In School Shootings, Patterns and Warning Signs
Editor’s note: Katherine S. Newman is the James B. Knapp Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University and the co-author of “Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings” (Basic Books, 2004).
(CNN) — How could it happen here? This is the question plaguing residents of Newtown, Conn., a picture-perfect country town with good schools, quiet streets and a strong sense of community. But small towns like Newtown are where 60% of rampage school shootings in the United States occur. Far from big urban centers where gun violence is common, these communities are generally very safe. But more often than not, they are the places where this kind of tragedy strikes.
My research team spent two years trying to understand rampage school shootings. We spent several months in Kentucky and Arkansas, in two towns that had been the scenes of shootings in the late 1990’s. We interviewed the shooters’ neighbors, friends, instructors, coaches and Sunday school teachers. We talked to people who had observed the shooters in jail cells right after the shootings, and years later in prison. We combed the records of every shooting of this kind in the U.S. from the 1970s onward, looking for patterns. And while each tragedy has its own anatomy, a picture emerged that makes sociological sense and probably has some bearing on the Newtown case.
Rampage shootings are never spontaneous. They are planned, often for months in advance. We don’t know yet whether the Newtown shooter, Adam Lanza, gave any warnings, but in the episodes we studied, shooters commonly told their peers — often in a veiled and ambiguous fashion — what they had in mind.
One reason shooters tip their hands is that they are trying to solve a problem. Though they are often intelligent, high-performing boys, their peers tend to see them as unattractive losers, weak and unmanly. In a school culture that values sports prowess over academic accomplishment, they face rejection. The shooters are rarely loners, but tend instead to be failed joiners, and their daily social experience is full of friction. Since they are almost always mentally or emotionally ill, those rejections — so common in adolescence — take on greater importance and become a fixation. Rebuffed after trying to join friendship groups, they look for ways to gain attention, to reverse their damaged identities.