Keeping Kids Safe

Inside the minds of school shooters, with general insight into adolescent mental health.

The Career Aspirations of Shooters

What careers do school shooters aspire to?

John Douglas, the FBI agent who made profiling famous, noticed that many serial killers were either police buffs, or had a history of wanting to be police officers. He wrote, "This desire to work with the police was another interesting revelation, which was to come up over and over again in our serial killer studies." Their career aspirations, however, were often thwarted: "Frequently serial killers had failed in their efforts to join police departments." These observations are interesting in light of what we see among a number of rampage shooters.

Rather than having frustrated ambitions regarding joining the police, however, school shooters often had military aspirations that were thwarted. This occurred either because the future shooters were rejected, or having been accepted, they dropped out or were discharged prematurely. The frequency of this pattern is particularly striking in light of the fact that most school shooters are too young to have applied to the military. For example, Jeffrey Weise, who went on a rampage in Red Lake Minnesota, reportedly wanted to join the military, but carried out his attack and killed himself when he was sixteen years old. Thus, the very small number of school shooters becomes even smaller, being limited to the rampage shooters who were old enough to have applied to the military prior to their attacks. Here's a brief summary of this subgroup of school shooters:

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Robert Poulin (age 18): Robert's attack occurred in Ottawa, Canada on October 27, 1975. He had applied to an officer training program and been rejected as immature. He also had lied on his application, claiming to have played sports that he did not play.

Eric Harris (age 18): Eric attacked Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. He applied to the Marines shortly before the attack. He lied about his history of using drugs. He also apparently denied his history of taking psychiatric medication. When Mrs. Harris asked if Eric's taking Luvox would prevent him from being accepted, the recruiting officer said he would look into this. Though Eric was rejected, the recruiting officer stated Eric never found this out because the attack occurred before the officer was able to communicate with Eric. Nonetheless, Eric may have suspected this would happen.

Eric Houston (age 18): Eric, who committed a school shooting in Olivehurst, California, on May 1, 1992, had wanted to join the army but was unable to when a teacher who had been sexually abusing him failed him for the year, thus preventing him from receiving his high school diploma.

Jason Hoffman (age 18): Jason committed a school shooting in El Cajon, California, on March 5, 2001. He was rejected by the Navy, at least in part for being overweight and having a skin condition.

Steven Kazmierczak (age 27): Steven went on a rampage on February 14, 2008 at Northern Illinois University. He had joined the Army but was discharged after it was discovered he had lied about his history of suicide attempts and other psychiatric problems.
Matti Saari (age 22): Matti committed his attack in Kauhajoki, Finland, on September 23, 2008. He had joined the Finnish Army but was discharged after a month when he opened fire against orders during a military exercise.

If we expand our definition of school shooters, we can include Marc Lepine and Kimveer Gill. These two men both committed attacks at colleges in Canada when they were 25 years old. They did not, however, attend the schools they attacked. Because of this, they fall outside some definitions of school shooters. Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider them in this discussion.
Marc Lepine (age 25): Marc went on a rampage in Montreal on December 6, 1989. He had applied to the Canadian Army but was rejected as "unsuitable" or "asocial." It is noteworthy that though Lepine did not attend the Ecole Polytechnique, the site of his rampage, he had applied for admission there but was rejected.

Kimveer Gill (age 25): Kimveer shot 20 people at Dawson College in Montreal on September 13, 2006. He had aspirations to join the military and thereby follow in the footsteps of his family in India. He enrolled in a military leadership course but dropped out after a month.
Finally, though Michael McLendon was not a school shooter, he did go on a killing spree in Alabama on March 10, 2009. He had been a Marine for a short period, but was discharged after falsifying information. He also had failed in his effort to become a police officer.

The pattern of thwarted careers in law enforcement and/or the military can be found among serial killers and school shooters, as well as at least one spree killer. What significance is there to this pattern of aspiration and failure? First, the shooters' interest in the military may have been their attempt to channel their fascination with weapons and violence into an acceptable outlet.

Their career aspirations could also have been motivated by what Dr. Katherine Newman calls "the failure of manhood." For young men who had fragile identities, joining the military may have been seen as a way of establishing masculine identities for themselves. Their failures to achieve this goal may have had a devastating impact on them. Perhaps their armed rampages were an attempt to show the world just how capable they were of using weapons. They may have taken their rejections and failures as a personal assault on their masculinity, and thus felt driven to demonstrate to the world that they were powerful men indeed.

Douglas, John, and Olshaker, Mark. Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, Pocket Books, New York, 1996, p. 105.
Douglas & Olshaker, p. 106.

 

Dr. Peter Langman is the author of Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters and trains professionals in law enforcement, education, and mental health on preventing school shootings. more...

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