25 Frightening Facts on School Shooters and Shootings Based on the Latest Academic Research

This is a list of 25 facts on school shooters and shootings motivated by the recent Buffalo supermarket and Texan school catastrophes.

1. Although school shootings have been characterized as “extremely rare”, increased frequency in recent years is resulting in both injuries and fatalities as well as trauma among U.S. children and adolescents (1).

2. What might surprise some is that among scholars there is no agreed definition in the literature of what constitutes a school shooting incident (2). This is because there are different types of school shooting incidents but no universal umbrella definition that encompasses them all (3). To simplify the discussion, “a school shooting incident consists of at least one person intentionally using a firearm and shooting at least one other person on school grounds” (4).

3. The majority of the school shootings have been committed by male perpetrators (5). Perpetrators were also male in similar episodes in other parts of the world.

4. More severe shootings were associated with shooters who were older and therefore unlikely to be students (6). The most severe school shootings occurred when the shooters were aged 20 years or older.

5. Between 1966 and 2008, there were 44 school shootings in the United States (7). There were 7 in Canada and 7 in all of Europe. Of targeted or indiscriminate school shooting incidents in the United States between April 1999 and May 2018, there were on average 7 deaths per shooting.

6. Shooters are often encouraged by like-minded individuals they engage with online: “Perpetrators often undertake most of their planning online, encouraged by social networking communities of like-minded individuals” (8).

7. Research indicates that intense and frequent news coverage given to mass shootings (particularly to perpetrators) can have both contagious and incentivizing effects on mass killers (9). This has led some journalists to question how they cover these stories (10). However, recent research suggests that many U.S. print and online journalists remain largely unaware or ambivalent about the potential consequences of their mass shooting coverage (11).

8. School shootings cause significant emotional distress and suffering in survivors. A study of the aftermath of a school shooting in Finland found that half of the female and a third of the male survivors suffered from post-traumatic distress (12). After a sniper attack at a schoolyard in the United States in 1984, 38% of the studied 159 children had moderate or severe PTSD one month later (13). Three-quarters of the highly exposed children continued to have PTSD after 14 months. Such incidents “may have long-term psychological effects by causing diverse anxiety and affective disorders and, more specifically, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”. 

9. The presence of a school officer is unassociated with any reduction in school shooting severity (14). Whether the presence of cameras deter shooters requires further analysis “The effects of security cameras on behavior in schools has not been extensively studied” (15). Noteworthy is that studies of security surveillance in other settings have produced mixed results. Some research suggests that conspicuous security cameras may reduce unruly public behavior and increase prosocial or helping behaviors.

10. Revenge is often a motive for a school shooting (16). More than three-quarters of the attackers held a grievance against particular individuals or the school itself at the time of the attack.

11. A large majority of school shootings involved only one shooter who used a handgun (17). Although rifles or shotguns were used in 15% of shootings, their use was strongly associated with increased casualty and fatality rates. Shootings with higher casualty rates tended to occur at rural and suburban schools.

12. Shootings are planned beforehand. The attacks were rarely, if ever, impulsive acts (18). The majority of attackers had a plan at least 2 days before the incident, and, in some cases, the planning had gone on for up to a year,

“A study of seven German school shooters found that four were classified as loners and in five cases, people around them were worried about them, contrary to the myth that such events occur ‘out of the blue’. Most had an interest in weapons or militaria and all had made threats to bring weapons into school or displayed weapons to others. The majority had an interest in previous school shooters, and all were interested in violent media. All had a negative perspective about the future and narcissistic fantasies were common” (19).

13. Others are often aware of the shooter’s intentions before the tragedy. In more than three-quarters of the incidents, attackers told someone about their interest in mounting an attack at the school (20). Typically, shooters told friends or other peer acquaintances. In more than half the cases, multiple people knew about the attack before it occurred. In more than three-quarters of the incidents, an adult had expressed concern about the attacker. Most of the attackers communicated or “leaked” their intentions in some way to others before their attacks. Leakage refers to when “a student intentionally or unintentionally reveals clues to feelings, thoughts, fantasies, attitudes, or intentions that may signal an impending violent act” (21).

14. Most of the boys who committed deadly violence in the schools showed signs of needing help before the incident (22). In almost every case, the attacker engaged in behavior that caused others to be concerned about him. The vast majority of the boys had difficulty coping with a major loss and this was known to other individuals, such as parents, counselors, and peers. Nearly 75% of these adolescents had previously threatened or tried to commit suicide and more than half had a history of feeling extremely depressed or desperate,

“A series of three Finnish school shootings, culminating in 25 deaths (excluding the perpetrators), revealed similar patterns. The perpetrators had few friends, were bullied and were described as having untreated psychological problems. All were active on the Internet, with aggressive online identities; they received encouragement from online communities glorifying school shootings” (23).

15. Bullying seemed to play a key role in motivation for some, but not all, attacks (24). In more than two-thirds of the cases, the attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others before the incident. Bullying has played “a key role in motivation for some, but not all, of the attacks. In more than two-thirds of the cases, the attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to the incident. In fact, some of these boys had experienced bullying and harassment that was long-standing and severe” (25). These observations have increased national interest in bullying prevention programs.

16. The perception that mental illness contributes to school shootings contradicts population data showing that persons with mental illness are far more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators, of violence, including gun violence (26). Nonetheless, it is strongly recommended that mental health practitioners remain vigilant: “Perpetrators may have been bullied or may suffer from panic attacks, social anxiety or depressive symptoms; some have reported suicidal ideation. Other studies have reported perpetrators previously being treated with counselling, benzodiazepines and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)” (27). This stresses the importance of the role that child and adolescent psychiatrists, general psychiatrists, psychologists, and school counselors can have in averting a tragedy.

17. Shooters sometimes want to be known and gain notoriety for their violence: “There are often consistent elements to school shootings. The 1999 Columbine killers, Harris and Klebold, portrayed themselves as antiheroes, opining (in recordings they left behind) that they would gain respect for their actions and start a revolution” (28). 

18. It is recognized that school shooters are linked to cultural products. Often shooters will mention music, films, books, and video games in their diaries and videos. Some scholars have called this a “cultural script of school shootings” (29). Scholars Tomi Kiilakoski and Atte Oksanen are active in this area of research. They notice that “school shooters have been fascinated by first-person shooter computer games such as Doom and Counter Strike. Some of them have referred to manifestos by terrorists (e.g., Unabomber) and to philosophy (e.g., Friedrich Nietzsche). School shooters have actively used cultural products in their identity construction” (30). Haeney, Ash, and Galletly continue,

“The Internet and other media have been widely used by perpetrators to publicise and explain their actions. They are keen to take responsibility, or ‘credit’ for their actions. Web pages and YouTube videos displaying violent fantasies and threats are common. Seung-Hui Cho sent a videotape to a news channel before killing 32 people and wounding a further 17 at Virginia Tech, 2007” (31).

19. Perpetrators often have a fascination with previous shootings. Sherry Towers et al. suggest that the increase in school shootings since Columbine may be due to contagion and glamorization of previous incidents (32).

20. Firmer gun control laws lead to reduced gun fatalities: “we found that states with BC laws for firearm and ammunition purchase, higher capita MHE and KEE, and higher percent urban population had lower school shooting incidence rates” (33).

21. Efforts to profile students who are likely to become “school shooters” is flawed and have been criticized (34). It contains the potential to unfairly label students as dangerous and consequently restrict their civil liberties. A 1999 conference attended by 160 invited experts and professionals in law enforcement, education, and mental health, which included staff members who had firsthand experience with a school shooting, collectively reviewed and discussed 18 completed or foiled school shooting cases. The results of the conference were that the FBI’s experts in criminal profiling concluded that profiling was not an appropriate method for preventing school shootings. There was unequivocal agreement that no single set of characteristics defined would-be student attackers with adequate specificity to be of practical value.

22. Fears over school shootings in the United States are widespread (35). Based on a Gallup poll, two-thirds of Americans believed that a similar incident was “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to happen in their community. Fewer than half (40%) of parents regarded their children as “very safe” at school and 50% described their children as only “somewhat safe.” More than one-third of high school students agreed that there were students at their school who were “potentially violent enough to cause a situation such as the one that occurred at Columbine High School”. Another poll found that 71% of parents felt that the Columbine shooting had changed their view of how safe their children were at school.

23. Some highlight that such fears might be inflated. For example, during the year of the Columbine shooting, 17 students were killed at school. But in that same year more than 2500 young people (ages 5-19) were murdered outside of school and more than 9700 killed in accidents (36). Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski, and Jimerson explain that “The fear of school shootings is greatly exaggerated in comparison with other risks such as riding in a car” (37). They note that it is media “speculations about emerging trends based on unusual cases [that] exacerbate public fear.”

24. Children living in urban areas are at a greater risk of victimization and exposure to violence (38). Studies of metropolitan areas indicate a high incidence of firearm-related injury among children and adolescents with increased morbidity, including permanent neurological deficits. However, “the relationship between state-level urbanicity and school shootings have not been assessed” and therefore needs to be discussed. A “higher concentration of urban residents in a state might contribute to a concentration of spending on mental health and education in those areas, as well as on public safety resources including police that may mitigate firearm and non-firearm violence” (39).

25. Because of the increasing number of school shootings in recent years, schools have re-evaluated safety plans and implemented additional safety measures. This has spawned a $2.7 billion school security industry (40): “Schools have been engaged in target hardening and other security measures for decades. They began with the creation of school security agencies in urban schools (primarily high schools) during the era of desegregation and have evolved into widespread use of metal detectors and cameras to monitor and document behavior, and stationing police officers on premises” (41).

Some schools require that staff and students wear badges or picture IDs (42). There is controlled access monitored by school staff, surveillance systems, metal detectors, and access control devices. Although school administrators have made numerous attempts to ensure safety, “there is little empirical research available to evaluate these practices.”

Finally, there are important areas that need further analysis. The effects of security cameras on behavior in schools have not been extensively studied. The relationship between state-level urbanicity and school shootings still needs further analysis. There is also continued interest in how media organizations cover these crimes: “there is growing debate regarding the extent to which the perpetrators of mass shootings should be named, pictured, and discussed in news media coverage” and how these might influence perceptions (43).

References

1. Gius, Mark. 2017. The effects of state and Federal gun control laws on school shootings.” Applied Economics Letters 25(5):1-4; Kalesan, Bindu., Lagast, Kinan., Villarreal, Marcos., Pino, Elizabeth., Fagan, Jeffrey., and Galea, Sandro. 2017. “School shootings during 2013-2015 in the USA.” Journal for Injury Prevention 25(5):317-320.

2. Harding, David., Fox, Cybelle., and Mehta, Jal. D. 2002. “Studying rare events through qualitative case studies: lessons from a study of rampage school shootings.” Sociological Methods and Research 31(2):174-217.

3. Muschert, Glenn. W. 2007. “Research in school shootings.” Sociology Compass 1(1):60-80.

4. Jeane Gerard, F., Whitfield, Kate C., Porter, Louise., and Browne, Kevin. 2016. “Offender and Offence Characteristics of School Shooting Incidents.” Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling 13(1):22-38. p. 23.

5. Haeney, Owen., Ash, David., and Galletly, Cherrie. 2018. “School Shootings – ‘It wouldn’t happen here?’”. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 52(5):405-407. p. 405.

6. Livingston, Melvin D., Rossheim, Matthew E., and Stidham Hall, Kelli. 2019. “A Descriptive Analysis of School and School Shooter.” Journal of Adolescent Health 64:797-799.

7. Kalesan, Bindu., et al. 2017. Ibid. p. 321.

8. Haeney, Owen., et al. 2018. Ibid. p. 407.

9. Kissner, Jason. 2016. “Are Active Shootings Temporally Contagious? An Empirical Assessment.” Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology 31(1):48-58; Lankford, Adam. 2016. “Fame-seeking rampage shooters: Initial findings and empirical predictions.” Aggression and Violent Behavior 27:122-129.

10. Follman, Mark. 2015. How the media inspires mass shooters: And 6 ways news outlets can help prevent copycat attacks. Available; Gourarie, Chava. 2016. The fundamental dilemma of covering the Orlando shooting. Available.

11. Dahmen, Nicole S., Abdenour, Jesse., McIntyre, Karen., Noga-Styron, Krystal. 2017. “Covering mass shootings: Journalists’ perceptions of coverage and factors influencing attitudes.” Journalism Practice 12(4):456-476.

12. Suomalainen, L., Haravuori, Henna., Berg, Noora., and Kiviruusu, Olli. 2010. “A controlled follow-up study of adolescents exposed to a school shooting – Psychological consequences after four months.” European Psychiatry 26(8):490-497.

13. Pynoos, Robert. S., Frederick, Calvin., Nader, Kathi., Arroyo, William., Steinberg Alan., Eth, Spencer., Nunez, Francisco., and Fairbanks, Lynn. 1987. “Life threat and posttraumatic stress in school-age children.” Archives of General Psychiatry 44(12):1057-1063.

14. Livingston, Melvin D., et al. 2017. Ibid. p. 797.

15. Borum, Randy., Cornell, Dewey G., Modzeleski, William., and Jimerson, Shane R. 2010. “What Can Be Done About School Shootings?” Educational Researcher 39(1):27-37. p. 28.

16. Kiilakoski, Tomi., and Oksanen, Atte. 2011. “Soundtrack of the School Shootings: Cultural Script, Music and Male Rage.” Young 19(3) 247–269. p. 251; Borum, Randy., et al. 2010. Ibid. p. 31.

17. Rowhani-Rahbar, Ali., and Moe, Caitlin. 2019. “School Shootings in the U.S.: What Is the State of Evidence?” Journal of Adolescent Health 64(6):683-684. p. 683.

18. Borum, Randy., et al. 2010. Ibid. p. 31.

19. Haeney, Owen., et al. 2018. Ibid. p. 405.

20. Borum, Randy., et al. 2010. Ibid. p. 31.

21. Meloy John R., and O’Toole Mary. 2011. “The concept of leakage in threat assessment.” Behavioral Science & Law 29(4):513-527.

22. Borum, Randy., et al. 2010. Ibid. p. 31.

23. Haeney, Owen., et al. 2018. Ibid. p. 405

24. Borum, Randy., et al. 2010. Ibid. p. 31.

25. Borum, Randy., et al. 2010. Ibid. p. 31.

26. Hiroeh Urara., Appleby Louis., Dunn, Graham., and Brøbech, Per. 2001. “Death by homicide, suicide, and other unnatural causes in people with mental illness: a population-based study.” The Lancet 358(9299):2110-2112.

27. Haeney, Owen., et al. 2018. Ibid. p. 407.

28. Haeney, Owen., et al. 2018. Ibid. p. 407.

29. Newman, Katherine S., Fox, Cybelle, Harding, David J., Mehta, Jal., and Roth, Wendy. 2004. Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. New York: Basic Books; Larkin, Ralph W. 2007. Comprehending Columbine. Philadelphia: Temple University Press; Henry, Stuart. 2009. “School Violence Beyond Columbine. A Complex Problem in Need of an Interdisciplinary Analysis.” American Behavioral Scientist 52(9):1246-1265; Newman, Katherine., and Fox, Cybelle. 2009. “Repeat Tragedy: Rampage Shootings in American High School and College Settings, 2002–2008”. American Behavioral Scientist 52(9):1286-1308.

30. Kiilakoski, Tomi., and Oksanen, Atte. 2011. Ibid. p. 247.

31. Haeney, Owen., et al. 2018. Ibid. p. 406.

32. Towers Sherry, Gomez-Lievano, Andres., Khan Maryam., and Muyabi, Anuj. 2015. “Contagion in mass killings and school shootings.” PLoS ONE 10(7). Available.

33. Kalesan, Bindu., et al. 2017. Ibid. p. 324

34. O’Toole, Mary E. 2000. The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Quantico, VA. p. 2; Borum, Randy., et al. 2010. Ibid. p. 31.

35. Borum, Randy., et al. 2010. Ibid. p. 27.

36. Anderson, R. N. 2001. “Deaths: Leading causes for 1999.” National Vital Statistics Reports 49(11):1-87.

37. Borum, Randy., et al. 2010. Ibid. p. 27

38. Perkins, Crystal., Scannell, Brian., Brighton, Brian., and Seymour, Rachel. 2016. “Orthopaedic Firearm Injuries in Children and Adolescents: An Eight-Year Experience at a Major Urban Trauma Center.” Injury 47:173-177.

39. Kalesan, Bindu., et al. 2017. Ibid. p. 321.

40. Rowhani-Rahbar, Ali., and Moe, Caitlin. 2019. Ibid. p. 683.

41. Borum, Randy., et al. 2010. Ibid. p. 28.

42. Borum, Randy., et al. 2010. Ibid. p. 28-29.

43. Dahmen, Nicole S. 2018. “Visually Reporting Mass Shootings: U.S. Newspaper Photographic Coverage of Three Mass School Shootings.” American Behavioral Scientist 62(2):163-180. p. 163.

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