Another school shooting. Last week, Nikolas Cruz, 19, shot up his former school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. He killed 17 people and wounded 14 more.
In the initial reporting about the incident, none of the students who knew Cruz were surprised. They feared him and mostly stayed away from him. The New York Times reported:
“A lot of people were saying that it would be him,” the student told WFOR-TV. “They would say he would be the one to shoot up the school. Everyone predicted it.”
Why would the entire school population predict that Cruz would grab a gun and kill people? The kids knew about his rants and fascination with violence.
The Washington Post reported the murderer’s history of anger, depression and killing animals:
PARKLAND, Fla. — The killing began with the squirrels. As a fourth-grader, Nikolas Cruz would try to bloody them with his pellet gun. Then he started going after chickens.
By the time Cruz was a teenager, he was sneaking into his neighbors’ yard across the street and trying to get his dogs to attack their baby potbelly pigs.
One resident watched him take long sticks to rabbit holes, ramming them down as hard as possible to kill any creatures trapped inside.
Some in the affluent neighborhood where Cruz grew up said they called authorities on him frequently. Every few weeks, it seemed, police cruisers were pulling up to the teenager’s house to sort out the latest complaint. …
Cruz picked fights with other kids. He stole people’s mail. He threw rocks and coconuts and vandalized property, neighbors said. He lurked at late hours along drainage ditches running along the back yards of their houses. One woman said she caught him peeking into her bedroom window. Another caught him stealing their bike.
When I read this description, the first thing that came to my mind was “psychopath.”
Nikolas Cruz definitely suffers from mental illness or has a personality disorder, or both. Reports indicate that he was diagnosed as autistic — although people on the autism spectrum aren’t usually violent. He also has ADHD — which often goes with antisocial personality disorder.
But at the moment, the exact cause of his violent behavior is unknown.
Expert on school shootings
As I looked for information about school shooters, I came across the work of Peter Langman, Ph.D., a psychologist who is probably the top expert on the subject. He’s written two books:
School Shooters: Understanding High School, College and Adult Perpetrators
Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters
Dr. Langman notes that the media and some experts have tried to explain the causes of school shootings as the result of “bullying, violent video games or conventional ideas about masculinity.” But these explanations fall short for obvious reasons: The vast majority of people who endure bullying, play violent video games or are male do not shoot up schools.
Dr. Langman maintains a website called SchoolShooters.info that includes a comprehensive database of 141 perpetrators of violence in educational settings from around the world.
Yes, most of the perpetrators — 119 of them — were in the United States. But Dr. Langman also includes cases in Australia (2), Brazil (2), Canada (7), Finland (2), Germany (7), Scotland (1) and Sweden (1).
Typically, shooters are stereotyped as young, white males, but this isn’t always the case. SchoolShooters.info includes information of nine female perpetrators, 42 male perpetrators who were African American, Asian, Latino, or other races, and 44 perpetrators who were over the age of 25.
Three types of school shooters
Through his research, Dr. Langman has identified three types of school shooters:
- Psychopathic shooters are narcissistic, entitled, lacking in empathy, and sometimes sadistic. Some are abrasive and belligerent; others are charming and deceptive.
- Psychotic shooters have either schizophrenia or schizotypal personality, with a combination of psychotic symptoms (hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thoughts/behavior), eccentric behavior and beliefs, and severely impaired social/emotional functioning.
- Traumatized shooters grew up in chronically dysfunctional families characterized by parental substance abuse, domestic violence, physical abuse, sometimes sexual abuse, frequent relocations, and changing caregivers.
Dr. Langman has also found other factors that contribute to psychological problems. For example, he noted that many perpetrators have “body-related issues.” Many shooters were unusually short. Some had birth defects or major illnesses. Several were physically weak and had no athletic ability. Some had been sexually molested.
Family patterns, Dr. Langman says, may also play a role. He found that many shooters came from families where one or more relatives served in the military or law enforcement. Many of the shooters themselves wanted to join the military, but failed — which may have contributed to their psychological issues.
In short, although there is not one profile that leads to school shootings, there are patterns. If you would like to learn more, I recommend two of Dr. Langman’s papers — both highly readable — that explain the complex issues that lead some people to commit such extreme violence.
Many, many warning signs
The Parkland, Florida school shooting was a total tragedy. But what made it even worse was that there were many, many warning signs of Nikolas Cruz’s erratic and violent behavior:
- Students knew there was something wrong with Cruz, were afraid of him, and were not surprised when he became a school shooter.
- The Florida Department of Children and Families investigated Cruz, alerted to posts on Snapchat that he was cutting himself and wanted to buy a gun.
- Police were at the family home more than 20 times, often called by Cruz’ mother, sometimes called by other neighbors.
- Someone named Nikolas Cruz posted on YouTube that he was going to be “a professional school shooter.” The comment was reported to the FBI, the FBI investigated, but the issue was dropped.
- As recently as January 5, the FBI received a tip that Nikolas Cruz had guns and wanted to kill people, but did not forward the information to the Miami field office.
People knew that Nikolas Cruz had problems. The authorities were warned. Yet he was able to legally purchase an semi-automatic weapon and carry out his murderous plan anyway.
At the very least, America should figure out how to prevent disturbed individuals — including psychopaths — from buying guns.