School Shooters (And Mass Shooters In General) Don’t Tell You Much That’s Useful, *Except Ahead Of Time*
Here’s the thing about school shootings: They’re random, but rare, and often preventable.
It turns out some people don’t realize the Boomtown Rats hit “I Don’t Like Mondays” was born of a school shooting. When the shooter, who killed 2 and wounded 9 with a .22 rifle, was asked by a reporter why she did it she responded, “I don’t like Mondays.”
The silicon chip inside her head
Gets switched to overload
And nobody’s gonna go to school today
She’s gonna make them stay at home
And daddy doesn’t understand it
He always said she was good as gold
And he can see no reasons
‘Cause there are no reasons
What reason do you need to be shown?
I was pretty young at the time but people who were actually at the scene tell me the remark didn’t set off a big discussion about Mondays, whatever deeper meaning or cause that remark portended, or ascriptive claims about people who don’t like Mondays. She wasn’t in a good mental state and did a horrible thing.
After Nashville we’ve heard quite the opposite. The details are still sketchy, in part because of media fecklessness*, but it seems the shooter at Covenant School was transgender or was transitioning their gender identity. This has occasioned all manner of speculation and toxicity. People have asked if the LGBT “community” should denounce the shooter. Really.
I get it. Every time some jackass shoots up a school, church, club, or store there is a race to ascribe some motive or cast widespread blame (that often ends up being wildly discordant with the facts, fog of culture war), so some people see a goose – gander situation, political opportunism, or just a clickbait opportunity here. But the only thing mass shooters have in common is derangement and brokenness. It’s an unhinged act not a rational one, so the search for rational causes and logical motives is a fool’s errand. Most shooters don’t intend to survive the scene as may have been the case in Nashville, it’s often explicitly an act of suicide by law enforcement. None of this is normal or a normal reaction to information or circumstances.
Sure, the 2022 Buffalo shooter was motivated by racial hate. He also was a self-described “eco-fascist” and anti-corporatist. Should anyone criticizing corporations apologize for that part? Of course not, because he’s a whackjob, much of his “manifesto” was cut and paste and all over the place. You’ll search in vain for a coherent ideology or worldview. Whatever the Nashville shooter’s grievances were, at some level they were not rational because rational people don’t kill others at schools.
Remember the whole panic about Goth kids and Marilyn Manson after Columbine?
These episodes are horrifying, so a human instinct is to make sense of them by placing them in a broader context or cause. Perhaps because it’s even scarier to think that sometimes people just snap and do incredibly deranged things because they believe incredibly deranged things because they’re not thinking straight. Lots of people get exposed to hateful or crazy ideology and don’t go shoot up public spaces or drive into parades. The randomness is even more terrifying than the sense that perhaps there is a pattern we can discern and address.
Here’s the thing about school shootings: They’re random, but rare, and often preventable. For starters, by definition these are small n events. When you ask people how many people have been killed in mass shootings at schools since Columbine almost a quarter century ago, you usually get numbers in the high hundreds and the thousands (or even tens of thousands among people who really spend too much time online). The actual answer is 175. That’s quite obviously 175 too many and each one is uniquely awful in its impact on families, friends, and others. One is too much. But it’s a pretty rare episode given the scale of American education. Both those things are true.
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More common is the interpersonal violence and neighborhood or domestic situations playing out at schools one small episode at a time because of the ubiquitousness of schools. More common still is all the out-of-school violence that takes a staggering toll on American youth.
In addition, about four in five school shooters tell you what they’re going to do ahead of time. Episodes like Parkland, Florida or Oxford, Michigan were preventable. That’s what should haunt us. (We don’t yet know the details, but the Nashville shooter’s parents were apparently concerned enough about their behavior to try to restrict their access to firearms.)
Professionals call this “leakage” and it’s often present upstream with mass shootings in general. School shooters signal their intentions or just tell you outright what they’re planning in a majority of cases. That’s what we should take seriously, not toxic theories about this group or that one. You can’t profile school shooters, they’re too varied, but you can act when someone shows you their hand. Attacks by outsiders – for instance in Uvalde or Nashville – are rarer still.
The loud rhetorical approach to all this is mostly politics not safety. And the focus on politics means the school safety industry is largely becoming a reaction industry when it should be a prevention industry. There is a lot of money in reaction-based security. Yet it doesn’t matter how many lockdown drills or how much ALICE you do, if your school culture sucks and kids don’t trust adults then you are at risk.
*The coverage has been something. People can’t even live up to their prior (like week before last prior) commitments and routinely misgender the Nashville shooter, who apparently wanted to be called he/him not she/her. Until a few minutes ago misgendering was violence. Except not in this case. Because…something.
That sort of panicked situational BS just fuels more mistrust and the idea that something is up. Echoes of Loudoun County. That this apparently trans person in Nashville did something horrible doesn’t tell you really anything about trans people any more than white, Black, or Asian shooters lend themselves to generalizations about their race or ethnicity. In the social media era, idiotic reactions on the left and also the right get magnified, but they’re outliers. It would be helpful if people more forthrightly stepped up to the plate on all that so we could focus on the real lessons here. What’s seen as good intentions or allyship makes an awful situation even worse and does little to prevent the next one.