“Regardless of beliefs about the advisability of gun control laws, it is a simple fact that school shootings are impossible without guns that are affordable, available, easy to load and fire, and capable of firing many rounds within a few seconds.”
America’s guns are a near-religious icon of rugged individualism, self-defense, and defense against tyranny. It should come as no surprise that America’s youth might adopt this religion for their own personal crusades.
While daily gun violence goes almost unnoticed in the United States – except by its victims, their families and neighborhoods – mass shootings have become increasingly common, and increasingly shocking to most Americans, particularly school rampage shootings.
We are inevitably left grieving and wondering why, often unable to find answers because the perpetrator has killed himself or committed “suicide by cop”. We are also typically left unable to muster the collective will to act to prevent the next one – partly because we can’t agree on the causes and partly because of the power of the gun lobby in the form of the NRA.
Is it the easy availability of guns, the prevalence of unrecognized mental illness, the lax security of our schools, the effects of mass culture such as rap songs and video games, the patchwork of often ineffective state and federal laws?
At least for school rampage shootings, there ARE some answers that have been gleaned by those who have studied this epidemic of violence and madness – both for the motivations and causes AND for possible responses that would help decrease the probability or lethality of more such events.
One of the most insightful and useful analyses of school rampage (SR) shooters and shooting events is by professor Jonathan Fast, clinical social worker in the field of psychologically troubled youth, specializing in aggression, crisis response and school safety. His book, Ceremonial Violence, offers a unique perspective on school rampage killings.
Ceremonial Violence analyzes thirteen school rampage shootings, including the Columbine High School massacre, and explains why teenagers commit these tragic atrocities. With his grasp of the elements of abnormal psychology, developmental psychology, sociology, and neurology that contribute to the homicidal mindset, Fast offers us a means of understanding and coming to terms with these shootings, and provides examples of what we should look for as early signs to prevent further tragedies.
Fast concentrates on five SR shootings between 1979 and the 1999 Columbine shootings. Each shooting is described in unflinching detail, from 16-year-old Brenda Spencer’s declaration that her hatred of Mondays led her to kill two adults and wound eight children at a San Diego elementary school, to 16-year-old Luke Woodham’s brutal matricide before killing two students and wounding six more at his high school. Avoiding simplistic labels, Fast builds a psychological profile of each teen, weighing upbringing and prior history of violence. His meticulously detailed portrait of Columbine’s Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold anchors the work, and Fast dissects not only the boys themselves but the culture of Columbine as a school and Littleton, Colorado, as a community.
Fast offers the profile of generally smart kids infatuated with guns, suffering from social isolation, with apparently normal families who often hide troubling secrets of abuse and neglect. Drawing on research, court documents, and accounts by survivors, Fast details the ceremonial aspects of the killings: the adolescents carefully plan every detail down to background music and what they will wear and often keep journals cataloging their grievances.
from Ceremonial Violence: Understanding Columbine and Other School Rampage Shootings
by Jonathan Fast, PhD
Most murders are unplanned, spontaneous, and occur when anger and fear produce violent behavior in response to an imminent threat. Such murders are often called “affective”, the human equivalent of the fight or flight response seen in animals.
Mass murders, “the intentional killing of multiple victims by a single offender within a 24 hour period of time” are rare events, accounting for less than one percent of all violent crimes. This latter style of aggression tends to be “predatory”: planned, purposeful, and without emotion.
School rampage (SR) shooters, obsessed with weapons and planning, often donning militaristic or terroristic costumes for their shootings and even playing theme music to “pump themselves up”, fall into criminologist Park Eliot Diestz’ category of “pseudo-commandos”.
A research project conducted by the New York Times following the Columbine High School shooting examined 100 cases of rampage killing committed over a period of 50 years, from 1949 to 1999. It was found that while adult mass murderers operated in isolation, adolescent mass murderers invariably shared their plans with one or more friends.
A report prepared by a special investigative team organized by the Secret Service, released a few months after the New York Times study, found that SR shooters were often bullied. In over two-thirds of the SR shootings examined, “attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to the incident. A number of attackers had experienced bullying and harassment that was longstanding and severe. In those cases the experience of bullying appeared to play a major role in motivating the attack at school… In a number of cases, attackers described experiences of being bullied in terms that approached torment. They told of behaviors that, if they occurred in the workplace, would meet the legal definitions of harassment.”
In the most recent and comprehensive study of SR shootings, Katherine Newman, a Princeton sociologist, and her colleagues identified five conditions common to SR shooters.
First, the SR shooter perceives himself as “socially marginalized” (whether he is or not). He is the brunt of bullying, teasing, the target of negative rumors, and other exclusionary behaviors.
Second, he suffers from psycho-social problems – learning disorders, psychiatric disorders, dysfunctional families, and the like – that “magnify the impact of marginality”.
Third, he follows “cultural scripts” for problem-solving, meaning that he buys into the machismo mythology of violence as a problem-solving strategy. If people are treating you badly, make them respect you through a show of force.
Fourth, he “flies beneath the radar”, meaning that his seriously problematic behavior goes unidentified by the traditional gatekeepers: the teachers, guidance counselors, school psychologists, and social workers. His parents collude by being secretive, isolated from the school, or in denial about his problems. The shooter himself may have several strategies for avoiding juvenile court. He may be the class clown, whom no one takes seriously; a practical or skilful liar; or a boy who keeps to himself. He may be avoided by otherwise helpful adults because he gives off a strange, menacing “vibe”.
Fifth, he has access to firearms. Without the availability of guns, there are no SR shootings. Places with more guns have higher rates of adolescent suicide, homicide and injury than places with fewer guns.
The Theory of Ceremonial Violence
The candidate is a very unhappy child. Circumstances such as childhood abuse, neglect and mental illness, parental separation, and frequent relocations are common. He may have brain damage that makes him behave oddly, be peculiar in appearance, or have a deformity that makes him the target of ridicule and bullying. A poor fit between a child and his family, be it a very bright child born into a low functioning family, or a socially awkward child in a family of social successes, will exacerbate the situation. Problems of “poorness of fit” may extend to the school and community. A number of the SR shooters lived in tight-knit Christian communities where behavioral proscriptions were narrow and rigidly enforced – conditions that encourage the marginalization of the misfit.
The candidate’s problems reach a boiling point in adolescence. The central crisis of adolescence is forming the foundations of an adult identity. The adolescent who has failed to form an identity often becomes self-destructive and suicidal.
Of all the dimensions of identity formation, that of integration into a social milieu may be central. High school society typically is strictly hierarchical with clear lines of exclusion and inclusion, based on appearance, speech, behavior, talent, clothing, and family prestige. During the sifting of the freshman year, the candidate drifts to the bottom of the pile: he finds himself in a community of the excluded, the crazies, the rebels, the outcasts, and the delinquents. In order to be someone, he and some friends may informally “incorporate” themselves as Satanists, skinheads, Goths or vampires to suggest a degree of affiliation and power, even if it’s magical or imaginary. Despite this, the rejection continues: girls refuse to date the candidate or break up after a few dates because he’s scary, impulsive (in a bad way), lacking in empathy, and barely able to conceal his rage about being disenfranchised. Adults – even his parents – may avoid him for the same reasons. School personnel may pretend not to notice him, secretly hoping that he will graduate before anything awful happens. He may feel betrayed by siblings because of their social or academic success. With every act of exclusion and rejection, he grows more alienated and furious at his peers, school and family for what he imagines was their contribution to his current dilemma.
The candidate might commit suicide at this point were it not for two factors: first, he’s a narcissist, or in common parlance, a Drama Queen: a person who craves attention and lacks empathy, two factors which unfortunately operate synergistically in turning a suicide – a private event – into a mass murder – a public event. Second, he has by now found a best friend or soulmate, a member of his disenfranchised group who suffers from a milder form of the candidate’s problem and recognizes, in the candidate’s rage, a potential proxy, a person through whom he can experience homicide vicariously, and get rid of a few people he hates without sharing the risk.
In some cases, this soulmate may take on the role of “violence coach”. The coach convinces the candidate to channel his rage into an SR shooting, promising that as a result he will become loved by his similarly oppressed peers, feared by the bullies, or simply renowned throughout the world for being a “bad-ass” or cool. This sham ideology is reinforced by books, movies and rap songs that glorify violence and killing. The coach may keep himself at arm’s length from the event, agree to participate in it, or agree and then change his mind when it is too late for the candidate to turn back. He may make a suicide pact with the candidate that they will both die at the end of the shooting, as Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris did before the Columbine High School shooting; or he and the candidate may indulge in a fantasy of denial, involving escape to some magical haven by impossible means. Luke Woodham and Grant Boyette (Satanist buddies in the 1997 Pearl High School shooting) imagined escaping to Cuba; and Andrew Golden (11) and Mitchell Johnson (13), shooters in Jonesboro Arkansas, convinced themselves that they might be forgiven for their killings after a few weeks of hiding out in the woods.
Once the candidate gets the idea of turning his suicide into a public ceremony, he becomes absorbed in the planning of it, often documenting his thoughts in journals and other media. He may “publicize” the event by telling certain select friends about it, warning them to stay home that day, or suggesting a safe place from which they can view the mayhem. The candidate will purchase special clothing and weapons for the event. He may even choose background music. This kind of ceremony seems to be a throwback to something very ancient and primitive, where the supplicant plays the part of a god, and indulges in a forbidden or privileged activity prior to his own execution or banishment from the tribe.
Prevention, Intervention & Postvention
1) Prevention: ways to anticipate and reduce the probability of school rampage shooting events.
2) Intervention: plans and actions to minimize loss of life during an active shooter event.
3) Postvention: methods to help survivors and the community deal with the tragedy and return to pre-crisis levels of function.
Primary Prevention Strategies
Identifying a Potential SR Shooter
Criminal profiles are NOT used by the FBI to predict who might commit a crime, but to help target the likely suspects after a crime event. There is no scientifically valid method to predict criminal actions without sacrificing fundamental freedoms and constitutional rights.
Reliably predicting any kind of violence is extremely difficult. Predicting that an individual who has never acted out violently in the past will do so in the future is still more difficult. Seeking to predict acts that occur as rarely as school shootings is almost impossible.” – from the FBI report on SR shootings
An earlier report from another branch of government presents a list of risk factors – including social withdrawal, excessive feelings of isolation and rejection, feelings of being picked on and persecuted – but concludes with the caveat: “Such signs may or may not indicate a serious problem.”
Threat Assessment Protocol
Experts will say that, without exception, these kids will tell you what they are going to do beforehand. The FBI calls such communications “leakages”, and they can be verbal, or take the form of drawings, journal writings, videos or school essays. Leakage may also occur when the shooter tries to solicit the help of friends or classmates in obtaining weapons, or perpetrating violence. Leakages may take the form of a cry for help, an expression of inner conflict, or a boast.
But the value of leakage identification depends on re-socializing adolescents to recognize them and to share them with adults in authority, such as school officials and law enforcement personnel. Snitching is generally taboo in youth culture, but this seems to be changing post-Columbine and several potential school shootings have been intercepted and prevented since then.
The Secret Service, specialists in threat assessment, has also issued a report on SR shootings. They distinguish between four kinds of threats. A direct threat is a specific act against a specific target, made in an unambiguous manner. An indirect threat is in some way vague or ambiguous. A veiled threat implies, but does not explicitly threaten violence. A conditional threat is a threat based on a demand.
Four threat factors must be considered. The first is the threat’s level of detail. A threat is more likely to be real if the details, such as the identity of the victim, the motivation, the means and the time and place are specific and plausible. A second factor is plausibility. A third factor is whether the person making the threat is under unusual stress. A fourth factor is the character of the person making the threat, and any past history of violent acting out.
Secondary Prevention Strategies
All SR shooters have been victims of violence. Many of them have also been bullies, which is often a compensating mechanism for a sense of victimhood. There is a clear casual chain from bullying to humiliation to rage to revenge.
Bullying can be direct, or indirect such as slandering, spreading rumors and manipulation of friendship relationships. This latter sort is common among girls and is called “relational bullying” or “relational aggression”. It can be just as damaging as direct bullying, or more so because of its subtlety.
Anti-bullying programs need to be based on a zero-tolerance and immediate response strategy, uniform throughout the school, and with complementary efforts at home and in the larger community.
Non-Violent School Attributes
Focus on Academics: achievement is valued and assumed for all. Academic and behavioral expectations are communicated clearly and identified as the student’s responsibility.
Forge Links With the Family and the Community: The nexus should include the local police, mental health agencies, the faith-base community and the families of students. The school supports and assists families with behavioral issues.
Promote Equal Treatment: All students must be treated equally, regardless of ethnicity, gender, race, social class, religion, disability, nationality, sexual orientation or physical appearance – and the students must perceive it as fair. No special treatment and no scapegoating.
Open Discussion of Safety Issues: The dangers of firearms and other weapons should be discussed in school, as well as the consequences of bringing them to school. Students should be taught anger-management skills, non-violent communication and conflict resolution techniques – from elementary school through high school. Mediation teams should be available to resolve disputes.
Promote a Climate of Sharing Concerns: Programs such as tutoring, mentoring, community service clubs, cultural arts, and homework help – before and after school – have been effective in reducing violence. Extended day programs also help build community, create mentor-type relationships with adults, build ego strength, and improve academic skills.
Transition Assistance to Adult Life: Work-study programs, apprenticeships and vocational skills training help students find their way more smoothly into the adult world.
School as Fortress
Another category of violence reduction strategies involves stationing guards or school resource officers (SROs) around the campus, placing metal detectors at entrances (and reducing the number of entrances), installing surveillance cameras, searching packages and book bags, having armed principles, and putting fences around schools. Professional educators typically hate these tactics and refer to them as “the school as fortress”, since they evoke prison conditions, making students feel they are under surveillance and teachers feel like jailers.
The keystone of the intervention strategy is the school’s emergency response or safety plan, a document created by an interdisciplinary crisis response team from the school, first response agencies and the community. The plan details how teachers, administrators, students, parents, police, fire and EMS personnel and others will respond collaboratively to any of a variety of potential crises, from natural disaster to terrorist attack. Providing non-emergency personnel with specific tasks prevents panic, becoming paralyzed with fear, or engaging in counter-productive behavior. This reduces role conflicts and duplications, chaos and bottlenecks.
The common elements to response to any crisis – from fire or flood to bomb threats or active shooters – include safety first for students through either evacuation or containment, called “lockdown”. This may require the installation of locks on all classroom and other doors. It will also require regular drills. A quick and foolproof communication system must be available to each classroom. This may be an intercom or telephones. On college campuses, an instant broadcast text message to all students, faculty and staff works well (as long as all participants are enrolled – at Virginia Tech, 40% of students failed to sign up). Third, a means for securing immediate external support from emergency responders must be available. All school personnel must be trained in their crisis roles and have a pamphlet or flip chart easily available for quick reference.
Childrens’ response to crisis depends on age, prior trauma experience, and the stability of their home life, among other factors. Younger children may exhibit sadness, fear, anger or shame. They may show internalizing symptoms such as stomach aches and headaches, or externalizing symptoms such as fighting or destroying property. They may become withdrawn or clingy, and school work may deteriorate in quality. In older children, substance abuse, sexual acting out and delinquency are common responses. There will likely be survivor’s guilt.
Teachers and staff may neglect their own needs while being busy attending to their students. This can exacerbate emotional and cognitive problems and accelerate burnout. Attending debriefings and other kinds of grief work should be mandatory (for those who don’t believe they are suffering, explain that they are needed to support the others).
After the crisis, the school should be reopened as soon as possible to provide comforting routines, an opportunity for students to confront their fears, and to provide a familiar setting where they can process what occurred. Students who are too fearful to return to the school should be provided with outside tutoring, alone or in groups, until graduation or a time when they are ready to return.
Schools typically close for a period of days to allow for funerals and memorial services, and also so that the school can be cleaned and repaired. While the school may feel “sanitized” to some students as if the incident were being erased, it’s a necessary remediation.
The crisis response team should keep a list of local helping professionals and have a means of reaching them quickly, such as by a phone tree. They can organize a variety of forums, public and private, where everyone can safely discuss what they are feeling and thinking. Such forums offer an opportunity to “normalize” feelings that may seem inappropriate or shameful.
Public ceremonies for bringing closure are valuable to the healing process. Community grief projects and spontaneous memorials are useful outlets. Others may want to write about the event or take on an activist role to try to prevent the next one.
Counseling, both individual and group, should be made available as soon as possible and should remain available for as long as needed. Trials and civil suits may extend the trauma and grieving, but also offer an opportunity for victims to tell their stories publicly and may provide some sense of closure and justice accomplished.
Guns and Gun Control
Regardless of beliefs about the advisability of gun control laws, it is a simple fact that school shootings are impossible without guns that are affordable, available, easy to load and fire, and capable of firing many rounds within a few seconds. Thus the issue has a technical dimension which is important in understanding why SR shootings did not occur during the first half of the 20th century.
At the time of the Civil War, the most destructive weapons that children had were homemade slingshots. If a child wanted to get hold of a firearm, it would have been a flintlock rifle, a long gun which emerged around 1630 and remained in use for perhaps 250 years. Assuming the day was dry, the flint sharp, the powder correctly measured, and the bullet neither too tight nor too loose in the barrel, there was a good chance that the gun would fire, but the odds of hitting a target several hundred feet away were slim. By the time a second bullet was prepared, the shooter would probably be in custody.
The percussion cap, invented in 1825, provided a more reliable substitute to the flint and made possible handguns with revolving bullet chambers such as the Colt “Walker” and the “Dragoon”. Even though they were mass produced, fewer than 10,000 existed n 1850, and they were ungainly and difficult to manipulate.
Automatic pistols with ammunition magazines were invented in 1893 and, by the turn of the century, had been adopted by armies around the world. Such weapons were light, simple to operate, and could quickly fire eight or more rounds without reloading, assuming the mechanism didn’t jamb.
As the carrying of concealed pistols became more common, several states tried to pass “pistol bills” to control their sales and to license their owners. After President McKinley was nearly assassinated by a revolver concealed in a handkerchief in 1901, the South Carolina legislature banned pistol sales to anyone except sheriffs and special deputies (a group which included Ku Klux Klan members). In 1910, after William Jay Gaynor, the mayor of New York was wounded and later died from a handgun shot, the state passed the Sullivan Act, which gave police discretionary power to issue licenses permitting civilians to carry concealed weapons.
While the first automatic handguns fired once with each pistol pull, automatic rifles fired continuously as long as the trigger was depressed. Until WWI, with the best of the bolt-action rifles, such as the Lee-Enfield, a highly-trained British soldier could fire 15 rounds per minute or a bullet every four seconds. The Gatling gun, a machine gun developed during the Civil War, could fire a continuous stream of bullets, but it was the size of a small cannon, had to be moved on wheels, and required a team to fire it.
The first machine gun which a single soldier could carry, the Thompson sub-machine gun, was demonstrated to the public in 1920. Although originally developed for the army, the “Tommy Gun” quickly became a favorite of Chicago’s prohibition-era gangsters. Because it used pistol ammunition, it was considered a short-range weapon.
The first federal gun law, the National Firearms Act, signed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1930, was an effort to limit the use of the Tommy Gun and other favorite gangster guns and devices, such as sawed-off shotguns, silencers and guns concealed in walking canes.
Opponents of gun control often cite Hitler’s legislation of 1938, which banned civilians from owning firearms, as the basis for their objections. Had guns been available to the Jews, they argue, they might have fought off Nazi tyranny. In fact, the law was initially passed by the Weimer government in 1928 in order to disarm the nascent militias that had been forming around the country, including the “Brownshirts” who later became the Nazis. Hitler simply extended the law in 1938, at a time when his National Socialist Party already exercised tyrannical power throughout Germany.
The first fully automatic rifle, portable like the Tommy Gun but capable of firing rifle ammunition, was developed by the Germans during WWII. Gas pressure from the exploding cartridge ejected the spent shell and forced a new round into the firing position. Legend has it that Hitler, himself, dubbed it the sturmgewehr or assault rifle (literally, storm rifle), a term that continues to be used today in military parlance.
Such rifles could also be fired in semi-automatic mode, conserving ammunition. These weapons became increasingly popular among military forces around the world, proliferating rapidly. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the New York Times identified the murder weapon as “a cheap, foreign, war-surplus military rifle…one of hundreds of thousands of cast-off weapons of foreign armies that are now available to mail-order customers of American gun dealers.”
A Senate subcommittee reported that, of the millions of guns being bought and sold by mail annually, 25% were falling into criminal hands. Senator Thomas J, Dodd introduced federal gun control legislation but it was defeated by “hysterical opposition by a small but well-organized minority”. Officials of the National Rifle Association (NRA), who supported the bill, had their lives threatened by more fanatic members of their own association.
On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, 25, having failed as a Marine and as a college student, climbed to the top of the tower at the University of Texas at Austin with several rifles, and began a sniper attack on the students and faculty strolling through the plaza. He killed 14 people and wounded 32 others before he was killed by law enforcement officials. The following day, President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan, urged a revival of Dodd’s gun control law.
The revised bill would have banned interstate sale of small firearms, regulated interstate sale of rifles and shotguns, barred sale of pistols and revolvers to people under 21, banned over-the-counter sales of small firearms to out-of-state purchasers, and restricted the importation of surplus military arms.
The NRA found this version of the bill too restrictive and lobbied against it. It took two more years and two more assassinations – Martin Luther King in April 1968 and Robert Kennedy in June of the same year – before legislators could summon the nerve to defy the NRA lobbyists and pass what has become the core of federal gun control legislation – the 1968 Gun Control Act.
In addition to the provisions already described, the legislation required serial numbers on all guns, prohibited mail-order sales of firearms and ammunition, decreed that a long gun purchaser must be 18 and a handgun purchaser 21, increased penalties for those carrying and using firearms in crimes of violence or drug trafficking, prohibited the possession, sale and manufacture of new assault weapons (but allowed gun owners to keep the ones they already owned), prohibited the sale of parts or “conversion kits” that could be used to convert semi-automatic weapons to fully automatic, and required that all gun dealers be licensed. An exception was made for private parties who sold their guns at gun shows, the now famous “gun show loophole” that made it possible for Robyn Anderson to purchase the weapons that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris brought to Columbine High School.
Two of the Guns of Columbine Purchased at the Tanner Gun Show
Ever since, the NRA lobby has been whittling down on the Gun Control Act with weakening legislation hamstringing the ATF, preventing the CDC from studying gun violence, and preventing even the most rational and popular gun laws, such as universal background checks, from passing.
A study published in the journal Homicide Studies on December 18, 2013 by Dr. James Alan Fox, Professor of Criminology Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, titled Mass Shootings in America: Moving Beyond Newtown, concludes that:
“Many of the well-intentioned proposals coming in response to the recent spike in mass shootings may do much to impact the level of violent crime that plagues our nation daily. We shouldn’t, however, expect such efforts to take a big bite out of crime in its most extreme form.”
“Taking a nibble out of the risk of mass murder, however small, would still be a worthy goal for the nation. However … eliminating the risk of mass murder would involve extreme steps that we are unable or unwilling to take – abolishing the Second Amendment, achieving full employment, restoring our sense of community, and rounding up anyone who looks or acts at all suspicious.”
“Mass murder just may be a price we must pay for living in a society where personal freedom is so highly valued.”
While many, if not most, Americans would balk at repealing the 2nd Amendment (the meaning of which we can’t agree on) or police sweeps of all suspicious characters (which has already become too common in the “age of terrorism”, Homeland Security, the unregulated NSA, and the militarization of the police), it’s an indictment of our culture that such goals as authentic full employment and restoring a sense of community are considered utopian and impractical.
Perhaps it’s past time for Americans to question whether personal freedom should be the highest of all values to the exclusion of the common good.
After all, that’s clearly not what the Founding Fathers risked their lives, liberty and sacred honor for.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Of the six purposes for creating a Constitutional Republic, personal liberty was but one, and in fact the last.
by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes