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What Motivates School Shooters?

The deviant desire for publicity and other school shooter commonalities.

In the aftermath of each school shooting, we grieve for the affected community, pray for the injured, and for the families of lives lost. Yet we also focus our attention on the shooter in an attempt to make sense out of the senseless violence and identify red flags that might help prevent future shootings.

Reading the red flags that precipitated each massacre, we ask what could have been done differently. This conversation always includes an examination of the traits that mass shooters have in common. These often include a quest for fame, perceived rejection, and a sense of injustice.

Seeking Fame and Infamy—a Perceived Distinction Without a Difference

The desire for fame is a longstanding motivation driving human behavior. Too often, bad behavior. The line between fame and infamy becomes blurred as many bad actors do not believe there is any such thing as bad press. Tragically, some of these bad actors are individuals capable of committing mass shootings.

The devastating 1999 Columbine High School shooting is an event that shocked the nation. Yet not everyone was horrified. Some were inspired. Although most people find the counterintuitive phenomenon hard to believe, other school shooters report being captivated and encouraged by the Columbine gunmen. Could it be because of the press coverage they received? Many believe at least in part, the answer is yes.

Media Coverage of School Shooters: News Stories or Sensationalism?

Many people are opposed to the amount of coverage school shooters receive in the media. Some media outlets feel the same way and even refrain from naming a school shooter to avoid contributing to these mass murders becoming a household name.

An article in Vox entitled “The Media Should Stop Making School Shooters Famous” notes that extensive media coverage made Columbine School shooters “not only famous but even, in some quarters, folk heroes of a sort, particularly among deeply alienated students.” [i] The article notes that the Columbine shooters even have a cult following known as “The Columbiners.” The article outlines efforts to decrease the amount of media coverage devoted to school shooters through campaigns aptly entitled “No Notoriety” and “Don´t Name Them.”

Despite counterarguments citing the First Amendment and the public´s right to full coverage of devastating school shootings and similar attacks, which includes personal information about the perpetrators, research supports the concern about the potential danger of over-publicizing school shooters.

Researching Shooter Quest for Fame

Research by Adam Lankford (2016) reveals that rampage shooters in pursuit of fame have become more common in the last few decades and that these shooters are disproportionately found in the United States.[ii] He also points to out that there are significant differences between offenders seeking fame and other offenders. He notes that fame-seeking rampage shooters are usually significantly younger, and kill and injure significantly more victims.

Lankford recognizes that in America, fame is considered to be “the ultimate form of prestige-bearing success.” He further notes that the demarcation between fame and infamy appears to be vanishing, leading some mass shooters, overcome by “delusions of grandeur,” to kill in pursuit of seeking fame and glory.

Yet there are other reasons troubled youth commit mass murder.

Perceived Rejection, Negativity, and Paranoia

Dutton et al. (2013) note that school shooters are depicted in the relevant literature as either psychopathic or responding with rage to taunting or bullying behavior.[iii] They discovered similarities in an examination of websites and diaries left by a subset of mass shooters (e.g., Eric Harris, Kimveer Gil, Seung-Hui Cho, Anders Breivik). Examining pre-shooting writings provides a glimpse into the thought processes of the shooters.

They found that this group exaggerated the negativity of the way they were treated by others, as reported by peers. The shooters obsessed over being rejected by a perceived “elite in-group” they view as having become successful unfairly. They thus plan to annihilate those who have transgressed against them in an act of vengeance for the way they were treated.

Dutton et al. note that the obsessive and self-exacerbating qualities of the perceptions of the shooters are more consistent paranoia than psychopathy. They also note that shooters who survive are diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.

Risk Factors Are Red Flags

Knowing some of the shared traits of mass shooters provides guidance to those in a position to spot red flags sooner rather than later. Acknowledging that some young people experience an abnormal, deviant interest in school shooters, viewing their senseless carnage as empowering, rather than repulsive, can prompt us to recognize such interest in a conversation, and search for (and find) indications of such deviant interest both on and offline.

Because knowledge is power, understanding the risk factors will enhance our ability to identify problem behavior and intervene if necessary. Remaining attentive to warning signs will enable us to work together to protect our students and our community.



[ii] Adam Lankford, ”Fame-seeking rampage shooters: Initial findings and empirical predictions,” Aggression and Violent Behavior 27 (2016) 122-129.

[iii] Donald G. Dutton, Katherine R. White, and Dan Fogarty, “Paranoid thinking in mass shooters,” 18, iss. 5 (2013) 548-553.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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