Mass shootings, often on school campuses, have become a regular and sad reality in the United States.
The statistics are grim. Every day 12 children die from gun violence in America and another 32 are shot and injured. Since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, more than 338,000 students in the United States have experienced school gun violence, according to the nonprofit organization Sandy Hook Promise.
A new analysis from the Columbia Mass Murder Database (CMMD) sheds fresh light on the debate over whether mental illness or easy access to guns is the key driver of mass shootings.
The findings, which are published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, show that most perpetrators of mass school shootings are young, White men without serious mental illness.
A ‘straw man’
Mental health is often used as a “straw man” in debates about mass shootings, lead investigator Ragy Girgis, MD, told this news organization.
“There are many factors that contribute to the mass shooting epidemic, including gun access, criminality, substance use and misuse, and many others. Mental illness is incidental in the vast majority of cases,” said Dr. Girgis, with Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York, and the New York State Psychiatric Institute.
“People with serious mental illness constitute only a small portion of the perpetrators of gun violence in this country,” coinvestigator Paul Appelbaum, MD, professor of psychiatry, medicine, and law at Columbia University, New York, told this news organization.
Using the CMMD, the researchers examined 82 incidents of mass murder perpetrated in academic settings including schools, colleges, and universities. The average number of victims of these incidents was eight. More than half (60%) of mass school shootings involved at least one semi- or fully automatic firearm.
All 82 incidents were initiated by men (mean age, 28), and 67% were White. About two-thirds (63%) involved guns.
More than three-quarters (77%) of all perpetrators of mass murders in academic settings had no recorded history of psychotic symptoms.
Despite the absence of serious mental illness, almost half (46%) of the mass school shooters took their own lives at the scene, suggesting that they viewed themselves as engaging in some form of “final act,” the researchers note.
“The major difference between mass shooters in school settings and elsewhere is the higher rate of suicide by the perpetrators in school settings. That suggests that the shootings are often part of a preexisting intent to die on the part of the shooter,” said Dr. Appelbaum.
Epidemic of emptiness
He noted that the typical profile of a mass school shooter is that of “a young male with anger problems, often as a result of bullying or abuse, frequently described as a loner, who has signaled a desire to kill other people.”
“If we only focus on mental illness, we will miss the warning signs in the majority of cases associated with victimization (such as bullying) and consequent anger,” Dr. Appelbaum said.
Dr. Girgis said there is a need to deal with the “epidemic of emptiness, narcissism, anger, and societal rejection felt by many young men/boys who, when combined with a desire to take their own lives and a great need for notoriety, feel that perpetrating a mass school shooting is their only option.”
“We also need to understand why it is so easy for so many mass school shooters to obtain firearms that are not theirs – either illegally or from someone else who themselves may have obtained the firearm legally,” Dr. Girgis said.
“All countries have people with mental illness,” Dr. Appelbaum said, “but among developed countries the U.S. is unique in the easy availability of weapons and in our disproportionate rate of murders.”
He also noted that school shootings are not a problem that clinicians are going to solve.
“Although they can be alert to signals from their patients of an intent to harm people in a school (or other) setting, the vast majority of shooters are not receiving treatment for a mental disorder,” Dr. Appelbaum said.
“This is a problem that can only be substantially diminished by reducing access to firearms, which includes requirements for safe storage, universal background checks, waiting periods to purchase firearms, and similar means-oriented interventions,” he added.