An Analysis of the School Shooting Phenomenon

A deeper look into what makes individuals want to commit mass murder.

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It’s a frightening idea to accept the consistency of school shootings in America. It seems that every couple of months we are hit with another headline. The more these headlines roll in, the more of a necessity we feel to stop this phenomenon.

Many activists are strongly certain that changing gun control laws is the proper solution to keeping our children safe. Though I don’t discredit the effect it would have in relation to these school shootings, I do believe there’s much more to this than the guns themselves.

For if we look back fifty years ago, when firearms were more widely available to the public, the number of school shootings taking place was substantially less. The real issue of this phenomenon goes within the psychology of the men committing these crimes.

If we look into some of the most malicious school shooters, we find a steady trend of mental illness; Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech Massacre, 2006) suffered from severe anxiety with selective mutism and major depressive disorder, Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting, 2012) was diagnosed with sensory difficulties, socialization delays, and repetitive  behavior at the age of three, all of which inevitably led to schizophrenia, and Nikolas Cruz (Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting, 2018) is reported to have autism, depression, and ADHD.

I believe it’s important to look into these mental health issues as it gives us a hint as to what makes someone decide to go out and become a threat to many people. Without that very decision, the status of gun control wouldn’t be an issue.

The Legacy of Columbine

Though school shootings have been documented since the mid-19th century, the phenomenon I speak of all started with Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.

Their massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado which left fifteen dead (including the two perpetrators) is often referenced by the killers appearing in headlines now. In fact, the duo murderers even have a fanbase that celebrates their horrific acts.

They call themselves “Columbiners” and their subculture started taking on a life of its own when social media’s popularity began to rise. On websites like Tumblr, you’ll find an assortment of fan art and fiction writing based around Klebold and Harris. Their followers even go as far as to having some of the most scholarly interest in the Columbine massacre.

However, even more disturbing is the number of attacks or planned attacks that have been linked to the interest in the Columbine massacre. ABC news spent an entire month investigating over fifty school attacks and/or plots only to find Klebold and Harris’s names written all over them.

In March of 2014, two students of Danbury High School in Connecticut were intending a strike on their school until police discovered them. One of the students had a deep YouTube history of Columbine-related searches and wrote in a notebook, “I can’t even stop thinking about Columbine and Eric [Harris] and Dylan [Klebold]. I mean like they’re my heroes…”

In April of 2007, a series of videos was released in which the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech Massacre mentioned the Columbine shooting as an inspiration. For Seung-Hui Cho, this influence went as far back as middle school – right after the Colorado incident happened. In one instant, Cho even went as far as to write an essay for English class explaining that he wanted to replicate the Columbine attack.

In September of 2004, two bullied students were planning an attack on their Massachusetts high school. Not only was their attack scheduled for the sixth anniversary of Columbine but their computer history had an archive of knowledge relating to the massacre. To top it off, one of the students wore a shirt to a school dance which had “April 20th, 1999” (the date of the Columbine attack) printed on it and a German inscription celebrating Klebold and Harris as heroes.

The legacy of Columbine has been building itself up ever since the attack. And since the advent of social media, Klebold and Harris’s fans have had a comfortability in finding like-minded individuals through a community that’s hidden from the general public.

Looking into these facts, it can be easy to point fingers at Columbine for the school shooting phenomenon in America. However, I believe Columbine was, in reality, the initiation of the circumstances we witness now.

The Psychology of a Killer

But what exactly caused this initiation? What makes Klebold and Harris so relatable in comparison to killers like Charles Whitman (University of Texas Tower Shooting, 1966)?

One of the greatest speculations is made on the account that Klebold and Harris were considered outcasts and often victims of bullying. A large number of students in America feel subjected to this oppression and, with that, seek out well-known individuals who have felt similar.

Beyond the fact that they were celebritized, the Columbine shooters are seen as heroes because they acted upon their oppression in the way they felt most suitable; large-scale violence.

There have been interviews with several teenagers arrested for planning an attack on their schools. Many of whom openly admitted to feeling an allure to violence as a means of relieving their oppression.

In some of these interviews, Klebold and Harris were mentioned to individuals who looked upon them as heroes. These students confessed they felt a strong sense of loneliness through their oppression and the Columbine shooters just happened to be two influences they felt they saw themselves in.

This leads us to the assumption acts of violence are simply an obtrusive reflection of the way in which these teenagers feel.

Earlier, I mentioned that all these cases are linked to mental health issues and behavioral problems. Within Volume 30 of Law and Human Behavior, it’s said that those with mental disorders which substantially interfere with life’s activities are more likely to commit violent acts. When it comes to the perpetrators of these mass shootings, many of them hold this severity of mental illness.

Yet, it’s unfair to assume that everyone with a mental illness is more prone to violence. In fact, studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions found that less than 5% of gun crimes committed between 2001 and 2010 were done so in the hands of someone mentally ill. To oversimplify the notion that people of poor mental health are prone to gun violence would be to outcast anyone with a diagnosement.

Recent research is discovering that even though mental health plays a key role in school shootings, the perpetrators are often subject to cultural and social issues. Generally speaking, these involve relationships and connections surrounding the killers.

One must consider the family, the friends, and even the acquaintances surrounding these school shooters. Papachristos et al. regression analysis indicates that 85% of shootings are taken place within a social network. This means you’re more likely to be killed by a relative or friend than by a total stranger.

This may lead us to better understand why schools are a target considering most perpetrators target education facilities they attend or have attended.

To further this, as already mentioned, killers are prone to bullying. People who suffer from schizophrenia are 65% to 130% more likely to be victimized by the general public. Combining this victimization within a social circle and attaching it to severe mental illness, we can begin to witness a trend amongst mass shooters.

One of which might allow us to prevent future severities of this phenomenon.

What Can We Do?

The reason mass shootings continue to happen is because we as a collective of society aren’t acting upon facts being presented to us. When looking into the Stoneman Douglas High School shooter, Nikolas Cruz, the signs were everywhere.

Those who knew Cruz all attest that something could’ve been done in order to stop his attack which left 17 people dead. There were the minor incidents, like the horrifying look on Cruz’s face when he aggressively threw an apple at Isabelle Robinson in middle school. Then there are the major indications, such as Cruz posting a picture of himself with a firearm on social media, openly admitting to the public that he intended on using it at a school.

To further this, there were tips made to law enforcement informing that Cruz was threatening a school shooting.

It’s more than true that not ever killer is so obvious in their hints as Cruz was. But the fact that he was able to get away with all these clues and follow forth with the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting proves that there’s an issue not being handled properly. An issue that goes beyond gun control and into the actions being taken to prevent this school shooting phenomenon.

We need to keep an eye out on those around us. We need to be aware of how severe one’s mental illness is and how he/she feels about those around him/her. If there are hints, we need to act immediately. Whether this is through psychiatric help or something more. And most importantly, we need to keep guns out of these people’s hands.

We need to stop sitting around and watching this phenomenon unfold before our eyes. We need to take action and we need to do it as a collective. Without this action, the matter is due to only get worse and worse.

At this point, it won’t be a surprise that another shooting will happen within the next months or weeks. And it’s a cultural shame that we of this country have come to accept that prediction as another reality of the modern day.

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