Keeping Kids Safe

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

The Massacre At Sandy Hook Elementary School

Does the attack by Adam Lanza resemble other school shootings or is it unique?

In the wake of a tragedy of this magnitude, it is difficult to be dispassionate and analytical, but people are hungry for information that might shed light on such a horrifying event. Of course, the danger is that in the absence of more substantive information, preliminary analyses are apt to go awry simply because we just don’t know enough.

Nonetheless, based on what we do know, I can make some observations about this attack and how it resembles other school shootings. First, most school shooters fall into one of three categories: psychopathic, psychotic, or traumatized. I have written about these types in my book (Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters) as well as several articles on my website (www.schoolshooters.info). In short, psychopathic shooters are extremely narcissistic, disregard law and morality, lack the capacity for empathy, and tend to take sadistic pleasure in hurting and killing. Psychotic shooters are people struggling with schizophrenia (or sometimes schizotypal personality disorder). Their symptoms include auditory hallucinations (i.e., hearing voices), delusions of grandeur and/or paranoid delusions, and severely impaired social functioning. Whereas both psychopathic and psychotic shooters tend to come from more or less stable homes, traumatized shooters are raised in highly dysfunctional families. These shooters experience physical abuse and sometimes sexual abuse, and have parents who are alcoholic, drug-addicted, violent, and often have criminal histories.

Adam Lanza’s attack at Sandy Hook was different from most school shootings in two ways: he killed his mother and he was an adult gunning down children in an elementary school. Other shooters have killed family members, and other shooters have been adults who attacked elementary schools, but no previous shooter has done both. In that way, Lanza’s attack appears to be unique.

Nonetheless, it may be useful to compare Lanza’s attack to the rampages it most resembles. At least five other shooters have killed family members prior to their attacks at schools. In 1966, Charles Whitman murdered his mother and wife before conducting his sniper attack at the University of Texas. Luke Woodham, in 1997 in Pearl, Mississippi, killed his mother. In 1998, in Springfield, Oregon, Kip Kinkel killed both his parents. Jeffrey Weise, who committed the rampage in Red Lake, Minnesota, in 2005, first killed his grandfather and the grandfather’s girlfriend. Lastly, in 2006, Alvaro Castillo shot and killed his father in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

Of these five shooters, three were psychotic (Woodham, Kinkel, Castillo), one was psychopathic (Whitman), and one was traumatized (Weise). This is a very small sample, but it suggests that psychotic shooters are most likely to kill family members.

It has been reported, and then disputed, that Lanza’s mother was a school teacher. If so, this would be noteworthy. At least twelve shooters have had family members who were teachers, professors, or had other positions in education. Also, of the eight family members killed by the five shooters just mentioned, four of the eight had been teachers. This includes both of Kinkel’s parents, Woodham’s mother, and Whitman’s wife. I don’t know how significant this is, but it is a striking pattern.

Whereas most shooters commit attacks against their peers, several adults have attacked elementary schools. These include Laurie Dann in Winnetka, Illinois in 1988; James Wilson in Greenwood, South Carolina, in 1988; Patrick Purdy, in Stockton, California, in 1989; Thomas Hamilton in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996; and Wellington de Oliveira in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2011.

In the cases of Purdy and de Oliveira, they had once attended the schools they attacked. Purdy was 24 when he gunned down children at the elementary school he had last attended in third grade. Oliveira was 23 when he attacked the school where he had been a student approximately ten years earlier. Some reports on the Sandy Hook shooting said that Adam Lanza had attended the school years before. If so, this is similar to the attacks by Purdy and de Oliveira. In terms of the typology, Purdy was a severely traumatized shooter and de Oliveira was psychotic.

The other three adults who attacked elementary schools were particularly unusual in that they had elements of two types of shooters. Laurie Dann had periods of very psychotic functioning that alternated with periods of extreme clarity, cleverness, and ruthlessness in plotting sadistic attempts to make others suffer. James Wilson, in contrast, was a traumatized child who developed schizophrenia as a young adult. Thomas Hamilton was a very enigmatic figure and we have little information about his internal world to guide us in understanding his dynamics. Based on what is available, however, he seemed to have elements of schizotypal personality disorder as well as psychopathic features. If my surmises are accurate, then all of three of these shooters (Dann, Wilson, and Hamilton) had psychotic features, and four of the five adults who attacked elementary schools fit partly or fully within the psychotic category.

This is a very preliminary analysis, but comparing Lanza’s actions with other shooters who killed family members and adult shooters who attacked elementary schools, the patterns are weighted toward the psychotic shooters. This, of course, is not much to go on, especially since similar attacks have also been committed by psychopathic and traumatized shooters. It is also possible that Lanza does not fit into the currently identified types and it may be necessary to add a fourth category. Time will tell as we await further details of this most recent terrifying attack.

(For multiple resources on Lanza and his attack, please visit this page of my website.)

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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