Understanding School Shootings



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.  2-18

ABSTRACT:  The psychological underpinnings of mass shootings in schools is explained.

KEY WORDS:  mass shooting, school shootings

After every mass shooting in our schools, we ask how such a thing could happen.  What could motivate any person to kill children?  We call the shooter “crazy,” “mentally ill,” or “evil” (or a “monster”).  Actually the “why” is fairly easy to understand, but we are reluctant to accept it.  (The following is based on my 35 years of clinical experience as a psychologist, including work in public mental health, a state hospital, and an institution for the criminally insane, although I have not directly interviewed anyone who carried out a mass shooting in a school.)

School shooters feel so mistreated that they develop and carry out what are essentially revenge fantasies aimed at asserting their own value and worth to the world.  Two of our most motivating human characteristics are that we strive to be an accepted and equal part of our groups (family, classroom, workplace, nation, etc.) and to be treated fairly in them.  Being downgraded in the group or excluded from the group leads to low esteem and a lesser share of whatever resources the group has.  We will fight, therefore, to be treated fairly and decently, because tolerating being treated badly lowers our self-esteem and our status and place in the group.  Even infants sense the terrible consequence (death!) of being abandoned (being no longer an accepted part of the family) by caretakers.  We first react to being mistreated with startle and a defensive response, but depending on the circumstances, any mistreatment can be seen as a reason for an additional aggressive response that aims to harm the harmer.  (The centrality of the concern for fairness for human beings is illustrated in our concept of a final Judgment in Christianity and Islam and the popular notion that one’s karma determines one’s future life.  We are obsessed with how or whether our misbehavior and that of others will be recognized and punished.  School shooters aim to make sure that certain behavior is punished.) 

Small children all react “naturally” to harm by attempting to harm back by hitting, and this reaction can be either moderated or expanded as we grow older, depending on our conscience development (or lack of it).  If the harm is great enough, or our sense of fairness and appropriateness is sufficiently violated, any of us can be motivated to harm the other person sufficiently to in some cases kill him or her, even if we don’t consciously intend that.  How we view the seriousness of the harm we receive is an individual matter, with wide variation.  Some people will attack murderously in response to an insult, and some will only attempt to harm when they or a loved one are directly about to be killed or a loved one has been killed.  Sometimes the person killed has not directly harmed the murderer, as when a shooter kills a number of persons who are in the same group as those who have harmed him (like other children at school).  “Shaken baby” deaths fall in this category as well; the shaker feels so harmed or inconvenienced by the baby’s crying, etc., that the aggressive response seems justified at that moment.


Understanding the importance of group inclusion, it is possible to “understand” why mass murders could occur, even though we may still be amazed at why a given circumstance would cause that behavior when we ourselves believe that we would have reacted differently in the same circumstance.  We have difficulty grasping why mass murderers would kill persons who have not directly harmed them, but from the mass murderer’s point of view, he has been mistreated by enough people that he holds the whole group (the school, the workplace, or the society) responsible.  Such mass murders are usually meant to be statements to all about how much the mass murderer has been harmed, as well accomplishing revenge (“evening up the score”) to make things “fair” again.  Most of these harms may seem small to us (teasing, bullying, shaming, social rejection, social ostracism, degradation or insults to one’s basic worth), but to the mass murderer, most of whom feel socially unable to redress those matters directly, the accumulation of them seems huge and seems to add up to enough to justify murder. 

I believe that these dynamics are at work in all school shootings.  The shooter feels (or felt while in school) badly and unfairly treated.  Usually this includes feeling looked down on and humiliated, because of not being smart, not being a good student, being a minority person, being poor, being excluded from in-groups, etc.  The shooter feels that this cannot be improved and that no one in the school cares or cared about his plight.  The shooter is angry at the other students, who seem to be succeeding socially and/or academically, and angry at students, teachers, and administrators for shaming him or not helping. 

(1) The shooter wants to “stand up for himself” and “even the score,” and using a gun is the natural way to think of doing this in our society, since every day we see entertainment (news, movies, games) that includes using guns to right wrongs or get one’s way.  For a shooter feeling alone and without support, a gun seems like the great equalizer.  (2) The shooter is able to obtain a gun and imagines getting revenge and how good it will feel.  (3) The shooter rehearses the scenario—shooting people in the school and “showing them” how wrong they were, how much they have made the shooter suffer, and how much they “should” regret their treatment of the shooter.  (4) Sometimes the shooter also imagines becoming famous (or infamous) for this violent action, but this is not the driving force for most.  (5) The shooter acquires a gun.  (6) The shooter’s planning often includes suicide at the end, which demonstrates the shooter’s assumption that all he has to look forward to is not acknowledgement of his pain but more anger and mistreatment.  If nothing interrupts this planning process, the violent revenge is carried out.

All of these steps must be present for the shooting to take place.  It could be prevented at many points in this scenario.  A teacher, parent, or other student might just happen to treat the person kindly and give the potential shooter hope, thus softening the revenge fantasy.  The shooter might not be able to get a gun out of fear or circumstances.  Someone might know of the violent fantasy and intervene or inform authorities.  However, if none of these derailing events occurs, the shooting will take place (because obtaining fair treatment and thereby being recognized as an equal in the group is one of our strongest motives as human beings).

You might still be having difficulty believing that a series of small insults and minor harms could be a justification, since those provocations all seem small or even “normal” to you, but if you could experience the emotional pain that they have caused the murderer, you would see it differently.  Even though we rightly do not allow this to be a legal justification for murder, we can appreciate it empathically.  It is in fact the main reason behind most mass shootings.  Our society makes a fetish out of individuals being left alone to do what we want, which is not a bad thing in itself, but when it results in the isolation of those who are “different,” this just gives those persons even more reason to resent being isolated, neglected, and excluded.  These emotional issues may be touched on in passing in the media discussions after every mass shooting, but we don’t change our behavior to do anything about the pain and hurt feelings of the potential mass murderer.

This point requires emphasis—shooters are hurting, just as all of us are hurting (feeling lack of confidence, being periodically rejected socially or vocationally, being criticized unfeelingly, feeling shame or embarrassment for being ourselves, trying to “look” better than we are so we can avoid more harm, wishing we were more popular or desirable), but we are all trained as children to accept a certain amount of hurt and trained to blame ourselves for the harm we receive, at least that which we receive from authority figures.  Shooters also blame themselves first (for years) for being rejected (“I must be really worthless for everyone to reject and ignore me”), but eventually they begin to blame others and to contemplate revenge.  Also, we all learn as children to hide our emotions because most others will take advantage of them and try to make us feel even worse if we cry or show otherwise that we are hurting (teasing; “I’ll give you something to really cry about;” assertions of others’ superiority to us; others acting like they are “better” than us), so it is quite difficult for adolescents to reveal their hurt to anyone, except perhaps to another rejected person, and school shooters rarely seek help.  To admit how much they hurt would be to openly acknowledge how worthless others see them as being. 

We are all forced as young children to conform and do what others want us to do (sit up straight, eat right, learn the language everyone else uses, don’t bother others, go to sleep when we don’t feel like it), and we resent this, but most of us also receive enough positive actions toward us that we go along with the program and try to forget the hurt.  Most of us muddle along through life, managing to have enough positive interactions to allow us to compartmentalize or deny what seem to most people to be minor hurts (being passed over for promotion, being “cut off” on the highway, not being invited to a party).  The key question is why shooters can’t or are not willing to put aside all those minor insults and hurts, while the rest of us put up with them.  The answer is that these shooters are not receiving or taking in any positive emotions from others, they have no hope for anything better, and they know no other way to manage their painful feelings.

It should be noted also that while there are many children who feel hopeless and that their lives are mostly or entirely negative, only a few engage in active retaliation of any kind, and only a few of those engage in mass shootings in their schools or families.  Just a little attention and support could redirect those few away from mass shooting.  School shootings may seem like a huge problem, because we see them on TV and never see on TV the hundreds of thousands of schools where no shooting has occurred, but in fact shootings are very infrequent (statistically almost nonexistent).  This should not reduce our resolve to reduce them to as near zero as we can, of course, because they cause large amounts of sorrow when they occur.

In fairness, it should be said that there are a very small number of other people who could commit mass murder.  These are people who (1) have so little empathy for others that they care nothing emotionally about others and therefore would not hesitate to shoot others if they could benefit by it, or (2) seem to be born antagonistic to others in general and would therefore be more inclined to resent any mistreatment.  These individuals are not hurting in the same sense as that described in this essay.  Those without empathy do not feel pain from comparing themselves with others, and those naturally antagonistic are angry in general rather than about mistreatment in school.   These individuals could engage in mass shootings but would be unlikely to choose schools for this action.

In an effort to find some “reason” for such shootings (or to duck responsibility), many people claim that the shooter “must be” crazy, mentally ill, or evil, and that therefore the way to prevent such shootings is to notice emotional or social problems of certain children and get them help (or take their guns away).  This would probably cut down on the number of school shootings, but for the wrong reason.  School shooters are not usually “mentally ill” in a diagnostic sense.  They are almost always socially rejected and inept, and they suffer more than the rest of us from things that we all suffer from but ignore or hide.  They are pitiable but not evil.  (Calling them evil is usually a ploy to claim that we are not like them.)  I am not aware of any mass shootings that were done by persons who were actively psychotic or “out of their minds.”   Instead, they are people who are almost but not quite “just like us.”  Shooters are guilty of having such grim lives that they can’t imagine being treated better, so they move toward carrying out a violent response, just like the ones they see around them.  Their thinking itself is not screwed up, but their pain and wish for fairness drives them to violence.

If we added up all the hurt that we feel and paid attention to it, we, too, could develop revenge fantasies, but most of us don’t, because we have adapted to these hurts.  If you “can’t believe” that hurt motivates shooters, it’s because you are adequately successfully avoiding your own hurt (or you are so successful in life that your successes greatly outweigh your hurts, and you don’t have to work hard at denying your hurt).  Everyone has been eager to jump on the “no bullying” bandwagon, but we are more silent about the emotional hurt and even damage that we and shooters experience at school, and this universal anger at bullying may actually betray our own denial of the emotional harm that we ourselves have experienced.

To admit the shooters’ hurt feelings is also to admit that schools are a hotbed of harm, however minor.  A significant percentage of students (20 percent?) dread going to school every day because they anticipate being humiliated in some way.  We do nothing about this, telling those kids to “be a man,” “buck up,” “make the best of it,” etc., instead of “outing” the whole social system among adolescents of seeking superiority by making others feel inferior.  We accept the motivation of many to rise at the expense of others, because we ourselves wish we could rise socially by putting others down.   


Our impulse will be to say somebody else should do something about this, such as hiring more mental health people (which in itself is a fine idea except that it allows us to feel no responsibility for not being nice to all others around us).  We are too busy with pursuing our own gain even to take time to be nice to a “weirdo” or outsider by simply acknowledging his or her existence.  Outlawing assault rifles and doing better background checks (for all gun shows as well) would also reduce the number of these shootings (school and otherwise).  Making our schools into fortresses could help a bit, too, but it has the disadvantage of reinforcing the attitude, becoming more prevalent in our society, that we cannot trust our fellow men.  These are several things we could do to reduce the number of shootings, but we must accept that given the way our society is and the way we ourselves act, we will never reduce them to zero.

It is well to note that our usual approach, which is to create more laws and punishments, will not work any better for school shootings than it does for other unwanted behaviors.  Our bulging prisons show us this clearly that laws can only do so much.  Letting the justice system handle this problem can only go so far, though it does allow us to feel that we are doing something (when in fact all we are doing is turning it over to someone else).  

When we accept the actual motivation of shooters, it becomes clear that the most effective thing we could do as individuals is to treat everyone around us decently and with basic respect.  Notice those in your school or work setting who are clearly outsiders, and make some effort to recognize their existence and offer some supportive words, even if only in passing.  Stop trying to feel better about yourself by putting others down, and stop respecting persons who succeed in life by doing this.  As neighbors we could help by waving, saying hello, and inquiring about “how things are going.”  Some of us could go farther by inquiring in more detail about “how things are going,” expressing interest, and offering to counsel the individual in areas of expertise, as well as insisting that our own children treat the individual with respect and courtesy.  These efforts would not cost very much time and could make a world of difference in the growth and attitudes of these individuals.  Many of us will feel awkward about making such efforts, and schools, churches, and other institutions could address this, giving concrete suggestions about how to do it and encouraging their participants to try.  Of course, each of us will have limits on how much time we are willing to give, and we cannot expect everyone to truly “spend time with” these individuals, but even a little friendliness can help.  Think about how you treat others, especially those who are “different,” and consider giving a little of yourself to make someone else feel better.  You could be the beginnings of a needed change in our whole society!


essays\schoolshootings (from murder)