Schools, Guns and the Secret Service

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
Grievances 83%
Peers 63%
Bullying by peers 46%
Desire to kill 37%
Suicidal 41%
Psychotic symptoms 12%
Fame 10%

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.

Gun Access Percent of Gun Attacks
From home or close relative 76%
Unsecured guns 48%
Secured guns 16%

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.

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)
Psychological 69% (28%)
Behavioral 57% (23%)
Neuro/Developmental 20% (8%)
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
Weapons research 32%
Weapons activities 17%
Deceptive practices 22%
Lionized Columbine 23%
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.

Tough tidbits

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.


Schools, Guns and the Secret Service — 9 Comments

  1. I would argue the “bullying” part of all this.
    Is it really “bullying” or is that we are not teaching our children to deal with disappointment and not getting their own way all the time?
    Everyone gets a prize for just showing up. No one gets “special treatment” for being “better” at something than is someone else. NO ONE IS “EQUAL” TO EVERYONE ELSE!!!!! Simple fact of life and biology.

    Everyone needs to stop giving their kids every little thing they want. How many times have I seen a small child, in a grocery store, throw a fit because they “want” something …. the parents starts out by saying “No” ….. they the parents tells the kid that they will get something special when they get home ……. then, the parent buckles and does what ever the kid wanted – and usoally a little extra just to shut the kid up. How about a hand applied ‘liberally’ (Yeah, I know) to the kids backside … God padded their butts for a reason!

    Parents, YOU are making the little mass-murderers all by yourself (with help from liberals & media). GROW A PAIR AND BE A “PARENT” …. you CANNOT be your child’s “friend” and do a proper job of “parenting”.

    • Many kids, today, do need better parenting in terms of learning to deal with the difficulties of life, but that doesn’t mean that bullying isn’t a real problem. Back in the stone age, when I was a kid, bullying was a physical presence kind of thing. Therefore, a couple of punches in the nose and it was generally settled. Today, with the help of social media billionaires, bullying can be, and is, anonymous — and it’s much more vicious, constant and persistent. Kids need to be taught/trained to not be bullies. Without that training, they are vicious little animals. They have no better side, no better nature. They simply do whatever pleases them. The teaching needs to be on the side of teaching kids to respect one another, not to tolerate or ignore *******.

  2. Helpful info, thanks! My biggest takeaway:

    Length of planning=window of opportunity to discover and intervene on an individual before bullets fly.

    The numbers on the length of planning table don’t add up. Can you clarify?

    • As for the planning table:

      24% of the attackers spent less than a month planning their attacks.
      17% of the attachers spent one to six months planning
      7% were big planners, spending six or more months

      They rest were unplanned attacks or any degree of planning could not be determined.

  3. I agree with LameBear, kids these days with their inept “educators’are being taught that they are entitled and history is being erased. Kids have far more available to them than what we had as kids and we had more than our parents, although the amount of services and items is far greater for this generation than ours. I will admit I was bullied, just because of my last name, I got into fights over it, and with my fathers permission! Now had I gotten in trouble at school for any other reason I would have gone to the wood shed! The problem is kids aren’t allowed to go fists to settle an argument, because they would be suspended or expelled. Also you have so called “friends” that are not always friends, especially when you have to stand your ground and fight.

    All kids do these days when a fight or shooting or other excitement happens is, to whip out the phone a record it, instead of maybe stepping in and helping to deescalate the problem, they cheer it on. Now I’m not saying that fighting is the way to solve everything, but bullies really only understand one thing, getting your ass beat for being an ass hole is going to be your future, if you don’t stop it. Yes some never learn, and some have the “I’ll get even” attitude when they get what they had coming to them, but then again it’s what would happen eventually anyway. Parents that don’t parent are just as much to blame for these problems as the kids that do it on their own. The attitude that “my little angel would never do this” when the signs are clearly there, (selling drugs, gang affiliation, etc.) puts the blame squarely on the parents. I’ve never been arrested, I stay out of trouble and i’m not out running around the neighborhood at all hours of the night! Yeah I’m old, 57, but we have people my age causing all kinds of crime here, and I just shake my head thinking, WTF are these idiots doing out of JAIL? That part of the blame rests squarely on the Judges and Lawyers! Start making the legalese do the time when their client is let off to commit another more heinous crime, because of the slap on the wrist sentence they got. Idiot Governors like we have here that just willy nilly set convicted rapists and murderers and other violent offenders FREE, should be removed from office and sent to prison! Enough of my rant, I have no compassion for criminals, and those that steal should have their fingers smashed with a ball pein hammer, makes it tough to steal, pick your nose, or your ass! Bring back public hangings for the bad ones! The problem with the death penalty is, that it doesn’t get used enough!

  4. “Equal” does not mean “identical”, or even “same”. Yes, our school system makes a point of not rewarding excellence — or punishing real failure — but that doesn’t mean that the parents or kids must do the same. Yes, parents should *parent*, but that often involves standing up for one’s kid against bullies and bigots, whether those are other kids or the teachers themselves. “Equality” means “fair is fair”, and “sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” — even when that “gander” is the school system itself. Yes, demand certain standards of behavior for your kids, but demand the same from the teachers and principals and even the state School Board. The key to equality is *consistency*.

  5. One solution to bullying not frequently discussed is the need for school staff to monitor and address discipline problems that lead to pathological bullying and breeding grounds for school shooters.

    Here is a brief synopsis on how to address that problem:

    How to Deal with School Shootings

    Administration of a school is the duty of the staff that runs it. Because students are required by law to attend school, it is the duty of the school to ensure the students, the school’s charges, are provided protection.

    In this day and age, with all the news available, the resources available and the level of public awareness of the subject, there is no reason such an event should have occurred.

    Start firing and replacing school staff until they, the people responsible for our children’s safety, get the message that we won’t stand for excuses anymore and we want the violence to stop.

  6. “from 2008 through 2017, almost two decades of data”

    Isn’t that only almost 1 decade, not almost 2?

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