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To preface this, there are five common traits that almost all spree/serial killers show. A history of neglect or abuse from a parent or guardian, a history of arson or animal abuse, sadism, lack of sympathy and/or empathy and egocentrism and selfishness.
However, many teens display these outward signs. So, what traits can we define as being red flags to a potential School Shooter? To help define these characteristics, we’ll be looking at a few of the recent shooters, such as Nikolas Cruz, and seeking the aid of Eric Madfis—an associate professor of criminal justice, former FBI agent Brad Garrett, Psychologist Peter Langman (who has done extensive research into mass shooters), forensic psychologist Tony Farrenkopf, forensic psychiatrist Michael Stone and others.
One thing that is never debated is the rage these people hold. According to Dr. Stone, not all Mass Shooters exhibit the characteristics of a mental illness to the extent of having a disorder, but every single one of them has a clear and outward aggression that is noticibly out of control. This is aligned with one of the two distinct traits Garrett outlines in all School Shooters: rage.
School Shooters often harbor extreme anger and possibly paranoid delusions, says Langman. This anger is often the source of the falling out of many relationships and even jobs, due to their inability to control it. They lash out at those around them and have an inherent disregard for the safety of others during these periods of lashing out. Often times, when this aggression leads to them being rejected or losing a partner or job, it causes them to snap. This is what defines their trigger. A trigger is an event that takes place that acts as the “last straw” for the perpetrator and leads to the violent episode. According to Farrenkopf, these triggers can cause them to stop seeing people as people, but rather an object to exact their revenge and aggression on. They have no remorse for those they have hurt, because they no longer see them as human.
"They don’t see them as human. They instead them as symbols of something he wanted to obliterate," says Langman.
Further more, Farrenkopf defines depression as another common trait amongst mass shooters, which is backed up by Garrett, who lists depression as the second defining trait of a School Shooter. In theory, this depression is caused by being rejected by their peers, likely due to their own aggression. It is only natural for teens to notice violent behaviour in each other and, in order to keep themselves and loved ones safe, push those exhibiting such traits away. However, this rejection acts as a catalyst for their rage likely because of their own sense of superiority.
Langman points out that in nearly every case of a school shooting or bombing, the first place to look when trying to identify your perpetrator is those the other students rejected. It is human instinct to distance yourself from someone who could likely be harmful to you and for good reason. This rejection takes on a large part of the event’s cause, but it also makes the Shooter much easier to identify, in cases in which that is needed.
If we look at statements by the classmates of Nikolas Cruz, they’re mostly repetitive. They say he was weird, that he was a loner and an outcast. Many claim that they didn’t want to be friends with him, especially those who had gone to school with him for a long time. These students, true to form, describe him as violent and scary, wanting to protect themselves and their friends from his outbursts.
One such peer, Isabelle Robinson, even goes as far as to explain the time she tried to befriend the Parkland Shooter. She describes vividly how he bullied her and hurt her and how, a year or so later when she was assigned to tutor him, she tried to be nice to him. Even after showing him kindness, he reflected nothing but aggression back. That is when she explains how she only wished to save her sister from the torment he had given her—years before the shooting occurred.
Obsession With Guns and Violence
Many accuse violent media, such as movies, games, and television, as a cause of such violent acts. While not necessarily a cause, they are often an extension of the anger these teens harbor. Langman and Farrenkopf agree that these act as an outlet for the growing obsession these teens are cultivating. The morbid fascination, love, and appreciation for guns and the violence in media is something that is not only telling, but a noticeable behaviour in a student or child. When a teen’s focus has suddenly shifted to one thing and one thing only, it is very defined and gives a good look into their mind.
This is one we can easily look to the Columbine Shooters for evidence for. With direct references from many first-person shooter games becoming apparent in their crime and them becoming the highlight of the argument that such video games inspire violence, it is of no doubt that their obsession extended to such areas. Nikolas Cruz is another example, who had extensive research into guns that was found after his death that goes beyond the case of obsession.
But the true poster-child of gun-obsessed mass-shooters is undoubtedly Christopher Harper-Mercer, the Oregon Killer, who was always described as “unnervingly silent,” never really speaking to anyone. Unless, of course, the topic of guns came around. He grew up ignoring peers and neighbors when they asked him almost anything—even something as simple as how he was doing. However, there was one subject that always got him to open up. Of course, that was guns. Not only that, but he was a known collector of handguns and rifles and went to shooting ranges avidly.
Langman notes that in almost every case of mass violence committed by teens, their was some form of reaching out. After the event, investigators often times find that the Shooter showed many signs of doing so, and not just underlying signs of violence, but true and plain tells, such as asking another student for “help” or even telling other students exactly what they plan to do. They may say it, leave a note or a message, but truly, almost every School Shooter does so.
“I’m going to come back with a gun and kill all of you.”
Overwhelmingly, Mass Shooters are men. According to Dr. Stone and Langman, there are multiple reasons for this.
Langman attributes toxic culture as the major cause of this. Men are seen and expected to have power and control in almost every media output, so when someone who not only is exceptionally angry and depressed sees this and knows they don’t fit it, it only fuels both. After suffering from being outcasted by peers, it’s of no question that feeling ostracized by society’s definition of what men should be would create a notoriously negative effect on the person, especially if that person was a teenager. Teens have an overwhelming desire to be accepted, but when constantly rejected, what do they do? They get angry. All it takes, then, is one event to spark the flame.
Dr. Stone notes this point, but adds in two more important factors, one of which is shared with a cause for domestic violence; a sense of grievance. It is unquestionable that violent acts in a household are more common in men and often times it’s due to the feeling that he has been wronged by his partner. Men, likely due to how our society raises them, are often more likely to react violently when they’re upset. If a man sees another man flirting with his girlfriend, he punches him, and may not stop. If we turn this scenario around, the woman might slap her boyfriend for allowing it before storming out, or simply storming out without even doing so. A sense of having been wronged, when it comes to the male psyche, means a large lashing out of physical measure, while for women, it means one or two things: letting it go or exacting a precise revenge targeting ONLY the person that wronged you.
Dr. Stone’s other reason is notoriety. He sites the Columbine shooters and Christopher Harper-Mercer as evidence for this, the latter having written, “Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.” on a blog post prior to killing himself in 2015. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, better known as The Columbine Shooters, recorded a video prior to committing the Columbine Masacre in which they said that “directors will be fighting over this story.”
Back in 2015, Mark Potok, who has been researching hate groups and the reasoning behind them, seems to confirm Dr. Stone’s ideas, saying that many gunmen are “people who are looking for something larger than their own small lives, to be seen as a hero standing up for a cause.”
Follow the signs of a spree killer.
Remember those first five traits we looked at in the beginning? Well, true to form, they’re also tells. However, one stands out above the others—violence onto animals.
Looking at Nikolas Cruz, one neighbor recounted witnessing him chase down and corner a squirrel, following this by pelting blunt objects at the small animal. Upon being asked what he was doing, Nikolas didn’t answer until after the poor animal was already dead when he mostly just grinned and laughed about it. In Isabelle’s report, she describes Nikolas after hurting her. After she “turned around and saw him, smirking. [She] had never seen this boy before, but [she] would never forget his face. His eyes were lit up with a sick, twisted joy as he watched [her] cry.” All the way back in the seventh grade.
Lack of compassion and egocentrism are both traits that are rather common during one’s teen years. But seeing the utter horrors that teens such as Nikolas Cruz and the Columbine Shooters committed take it beyond what one would expect. They had no care for any other being other than themselves and their anger allowed that. All of the traits described here are the most common traits of Mass Shooters and, by extension, School Shooters.