The blogs published on the 4th, 8th and 11th June documented the personality characteristics of past school shooters: fragile male identities, a specific form of overt narcissism and fitting the state of ‘egoism’ conceptualised by the sociologist Emile Durkheim. Previous school shooters have shared the following characteristics: feeling a sense of injustice at the world and seemingly blamed everyone else for this; persuaded to carry out their attacks, either by specific persons, groups or predicated on the feeling that they had suffered throughout their lives; blame was bestowed upon everyone else bar the perpetrator for all their problems, tying in with the sense of injustice and persecution they feel; a lack of romantic success exacerbating matters, sometimes leading to stalking and harassment of females; excessive individualism, where the perpetrators felt they were ostracised by others and a lack of connection to society. It seems that the homicide-suicide of school shootings could encourage those with fragile, narcissistic identities in a state of excessive individualism to go through with the violent fantasies in their minds. Moreover, they know that once they have gone through with the murders, the time will come where law enforcement either shoots them dead or arrests them; therefore, they go into the rampages with the clear intention of killing themselves at the end.
With this in mind, a threat assessment model can be developed to be applied to both offline, everyday behaviours. Applying overt narcissism traits — not covert narcissistic characteristics, given they tend to revolve around a general sense of hopelessness and despair, not any active plans to sustain a high sense of self-esteem and demonstrate superiority — to warning signs could be indicative of a potential case for threat assessment: over-reaction (commonly aggressive or passive-aggressive) to the slightest criticism, high self-esteem that needs constant validation; the desire to be infamous and extreme fantasies of success and power, delusions of grandeur; a feeling of superiority combined with a sense of worthlessness; a sense of isolation from others in a particular environment and/or society in general. Taking all this into consideration, it is advised that threat assessments take into account the factors the narcissism and egoism factors outlined above when investigating a potential threat. It is of key importance hereto avoid ‘profiling,’ given this can lead to ‘false positives’ (people who fit the profile but have no intention of carrying out a school shooting) and ‘false negatives’ (where there is no evidence of the traits, but someone has the intention to perpetrate an attack). It is when the traits outlined above are combined with more disconcerting aspects, like fantasising about having power over others, expressing the desire to harm people in the school and intensive shooting practice, that red flags should be raised. The next blog will explore how this model can be coupled with online threats to create a hopefully more robust and thorough model of interrogating potential threats for their harm potential.
[Interested readers are directed to the blogs published on the 4th, 8th and 11th June for further information. A more detailed version of this model will appear in a chapter co-written with Dr. O’Grady to appear in the edited volume Gun Violence in American Society.]
“Avoiding Weird Loner Types”: The Problem with Profiling
“I was bullied at school; socially awkward with no friends and people thought I was the type to carry out a school shooting,” claimed one YouTube user commenting on a school shooting related video. YouTube contributors also mapped out patterns, correctly noting that school shooters tend to be Caucasian males. Notably, users picked up on the narcissistic tendencies of school shooters: feeling persecuted and a sense of injustice and desiring revenge for a ‘perceived wrong.’ A lot of threads centred on being wary of and avoiding ‘quiet’ and ‘weird’ loner types. This suggests school shootings are understood in terms of how potential perpetrators are expected to act, i.e. ‘profiling’ someone’s potential to commit violence in the long-term. The practice of ‘profiling’ involves putting together a list of characteristics of a ‘criminal type’ and was first developed by the FBI to allow them to narrow their suspect list and alert the public to warning signs.
There have been some attempts to develop a profile of a ‘school shooter’ type. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) (2000) and the Safe School Initiative (SSI) (2002) reports, using a number of school shooting case studies, focused on commonalities existing amongst perpetrators. Attackers were found to share a number of characteristics: 59% of shooters in the sample had a history of weapon usage, whilst 44% were ‘fascinated’ with weapons; suffering from loss (academic, romantic, family) of some kind affected 98% of attackers; 61% of attackers suffered from depression; 78% had attempted suicide or had suicidal thoughts. A number of ‘school shooter’ personality traits and behaviours were thereafter put in a complied list: alienation, cruelty to animals, disliking popular students, manipulation, and dehumanisation of others.
The FBI and SSI reports, however, both came to the conclusion that an accurate and reliable school shooter ‘profile,’ allowing for potential future perpetrators to be identified, is non-existent. A violent tendency towards others, for instance, is a characteristic most people would generally associate with a school shooter; however, only 31% of incidents in the SSI report did so prior to the shooting. A difficulty in putting together is a profile pointed out by theorist Cornell (2013) is ascertaining the parameters for ‘dangerous’ and ‘non-dangerous.’
The main problem with using a ‘checklist’ of warning signs is they can result in provincial interpretations of crime. A possible negative consequence of this is ‘short-sightedness,’ i.e. threats out with the profile being overlooked. Potential threats that slip under the radar because they do not meet certain conditions of the profile are known as ‘false negatives.’ For example, in the SSI report all case studies were carried out by males, so that could be construed as a ‘defining characteristic’ of a school shooter and hence result in a threat from a female being disregarded. As he theorist Cornell (2013) pointed out, violence could be situational where a student behaves ‘normally’ in class but violently in the hallway; possibly meaning they are never flagged up as a potential threat. An alternative difficulty with profiling is that it could unfairly label ‘false positives’: like the opening quote above, this refers to people who are wrongly stigmatised or even accused because they fit the profile.
Based on the descriptions provided by others, only a handful of school shooters fit the stereotypical ‘disturbed loner’ profile, such as the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook perpetrators. The Northern Illinois University shooter was said by others to be ‘fairly normal’; the Fort Gibson, Oklahoma gunman had many friends and was on the honour roll; the Conyers, Georgia attacker was a Boy Scout who attended church; the Erfurt, Germany perpetrator was described as ‘calm’ and ‘reasonable’ and was popular with other students; the Red Lake shooter was described by some of his peers as a ‘cool guy.’ What can be taken from this discussion is that there is no way to accurately predict future school shooters using a ‘profile’ of warning characteristics.
[Analyses of news media coverage, the FBI and SSI reports, and YouTube comments formed the findings here. Profiling and threat assessment studies were utilised to assess the results. Future blogs will build upon this one by discussing the alternative approach of threat assessment.]