School Shooter Psychologist: 'Many Times The Warning Signs Are Very Late'

May 31, 2018

Three disturbing cellphone videos recorded by Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz before the Valentine's Day rampage were released Wednesday as evidence for the prosecution in their case against Cruz. The videos demonstrate the shooter's premeditation.

“And when you see me on the news, you’ll know who I am," Cruz is captured saying.

But what causes school shooters to commit such a heinous act? 

Dr. Peter Landman, a psychologist and author of the book “School Shooters, Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators,” has studied mass shootings for 15 years and worked with potential school shooters. He runs a website called SchoolShooters.info, where he shares his research as it pertains to mental health, prevention and safety.

He joined Sundial to talk about the content found on the videos, common threads between school shooters and hints on how to stop them. 

WLRN: What do [the Cruz videos] tell us about the shooter?

Landman: Like a number of other shooters, this perpetrator seemed to be focused on what we call 'self-enhancement and fame-seeking through violence.' He clearly wanted to be known, and part of his motivation at least was to make a name for himself -- to make his mark in the world as they say. So in some ways he resembles other shooters. Not every shooter has that motivation but we have certainly seen that behavior before.

You know often there is some reference to a previous shooter. Are they just copycatting each other? 

Perhaps role-modeling some kind of influence. Sometimes it's a matter of wanting to outdo previous shooters, to make a big name for themselves by killing more people. Knowing about one shooter doesn't cause someone to become a shooter. But we certainly see that reference back to previous shooters in many cases.

You've examined dozens of these shooters. What are the common threads that we see about their psychological behaviors and tendencies?

There's a wide range of shooters who commit different types of attacks. And I think the fundamental assumption many people make is that we can talk about them as if they're all the same. And there are some shooters who target specific individuals they have a grievance against. But there are also those shooters who target random people -- no specific victims in mind who just want to kill for the sake of killing as many as possible and making a name for themselves. So the motivation across these different types of attacks can vary.

The most common thing we see though is some level of rage. The reason for the rage may differ but underlying many of these attacks is this sense of incredible anger and a sense of injustice that they've been dealt a raw deal in life where they've suffered unfairly.

Is the behavior from the shooters something that we could spot and maybe stop the next one?

Well certainly there's often warning signs ... and in hindsight it's easier to see. But many times the warning signs are very late. For example in this case the perpetrator said he's going to be a school shooter, even posted something online about being the next school shooter. Unfortunately, when the warning signs are that obvious people may think they're not really true, that the person is just engaging in some big talk, bragging about something, and you don't have to take it seriously.

Sometimes the warning signs are very clear. People talk about ‘I'm going to get a gun and come to school and shoot people.’ But if they're very young that may be dismissed as something they couldn't possibly do. So the warning signs are often there and what's important is that people take them seriously and report them.

Are teachers and counselors trained to spot some of those other signs? Not the obvious ones?

My impression is that focus on school safety for many years now has been on emergency response lockdown procedures -- how to survive an active shooting and so on -- and much less on recognizing the warning signs and knowing how to investigate and evaluate the threats that are brought to light. So I think as a nation we have a long way to go to educate both the staff and the students in our schools about the warning signs and what to do when you see them.