Keeping Kids Safe

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

To Kill and To Die: Suicide and School Shooters

Are school shooters always suicidal?

 

I recently read a statement that all rampage school shooters are suicidal. Though many school shooters are suicidal at the time of their attacks, there are exceptions. Some were suicidal earlier in their lives, but did not appear to be suicidal at the time of their attacks. Others planned to kill themselves during the attacks, but when the time came, they chose not to. Of the fifteen shooters I have studied most (ten in Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters and five in "Expanding the Sample: Five School Shooters," which is available at www.schoolshooters.info), a significant percentage of them made no effort to kill themselves or to set themselves up to be killed by police (i.e., "suicide by cop").

This was most noticeable among the five psychopathic shooters, only two of whom committed suicide (Robert Poulin and Eric Harris). Brenda Spencer surrendered with no known indication of any suicidal thoughts or behaviors. Drew Golden had planned to escape in a van that had been stocked with food and clothes. Wayne Lo called the police, confessed that he was the shooter on campus, and let himself be taken into custody. Though he reportedly told a friend the night before that he didn't want to live anymore, he made no effort to kill himself or to engage in a shootout with the police in an attempt to get himself killed. Thus, three out of five of the psychopathic shooters I've studied were not suicidal at the time of their attacks.

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The psychotic shooters had a higher rate of suicidal intent, though they did not always follow through with suicide. Andrew Wurst had talked about killing himself and left a suicide note at home. He was apprehended, however, without any attempt to kill himself. Kip Kinkel had also planned to kill himself, but was tackled by students during the attack and thus prevented from carrying out his plan. He might well have killed himself if not stopped, or perhaps he would have faltered when the time came to pull the trigger on himself; we have no way of knowing. Dylan Klebold had a long history of suicidal thoughts, and he killed himself at Columbine. Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, also killed himself.

The case of Michael Carneal is ambiguous. He had been suicidal at some point before the attack. After the attack, however, he talked about how he had thought that bringing guns to school would elevate his status among his peers and/or result in his going to jail. These thoughts indicate that he was not looking to die during the attack. Immediately after shooting eight people, however, he yelled for someone to kill him. He apparently became suicidal when he realized the enormity of what he had done, but had not intended to die in the attack and made no attempt to kill himself.

Luke Woodham is the only psychotic shooter who attempted to escape after his attack. Luke had driven his mother's car to school. After committing a shooting in the school, Luke left the building, got into the car, and attempted to drive away. He was blocked, however, and apprehended. Though Luke made no attempt to kill himself, he had been suicidal in the past. He had also indicated to a friend that he expected to die in a shoot-out with police during his rampage. Despite this, however, he made no attempt to kill himself, and did not wait for police to show up so that he could be killed by them.

Thus, of the six psychotic shooters, only two committed suicide (Klebold and Cho). Kip Kinkel intended to but was tackled before he could. Andrew Wurst planned to, but instead he surrendered. Michael Carneal made no effort to kill himself though he yelled for someone to kill him after throwing down his gun. Luke Woodham attempted to drive away from the scene.

Of the four traumatized shooters, three were suicidal. Evan Ramsey planned his attack initially as a suicide at school. His friends talked him into committing homicide. Though Evan put his gun under his chin at the end of his attack, he did not pull the trigger. He had left a suicide note, however, and clearly expected he would die during the attack. Jeffrey Weise had a suicide attempt prior to his attack, and killed himself during the attack. Asa Coon also killed himself.

Mitchell Johnson, however, attempted to flee with his fellow perpetrator, Drew Golden. Mitchell had reportedly been suicidal months before, but at the time of the attack he made no effort to kill himself. He had planned to escape in the van with Drew. Thus, one out of four of the traumatized shooters was not suicidal at the time of the attacks.

Though the sample sizes are small, it is interesting that the highest percentage of non-suicidal shooters seems to be found among the psychopaths. Given their narcissism, it is not surprising that they would be less likely to take their own lives. Also, the psychotic and traumatized shooters tended to experience far more depression and anguish than the psychopathic shooters, which made them more suicidal.

What this brief review demonstrates is that not all rampage school shooters were suicidal at the time of their attacks. Most had histories of suicidal thoughts at some point in their lives, but not all of them did. And even among those who had planned to die in the attacks, not all of them went through with their plans. As always, we need to be sensitive to nuances and not be too quick to generalize.

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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