If we make assumptions about the type of person who becomes a school shooter, we may miss real warning signs. As Peter Langman writes in his new book, School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators, not all perpetrators are bullied. Not all of them are on the periphery of social peer groups, and not all of them are male.
Langman is a psychologist who has assessed psychiatric patients and mass-murder risk, and who has published a previous book on school shooters. He has one of the largest online collections of materials related to these acts of mass violence, and has trained law enforcement, mental health, and education professionals in attempting to identify potential killers.
Here, he explains who school shooters are, what drives them to commit murder, and how we can spot warning signs before it’s too late.
When we think of a school shooter, Langman writes, we think of a bullied individual who is most likely male and Caucasian. However, school shooters do not fit a stereotype — they are not a homogenous group. Langman presents case examples of perpetrators as young as eleven and as old as sixty-two. He presents a Harvard graduate, a female thrill-seeker. Each defies what we tend to expect.
He also places the forty-eight shootings he’s studied into categories. Secondary school shooters are current students or ones who attended the school within the last three years. College shooters are current or recent students or employees who attack a college or university. Aberrant adult shooters, meanwhile, are those unusual perpetrators who have no connection to the school where they commit murder.
Perpetrators are usually psychopathic, psychotic, and/or traumatized, Langman writes — but throughout the book he drives home the point that having one or more of these characteristics does not mean a person will necessarily become a mass shooter.
A fascinating statistic in the book is that only one out of the forty-eight shooters Langman has closely studied actually targeted a student who had bullied them. We usually think of it is some kind of revenge, but, Langman shows, it simply does not appear to be the case.
The book also presents a number of school shooters who were fascinated with the military or law enforcement — and who often were rejected or discharged or denied opportunities to join. Other common subjects of fascination include weapons, extreme ideologies, and even other mass murderers. For example, Kipland Kinkel, who killed four people and wounded an additional twenty-five people at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, “admired the Unabomber and had even given an oral report on making bombs.”
And when it comes to weapons, potential perpetrators’ access to firearms is key, too.
Another pattern that emerges from Langman’s research is the number of school shooters with biological challenges that possibly affected their identify development. Eric Harris, for instance, one of the Columbine shooters, had a chest deformity that required two surgeries, as well as a leg birth defect — and he hated his looks.
Langman emphasizes the importance of attempting to stop school shootings before a perpetrator is able to set foot on school grounds. One way is to watch for what he calls “attack-related behaviors.” These include stockpiling weapons, creating a hit list, diagramming the school, and/or writing or filming plans. It’s also important to look for “leakage,” Langman writes: the act of telling plans to others directly, indirectly, or through school assignments.
Some of those profiled in the book talked about their plans to go on a school rampage before doing so. For example, Charles Whitman killed sixteen people and wounded thirty-two when he opened fire from a clock tower at the University of Texas, Austin. Prior to his violence, he had spoken to friends about shooting people from the tower, and even told his psychiatrist about the idea.
In this interesting, enlightening, and thought-provoking book, Langman details the importance of early detection and intervention for people suffering from mental health issues. At the same time, he cautions us not to jump to conclusions about individuals who may happen to share certain traits.
School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators
Rowan & Littlefield, January 2015
Hardcover, 298 pages