School Shooters: There Is No Sound Bite
Research highlights the diversity of perpetrators.
Posted January 31, 2015
When people ask me for a sound bite explanation of school shootings, my standard response is: “the sound bite is that there is no sound bite.” Last fall, when Jaylen Fryberg committed an attack shortly after being named Homecoming Prince, people commented that he “didn’t fit the profile” of a school shooter. The truth is that there is no profile. School shooters are not all bullied, they are not all loners, and they are not all obsessed with violent video games or firearms. Sometimes they commit random attacks against strangers, sometimes they carry out narrowly focused attacks against specific people, and sometimes there are both random and targeted victims.
The dozens of shooters included on my website, schoolshooters.info, range in age from 11 to 62. They attacked educational settings from elementary schools to universities. Most were current or former students, but some were actually school employees. Other shooters were adults who attacked schools they had attended many years earlier, and still others shot people at schools they had never attended.
Making sense of this diverse group of perpetrators is challenging, to say the least. In my first book on the topic (Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters), I presented a psychological typology of perpetrators, noting that they typically fall into one of three categories: psychopathic, psychotic, and traumatized. In my new book (School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators), I continue to categorize the shooters by psychological type but also look at additional dimensions. When the perpetrators are divided into various groups, interesting patterns emerge.
For example, traumatized shooters were the most common of the three psychological types among secondary shooters, but completely absent among college shooters. In addition, none of the secondary school shooters were immigrants, but over half the college shooters were immigrants or international students. Thus, the different populations (secondary school vs. college) faced different stresses. Many of the younger perpetrators came from poverty-stricken, chaotic, violent homes where they suffered multiple types of abuse. In contrast, none of the college shooters came from such backgrounds; their stresses involved the pressures of academia, the struggles of acculturation, and the challenge of handling adult responsibilities such as obtaining work and supporting themselves.
Dividing college perpetrators by the type of attack (random or targeted) proved to be an important angle of analysis. The shooters who engaged in targeted attacks had longstanding grievances with their universities and gave off significant warning signs of impending violence. In contrast, those who engaged in random attacks did not have long-term conflicts with their schools and gave off fewer warning signs. The random shooters, however, were far more deadly, with over five times the number of people killed and wounded than the targeted shooters (27 vs. 5). In other words, the attacks that were harder to predict were the most devastating.
One of the most revealing set of results involves what is known as “victim selection.” This refers to the specific targets of the attackers. Though many perpetrators committed random attacks, more than half of the perpetrators included in my book had at least one specific person as an intended victim. Who were these victims? Most commonly they were school personnel, including teachers and administrators. The next most frequently targeted victims were girls or women. Only one of the 48 perpetrators targeted a peer who had picked on him. These statistics are important in understanding the motivations of the shooters. The data on victim selection suggest that rage about academic and romantic failures was more of a factor than the desire for revenge against bullies.
In fact, failure and the shame that is often associated with it, occurred in multiple domains. Many shooters appear to have suffered a “failure of manhood” as a result of being poor physical specimens with significant biological challenges to their sense of masculinity. In addition, many aspired to serve in the military, with most of them failing in their aspirations. This presumably was a further blow to their masculinity.
Many shooters had significant academic failures and disciplinary problems in their schools that fueled their rage. Adult shooters often experienced repeated occupational failures and faced serious financial stress that was a significant cause of their anger. Romantic failure was common across nearly all the perpetrators. Younger shooters typically failed miserably in their search for love. Among the ten adult shooters who had been married, 80% ended in separation, divorce, and/or domestic violence.
As noted in previous works, simply identifying perpetrators as psychopathic, psychotic, or traumatized, does not explain why they committed rampage attacks; most people in these categories never commit murder. The research presented in my book furthers our understanding of why certain people carried out school shootings. Not only were they psychopathic, psychotic, or traumatized, but they experienced repeated failures across multiple domains: education, military aspirations, work, intimate relationships, financial stability, and sense of masculinity. They often felt they had nothing to live for, and they often wanted to get revenge against those they blamed for their predicaments. These factors, combined with psychopathic traits, psychotic symptoms, or histories of traumas, resulted in violence.