A Durkheimian Understanding of School Shooters and Suicide

“I have hostages” yelled the Red Lake school shooter, as he returned to the classroom where the majority of his victims lay. This false claim was made in order to buy some time as tribal police officers closed in on him, having already successfully shot him in the leg and hip; moments later, he put the shotgun he had been using under his chin and fired. When the Virginia Tech perpetrator heard the shotgun blast of law enforcement breaking through the building doors he had chained shut, he killed himself with a gunshot to the face, doing so in the classroom with the highest number of fatalities.

These examples are a common pattern: school shootings tend to be homicide-suicides, with perpetrators committing suicide in a self-harming method, such as a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, or ‘by cop,’ provoking law enforcement to fatally wound them. A study by Adam Lankford[1] mapping out trends within types of organised violence found that 88% of school shootings involved some form of suicide attempt. This raises the issue of why school shooters choose to take this route rather than face the criminal justice system.

A starting point is sociologist Emile Durkheim’s renowned inquiry Suicide: A Study in Sociology.[2]His study involved a macro-level examination of conditions influencing suicide, such as gender, religion and marital status. With the empirical results of his research, he grouped suicides into four categories: egotistic, caused by excessive individualism; altruistic, where the needs of others outweigh individuals’ own self-worth; anomic, deriving from a lack of purpose; and fatalistic, a desire to escape pain and oppression.

The mindset of school shooters during their lives seems to fall under the rubric of ‘egotistical suicide,’ given their state of extreme individualism, depressed and apathetic state, and disconnectedness from society. The Red Lake shooter’s Neo-Nazi ideologies alienated him from his peers: he was unsuccessful in getting classmates to join his ‘movement’ and was disgusted by what he called the ‘Americanization’ of Native American teenagers in their clothes, music and colloquialisms. Additionally, he criticised his teachers for their ‘poisoned opinions’ against Nazism and for ‘silencing’ his views on the ‘racial purity’ of Native American being destroyed by mixed-race marriages. The perpetrator of the Virginia Tech shooting displayed strong alienation and apathy from the university at which he was a student: he continually ignored his peers’ efforts to talk to him and refused to contribute in classes; he took photographs of girls in his class and sexually harassed a number of female students; his dorm room was sterile and bare. In his manifesto, by contrast, he accused his peers of ‘destroying his happiness’ positioning himself as the victim and blaming the university as an institution for all his problems.

Interestingly, Durkheim believed that ‘egotistical suicide’ does not usually take the form of a homicide-suicide, due to the apathy of the individual beforehand. Relating this to school shooters finds they were in a state of ‘egoism’ prior to attacks and that planning their horrific massacres appeared to give them a goal to ‘live for.’ As soon as the shootings reached their finishing point, the Red Lake and Virginia Tech shooters committed suicide before law enforcement reached them knowing that the police would either fatally wound them or arrest them. This final act of controlling their own deaths appeases both their excessive individualism and the violent fantasies.

 

[Durkheim’s study, other literature and discourse analyses of shooters’ writings were used to produce this post. This is extracted from a chapter I co-wrote with colleague, Dr. O’Grady, which will appear in the book volume Gun Violence in American Society. Future blog posts will build upon this model.]

 

[1] Lankford, A. (2013). ‘A comparative analysis of suicide terrorists and rampage, workplace, and school shooters in the United States from 1990 to 2010.’ Homicide Studies: An Interdisciplinary & International Journal, 17 (3), 255-274.

[2] Durkheim, E. (1897/2002). Suicide, A Study in Sociology. . Trans. J. A. Spaulding and G. Simpson; G. Simpson (ed). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

 

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