Aaron S. Bayley
When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold stalked the hallways of Columbine High School and slaughtered 12 students and one teacher on April 20, 1999, the Internet was still in its infancy, and social media did not exist. Facebook, YouTube and the iPhone were still several years away, and Snapchat and Instagram wouldn't appear for over a decade.
At the time, the Columbine massacre was only the second most deadly school shooting in the United States; the first being at the University of Texas-Austin on August 1, 1966, where 25-year-old former U.S. Marine Charles Whitman shot 15 people dead from a clock tower. That grisly record was eclipsed in 2007, when 23-year-old Seung-Hui Cho slaughtered 32 students and faculty members at Virginia Tech on April 16. Five years later at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 27 people, including 20 children in the first grade. On Valentine's Day in 2018, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz killed 19 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. And last week at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos killed 21 people, including 19 young children and two teachers.
American society and its cultural landscape have changed much between the school shootings in Austin and Uvalde. In 1966, Charles Whitman did not have access to social media, violent first-person shooter video games, or a 24-hour news cycle that dwelled on sensationalism; nor would he have been made to feel inadequate by modern ruthless advertising tactics. But Whitman's painfully familiar narrative transcends decades. As the death toll from American school shootings increases year after year, one thing remains constant: it is the same story being told again and again. It is a story of a mentally disturbed young man with access to assault weapons. Why does this continue to happen, what conclusions can we draw, and what, if anything can be done about it?
Charles Whitman had an all-American upbringing. He was an intelligent boy whose Roman Catholic mother took him and his brothers to church and whose strict father taught him to shoot and hunt game. He served as an altar boy and later joined the Boy Scouts of America. But the Whitman household was also one of domestic violence, and he often found himself on the receiving end of his perfectionist father's physical abuse. In May of 1966, after his mother decided to divorce her husband, Whitman began using amphetamines. He admitted to friends that he had twice struck his wife and worried that he would end up just like his abusive father.
Whitman was mentally unstable. Five months before his rampage, Whitman visited Maurice Dean Heatly, the psychiatrist at the University of Texas Health Center, who noted the troubled young man "seems to be oozing with hostility" and "readily admits having overwhelming periods of hostility with a very minimum of provocation." Whitman also told Heatly that he had thoughts of shooting people with a deer rifle from the school's clock tower. In the early hours of August 1, Whitman stabbed his mother and wife to death. Part of his suicide note read: "I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts." Belying the banal thought processes of a genuinely suicidal mind, he left pedantic instructions, such as "if my insurance policy is valid please pay off my debts" and "give our dog to my in-laws." Whitman was killed by Austin police, but not before he shot to death 14 people and injured 31 from the 28th floor of the clock tower.
Eric Harris was a full-blown psychopath: manipulative, charming, egocentric, and lacking in empathy. He flirted with girls at the local mall and was a shift manager at Blackjack Pizza. He also wrote "I HATE" rants on his website, built pipe bombs, was prescribed the antidepressant Zoloft, and fantasized about a killing spree in a November 1997 journal entry. In his excellent book, Columbine, Dave Cullen states, "Eric killed for two reasons: to demonstrate his superiority and to enjoy it." By contrast, Dylan Klebold was emotional, self-conscious and shy in the presence of girls. He was suicidal and wrote about love in his journal. He also had an explosive temper and wrote a story about killing "preps" shortly before the shooting. Like his friend Eric, Dylan worked at Blackjack Pizza, was good at math and loved new technology and video games. A month before the massacre, they used a Sony 8mm camcorder to film what became known as the "Basement Tapes," a ranting explanation of their pending assault. In it, Eric says, "I'm sorry I have so much rage, but you put it on me"; Dylan adds: "If you could see all the anger I've stored over the past four fucking years..." and presciently, "I hope we kill 250 of you. It will be the most nerve-wracking 15 minutes of my life, after the bombs are set and we're waiting to charge through the school. Seconds will be like hours. I can't wait. I'll be shaking like a leaf."
Three days after their senior prom, Harris and Klebold, dressed in combat boots and black trench coats and armed with knives, a rifle, a semi-automatic handgun, and sawed-off shotguns, carried out the bloodbath they had been telegraphing for months before killing themselves.
Seung-Hui Cho's family immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea when he was eight-years-old. Cho was diagnosed with anxiety and depressive disorder as well as selective mutism; he began receiving treatment and speech therapy into his first year of high school. Cho was bullied for his erratic behaviour. His relationship with female students was characterized by stalking, online harassment, and talk of suicide. His often obscene and violent poetry alarmed his poetry teacher.
Just after seven in the morning on April 16, 2007, Cho killed two students. He then returned to his dorm room to change clothes and get more ammunition before mailing a "multimedia manifesto" containing a confession and menacing photos of himself to NBC News. He returned to campus, locked the three entrance doors with heavy chains and, in under 10 minutes, killed 30 more people before blowing his face off with a semi-automatic pistol. Part of Cho's manifesto read: "You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today, but you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option."
Adam Lanza was Autistic; he had Asperger's Syndrome and suffered from depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. His mother was a gun enthusiast who regularly took her sons to the shooting range. He had difficulty socializing and few close friends. In his teens he became obsessed with the school shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Northern Illinois University. His bedroom contained newspaper clippings of mass shootings, and videos of violent suicides and school shootings were found on his computer. On December 14, 2012, before driving to Sandy Hook Elementary School, Adam Lanza shot his mother to death. At 9:40 in the morning, after murdering six staff members and 20 students between the ages of six and seven, Lanza turned his gun on himself.
Nikolas Cruz was born in Florida and adopted at birth. He suffered from mental illness and depression and behavioural issues dating back to middle school. As a teen he worked at a Dollar Tree and was a member of the varsity air rifle team. Evidence of his increasingly erratic behaviour was borne out on social media. He cut both his arms on Snapchat and expressed a desire to buy a gun; he voiced extremist views against "Jews, niggers, and immigrants" in Instagram chats and drew swastikas on magazines. Cruz was expelled from Douglas High for poor grades on February 8, 2017; three days later, the 18-year-old legally purchased the weapon he would use in the massacre. In September, the uploader of a YouTube video alerted the FBI of a comment from a 'nikolas cruz' which read: "Im [sic] going to be a professional school shooter." Two months later, Cruz's adoptive mother died. He moved in with a family friend and began planning his attack.
Days before the attack, Cruz recorded a video on his phone. "All the kids in the school will run in fear and hide," he announced. "From the wrath of my power they will know who I am...I'm going to be the next school shooter of 2018. My goal is at least twenty people with an AR-15...Location is Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida..." He was three people short of his goal.
Like Nikolas Cruz, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos legally bought the assault weapons he would use to kill his nine and 10-year-old victims. Ramos was born in North Dakota and bullied for a speech impediment he'd had since childhood. Much of the bullying took place on social media. Ramos enjoyed playing basketball and video games like Fortnite and Call of Duty. He soon began wearing military boots and dressing in black. After posting an image of himself wearing black eyeliner he was cyberbullied and called homophobic slurs. Ramos often fought with his mother and got into fistfights at school. He had difficulty forging friendships and used the social media app Yubo to facilitate what he was unable to do in person.
On the morning of May 24, 2022, Ramos shot his grandmother in the head before entering Robb Elementary School through an unlocked door, where he killed 19 children and two teachers. Days earlier, Ramos posted a photo of his gun collection on Instagram.
Gun advocates love to echo reductive, dumbed down aphorisms like "the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," but the massacre at Robb Elementary School blew that theory to bits (as if one needed to see the theory fail in action to be convinced of its stupidity). At 11:33 am, Ramos entered the school and opened fire on two adjoining classrooms. It wasn't until 12:50 that law enforcement received keys to the room from a school employee and killed the gunman.
Arriving on site at different times were three city police officers, a police sergeant, 19 more officers, deputy U.S. marshals, and a U.S. Border Patrol tactical team. That's a lot of good guy testosterone; too bad it was no match for the 18-year-old Ramos.
The tragedies that unfolded at Texas-Austin, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Parkland, and Robb Elementary only scratch the surface of school mass shootings in the U.S. There are many more examples that received scant media attention due to their low death tolls (according to the FBI, a mass shooting is defined by four or more deaths in a single incident).
Despite the unique circumstances of each case, the conclusions we can draw are both obvious and startling. The United States is not the only country in the world with lonely, angry young men. Yet it is the only country in the world where school shootings by lonely, angry young men occur with remarkable frequency. The pattern is undeniable: young, mostly white boys with an axe to grind, pissed off at the world because they aren't popular or athletic; anxious and depressed because they can't live up to parent expectations or their home life is dysfunctional, or because they're being bullied, ignored by girls, or are afraid of being different. These young men, many, as we've seen, struggling with their mental health, bottle up their fear until their hatred and despair boils over in a cauldron of violence. Social media can cause boys to feel isolated, ignored, or ridiculed (e.g., through cyberbullying), as well as satiate their craving for attention and seemingly facilitate their immortality should they seek violent retribution. As Jesse Bering writes in his book Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves, "...among adolescents, the use of social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat has been found to correlate with mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts." You can throw TikTok in their too. The Internet didn't create school shooters, but they provide a potent stage for frustrated young males to reaffirm their worldview. Writes Edward Keenan in the Toronto Star, "These men have always existed. But the whole world also now has a remote self-radicalization problem, in which the internet creates instantly accessible communities of such men who celebrate mass murders past, see them as instruction manuals for fame and a perverse kind of glory." If Keenan is right, and I think he is, we will continue to see young, frustrated, fragile men committing acts of mass murder in the name of racism, white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, and self-loathing.
We also know that in the aftermath of every shooting, mainstream media and politicians will continue to engage in the same pathetic cycle of shock, outrage, grandstanding, accusations, scapegoating, and inaction. If anything is certain, it's that every school shooting will be milked for its most sensationalist elements while discussion of root causes and viable solutions go virtually ignored. After Columbine, some right-wingers and media outlets tried pinning the blame on Marilyn Manson, wrongly and unhelpfully stating that the killers were inspired by him and wore his band's T-shirts as they gunned down students. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, Texas-based conspiracy theorist Alex Jones shamelessly spread falsehoods that the tragedy was in fact a staged, government conspiracy performed by crisis actors designed to fast track anti-gun legislation. When Parkland shooting survivors decided to stand up against the apathy of self-serving politicians owned by the gun lobby by creating the March for Our Lives movement, they were ridiculed by members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and, in survivor David Hogg's case, filmed and harassed by idiot congresswoman Marjory Taylor Greene. After the recent violence at Robb Elementary School, Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham blamed marijuana use, not access to guns, for the shooting, and cited sources from a right-wing organization as evidence.
The truth is, if Americans want to end—or at least drastically decrease—mass shootings in schools, they must come to terms with a society in which young men are becoming increasingly anxious about their identity, and where advertising and social media platforms ruthlessly exploit societal inequalities and prey on teenage insecurities, making boys and girls feel that their value and self-worth are determined by the currency of followers and 'Likes.' But more than just coming to terms with this reality, Americans must end its deranged obsession with gun culture and their Second Amendment right to bear arms. Far-right conservatives instill fear in people by cautioning that liberal governments want to violate their freedom and privacy, yet they advocate for ideas counterintuitive to a free society, such as arming teachers, retrofitting schools to resemble prisons, and increased security and police presence, ensuring that American children grow up in a surveillance state. (Of course, the children of society's more affluent will enjoy the safety of private schools without the psychological burden of metal detectors and armed security guards). This sort of reactive thinking does not reflect a sincere attempt to solve the problem of gun violence in schools. Rather, it is an admission that any solution that changes the status quo is a non-starter. Politicians beholden to the NRA do not care about other people's children as much as they care about donor money.
What can be done about school shootings if congressional leaders cannot muster the courage to pass bold gun reform legislation? Senate Republicans now blame mental illness, but are they willing to acknowledge and address the holistic nature of student mental health symptoms? Not every school shooter is a psychopath (and not all psychopaths are violent), and teenagers don't live in a vacuum; they are impacted by a myriad of interconnected and alienating factors which determine how they see themselves in relation to others. Social media and consumer capitalism objectify children and leave them feeling disaffected. Widening social and economic inequalities, coupled with anxieties over identity and sexuality, can trigger and create feelings of despair.
The answer to how to stop school shootings will not be found in some magical piece of bipartisan legislation, or by some celebrity's impassioned speech, or increased spending on security and mental health. The answer has been lying in plain sight for decades. Without substantial gun reform and a critical look at how America's glorification of violence impacts children, nothing will change. What is lacking is not the solution, but the political will and the moral imperative to do the right thing.
Generation Z is known cynically as the "School Shooting generation." American teenagers are growing up with more trauma and fear for their future than any other generation. Children should not have to adapt to an ultra-violent society; adults should be compelled to change it. By continually failing to be proactive, those with the power and authority to make change—mainly lobbyists and elected officials—are enablers who should be held responsible for the classroom carnage that has become as American as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie.