School Shooters: Warning Signs and Misconceptions

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Katherine Newman isn’t just the new dean of Johns Hopkins’ School of Arts & Sciences; she also happens to be an expert on school shootings — and, sadly, she’s getting plenty of chances to use her expertise these days. In the aftermath of the Newtown shootings last week, Newman spoke with CNN about the warning signs and common factors that link these tragedies.

First of all, it should be noted that the FBI stopped trying to profile school shooters after extensive research revealed that the perpetrators didn’t actually have all that much in common. And some of the pervasive stereotypes — that school shooters are miserable, trenchcoat-wearing loners without any friends — can actually cause parents/teachers/administrators to ignore students who don’t fit that profile. (Remember that Dylan Klebold went to his senior prom just three days before he killed 13 classmates at Columbine High School.)

Nonetheless, Newman’s research reveals some interesting things. Most importantly, she found that the shooters almost always reveal their plans in advance, whether to parents, friends, or a social network. Often these revelations will be subtle or sly, but they’ll be there nonetheless.

Newman also notes that the school shooters she studied were often intelligent, high-performing boys who more often tended to be “failed joiners” rather than loners. “Their daily social experience is full of friction,” she writes. “Since they are almost always mentally or emotionally ill, those rejections — so common in adolescence — take on greater importance and become a fixation. Rebuffed after trying to join friendship groups, they look for ways to gain attention, to reverse their damaged identities.”

Other warning signs include a preoccupation with commando-style military fatigues, guns, and other action movie tropes. This is one reason Newman argues for gun control — but also says that it’s not enough:  “If Adam Lanza had had to go to greater lengths to get his hands on weapons, he might have run out of psychic energy to do this terrible deed,” but on the other hand, “A determined person will find a way. Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson took a blow torch to a safe to try to get at the guns they knew were hidden there. That failed, so they found wire clippers and managed to cut their way through the cables that were supposed to keep Golden’s grandfather’s gun collection out of the wrong hands. People who are this intent on getting their hands on weapons are very difficult to stop. That is not an argument against gun control because thousands of unbalanced young men are not quite that determined; they are ambivalent. That is why gun control is a necessary but not sufficient step.”

More than anything, Newman thinks that we need to be better at picking up the warning signals that these troubled young men (and they are almost always young men) are sending out, often to their peers. That way, Newman writes, “we can do our best to stop them in their tracks, even if we do not always succeed.”

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