School shootings are a form of murder that indiscriminately
targets victims and wreaks havoc on campuses and across the nation. Since the massacre at Virginia Tech,
attention has sparked with regard to violence, gun control, and campus
security. There is, without a doubt, a
growing concern among students and families as to the safety of schools
nationwide. In the wake of the Columbine
and Virginia Tech attacks, researchers have been able to identify specific
characteristics that these unique shooters possess. This research will aid in the implementation
of various training, prevention, and response techniques. Following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech,
several issues are being debated on campuses, in law enforcement agencies,
media, and government entities. The issues
of debate are access to guns and the control of firearms, campus carry laws,
the availability of mental health services and its utilization, and prevention
and training techniques (Greenberg,
2007). The potential characteristics
and identifiable behavioral patterns will be discussed as well as the
aforementioned debated issues.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted a study on mass
shooting incidents in an attempt to better understand and better prepare for
these specific acts of violence. The FBI
uses the term “active shooter” to define a shooting that is in progress,
located in a largely populated, enclosed area, and being carried out by a
single individual. These parameters
allowed the FBI to identify 160 active shooter incidents between the years of
2000 and 2013. This is an average of
11.4 incidents per year, with the number of incidents increasing significantly
between the years of 2006 and 2013.
There were over 1000 victims of these active shooter incidents,
including the 486 deaths as a result (U.S. Department of Justice, 2014).
There have been several criminological theories that are meant to
explain criminal and violent behavior, but the complexity of human behavior
continues to elude researchers with regard to campus shooters. As researchers have found through past
studies, identifying the reasoning behind the behavior after the act proves to
be difficult when attempting to implement techniques in aiming to prevent it (U.S. Department of Justice, 1999).
Examination of a School Shooter
On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho carried out the worst school
shooting in our nation’s history. At
approximately 7:15 a.m., Cho opened fire on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic
Institute and State University, killing 32 people and wounding 17 before
turning his weapon on himself and committing suicide (U.S. Department of Justice, 2010). This quickly sparked questions regarding the
reasoning behind such a heinous act.
This brought Cho’s personal and mental health history into question as
researchers attempt to understand his behavior.
Seung-Hui Cho was considered to be quiet and timid in social
situations. He suffered great setbacks
both personally and scholastically due to his elevated level of social
awkwardness. In middle school he often suffered from paranoid delusions and
morbid ideations of repeating the actions at Columbine. It was during this time that his behavior and
writings began to concern school officials.
Upon receipt of the school concerns, Cho’s parents obtained a
psychological evaluation, which resulted in diagnoses of major depression and
selective mutism and a prescription for paroxetine (Flynn & Heitzmann, 2008). These diagnoses combined with his social
awkwardness only further perpetuated life of seclusion.
Upon his acceptance to Virginia Tech, the information regarding
his mental health history did not accompany him, but his alienation from others
and isolation continued to escalate. His
limited interactions with others were deemed disturbing and threatening to
oneself, which resulted in a mental health evaluation. He was held overnight due to his perceived
threat of harm to oneself and returned home.
Cho lived a life of solitude and isolation. He often felt persecuted by others and had a
history of paranoia, suicidal thoughts, and homicidal ideations (Flynn & Heitzmann, 2008). Studies have shown that a history of
isolation, hate, desire for attention, and a desire to punish due to feelings
of persecution are characteristics of a school shooter (U.S. Department of Justice, 1999). Cho differs from other school shooters in
that he kept his carefully laid plans to himself. He waited until moments before his death to
mail his intentions and delusional rationalization for his attack (Flynn & Heitzmann, 2008).
Christopher Harper-Mercer made headlines as the newest college
campus shooter. His history of mental
illness began in his early teenage years.
He has spoken about his depression due to being unwanted and hated since
childhood. He had Asberger’s syndrome,
which is known to inhibit social development and ignite emotional meltdowns
School shootings have been plaguing schools for decades and is
becoming increasingly more worrisome across the nation. This is a crime that rarely discriminates and
affects those whom experience it, their families, and the community. School campus shootings are becoming more
prevalent and are occurring throughout all school settings. From elementary educational settings to
college campuses, school shooters have made their presence known, forcing an
increase in precautionary detail. There
are several underlying issues, including their familial background, biological
or psychological disorders that may cause a change in personality that results
in the drive to harm others and/or themselves.
The mental health history of the perpetrator is an extremely vital
component in the understanding of school rampage shootings. Mental illness plays a significant role in
the likelihood to commit violent acts. Although
mental illness is not considered to be a cause for the commission of crimes, it
does play a significant role in the commonalities of the school shooter. During late adolescence through mid-20s is
many people begin showing symptoms of mental illness. Stress has been found to be a contributing
factor in the onset of mental illness.
In fact, several extreme psychological disorders are said to present
themselves when the individual reaches an elevated level of stress, as in young
adulthood. The most common forms of
mental illness and psychological disorders that have a tendency to manifest in
adolescence and early adulthood are schizophrenia, depression, bipolar
disorder, and various anxiety disorders (American Psychiatric Association
APA, 2000). College students are more
likely to develop a psychotic break than any other age group due to the influx
of stress during that time.
In recent studies concerning campus shootings, researchers have
been able to show a strong correlation between mental illness and psychiatric
drugs and an increase likelihood of engaging violent acts such as school
shootings. Recent research shows that
individuals between the ages of 15 and 24 and currently taking antidepressants,
are 50% more likely to commit a violent crime.
Out of at least 35 campus shootings, nearly 250 people were killed or
wounded by a person currently taking or withdrawing from a psychiatric drug
(O’Meara, 2015). In a 2009 study of five
campus rampage shootings, all of the perpetrators possessed some form of
psychological disorder or mental illness.
The five perpetrators that were studied were diagnosed with disorders
such as schizophrenia and paranoia, and all of them were linked to psychiatric
medications such as mood stabilizers and antipsychotics (Newman & Fox,
Mass shooters often share some of the same characteristics, many
that have very little to do with mental illness. For example, Cho was extremely shy and often
bullied by his classmates and members of his family’s church. He kept himself isolated from others and
wrote disturbing stories. He purchased
his first handgun five weeks before the incident, and he carefully planned out
his attack on Virginia Tech.
Harper-Mercer, on the other hand was a product of divorced
parents. He lived a relatively quiet and
isolated life with his mother while he attended a private school for
emotionally disturbed students. He
enlisted in the U.S. Army only to be discharged for failing basic training and
an inability to pass administration duties and basic math and science.
According to Dr. James Knoll, these types of murderers collect injustices
and often have feelings of resentment and social persecution due to their
perceived notion of rejection and humiliation.
It is because of this resentment that they begin to harbor grudges
towards their peers and focus inward on their paranoid worldviews. They often long for a situation in which they
are in control and have power over people.
Before long, anger, despair, and selfishness begin to take over and
project violence and revenge, and others begin to see this person in a
different light. They often expect to
die in the commission of their crime, either by their own hand or scripted
perfectly as to be killed by police (Frances, 2014).
The identification of crime as a psychopathology, or the
development or manifestations of mental or behavioral disorders, is often a
topic for debate. Crime can be
considered a psychopathology in that it often manifests as a result of a mental
disorder, familial instability or neglect, and various biological factors. Furthermore, various strain theories that are
used to explain deviant or criminal behavior have also been used to explain the
progression of mental illness.
There are several areas of psychopathology, of which crime would
identify. Raine states that crime
involves a deviation from the norm, weakened mental and social functioning, and
concern for health. Previous evidence
has shown that antisocial personality disorder often correlates to criminal
activity and violent behavior. Sociology
and antisocial personality disorder possess criterion that are synonymous with
that of crime. Those diagnosed with
antisocial personality disorder have personality traits such as egocentricity,
pathological lying, and callousness, all of which are traits of
criminality. He stated that criminal
behavior is may be more biological than once thought (Raine, 1993).
and campus violence continues to escalate across the country. The implementation of training for students,
educators, and law enforcement officials is imperative in the prevention of
future attacks on school grounds.
Providing training in the recognition behavioral patterns and cues are necessary
in both the prevention of violent behavior and ensuring the individual obtain
the necessary treatment for any underlying issues from which they may be
suffering. Research, training, protection, and prevention is the key to
reducing the number of campus shootings across the nation.