The U.S. Secret Service released a report that exposed no real secrets but did amplify what we know or thought we knew about school shooters.
Okay, that is not quite accurate. Their report titled “Analysis of Targeted School Violence” reviews all the documented cases of when someone specifically directed violence at people in K12 schools from 2008 through 2017, almost a full decade of data. This compilation, of course, included school shooters of every variety. What the report reveals is kinda what we thought about school shooters in general, but it is good to have some solid numbers to substantiate our understanding.
Instead of boring you with all 58 pages provided by the Secret Service, I’ll run down and comment on some of the important highlights.
A little fragile
Before diving into the numbers, the entirety of the report covers 41 incidents. This is a smallish number, and thus some of the resulting percentages derived from them are weak. I’ll point out when things get a little questionable.
Grievances, bullying and mental health
Most of the kids who targeted schools did so because they had grievances with people on campus, typically other kids. This is unsurprising given that some of the more notorious school shooters – from Columbine to Parkland – have openly said this was their motivation.
|Primary Motivation||Secondary Motivation|
|Grievances (61%)||Grievances (9%)|
|Peers (37%)||Peers (27%)|
What is also obvious, but for which we now have some real numbers, is that the intersection of bullying and accumulated grievances are key drivers. For targeted school attacks, the combination of grievances against their peers tops all. The Secret Service did something odd, though, with the tally for bullying. For “peer” conflicts, they reported the raw numbers as shown here, but off to the side in the grand total column, they claim bullying accounted for 46% of all motivations. Why they did not break this out into the primary and secondary motivations is weird. I have a FOIA request submitted to the Secret Service to get the raw data tables, which perhaps will illuminate this issue. But for now, revenge for bullying (perhaps amplified by other conditions) is the chief danger sign.
|Motivation||Percent of All Instances|
|Bullying by peers||46%|
|Desire to kill||37%|
As the table above shows, attackers typically had more than one motivation. In terms of all motivations combined, the reasons for attacking a K12 school is in the table at right. One surprising element is that the desire for fame did not rank highly. That various mass public shooters have noted fame and getting the highest body count as a goal, among people blasting their local school, it is not that common.
Guns, homes and safe crackers
Guns were involved in 61% of the attacks (knives in 39%). I know you are most interested in the gun aspect, sooooo…
Of the gun attacks, 76% of the attackers got their guns from home, or from a close relative. Since most junior high and high schoolers are minors, and if they are anything like I was at their age – broke – then buying their own guns was not an option. Stealing them was.
The part that will give various gun control groups some ammo (pun intended) is that, of the gun attacks, half involved guns that were not secured in a meaningful way (e.g., behind the glass in a rifle case) or that were completely unsecured (in their mom and dad’s nightstand). But in at least 16% of the cases, the attacker had to break some form of secure storage. The attackers either picked the locks, guessed the combination, or knew where the keys were stowed. There are two lessons here: first, if your kid is even a little flakey, lock up the gun. Second, if you lock up the gun, chose a different combination for your gun safe than your wedding anniversary date.
|Gun Access||Percent of Gun Attacks|
|From home or close relative||76%|
Nuts and rifle bolts
Yes, quite a few of the attackers had mental problems. One could argue that attempting mass murder over grievances is obviously crackers, but school attackers are a sleeve full of saltines.
Attackers were diagnosed at twice the national average for mental health issues. This number may be a bit off, as many people suffer from mental health problems in silence, unobserved by even close family. But per this study, young troublemakers appear to get hauled into clinics more often than their peers at large.
|Mental Health Category||Percent of Mental Health Attackers (all attackers)|
|Had received treatment||(54%)|
Of just those attackers who had a mental health diagnosis, 63% had depression, 60% suicidal ideation, 29% anxiety, 26% anger management issues, and an astoundingly high 20% demonstrated outright psychosis. Overall 54% had received some form of treatment. The study did not assess how many of these attackers were on or withdrawing from psychotropic medications, but our analysis into adverse reactions to psychotropics and mass public shootings shows it needs investigating.
The bigger point is that nearly 70% of the attackers had problems, 40% of those had been diagnosed, and none were treated in such a way as to prevent the attack. There is also the possibility of induced mental problems or drugs amplifying pre-existing problems. Some 20% of the attackers had reached the “abuse” level of drug or alcohol intake. An equal number were users of controlled substances (excluding marijuana) such as opiates and amphetamines. Odds are we would see significant overlaps in these groups, but the Secret Service kept those details secret.
Plans, plots and practices
The scary bit is that 51% of these attackers planned their events. I would have speculated that a large majority were relatively spontaneous or had minimal planning. This conjecture, sadly, is not true.
|Type of Preparation||Percent of All Attackers|
|Length of Planning||Percent of Mass Attackers|
|Planning < one month||24%|
|Planning 1-6 months||17%|
|Planning > six months||7%|
Some attackers did all kinds of planning. Most chose weapons, and they went out of their way to keep their planning secret.
Columbine is still feeding school attackers. This has been noted by a number of psychology researchers, and the folks over at Langman Psychological Associates have a handy chart that shows the path of research mass shooters take when planning their own massacres. Nearly all roads lead back to Columbine.
There is a lot more in the report, though it gets a little repetitive and tedious. But some items worth lobbing at you on my way out the door include:
- 71% came from broken homes
- 69% encountered family financial difficulties
- 54% had a parent or sibling in jail/prison
- 23% lived with family members that had mental health problems
- 23% suffered abuse or neglect
BUT! The biggie is that 100% of attackers experienced social stressors. As noted in one psychology study we covered, psychosocial stressors were the #2 mental impairment among mass murderers and serial killers. Take all of the issues above – family, drugs, bullying, etc. – and add on psychosocial stressors, and you have manufactured a timebomb.