Explaining the inexplicable

- April 18, 2007

The phenomenon of mass school shootings was virtually unheard of until the 1960s when Charles Whitman killed 15 of his fellow students at the University of Texas at Austin. During the 60s, 70s and 80s there were only a few isolated incidents. Unfortunately, the numbers increased substantially in the 90s and the new millennium. Further, such violence has reached the Canadian context as we discovered with such tragic incidents as the ones in Taber, Alberta and Dawson College in Montreal.

Because of the generally low base rate, little research to date has looked at the psychology of school shooters. The FBI conducted the first research, looking
at the small number of cases that had occurred prior to the late 1990s. Since that time, a few small scale studies have been published but no research has yet examined the neurological or neurochemical influences at this point.

The research to date suggests that there is no single psychological profile that characterizes all or even most school shooters. In many ways, they are quite diverse in their characteristics. For example:

  • While some were loners, others had many friends or acquaintances.
  • While some had been bullied repeatedly, others had not, or had been bullies
  • themselves.
  • While some had abusive backgrounds, others grew up in apparently positive familial environments.
  • They come from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

On the other hand, school shooters do share some common demographic and psychological features, including:

  • Almost all were males from 15-25.
  • Very few had criminal records or a history of antisocial behaviour.
  • None or few of the shooters had 'snapped.' Rarely was the violence a spontaneous "crime of passion." Almost always, the rampage was the culmination of a long series of disappointments, rejections, and perceived injustices. The violence was usually extremely well planned, often for weeks or months in advance. Although most shooters carefully premeditated the attacks, they often had experienced a recent relationship loss or rejection - for example, a girlfriend leaving them or someone rejecting their advances.
  • Almost all school shooters had a) a fascination with violent video games and movies and b) easy access to firearms/ammunition.
  • Virtually without exception, all shooters shared their intentions directly or indirectly with others leading up to the shooting. This sometimes occurred through statements to friends/acquaintances, on-line blogs, emails, comments at school, or black humour. Often there was clear evidence of their plan in plain sight in their bedrooms at home. In other words, the shootings were potentially preventable if someone had paid attention to the cues being dropped. Thus, peers must be encouraged to speak up if they notice these hints or clues and must take seriously statements concerning violent intentions.
  • As opposed to the traditional view that paired low self-esteem with violence, most shooters show a combination of profound self-entitlement and narcissism, and a sense of rejection from others. In other words, they feel entitled to attention and positive regard from others but and react with anger when they sense rejection from their peers. Further, they look down on their peers as being beneath them and feel bitter resentment at what they view as undeserved popularity or success. Their thinking goes something like "You don't know how powerful and great I am so I will show you and the rest of the world."
  • Most of violence is indiscriminate - not personal - and intended to increase the number of kills to magnify the shooter's sense of superiority and power before his ultimate blaze of glory demise.

At this point, there is little that can be done to "profile" university students who might represent a risk. Unfortunately, we must all strive to be vigilant in noticing and reporting any of our peers who might be on this path. But we also must keep in mind that the base rate of such violent intentions and actions is still incredibly low and campuses are very safe in general.

Dr. Stephen Porter is a forensic psychologist, an associate professor and director of the forensic certificate program in the Department of Psychology at Dalhousie University.


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