What We Have Learned About Rampage Killings

What makes a rampage killer tick?

Posted Jul 23, 2012

Every instance of senseless mass killing prompts soul searching about possible causes with a view to prevention. The Sandy Hook Elementary School rampage killing is no different. Although some of these crimes may share features, every case is different.


Almost all of the shooters are young single men. This is helpful from the perspective that it implicates “male hormones’ explanations. Feelings of humiliation or inferiority related to bullying, or sexual competition, are a key motive so that the violent act redresses wounded pride and is mainly targeted at a local audience (1). Yet, the “young male” angle is of limited usefulness if only because this demographic is so over represented in all violent crimes.

Efforts to pin down other shared factors have generally not gone well. There is a long laundry list of potential factors from gun availability, to violent video games, and attention seeking.

Gun availability

The fact that there have been so many rampage killings in the U.S. certainly points to gun availability as a factor. Even if the shooters do not buy the gun/s themselves, they often have access to the poorly-secured gun collection of a close relative. Yet rampage killings also occur in countries such as the United Kingdom, and Norway, that have restrictive gun control laws. Gun availability may increase the likelihood of rampage killings but tighter gun laws do not prevent them from happening. With so many guns circulating in the U.S., better security at public buildings may help as indicated by reduced shootings in high schools.

Biological factors

Other than the standard male hormones explanation, brain biology is implicated in crimes of violence. A low-serotonin profile characterizes many violent criminals and this can be used to predict criminal recidivism (2). The problem is that this brain profile often mirrors environmental factors such as abusive parenting and a history of heavy drinking. A similar problem haunts efforts to implicate particular genes in impulsive violence. The biological profile is hard to disentangle from family environment.

Violent video games and other media

In the aftermath of the first high school shootings, it emerged that playing violent video games can improve marksmanship so that teens who lack military training are much more deadly with a gun in their hands than would otherwise be the case (3). Yet, this is not a big issue when one considers how much damage any shooter can do in a crowded room with semi-automatic weapons.

Media exposure

There is little doubt that many rampage killings have copycat features whether they follow the script of a real event, or a fictional depiction (3). This suggests that the desire for media attention, and notoriety is a strong motivating factor. Yet, this is not very useful from the perspective of prevention because sensationalist media love to cover such stories and are not going to deprive some killers of the fame they crave. In addition to old media, perpetrators of atrocities gain instant global notoriety on the Internet.

Early warning

Some rampage killers emit warning signals before acting. Although teenagers may pick up on these signals, they are rather unlikely to report them to authorities. Either they underestimate the seriousness of the threat or they are unwilling to act as an informant. In many cases, rampage shooters seem to act completely out of the blue although their action followed a period of preparation conducted in private.

Plots and conspiracies

Although some rampage killers have confederates, most appear to act alone. If there is an actual conspiracy, more people know about the plan increasing the likelihood that someone will reveal the plot. The people who are most likely to be blamed for failing to prevent plans for a rampage killing spree are the parents.


Although many of the shooters have distant or troubled relationships with their parents, some do not. So faulting the parents for being emotionally unavailable, or for failing to keep up to date on the activities of their young-adult offspring may be wide of the mark.

So after decades of concern and extensive psychological research on the issue, there is surprisingly little that can be done to prevent mass shootings and the pain they bring to victims and their families.  All we can really be sure about is that the less access there is to rapid-firing weapons, the less likely that such events are to occur and the lower the body count. But that is only common sense.

1. Barber, N. (2002). The science of romance. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

2. Virkunen, M., J. DeJong, J. Bartko, F. K. Goodwin, and M. Linnoila. 1989. Relationship of psychobiological variables to recidivism in violent offenders and impulsive fire-setters. Archives of General Psychiatry, 46, 600-603.

3. Leo. J. (1999, 3 May). When life imitates video. U.S. News and World Report, p 14.