Preventing Campus Violence: Common Characteristics of Mass Shooters

Published: March 20, 2023

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.

Recent tragedies such as the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, ensure we cannot forget the ever-present and harrowing threat of mass shootings in the United States. The Gun Violence Archive recorded over 625 mass shooting incidents in 2022, proving that shootings will continue on an upward trajectory if measures are not taken immediately.

When these violent attacks occur, the burning question is “Why?” How is a human being capable of so much violence and destruction? To understand this, one must examine the mind of the mass murderer. According to Everytown Research, more than half of mass shooters display warning signs well before the violence occurs. This provides an opportunity to intervene before they reach their breaking point.

To learn how to spot these warning signs, let’s examine the traits of the Robb Elementary shooter, as reported by the Texas House of Representatives Investigative Committee. While this is a case study on a single shooter, many of the underlying themes and traits apply to further high-profile U.S. mass shooters.

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A Difficult Upbringing

Mass murderers often have difficult childhood upbringings. As such, it comes as no surprise that the Robb Elementary shooter grew up in a household with a mother struggling with substance abuse and no stable father figure present. There is also evidence that he may have been sexually assaulted by one of his mother’s boyfriends. He had a speech impediment and was heavily bullied, particularly in the fourth grade (which may explain why he targeted fourth graders — as a symbolic form of revenge on his past bullies). This type of upbringing can produce childhood trauma that, if unaddressed, can lead to behavioral issues that ostracize the person from society.

Early Warning Signs

Many warning signs can signal that a person is headed toward a destructive, deadly path. These can come in the form of social withdrawal, poor academic performance, mistreatment of animals, and a public display, often through social media, of their fascination with violent crimes.

These signs were all present in the Robb Elementary killer. Although he initially tried to fit in, by 2021, he had noticeably withdrawn and isolated himself with a drastic change in appearance: black clothes, combat boots, and long, unkempt hair. He also displayed an extreme decline in academic performance with more than 100 absences annually beginning in 2018. This led to his involuntary withdrawal from Uvalde High School in Oct. 2021.

The shooter shared many disturbing videos on social media prior to the attack, including a video of himself holding a dead cat in a plastic bag, which he then threw and spit on. He had an affinity for violence, often publicly sharing videos and images of suicides, beheadings, and accidents, and made direct threats of rape and violence against female gamers.

The Boiling Point

While these early warning signs are a major cause for concern, they are often dismissed, leading to an escalation of violent behavior, continued social withdrawal, and more poignant warning signs. In the case of the Robb Elementary shooter, he developed a fascination with school shootings, which he made public on social media and in video game chats. Reports also show that students jokingly called him a “mass shooter,” adding fuel to the fire.

He began purchasing suspicious merchandise in 2021, including rifle slings, a red dot sight, shin guards, and body armor. While underage, he asked at least two different people to buy guns for him. Though they declined, he purchased firearms himself as soon as he turned 18. At this point, he had all the tools necessary to commit his heinous crime and made ominous threats that he would soon be “doing something” that would make him famous.

Chasing Fame, Notoriety and Revenge

Starting with difficult upbringings, these troubled children face continued social ostracism and rejection and often want one thing: to finally be noticed. The ultimate goal is to gain notoriety and fame, even if it is achieved through unspeakable means. Another key motivator is revenge, often stemming from childhood bullying that has created a hatred of mankind and society as a whole. If there is no intervention or response to all the warning signs, the bullied, alienated outcast may very well come to the misguided conclusion that violence is the best solution.

A Deadly Outcome

When a person has finally reached their boiling point and executes their plan, they often choose guns because they can cause gruesome deaths on a mass scale in a short period of time. In active shooter situations, the shooter often visibly brandishes the gun in a parking lot, hallway, or other location prior to the attack. This behavior offers another final opportunity for threat intervention if the gun is detected prior to the first shot. Schools are an obvious soft target, as they often have poor security with low barriers to entry and allow the shooter to isolate a classroom and quickly attack a room full of people. Then, in the wake of the tragedy, the media turns into a frenzy, plastering the shooter’s name and photo on TVs all across America, giving the killer exactly what they wanted.

Taking Immediate Preventable Action

A person’s difficult upbringing, social ostracism, bullying, and resulting mental state are systematic, long-term problems that can’t be solved overnight. However, it is extremely helpful to know the potential warning signs. The Robb Elementary shooter exhibited these warning signs early on along with many other U.S. mass shooters. If they are recognized and taken seriously, there is a chance of changing the trajectory of the shooter’s life before they become a mass murderer.

While these warning signs are important to address and often play a key role in a tragic outcome, there are also technologies that provide actionable solutions today. As a country, we can take action now by staying alert and taking warning signs seriously while also implementing preventable security measures in schools, businesses, and public spaces. These immediate actions are crucial in a society where mass shootings are running rampant with no end in sight, and have the potential to save countless American lives.

Mike Lahiff is chairman and CEO of ZeroEyes, an AI weapons detection solutions provider.

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