“Did you see that story on the news today?” my dad asked when I was about 11 years old. “A man caught his wife and kids trying to leave him. He came home, and they were packing up their things. He went in the house and got his gun. First, he shot the kids, then he shot the wife, and then he shot himself. They all died. You won’t ever leave me, will you?”
This was how my dad ensured my silence and submission. And my dad knew how to use his gun too. He proved that when he shot a neighbor kid’s dog right in front of me, from thirty feet away, just for the fun of it. I can still hear the dog’s yowls. They weren’t yelps, like you’d expect from a dog. They were screeches of pain and terror.
About a decade later, my dad once again threatened to murder my entire family. He didn’t threaten frequently, but I can recall a handful of occasions. He usually posed the threats as a joke or cloaked them in the context of a news story. This time, I was engaged to be married. I feared that the stressor of losing control of me might be the straw that broke the demon’s back. I stole his gun. I hid it, unloaded and wrapped in a towel, in a box of chintzy craft supplies, knitting, and fashion accessories I’d accrued as a teenager. It was the last place he’d look.
I left the ammo in his dresser drawer. It was my way of mocking him, as if to say, “I’ve taken your power, but left the bullets so you can play marbles with them.”
I never told the police about my dad’s abuse; his sexual perversion, murderous threats, or violent assaults. I loved my dad. I feared my dad. I still do. I didn’t want to hurt him, and I also didn’t want to risk being stuck in the same house with him if the police failed to arrest him. As a survivor of 20 years of domestic violence, I fully support my right as a mother to arm and defend myself should anyone ever threaten me or my family again.
My dad is not a school shooter. As far as I’m aware, he’s never shot anyone, although there is a family story that he once stabbed his sister in the hand. Nevertheless, he could have become a shooter and I didn’t tell a soul. I am certain that he is just one among thousands of violent offenders who slip under the radar because no one ever reports them. I suspect, like me, most don’t report because they both love and fear their abuser. No one wants to believe that their dad, brother, son, mother, daughter, or friend, could be the next monster on the five o’clock news.
Peter Langman, Ph.D., is a respected authority on mass shooters, particularly youth and school shooters. He has conducted extensive research and published works regarding the psychology of adolescent murderers. In a harrowing and fascinating study, “Rampage Shooters: A Typology,” Langman divides school shooters into three basic categories: Traumatized, Psychotic, and Psychopathic.
Traumatized Shooters come from dysfunctional families. Each of these shooters in his study experienced physical or sexual abuse. They all had at least one parent who abused drugs or alcohol or who had a criminal history. “Among the traumatized shooters … all three had father-figures who engaged in criminal behavior involving the misuse of firearms,” notes Langman in his report. “In two of these cases, the fathers engaged in armed stand-offs with police.”
Psychotic Shooters come from intact families with no history of abuse, parental addiction, or incarceration. They exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia or a schizotypal personality disorder such as delusional paranoia, delusions of grandeur, and auditory hallucinations. “The psychotic shooters were misfits in their own families,” Langman states, “and the differences between them and their siblings were obvious to their parents and teachers.”
Psychopathic Shooters also tend to come from intact families with no significant dysfunction. These shooters exhibit narcissism, sadistic behavior, little to no empathy, and a lack of conscience. Langman notes that, “the psychopathic shooters successfully recruited followers to join them in their attacks … Thus, the presence of peer support may have contributed to their decision to commit a school shooting.”
Langman’s career has involved researching manifold cases, but this specific paper focuses on 10 school shooters who were all teenagers, with the exception of one, who was 23. The youngest was only 11. Together, these young shooters murdered 69 people and injured 92 between 1997 and 2007.
For any person, abused or not, to progress to a state in which they are capable of such profound cruelty, requires a process of moral and emotional deterioration which would be marked by increasingly aberrant behavior and attitudes. How did people miss the red flags that preceded these heinous crimes? How does a person grow violently abusive without someone noticing or intervening? How can a teenager manifest schizophrenic or sociopathic behaviors, yet no one sees?
Based on my experience with an abusive dad, I would suggest to you that many people saw.
In the case of the Parkland school shooter, there were 23 police reports warning the Broward County Sheriff’s Department that he was a dangerous threat. These reports include accounts of him hitting his adoptive mother, throwing her against a wall, fighting with his brother, exhibiting suicidal behavior, and threatening to shoot up the school on social media. There were several occasions where it seems he should have been hospitalized or arrested, but nothing was done. At one point, he called the police to tell them that he was deeply troubled. One woman even reported him to the FBI, stating that he was “going to explode,” and her worry about him “getting into a school and just shooting the place up.”
Stories are emerging of an angry and disturbed teen who held a gun to the head of his mother and brother; who assaulted several people, including the son of Roxanne Deschamps, the woman who took care of him and his brother following the death of their adoptive mother in November, 2017. In a chilling 911 call, Deschamps warned police that she believed he might shoot her and her family. Nevertheless, the police did not intervene. Notes were taken, reports were logged, but no apparent effort was made to provide for his mental health or the safety of those around him.
This is every abuse victim’s worst fear: That they’ll report abuse, but the police will do nothing, and they’ll be left alone with an abuser who knows that they reported them. Unfortunately, this seems to be exactly what happened in Florida. Broward County Sheriff’s Department has demonstrated to the nation that being disbelieved or abandoned by law enforcement is a reasonable fear. Abuse reports across the U.S. will now likely decrease as gun purchases for self-defense skyrocket.
While the shooter is an abuser, it’s safe to say he falls under Langman’s “traumatized” category, if not others. His biological parents died, he was adopted, and then his adoptive parents died. According to police reports, he has a history of being bullied, bullying others, and fighting. Whether he suffers a schizotypal illness or psychopathic dysfunction is something for his doctors to decide. While reports assert he was diagnosed with disorders such as ADHD and OCD, these are not the type of diagnosis that would or should ever raise red flags. On the other hand, his suicidal behavior and murderous threats should have warranted medical evaluation.
But this isn’t the first time that school shooters have been enabled by neglectful family, friends, educators, physicians, or law enforcement officers. The following is a list of school shooters, most of whom were not included in Langman’s paper.
A 23-year-old killed 32 people and wounded 17 others at Virginia Tech in 2007 using two semi-automatic pistols. An investigative panel later criticized educators and medical professionals who failed to notice his deteriorating mental health. It also noted gaps in Virginia’s mental health system and gun laws.
In 2005, a teenager murdered nine people, including his grandfather, before committing suicide at Red Lake Senior High School in Minnesota. The shooter was born into a broken home. His mother was an alcoholic who abused him. His father had a criminal history and committed suicide by shooting himself during a police standoff.
A six-year-old brought a gun to Buell Elementary School in 2000 and killed his classmate, Kayla Rolland. “I don’t like you,” he told her before he shot her dead. The boy’s father was in prison for dealing cocaine. He had been living with his abusive, drug addicted mother before moving into his uncle’s crack house. Just a few weeks before he murdered Rolland, the boy had gotten into trouble at school for bullying and hitting other students, including for stabbing one little girl with a pencil.
Another teenager killed two and injured 13 at Santana High School in California in 2001. He had allegedly been bullied and abused by classmates. On two occasions he told people about his plan to “pull a Columbine,” but no one ever reported his threats to police.
In 2003, a teenager murdered 15-year-old Seth Bartell and 17-year-old Aaron Rollins. During his trial, three mental health experts diagnosed him with schizophrenia, while others diagnosed major depression and emerging personality disorder. The families of the victims later sued the school district, the principal, and the shooter’s family, alleging that they knew what he was planning during the days preceding his crimes. The lawsuit was settled out of court for $200,000.
Yet another teenager murdered three of his fellow students and seriously injured two others in 2012 at Chardon High School in Ohio. He had a criminal history including domestic violence and disorderly conduct, and posted death threats on social media accounts prior to the shooting.
Also in 2012, a 20-year-old murdered 20 children between six and seven years of age at Sandy Hook elementary school. The shooter had been diagnosed with multiple mental health issues. A report from the Office of the Child Advocate noted his “severe and deteriorating internalized mental health problems … combined with an atypical preoccupation with violence… [and] access to deadly weapons … proved a recipe for mass murder.”
“It is fair to surmise that, had Lanza’s mental illness been adequately treated in the last years of his life, one predisposing factor to the tragedy of Sandy Hook might have been mitigated,” the report concluded.
Each and every one of these perpetrators manifested traumatized, psychotic, or psychopathic behavior in the weeks, months, and years leading up to their crimes. And each one was surrounded by people who failed to report or intervene when they witnessed disturbing red flags. Whether the people surrounding them were parents who were negligent, absent, or abusive; teachers, counselors, and school officials who ignored warning signs; law enforcement who failed to press charges or follow up on reports; or bystanders who failed to notice or report troubling behavior and threats, the people who surrounded these shooters enabled tragedy by either neglecting to speak or failing to act.
The Parkland shooter’s friends and acquaintances had the courage to report him to the authorities. They recognized the danger and they did exactly what they should have done. The fact that law enforcement failed them so miserably is something that will haunt every abuse victim who is thinking about picking up the phone. The damage that the FBI and Broward County Sheriff’s Office have done to the psyche of crime witnesses and victims across the nation through this catastrophic lapse is incalculable.
The words of Sheriff Israel and his repeated denial of blame for the inaction of his department, typifies an unfortunate culture of irresponsibility. “Deputies make mistakes. Police officers make mistakes. We all make mistakes,” Israel told Jake Tapper on CNN. “But it’s not the responsibility of the general or the president, if you have a deserter … Jake, I can only take responsibility for what I knew about. I exercised my due diligence. I have given amazing leadership to this agency.”
How many times have we seen stories of teens eating Tide Pods, but instead of asking where their parents are, people blamed Tide for looking too much like candy? How many times have we seen people blaming television, video games, or social media for the bad behavior of children, rather than examining that child’s parental figures or educational environment?
Most people don’t want to intervene into the mess of another person’s life. Most of us are happy gossiping and gawking at celebrities, but don’t even know our next-door-neighbor’s name. Most of us, when we see evidence of familial or mental dysfunction, think, “Oh well. Somebody else will do something about it. It’s not my responsibility or place, and I’m sure everything will turn out fine.”
But too often, we see that everything does not turn out fine. If we want to stop the next school shooter, there are a few practical things we must do.
1. Foster a culture that of emotional investment in relationships
We must foster a culture where people are aware and involved in each other’s lives. We must branch beyond Facebook and Twitter and talk to friends face to face. When we’re involved with each other on a personal level, we’re more likely to notice when things aren’t going well. We’ll see the black eye, the distracted stare, and hear the private worries of a stressed mind. People facing struggles will be more likely and better able to seek help, and children being neglected will be less likely to fall through the cracks. This is one area where small family-oriented churches play a vital role in keeping our culture emotionally healthy and physically safe.
2. Reestablish and reinforce a healthy family ideal
A large percentage of the violence in America would vanish within a decade if we focused on eliminating child abuse, child neglect, and domestic violence. Broken homes lead to broken communities, broken culture, and a broken nation. If we heal the family, we can fix the future. A large percentage of school shooters and violent criminals in general, report having had dysfunctional childhoods.
3. Diligently prosecute criminals
We must enforce existing laws that combat crimes, such as child abuse laws and the unlawful possession of guns. With few exceptions, it is illegal for a person convicted of a felony (such as domestic violence or drug possession) to purchase a gun. If criminals are prosecuted for their crimes, and entered into the national database, it will become much more difficult for them to acquire guns. The recent school shooting in Parkland could possibly have been averted had the shooter been prosecuted for domestic violence or assault. Had he been convicted, he would never have been able to purchase a gun.
4. Take care of the weak and the sick
We must make sure that people suffering from mental illness and emotional challenges receive the care they need. When a teenager calls the police to tell them he’s disturbed, that teenager should never be ignored. We must maintain a system that efficiently and comprehensively addresses the needs of people exhibiting depressive, delusional, psychotic, or psychopathic behavior. This is vital for their own happiness and health, as well as for the safety of our communities.
There is no question that every criminal owns complete responsibility for his or her actions. However, we as a society must also take responsibility for protecting each other, supporting one another, and providing for the very weakest and underserved among us. Our boys and girls deserve safe schools. Our kids deserve whole families. Our young adults deserve mental health care. Our teenagers deserve our love. We must promote a culture that fosters strong families, reinforces healthy marriages, nurtures tightly knit communities, encourages involvement in church and other familial organizations, treats individuals as dignified and valuable, and supports stay-at-home parenting and involved moms and dads.
We need to get back to the basics and love our neighbor. That is how we stop the next school shooter.