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Mass school shooters burn with hate, self-hate, despair

When the Columbine High School massacre took place in 1999, it was seen as a watershed moment in the United States — the worst mass shooting at a school in the country’s history. Now it ranks fourth.

The three school shootings to surpass its death toll of 13 — 12 students and a teacher — have all taken place within the last decade: 2012’s Sandy Hook Elementary attack, in which a gunman killed 26 children and school staff; the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which claimed the lives of 17; and now the Robb Elementary School assault in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two adults were murdered on May 24.

We are criminologists who study the life histories of public mass shooters in the U.S. As part of that research, we built a comprehensive database of mass public shootings using public data, with the shooters coded on over 200 different variables, including location and racial profile.

For the purposes of our database, mass public shootings were defined as incidents in which four or more victims were murdered, at least one of the homicides took place in a public location and there was no connection to underlying criminal activity such as gangs or drugs.

Our database shows that since 1966, when our timeline begins, there have been 13 such shootings at schools across the U.S. The first came in Stockton, California, in 1989.

Four of those shootings — including the one at Robb Elementary School — involved a killing at another location, always a family member at a residence. The most recent perpetrator shot his grandmother prior to going to the school in Uvalde.

The majority of mass school shootings were carried out by a lone gunman, with just two — Columbine and the 1998 shooting at Westside School in Jonesboro, Arkansas — carried out by two gunmen. In all, some 129 people were killed in the attacks and at least 166 were injured.

The choice of “gunmen” to describe the perpetrators is accurate, as all of the mass school shootings in our database were carried out by men or boys. The average age of those involved in carrying out the attacks was 18.

This fits with the picture that has emerged of the shooter in the Robb Elementary School attack. He turned 18 just days earlier and celebrated by purchasing two military-style weapons, one of which was used in the attack.

The picture of the shooter that has emerged conforms in some ways to the profile we have built up from past perpetrators, but diverges in others.

We know that most school shooters have a connection to the school they target. Twelve of the 14 school shooters in our database prior to the most recent attack in Texas were either current or former students of the school.

However, no connection has emerged between the latest shooter and Robb Elementary School.

Our research and dozens of interviews with incarcerated perpetrators of mass shootings suggest that for most perpetrators, the mass shooting event is intended to be a final act. The majority die in the attack.

Of the 15 mass school shooters in our database, just seven were apprehended.

The rest died on the scene, nearly all by suicide. The lone exception was the Robb Elementary shooter, shot dead by police.

School shooters tend to preempt their attacks by leaving posts, messages or videos warning of their intent.

Inspired by past school shooters, some are seeking fame and notoriety.

However, most are motivated by a generalized anger. Their path to violence involves self-hate and despair turned outward at the world.

Our research finds they often communicate their intent to do harm in advance as a final, desperate cry for help. The key to stopping them is being alert to these warning signs and acting on them immediately.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.

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