Sometimes I like to “take a break” from work and see what CNN is showing as top news. Today, I was deeply saddened to see the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Since my specialty is children’s happiness I had to pause and read about the shooter, James Holmes. I wondered: Who is he? What drove him to do something as horrific as this? Who missed the signs?

Seeing the signs of a shooter

Having worked in mental health for years, I know that shooters always “show signs” before they enact their “big and memorable” and usually horrific actions. So I will share some of the signs of shooters so that you can stay alert for them, nurture in your children the exact opposite (keep them healthy) and if possible, get anyone with this profile to seek professional help immediately. The signs of a shooter are:

  1. No Remorse: The lack of remorse is probably one of the most striking signs of a shooter. They do unspeakable acts and display no regret. Last year, I met with a teenager (per his mother’s request) and he had killed his family dog. This teenager showed no regret about it and had done this intentional act to “see if he could do it.” His lack of remorse and proclivity towards violence urged me to have his family get him serious help—and also made me think of him as fitting the profile of a shooter.
  2. Act Violently: Shooters don’t perform their first “big act” like today’s massacre in Colorado out of the blue. They tend to do little things along the way—whether it was hurting the family dog or other acts of violence so they can build up their violence muscle. It is really mental illness that can act so violently over and over again.
  3. History of Social, Emotional & Mental disturbances: Shooters have a history of being socially inept, lacking in emotional intelligence, and not “fitting in” with their peer group. Paradoxically, they are also intelligent by traditional measurements. For example, James Holmes (today’s shooter) dropped out of a doctoral program and his social demeanor has been described as standoffish. He also graduated with honors with an undergraduate degree in neuroscience.  
  4. Obsession with weapons: Shooters tend to study how to build explosives, learn how to acquire guns from the high powered assault rifle to glock handgun like Holmes had today, and many have collection of weapons like knives as well as weapon memorabilia. Today, the officials noticed this from outside of James apartment—he had his place booby—trapped extensively.
  5. Lack of Ethics: Shooters are resistant to learning and displaying ethical decision making. They thrive on this unhealthy display of violence, lack any sense of healthy conscience; and ultimately don’t understand the teaching of “what goes around comes around” like my child client Brian, aged 13, said to me last week.
  6. No meaningful friends: Shooters tend to remain by themselves, unless they find—perchance a like-minded person like the two shooters in the Columbine shooting (1999, and 11 miles from today’s shooting) that joined forces. It is this reclusive nature combined with obsession with weapons, violence and lack of a conscience that is the huge red flag—this person may fit the shooter profile.
  7. High family dysfunction: Nearly everyone comes from a “somewhat” dysfunctional family, but the shooter usually has a large degree of dysfunction. Said differently, there is a biological basis for a young man (or woman theoretically) to become a shooter. They lack healthy brain development, environments that support positive emotional health and usually tend to be far removed from ideal social role models.

Preventing the Pain

So how do we prevent violence like this happening again? First, I believe it is everyone’s responsibility to stay alert for the signs of a shooter and if you “see someone” like this—say something to someone who may be able to help. Second, I know we need to teach young children (K-8) in every classroom how to deal with their emotions, think healthfully and connect with others in positive ways. It is this type of prevention that can positively impact children, communities and eventually the world.

And in the meantime, I also suggest teaching children how to respond to emergencies so they can continue to develop faith in themselves—and their ability to navigate whatever shows up in life.

By Maureen Healy

Maureen Healy is a practicing children’s emotional health expert with more than 20 years of global experience. Her last book, Growing Happy Kids: How to Foster Inner Confidence, Success and Happiness, is available wherever books are sold. More info: or @mdhealy  

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