that in the weeks and months preceding their attacks, the shooters experienced one negative event after another. Examples include romantic rejection, failure at school, job loss, legal trouble, being assaulted, rejection by the military and other blows to their identities. It isn’t just that they were picked on at school or rejected by a girl. These common events, however, can combine with a life history of trauma, or paranoid delusions, or extreme egotism, and eventually lead to violence.

There are other patterns that might be significant. Many shooters had biological or medical problems that made them easy targets for harassment and/or damaged their sense of themselves. These problems included birth defects, severe illnesses as children and unusually small statures. Many shooters had parents who served in the military or worked in law enforcement. Perhaps the shooters aspired to the ideal of masculinity represented by their fathers, but due to their physiques and other issues, felt like abject failures. The only way they could think of to assert a sense of manhood was through guns.

Another pattern that might be significant is that many shooters have had parents who were teachers, professors or otherwise worked in education. Perhaps the shooters’ failures to measure up to parental expectations exacerbated their sense of being unworthy. In the rare cases that shooters killed family members prior to their rampages at school, several of them killed their schoolteacher relatives. Kip Kinkel was the only shooter to kill both his parents, and they were both teachers. Luke Woodham’s mother, whom he murdered, had been a teacher when Woodham was young. Charles Whitman, prior to his sniper attack from the tower on the campus of the University of Texas, murdered his wife; she had been a teacher. Five out of nine family members killed by school shooters have had a connection to education.

Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, killed his mother, who reportedly was involved in education in two ways: first, she home-schooled Lanza for a period of time; second, she volunteered in a classroom at Sandy Hook. During his home schooling there might have been conflict over Lanza’s schoolwork and progress; he may have resented her role as educator. Regarding her involvement as a volunteer, it has been suggested that Lanza believed she cared more for the children in her class than she did for him. If he felt abandoned or betrayed by his mother in favor of the school children, this could explain why he targeted the children that he did, and also why he killed her.

Regardless of who the shooters are and why they choose to kill, the warning signs are the same. The key concept in prevention is “leakage.” Whether deliberately or inadvertently, many shooters leak their violent intentions to others. They may warn friends to stay away from school; they may try to talk a kid into joining them. They might brag about their upcoming exploits or directly announce exactly what they are going to do. They write stories for school about killing students, put manifestos online and show off their guns in photos or videos. Though in the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School the students had no connection to the perpetrator, in most cases, students are in the best position to foresee a shooting. They are the eyes and the ears of the school. Prevention efforts should focus on teaching parents, educators and, most importantly, students what to look for and what to do when they find it. |

Dr. Peter Langman, Ph.D, is the author of Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters. Dr. Langman conducts trainings on preventing school shootings for professionals in education, law enforcement and mental health. He has been interviewed nearly 150 times by media outlets in the USA, Canada, Europe, South America, Australia and the Middle East. He maintains the largest online collection of materials relating to school shooters at www.schoolshooters.info.