I saw a bumper sticker the other day that made me pull my car into a McDonald’s parking lot and start a debate. I was alone in the car, but it didn’t matter. Passers-by saw me lecturing no one, dangerously animated, karate-chopping the air for emphasis. Didn’t matter. I was ten minutes late for my appointment. Didn’t matter.
The sticker said, “If guns kill people, then I guess pencils miss spell words, cars drive drunk, and spoons make people fat.”
Leaving aside the “miss spell” solecism, which couldn’t have been intentional because there were no similar puns in the cars and spoons examples, this statement is nonsense.
Can you stop misspellings by removing all pencils? No.
Can you stop traffic accidents by removing alcohol? No.
Can you cure obesity by confiscating spoons? No.
Can you end all gun-related deaths by taking away guns? Yes. 100 percent.
I am not, however, advocating for guns to be taken away. There are benefits to guns. No, what made me rage-debate that bumper sticker was its loose logic, its sloppy facts, its off-the-mark assumptions. These same qualities plague much of the discussion around school shooters.
News about school shooters is inescapable now, but not so long ago, it was much rarer. In fact, “school shooters” was not a common term until the late 1990s, and only in the last few years have they been studied as a specific category of killer.
Here are four books that date from this proto-era. Think of them as setting the stage for our current gun control moment.
Erik Larson, Lethal Passage, 1994
On December 16, 1988, sixteen-year-old Nicholas Elliott walked into his high school, Atlantic Shores Christian School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with murder on his mind. His target: another student named Jacob Snipes, who had been taunting Nicholas (Jacob was white, Nicholas black). A teacher, Karen Fairley, tried to stop Nicholas; he killed her and kept moving. He wounded another teacher, shot at a third, and menaced a group of students before he was subdued. Three Molotov cocktails were found in his locker. His book bag held the makings of a pipe bomb.
Erik Larson, who would go on to write nonfiction bestsellers such as The Devil in the White City and Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, tells Nicholas’s story in Lethal Passage. He pioneers a lot of elements that are now standard. For instance, he lays out some shocking statistics:
70,000 Americans killed by guns in 1991–1993
150,000 gun-related injuries per year
8,050 people killed or wounded in Los Angeles County in 1991 (13 times the number of Americans killed in the First Gulf War)
He also quotes a student who told one newspaper that “All the kids said he was going to shoot someone.” Such quotes are turned up about every shooter, it seems.
The heart of the book is not the shooting but the gun Nicholas used: a Cobray M-11/9. Larson gives the history of this type of gun, starting with its invention by Gordon Ingram in the 1960s. He then traces Nicholas’s particular Cobray from assembly line to Atlantic Shores, highlighting the frauds and failures by which the piece ended up in an angry teenager’s hands.
“I researched that book very, very carefully,” Larson told me during an interview in 2016. “I learned to shoot, and I gotta say that shooting a handgun is a lot of fun.”
He praised guns as “exquisite works of engineering” before discussing what prompted him to write this book over two decades ago: gun culture, an all-too-familiar argument.
Gun culture bothered Larson then, and it bothers him now because “society bears all the costs of irresponsibility. We have to shift the costs to the gun owner. What that means is, yes, there should be a licensing process. There is nothing in the Second Amendment that says you can’t license and register firearms. Nothing.”
In a preview of the Parkland teens’ message, Larson reserved his most astringent criticism for the National Rifle Association, calling it “dystopian and paranoid” and claiming that the organization “is not about guns at all. It’s about libertarian politics.”
Dave Cullen, Columbine, 2009
Nicholas Elliott was a prototype. Over the next decade, more shooters appeared. All have been eclipsed by more recent killers — all but two: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
On April 20, 1999, the two murdered fifteen people and injured twenty-four others inside Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado. The modern notion of school shooters was born in the bloodbath of that day. According to Malcom Gladwell, Harris and Klebold “laid down the ‘cultural script’ for the next generation of shooters.”
With infamy, of course, comes mythology. There were reports that certain students were targeted, that there were no warning signs, that the killers were misfits who had been bullied. Dave Cullen’s Columbine is an encyclopedic rebuttal of these myths.
Cullen’s big reveal is that Harris and Klebold, despite being most people’s definition of “school shooters,” were actually bombers. Their plan was to blow up their school. To that end, they planted two 20-pound propane bombs in the cafeteria, wiring them to detonate at 11:17am. Their shotguns and semi-automatics would be trained on people fleeing the burning building, and they had another set of bombs in their vehicles, set to go off at noon to take out first responders.
Harris — and if you take away a single thing from Cullen’s book, it should be this — was a sociopath.
All the bombs failed, thank God. Yet the attack was still well organized. The two planned for a year, dreaming of a widespread massacre, a strike at society itself. Their school was the first step, chosen for its convenience.
Nor were the two outcasts. Both had friends, were reasonably popular, played sports, joined clubs. Klebold was more withdrawn, depressive and suicidal, although he had a hot temper.
Harris — and if you take away a single thing from Cullen’s book, it should be this — was a sociopath. We know this from his journals, his website, and his home videos. Seemingly sweet and deferential, polite on the surface, he was stone cold underneath.
Cullen sums it up this way: “Klebold was hurting inside while Harris wanted to hurt people.”
Peter Langman, Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters, 2009
It seems 2009 was the year for landmark school shooter books. In that year, psychologist Peter Langman released his long-awaited study, Why Kids Kill. It was one of the first books to examine school shooters as a unique subset of killers.
Langman calls such killers “rampage school shooters,” which he defines as “students or former students [who] attack their own schools.” Their actions are “public acts, committed in full view of others,” and their victims are both people they dislike and people “shot randomly or as symbols of the school.”
The heart of the book is an examination of ten shooters: Evan Ramsey, Michael Carneal, Andrew Golden, Mitchell Johnson, Andrew Wurst, Kip Kinkel, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Jeffrey Weise, and Seung Hui Cho. They range in age from 23 (Cho) to 11 (Golden). Some killed only one or two people, whereas Cho murdered thirty.
Langman classifies each as psychopathic, psychotic, or traumatized. Psychopathic shooters are narcissists, lacking in empathy, normal on the surface yet sadistic. Psychotic shooters have hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thoughts, eccentric beliefs, and odd behavior. Traumatized shooters grew up as victims of abuse, domestic violence, and chaotic households.
Like Cullen, Langman is committed to debunking school shooter myths, calling them “factors that do not explain.” These factors are
- Gun culture (though Larson does indict this)
- Antidepressants like Prozac or Luvox
- Detachment from school or feelings of alienation
- Violent video games, movies, or television
If you wonder what Langman would make of more recent shooters like Adam Lanza and Nikolas Cruz, wonder no more: he has written a follow-up book, School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators, and maintains a website on the subject.
Stephen King, Rage, 1977
If school shooters had a Bible, it would doubtless be Rage. Written by Stephen King in 1977 under the name Richard Bachman, it is the story of Charlie Decker, a high school senior who, after being expelled, grabs a pistol from his locker, runs to his algebra class, and murders the teacher, Jean Underwood.
The students become his hostages. When another teacher, Peter Vance, tries to enter the room, Charlie kills him as well. Police show up, and the standoff lasts four hours, with Charlie agreeing to release the captives. When the police chief enters the classroom, Charlie moves as if to shoot him but is shot instead. He survives and ends up in a psychiatric hospital in Augusta, Maine.
At least five actual shooters have a known connection to this novel.
- Jeffrey Lyne Cox (1988), who held sixty students at gunpoint in San Gabriel, California, was said by a friend to have read Rage over and over.
- Dustin Pierce (1989), who had a nine-hour standoff with police in McKee, Kentucky, had a copy of Rage in his bedroom.
- Scott Pennington (1993), who shot and killed a teacher and a school custodian in Grayson, Kentucky, wrote an essay on Rage and was upset that it received a low grade.
- Barry Loukaitis (1996), who shot a teacher and three classmates and held some students hostage, said to them, “This sure beats algebra, doesn’t it?” (Charlie Decker in Rage comments that his act “sure beats panty raids.”)
- Michael Carneal (1997), who shot eight students, had a copy of Rage in his locker.
After the Carneal incident, King told his publisher to “take the damned thing out of print.” It is the only King novel to be so consigned. He doesn’t think Rage turned those boys into killers; he saw the book as “a possible accelerant which is why I pulled it from sale. You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it.”
King’s comment hints at the ultimate questions of school shooters. Are they born or made? Can they be deterred or merely responded to?
These questions may not be unanswerable, but at the moment, they are unanswered. For that reason, school shooters need to be studied.
These books are a start. We can only hope that more will follow.