The following is an updated version of this articlepublished in 2018.
The horror in Uvalde, Texas last week was chillingly familiar to Mary Ellen O’Toole. As part of a small group of academics, law enforcement experts, and psychologists who published some of the first research on mass school shootings more than 20 years ago, O’Toole knows the patterns these events and perpetrators follow — and the ways to prevent them, seemingly always to be missed again.
I first spoke to her in 2018, after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, but she has been dealing with school shootings for more than 27 years. In that time, she and other experts say, little has changed. The risk factors they identified two decades ago still apply. Your recommendations are still valid. And every time another group of Americans dies like this, researchers like O’Toole have to watch in horror and ponder what could have been prevented and why not.
“Honestly, I… I’m very, very angry,” O’Toole told me last week. There is always a new example of mass gun violence in America. But mass gun violence in America is no longer new – and neither are efforts to stop it.
“On the news, people say we should worry about this and that,” O’Toole told me in 2018, “and I was like, ‘We realized that 20 years ago. Didn’t you read this stuff 20 years ago?’ … It’s tiring. I only feel a feeling of tiredness.”
It’s difficult to say definitively how many school shootings have occurred in this country – different databases count them in different ways and arrive at different numbers of incidents. It’s even harder to prove how many potential shootings were prevented or how many others could have been had additional steps been taken. But the people who have spent more than two decades trying to understand this phenomenon are still here, still trying to present politicians and the public with possible solutions that are complicated, expensive, and difficult to summarize in one word.
Any research into school shootings is complicated by how uncommon such school shootings are. In 2016, FiveThirtyEight wrote about the more than 33,000 people killed by guns in America each year. Of those deaths, about a third – some 12,000 – were homicides, but hardly any were due to mass shootings. If you define mass shootings as an event in which a lone assailant indiscriminately kills four or more people in a public place, gang activity, or unrelated robbery, mass shootings account for a tiny fraction of all gun homicides – probably a fraction of one percent. School shootings are an even smaller subset
When O’Toole first became involved with school shootings in 1995, they appeared to be even more of an outlier than they are today. “I couldn’t even call it a phenomenon,” she said in 2018. “Before Columbine, there was no indication it was going to be one of those crimes that just becomes part of the culture. It looked like it could have faded.”
These unusual but high-profile tragedies had also caught the attention of Marisa Randazzo. In 1999, she was the Secret Service’s chief psychologist and became part of a joint effort by the Secret Service and the Department of Education to better understand school shooters and prevent attacks before they happen. Randazzo had previously continued working the extraordinary case study project – a Secret Service project aimed at better understanding people who threaten the President and other public figures. Like school shootings, assassinations are extremely rare events that have a huge impact on society. This rarity makes them difficult to study – and makes it difficult to distinguish blowhards from real threats. But their impact makes it important to understand them.
Randazzo found that the project’s findings mirrored what she learned about school shootings. For example, the Secret Service once focused its energies on threats from people with a history of violent crime or suffering from a mental illness that caused them to act irrationally. However, the analysis of the Exceptional Case Study Project showed that most people who actually carry out attacks did not meet any of these criteria. Instead, it was better to talk to friends, family, and co-workers to find out who really posed a threat—most attackers had discussed their plans with other people.
First, these studies found that trying to profile school shooters didn’t make much sense. Yes, most were (and remain) male and white, but those categories were so broad that they’re essentially useless for anticipating potential threats, Randazzo said. Additionally, she said, more detailed profiles risked stigmatizing perfectly reasonable behaviors — like wearing black and listening to loud music.
Instead, reports focused on the behavior and mental state of the young people who chose to kill. While these teenagers were deeply troubled, that’s not quite the same as saying that those who commit school shootings are simply terminally mentally ill. Nor does it mean that these young people suddenly flinched and gave no warning. “School gunners usually do this out of a deep adolescent crisis,” said James Garbarino, a psychology professor at Loyola University Chicago who specializes in youth violence and who began studying school gunners in the late 1990s.
Randazzo described a pattern of young people who were deeply depressed, unable to cope with life and saw no other way out of a bad situation. The stressors they faced weren’t necessarily issues that an adult would consider particularly traumatic, but these young people were unable to deal with their emotions, sadness, and anger, and they began to, in a way act that was essentially suicidal.
Some of the best data on school shooters’ mental health comes from interviews with shooters (and would-be shooters) who survived the attack. Randazzo described one such living school gunner, currently serving multiple life sentences, who told her he had been teetering between suicide and murder for weeks prior to the attack. It was only after he tried and failed to kill himself that he decided to kill others hoping someone would kill him. Garbarino, who has interviewed dozens of people who served life sentences as teenagers for both school shootings and other violent crimes, heard many similar stories.
“The reason I emphasize this is because we know so much about helping someone who is committing suicide, and those same resources can be used very effectively with someone planning to engage in violence at school ‘ said Randazzo. So how do we spot those planning an attack on a school? The studies she and O’Toole published years ago showed that would-be assassins don’t keep their plans to themselves, just like people planning an attack on the president. They tell friends or even teachers that they want to kill. They talk about their anger and their suicidality. They act violently against family and friends. And as more and more teenagers have attacked their schoolmates, This pattern has stood the test of time. That was true of Nikolas Cruz, the parkland shooter. For Payton Gendron it was truethe buffalo shooter. That was true of Salvador Ramosthe Robb Elementary Shooter.
While all of the experts I spoke to said that policies keeping guns out of the hands of teenagers are an important part of preventing mass shootings, they all also said it was crucial to put in place systems that recognize teenagers, who have problems and could become dangerous. You can’t predict violent events or who will go from threatening behavior to murder, O’Toole said. But we are able to look around and see the people who are struggling and need intervention. Interventions can prevent violence even if we can’t anticipate it, she told me. For example, at least four potential school shootings averted in the weeks after Parkland were all stopped because the would-be killers spoke or wrote about their plans and someone told law enforcement.
And it’s usually time to realize these things are coming. While murders in general are almost never premeditated, mass shootings — including school shootings — almost always are, said Adam Lankford, a professor of criminology at the University of Alabama. That makes sense, O’Toole said, because it takes time for a person drowning in self-pity and anger to decide that their misery is someone else’s fault, dehumanizing those other people to the point of killing them in isolation Beware of reality checks that could break these dangerous thought patterns.
But time is also eroding the systems schools have historically put in place to prevent violence. Randazzo told me that her team had trained numerous school districts on school shooting prevention as early as the early 2000s, and as of 2018, many of those districts no longer had prevention systems. Thanks to staff turnover and budget reprioritization, that institutional knowledge simply atrophied. And ironically, that’s exactly what’s happening because School shootings are so rare. “It takes time and effort for a school to put together a team and get an education,” Randazzo said. “And fortunately, threats don’t happen often enough” to spur schools into action.