Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, may seem like a bizarre and incomprehensible character, but in many ways he resembles other school shooters. As a psychologist who has studied dozens of school shooters, I have found many patterns among them, and as surprising as it may be, Lanza fits several of them.
First, at least a dozen shooters had parents who were teachers, volunteers, or otherwise involved in education at some point in their careers. Lanza’s mother was reportedly 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. Because school shootings by definition occur at schools, it is interesting to see how frequently the shooters had family members who worked in schools. What might the significance of this be?
In Lanza’s case, depending on his mother’s role with 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.
Five other school shooters killed family members, resulting in eight deaths. Most notably, Kip Kinkel killed both of his parents (the only shooter to do so), and both parents were schoolteachers. Of the six shooters who killed family members, four of them killed relatives who had been teachers; five out of nine of the family members killed had worked in schools.
What do we make of this? Perhaps these teacher-parents expected more academic success from their children than the kids achieved, leading to chronic conflict. In fact, two of the four shooters who killed their teacher-parents had flunked grades, and this may have been particularly humiliating for both them and their parents.
Another pattern is that many shooters were fascinated by guns and the military. Many had parents who served in the military or had careers in law enforcement, and many had military aspirations of their own. Most of those who sought careers in the armed services, however, were rejected, or if accepted, lasted a brief period before being discharged. These military failures often had a devastating impact.
What is the significance of the military to these shooters? They were young men in search of an identity, feeling weak and powerless, desiring a path to power and manhood. For those with fathers in the military, perhaps they viewed them as the epitome of manliness, and viewed themselves as not measuring up. Succeeding as a soldier would confirm their status as men.
Adam Lanza wanted to join the Marines. He was so profoundly anxious that he was too shy to have his picture taken and could barely speak in social situations. Yet he was obsessed with the military, had the walls of the basement covered with military posters, played military video games, and wanted to be a Marine. Why? That would turn him from a nobody into a somebody. No one can argue with the manliness of a Marine.
Perhaps the same need was behind his reported interest in Satanism. This, too, is a pattern among school shooters. Many of them are drawn to ideologies of power, including Nazism, Satanism, black magic, or the Nietzschean idea of the superman who is superior to the masses. These ideologies offer a sense of power and superiority that is very attractive to lost souls.
Finally, Lanza may have been what I have identified in my research as a psychotic shooter, meaning he had schizophrenia or schizotypal personality disorder. This would explain his extreme social limitations and increasing inability to function as he reached adulthood. The reports of him as essentially nonverbal at times are reminiscent of Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter. Also, the fact that he was twenty years old and was not in school, not working, not dating, and apparently without friends, is comparable to the situations of other psychotic shooters.
If Lanza was a psychotic shooter, this would fit several patterns. Most of the shooters who killed family members were psychotic. Most of the shooters who adopted ideologies of power were psychotic. And most of the shooters who were adults who attacked elementary school children have been psychotic.
We still know very little about Adam Lanza. The few facts that have emerged, however, indicate that he resembled other shooters in multiple ways. As the search for understanding continues, we need to recognize that there is no one factor or motive that results in school shootings. There is always a complex web of personality traits, family history, social influences, identity issues, and sometimes mental illness. The more patterns we can identify among school shooters, the more we can understand what drives them to violence.