School Shootings: What Drives Mass Shooters?

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*The following is an excerpt from the USCCA’s Active Shooter: Uncovering What Drives Your Attacker. The material presented below deals mainly with school shootings.

There is no single profile that defines the mass shooter. Some could be categorized as psychotic, such as the Virginia Tech shooter. Others are motivated or inspired by ISIS or other terrorist organizations. Most are seeking fame.

While no common profile exists, common indicators do exist if you know the signs. In addition, most shooters have left a trail of physical or electronic evidence that was missed by friends or family. In 80 percent of the mass shootings since Columbine, the shooters told someone in advance about his or her plans, yet he or she wasn’t taken seriously.

Picking the potential mass shooter out of a crowded field of students, employees or parishioners won’t be as simple as looking at what the individual is wearing or what music he or she is listening to or other overt signs.

Warning Signs of School Shootings

Dr. Peter Langman would agree. In his article, School Shooters: The Warning Signs, he notes, “The warning signs of school shootings do not relate to students’ clothing, the video games they play, their musical preferences or other aspects of their lifestyles.” In many cases, however, Langman says these shooters are “very disempowered, not succeeding in life in multiple domains, and we see that with college and adult shooters. They’re typically failing in academics, failing in the world of work, failing in the world of friendship, in romance or sexuality. Nothing really is going right in any major domain for them.”

While outsiders may believe that he or she is doing OK, the potential shooter may believe that he or she is failing at everything or, worse, that everyone is failing him or her. But not all young men (or women) who are suffering one or more failures become mass shooters. So what are the warning signs that an individual may be at risk or may have already reached the planning stage? Warning signs can be designated in three ways: risk factors, direct indicators and indirect indicators.

Risk Factors

While the vast majority of individuals who come from broken homes or who have disengaged parents will never become mass shooters, when multiple risk factors exist, an individual should appropriately be considered at risk for violence or suicide. Risk factors can include:

  • Multiple failures academically, socially or romantically
  • Troubled, broken or abusive home
  • Disengaged parents or no responsible adult providing oversight in the individual’s life
  • Psychotic symptoms, including hallucinations and delusions

Direct Indicators of School Shootings

Risk factors simply indicate that an individual may be at risk, but direct indicators show that actual planning may have begun. In case after case, mass shooters have left direct indicators of their plans — either in physical or electronic form or in what they said or did beforehand. But in far too many cases, friends or family members didn’t take the indicators seriously. Direct indicators can include physical evidence, such as:

  • If the individual is underage and actively seeking out a friend or family member for an illegal firearm purchase (not only is this a direct indicator, it’s also illegal and must be reported)
  • An unexplained and uncharacteristic stockpiling of firearms, ammunition or components that could be used to manufacture an explosive
  • Written documentation, such as specific plans for an attack or violent “fictional” stories written with real-world settings or actors
  • Direct warnings for friends or family members to stay away from an area on a specific date
  • Direct threats, specifically stating grievances and/or plans (these could be verbal or in writing, such as in a journal or as part of a writing assignment)

Direct Indicators on Social Media

Direct indicators can also include information left on social media:

  • Posts expressing admiration for past mass shooters or for ISIS, Al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations; positive references to Hitler or Nazi Germany; or comments which could be taken as thoughts of suicide
  • Photos showing the individual pointing a firearm directly at the camera or at his or her own head (if such a manual existed, both of these photos would be straight out of the Mass Shooter’s Instruction Manual)

While the direct indicators listed might seem laughably obvious, in every one of the 48 mass shootings since Columbine, those direct indicators existed and were either missed or ignored by family and friends.

Indirect Indicators of School Shootings

While most mass shooters wouldn’t be categorized as “loners,” many will be disengaged from normal social and familial relationships or express anti-social behavior. Other indirect indicators include:

  • Being socially dysfunctional
  • Having difficulty relating emotionally with others
  • Showing bullying tendencies (contrary to popular belief, most mass shooters have not been bullied and instead tend to be bullies. Other indirect indicators can appear on social media or in the student’s writing. These may not show a specific desire for violence but can indicate feelings of despair, disenfranchisement or that the world is conspiring against him or her)

To monitor students with risk factors, direct indicators or indirect indicators, Dr. Langman suggests that every student in every school have at least one direct connection with a teacher or coach. That doesn’t mean that the adult simply ask the student, “How are you doing?” during the occasional hallway conversation. It means that the adult should take an actual interest in helping the student remain engaged.

An adult also needs to take responsibility for monitoring that student’s social media usage. Other students or friends of the potential mass shooter might miss the signs (or not take them seriously). Having at least one responsible adult who takes an actual interest can not only help to identify potential violence before it starts but also reduce or eliminate the possibility that violence (or suicide) is contemplated in the first place.

Reversing the Trend

While society as a whole is shifting to elevate fame over sacrifice, service and hard work, parents have an opportunity to counteract that pull with the following advice:

  • If your child is falling behind academically, set aside time for homework each evening and check his or her work. Success gives rise to success. Validation through academic hard work may be all the success and fame that the child needs.
  • If your child is lacking success socially or on the playing field, encourage him or her to sign up for Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts or a similar organization such as your local Police or Fire Explorer post. Eagle Scouts are not out shooting up schools, malls or churches.
  • Monitor your child’s social media accounts. Act like the grown-up in your relationship and establish simple rules. If you’re not allowed to monitor a social media account, then the privilege goes away.
  • Monitor your child’s computer use. While it’s possible to hide or delete web searches or create hidden files or folders, investigations post-shooting have almost always found an obvious electronic trail. You probably won’t find a document labeled, “My Mass Shooting To-Do List,” but being aware of your child’s computer use will alert you if he or she is spending time on undesirable forums.
  • It’s your house. No place should be off-limits to a search. Whether it’s searching a bedroom, a bank statement, the child’s phone or a computer, check every nook and cranny where something could be hidden.
  • Be a model for your child in your behavior and actions. See the best in people, not the worst. If your dinner conversation consists of complaining about what’s wrong with the world and who’s to blame, you’ll pass that losing attitude on to your child. While you may not turn him or her into a mass shooter, you will create an adult with built-in excuses on why his or her life is failing rather than giving him or her the tools and attitude to achieve real success.

Sandy Hook Promise: ‘Say Something’ Campaign

To help prevent future mass shootings and even suicide, Sandy Hook Promise — a movement designed to educate and empower communities through gun-violence-prevention programs — has launched a “Say Something” campaign. It teaches students, educators and family members not only how to spot warning signs but also what to do about them (by bringing your concerns to a trusted adult).

The “Say Something” campaign teaches:

  1. Look for warning signs, signals and threats.
  2. Act immediately; take it seriously.
  3. Say something to a trusted adult.

As part of the campaign, Sandy Hook Promise has provided handouts for parents, students and educators. It also offers a PowerPoint presentation and a number of student activities in an educator guide.

In addition to the “Say Something” campaign, Sandy Hook Promise has also recently launched an outstanding new video, which shows how easy it is to miss the signs unless you’re watching closely and actively. The 2 ½-minute video titled Evan follows the budding love interest of a high school student who trades notes with an anonymous girl by scratching them onto a desk in the library. The video does an outstanding job of showing how the noise and activities of everyday life can cause us to miss the signs until it’s too late.

While the viewer is focused on Evan (and hoping that he meets the girl), it’s easy to miss the signs of an angry, disengaged student in the background. This student ultimately walks through the gym door with a bag of guns. I’ll add that you can disagree with the video’s supposition that one of the indirect indicators that we should watch for is a student who reads gun magazines or watches shooting videos on YouTube. But taken in its entirety, the video does a good job of painting a picture of a troubled teenager who is in need of help before it’s too late.

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