Awareness, Interventions Aim to Reduce Disturbing Trend
In 2012, Phillip Resnick, MD, spent more than 6 hours evaluating a 17-year-old charged with killing 3 students and injuring 3 others during an early morning shooting at Chardon High School in Ohio. Dr. Resnick determined the shooter competent to stand trial, the judge agreed, and a year later the defendant received 3 lifetime prison sentences with no possibility of parole.
A forensic psychiatrist who has consulted on a slew of well-known criminal cases over the years, including those involving Timothy McVeigh, Casey Anthony, “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski, and James Holmes (the Aurora, Colorado, Batman movie shooter), Dr. Resnick is a realist. He anticipates no end to the school shootings that have horrified the United States in recent decades but he does take heart in some emerging forces that are identifying would-be shooters before they act.
A psychiatry professor at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, Dr. Resnick will brief mental health providers on how to recognize potential school shooters in their own practices during his timely and important featured session at Psych Congress 2019. Here, he discusses the rise in school shootings and whether he expects the trend to continue.
Q: This year is the 20th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. Can you remember back to where you were when you first heard about that attack?
A: I don’t remember exactly what I was doing, for example, as I do for the Kennedy assassination. But I recall being shocked, much like the rest of the country. Unfortunately, at this time, school shootings have become so common that there isn’t shock, but more of just thinking “Oh, another one of these.”
Q: Since the time of Columbine, social media, YouTube, and smartphones and other devices have provided school shooters a soapbox, if they seek one, and 24-hour news cycles give them instant publicity. Is fame part of what they seek when they carry out shootings?
A: Yes, fame is often a factor. I wouldn't use the term “soapbox,” though, because “soapbox” suggests someone has an ideology they want to convey and a message they want to get across. I think that has been true of some of the hate crimes where people have had white supremacy ideas. School shooters—and I’m talking about grades 1 through 12 and not college—most often, the motive is revenge. They’re looking to even a score if they feel they've been treated unfairly by a school bully or a faculty member.
There was a study done in Australia of 5 mass shooters, and all 5 mentioned Columbine as a model. That’s halfway around the world, but clearly Columbine was absolutely a critical changepoint. Of course, there’s so much information available online, video and various commentary, that is easy to access with the click of a cell phone now.
Q: Are school shooters willing to die during a shooting to achieve fame, or do they think they will get out alive?
A: They commonly have suicidal ideas. And when you are suicidal and commit a school shooting, you have little to lose. In other words, if you are going to take your life anyway, why not get even with some people who you feel treated you badly?
I think even if they get away from the school, they recognize they are likely to be apprehended. They may try to delay their apprehension, but I don't think the primary expectation is they'll get away with it.
Q: If fame is a motivation, do you think the names and photos of shooters should be withheld from news coverage to deny them this incentive?
A: I think it should be withheld. These recommendations have been made for 20 years, but the media has not cooperated. With respect to suicides, it has been shown there are cluster suicides, especially in teenagers. The media has been good about cooperating with that, not placing a person who commits suicide in any kind of favorable or heroic light. But when it comes to mass shooters and school shooters, there are some portions of the media that are going to publish names and photos. And then the other mainstream media would rather not be left out, so they publish them, too.
A study of contagion of mass shooters showed that within 14 days of a mass shooting, there is more likely to be another mass shooting, and then the effect diminishes over time. So, yes, it is a good idea to withhold names and photos of shooters. But I am pessimistic it will happen.