The American public is becoming increasingly concerned about school shootings, which are occurring at schools of all grade levels across the country. This issue has come to national attention beginning with the Columbine High School tragedy occurring in 1999. According to the website (2018), a total of 17 mass shootings have happened at public and private schools, as well as colleges and university, since 1989. The list of fatalities and injuries is heartbreaking, as scores of human lives have been lost or severely impacted by actors who seem to come from nowhere. This paper surveys current thinking on the psychology of school shooters and then briefly explore conclusions based upon research evidence.
Various reasons have been presented to the public concerning the motivations of school shooters, however most are not necessarily valid from a psychological perspective. They include the influence of video game violence, lax laws regarding gun control, and popular songs and movies that glamorize death (Leary, Kowalski, Smith, & Phillips, 2003). The Columbine High School shootings raised the issue of social rejection, and both psychological theory as well as research appears to support a connection between rejection and aggression. Leary et al. (2003) argue that the response to rejection by boys (in the case of Columbine the two shooters attended the school) is aggression without justification, and that once the aggressive feelings manifest they intensify. For adults, the perception of rejection may lead to violent aggression, not only towards the one believed to be doing the rejecting but also with those around them (Leary et al., 2003). While rejection seems as plausible a hypothesis as any, there are currently other reasons which have been explored through various theoretical prisms.

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Perhaps supporting a rejection hypothesis is chronic strain theory. According to Bonanno and Levenson (2014), chronic strain occurs as strain intensifies and continues over a prolonged period, and the authors report is a major factor with school shooters who reportedly were bullied, hurt and rejected by others, experienced depression, and lacked coping skills. Another theory having been presented relates to cultural narcissism, “antisocial behaviors in schools, especially suburban schools, do not stem from pervasive violent media content but from societies narcissistic culture” (Bonanno & Levenson, 2014, p. 4). The culture narcissism theory argues that overconsumption and extreme forms of individualism leads to anxiety, constant dissatisfaction and a loss of meaning leads to other feelings that manifest into frustration, aggression and violence (Bonanno & Levenson, 2014). While plausible and worthy of consideration, the theories thus far presented are not necessarily psychological. As such, the following briefly explore current psychological theories on the subject matter.

The most prevalent theory concerning school shooters relates to mental health. The primary disorder psychologists have identified is depression, where most if not all school shooters have been identified as suffering from after the fact (Rocque, 2012). Three types of school shooters had been identified by Langman (2008): psychotic, psychopathic, and traumatized. Fast (2008; in Rocque, 2012) developed a theory based on ceremonial violence where the perpetrator is attempting to gain prestige and status. There is also a mental health component to the theory, where shooters are suspected of having brain damage, experience social isolation, and are suicidal (Rocque, 2012). Suicide intent also appears to be prevalent among theorists, where shooters wish to commit suicide but either lack the will or want their deaths to be spectacles. Last is the theory of the classroom avenger, who has internalized their isolation and rejection to the point of seeking revenge (Rocque, 2012).

Research has revealed similarities among school shooters. According to Rocque (2012), profiling has found that all of the shooters are either middle class or lower middle class and are white males. Such finding run counter in terms of the media, where violence tends to be reported as be prevalent in low-income urban settings. Research has also demonstrated that school shootings typically occur in areas perceived as safe, in rural or suburban areas. Perhaps the prevalent finding thus far has to do with similarities between school shooters and other violent juvenile offenders, where they are reported to be male, suffer from mental illness and are themselves victimized (Rocque, 2012). Research has also noted that not all of the shooters chose random targets, although other victims in such instances were chosen based upon proximity (Bonanno & Levenson, 2014).

Planning of shootings most often occurs; however such plans appear to most often occur either one or two day before the tragedy. Motivations include revenge as a result of being aggrieved, desperation, attention seeking and recognition and attempting to solve a problem (Bonanno & Levenson, 2014). While understandably difficult to investigate issues related to school shooters, there appears to be some discrepancies concerning the research surrounding the issue. Grøndahl and Bjørkly (2016) report that, in reality, there continues to be little in the way of research being conducted on the issue of school shootings and that the quality of what currently exists is mainly inadequate. Perhaps more germane is their finding that theories of psychology are relatively absent in research efforts, which is surprising considering the scope of the subject is ripe for psychological enquiry.

In reality, school shootings are rare and perhaps should not be considered a symptom of a larger issue looming over the country. This paper has specifically looked at school shooters, attempting to do so by staying as close to psychological thinking and research. However, this appears to be quite difficult to do presently, as research efforts thus far are reported to lack necessary elements found in the pursuit of exploring issues through the prism of psychology.

  • Bonanno, C. M., & Levenson, R. L. (2014). School shooters: History, current theoretical and empirical findings, and strategies for prevention. SAGE Open, 4(1), 215824401452542. doi:10.1177/2158244014525425
  • Grøndahl, P., & Bjørkly, S. (2016). Research quality and psychological theory in publications on school shooters with multiple victims – A systematic review of the literature. Cogent Psychology, 3(1), 1-12. doi:10.1080/23311908.2016.1152759