School Shooters Aren’t Who You Think They Are
In the effort to combat school shootings, researchers, legislators, and politicians alike have tried to point to any circumstances, or “red flags,” that mold someone into a potential offender. They have pointed to broken homes, bullying, and especially psychiatric conditions like psychopathy or sociopathy as predictors of mass shootings. But the data we have on school shootings doesn’t point to these conclusions. At all.
It’s important first to note the overwhelming lack of evidence that mental illness is a contributor to school shootings. In its 2018 report on the pre-attack behaviors of active shooters, the FBI highlights that it “could only verify that 25% (n = 16) of the active shooters in Phase II were known to have been diagnosed by a mental health professional with a mental illness of any kind prior to the offense.” Though it acknowledged that researchers were unable to determine a psychiatric history for 37% (n = 23) of cases, it nevertheless concluded that “declarations that all active shooters must simply be mentally ill are misleading and unhelpful.” In addition, the National Council for Behavioral Health’s 2019 report on mass violence in America concluded that “having a psychiatric diagnosis is neither necessary nor sufficient as a risk factor for committing an act of mass violence.”
In the book Gun Violence and Mental Illness, published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2016, the notion of a school shooting being caused by people with severe mental illness “snapping” is listed, by Peter Ash, among the many misconceptions surrounding such incidents. Ash goes further to point out that “only a small proportion of school shooters have a psychotic mental illness” and that school shootings are the product of long, careful planning rather than impulsive acts.
In a 2015 study published by Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, researchers reviewed 235 cases of mass shootings. They found a weak link between mental illness and mass shootings: only about 22% of the school shooters, or 52 out of 235, in these cases could be linked to mental illness. If we only consider school shootings from 2000 to 2015, this rate does not increase significantly. In that case, 32%, or 28 out of 88 mass murderers were mentally ill. In summary, most school shootings are not perpetrated by people with histories of mental illness.
In the article, Mass Shootings and Mental Illness, medical experts James Knoll et al. report that mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides. In addition, the overall contribution of people with serious mental illness to violent crimes is only about 3%, and an even smaller percentage of these violent crimes were found to involve firearms. The authors of this article agree that an effort to tackle this “phantom” mental illness cause will result in a significant loss of resources and time and not a successful intervention in school shootings.
Those who assert that mental illness is a cause of school shootings must also ask themselves what constitutes a mental illness that is a predictor of violence. In the 2015 article Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms, authors Jonathan Metzl et al. note that “data supporting the predictive value of psychiatric diagnosis in matters of gun violence is thin at best.” According to the article, “research dating back to the 1970s suggests that psychiatrists using clinical judgment are not much better than laypersons at predicting which individual patients will commit violent crimes and which will not.” Furthermore, the authors found that associations between violence and psychiatric diagnosis frequently change over time; schizophrenia, for example, used to be associated with docility and considered largely nonthreatening. That was until the late 1960s and early 1970s, during which schizophrenia and psychiatric conditions in general began to be associated with hostility, aggression, and projected anger. The authors also remarked, earlier in the article, that the 1980s “marked a consistent broadening of diagnostic categories and an expanding number of persons classifiable as ‘mentally ill.’” In other words, it’s likely that a significant portion of perpetrators of school shootings who were classified as “mentally ill” do not in fact have any psychiatric conditions that are accurate predictors of violence.
It follows that the myth of mental illness as a “red flag,” or an indicator that someone is at risk of committing a mass shooting has clearly been unhelpful in mitigating mass shootings. But it’s also been very counter-productive. In 2018, American Psychological Association President Jessica Henderson Daniel responded to those blaming mental illness as a cause for the school shooting in Parkland, Florida: “…remember that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness. Framing the conversation about gun violence in the context of mental illness does a disservice to the victims of violence and unfairly stigmatizes the many others with mental illness.” This reflects the rapidly growing stigma that people who are mentally ill are more dangerous than those who are not.
According to the article Mass Shootings and Mental Illness, “perceptions of persons with mental illness as violent or frightening have substantially increased rather than decreased. In short, persons with serious mental illness are more feared today than they were half a century ago.” So, how have those with mental illnesses fared under a culture that blames them for mass violence? A study by Cynthia Hoffner et al. found that “news coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting, which linked mental illness with danger, appears to have led to threatening appraisals and fear among these viewers [people who had no experience with mental illness].” In addition, the perception by people with mental illness that the attitudes of others towards them had become more negative was associated with less engagement in support/comfort activities as well as less willingness to disclose mental health treatment.
Mental illness is not the only trait to be falsely implicated as a cause of school shootings. One of the biggest misconceptions about school gun violence is that there is an accurate or useful “common profile” of school shooters at all. The Secret Service reported in 2002 that “there is no accurate or useful ‘profile’ of students who engaged in targeted school violence.” The attackers referenced in the report varied in demographics such as age, race, status of family, academic success, social relationships, etc. In fact, there were indications that many of the attackers were successful in school and relationships. Over two-thirds of the attackers had never been in trouble or rarely were in trouble at school. The only noticeable circumstances shared by most of the attackers were that 71 percent experienced some form of bullying and 78 percent had a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts prior to the attack. Though this highlights the importance of treating those with suicidal thoughts and supporting the fight against bullying, these circumstances are too common among the millions of children in the United States who don’t commit mass murders to be considered red flags. According to surveys from a report by the 2017 Youth Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 17.2 percent of high school students nationwide had seriously considered attempting suicide within the past year. Additionally, 19.0 percent of high school students nationwide had been bullied on school property in the past year, and 14.9 percent had been electronically bullied.
There’s simply not enough evidence to point to circumstances like bullying, abuse, or mental illness as accurate predictors of school shootings. They’re all circumstances that millions of Americans have experienced. It may seem intuitive to argue that only the mentally ill can pull the trigger, but perhaps that’s a sign we don’t truly know how humans work. In reality, school shooters can easily be that one popular, friendly classmate with an intact family.
“A Study of Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 and 2013.” FBI, FBI, 20 June 2018, http://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/pre-attack-behaviors-of-active-shooters-in-us-2000-2013.pdf/view.
West, Julia. “Mass Violence in America.” Homeland Security Digital Library, 13 Aug. 2019, http://www.hsdl.org/c/mass-violence-in-america/.
Gold, Liza H., and Robert I. Simon. “Gun Violence and Mental Illness.” American Psychiatric Association Publishing, American Psychiatric Association, 2016, http://www.appi.org/gun_violence_and_mental_illness.
StoneMichael, H. “Mass Murder, Mental Illness, and Men: Semantic Scholar.” Semantic Scholar, Jan. 2015, www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Mass-murder%2C-mental-illness%2C-and-men-StoneMichael/eb845a337408bd17f73f7301f2c197f57777ff17.
Metzl, Jonathan M., and Kenneth T. MacLeish. “The American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) from the American Public Health Association (APHA) Publications.” American Journal of Public Health, American Public Health Association (APHA) Publications, 12 Dec. 2014, ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/full/10.2105/AJPH.2014.302242#_i2.
Knoll IV, James L., and George D. Annas. Mass Shootings and Mental Illness. American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2016, Psychiatry Online, psychiatryonline.org/doi/pdf/10.5555/appi.books.9781615371099.
Hoffner, C. A., Fujioka, Y., Cohen, E. L., & Atwell Seate, A. (2017). Perceived media influence, mental illness, and responses to news coverage of a mass shooting. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 6(2), 159–173. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000093
Vossekuil, Bryan, et al. “The Final Report and Findings of the ‘Safe School Initiative’: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States.” Govinfo, 1 May 2002, http://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/ERIC-ED466024.
Kann, Laura, et al. “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States, 2017.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21 May 2018, www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/ss/ss6708a1.htm.