School shootings receive extensive media coverage when they occur yet these types of crimes are still largely misunderstood. Moreover, the way the media covers these events is not only unhelpful but often reckless. The book Why Kids Kill, written by psychologist Dr Peter Langman, looks into the underlining reasons of why certain young people carry out rampage violence largely against their peers. In an interview with the Washington Post Langman, describes his work as “a moral obligation.”
Not only has he extensively researched and written about this issue; he also has a PhD in counselling psychology and has conducted psychological assessments on youths deemed as potential threats. In other words, the author of the book has a wealth of knowledge and experience on the subject he’s writing about – and he’s passionate about preventing these horrific incidents, beyond lockdowns and fortified doors. We may instinctively associate school shootings with America but it is certainly not unique to one country. Anyone who studies mental health, violence or a related field should spare some time to think about this issue.
The book is made up of four main segments. The first three detail and analyse the three distinct profiles Langman believes school shooters fall into (though he acknowledges that there can be overlap or other possible profiles). In each of these segments there are case studies of school shootings provided, examining the shooter’s background and how their character fits the profile. The detail of these case studies not only helps create a full picture of the individuals involved, but it is also a testament to the amount of research Langman carried out. There are substantial amounts of in-depth academic literature and journalistic investigation referenced. More significantly, first-hand material such as journals and schoolwork belonging to the infamous Columbine shooters is presented. These sources provide invaluable insight into the school shooting that arguably became the morbid archetype. There is also minimal use of expert or academic jargon so this book is easily accessible to those without a specialist background.
The first profile deals with the psychopathic shooter – individuals who are highly narcissistic, manipulative and completely lacking in empathy or remorse. Langman notes that while psychopaths aren’t necessarily sadistic, the psychopathic shooters in the featured case studies were almost certainly sadistic. This is perhaps the most unsettling area of the book: not only are twisted psyches laid out bare here but also done so in light of the fact that these killers were teenagers. One of the main case studies details Eric Harris, one of the perpetrators of the Columbine shooting. As convenient as it would be to dismiss Harris as a monster the author objectively breaks down his mental state and attempts to draw some conclusions from a mind that the majority of people cannot relate to.
The second profile segment examines psychotic shooters. These are shooters who were likely or confirmed to be suffering from some form of psychosis. The stereotypes revolving around psychosis and schizophrenia are debunked early in this chapter, giving a more accurate representation of the shooters who suffered from these conditions. The spectrum of mental illness featured in the case studies ranges from mild paranoia (“Everyone hates me”) to full blown hallucinatory delusions (“I died four years ago”). This variation prevents sweeping generalisations on the complicated and sensitive topic of mental health and its relationship to violence.
Third, Langman presents the traumatised shooter profile. While the shooters from the previous two profiles generally came from stable backgrounds with no abuse this category stands in contrast. Shooters who fit into the traumatised profile have suffered severe abuse and trauma and the case studies provide some truly tragic examples. Drug abuse, parental alcoholism, broken homes, sexual and physical abuse as well as a general sense of despair were major features in these young people’s lives. The examples here showcase how suffering can push an already venerable young person to breaking point.
Each of these profile chapters is thorough and while the different perpetrators are put into overarching categories, each case is examined on its own merits. Langman openly states when information about an individual is limited or when details are disputed. For example he mentions that there are conflicting accounts regarding whether certain perpetrators were bullied. This provides more nuanced accounts and illustrates to the reader how difficult it can be to know what is happening in a young person’s life; a crucial point relevant in the next chapter.
The final segment is split into three parts. The first does an overall review of the case studies and lays out the correlations between them. It examines issues such as illegal drug usage, relations with peers, family situation, and depression as well as other familiar issues young people face in their lives. However, Langman goes even deeper, discussing matters such as nihilism and what he calls “existential rage.” He avoids simplistic labelling or sensationalism – something media outlets have either carelessly fallen into or cynically pursued. One of the strongest qualities here and throughout the book is that it tackles myths and misguided assumptions. It is often repeated that school shooters are loners who are taking revenge against bullies. On the contrary, it is revealed that many of the shooters had friends, active social lives and were no more bullied than other teenagers at their respective schools (some were even reported to be bullies themselves). Other misleading narratives put forward, such as access to guns and reaction to psych medication, are shown to be at best one-dimensional as there are nearly always multiple factors to consider.
Langman goes on to examine the young people who were seen as ‘at risk’ of carrying out a rampage shooting and were subject to interventions. They were then evaluated by the author himself who had to judge how much of a danger they were. Again, Langman is up front about what we can and cannot be certain about: some of the interventions very well may have stopped tragedies; others may not. He compares the individuals he assessed with the previous “successful” shooters and places them in one of the three profiles discussed earlier. The key factor it seems to distinguish disturbing thoughts from actual intent to commit violence was whether there are active steps taken to carry it out, such as building explosives or stockpiling weapons. Langman sums it up succinctly: “A threat assessment is based on behaviour, not taste in music, fascination with violence or negative role models.” This analysis is not only enlightening but also somewhat reassuring in that measures can be taken to prevent these disasters from happening. They are not inevitable. It also nicely sets up the final and arguably most important section of the book: how to identify the signs that someone is likely to carry out a school shooting.
Finally, Langman leaves the reader with ten points that can help identify warning signs of murderous intent. Several feel like basic common sense but, as the case studies show, often people will ignore their instincts as they either don’t take the threats seriously or don’t want to create trouble. A surprising number of the shooters openly stated their plans to others before carrying them out. Sometimes the hardest thing to see is what’s right under your nose. Thus it is necessary for what seems obvious to be reaffirmed. The main take away from this section is that if you have a concern, say something; if you find evidence of intent, report it immediately. To repeat: nothing is inevitable.
A minor shortcoming of the book is that it has little to say regarding the role of internet or social media – something that has a significant impact on young people especially. But this is a somewhat unfair charge given when the book was published (2009) and these issues were not contemporaneous to the cases studied. If someone wanted a contemporary overview of rampage shootings, this book would undoubtedly be very helpful but it would be limited regarding this modern occurrence. In short, it’s slightly out of date in some areas. Another criticism is that there is little content on how media’s influence on mass shootings, often referred to as the “copycat” effect. This has become a well-documented development in recent years and it was disappointing that it didn’t feature more in the book.
In summary, this is a very informative book and essential reading for anyone who studies human behaviour. While Langamn himself admits that it is difficult to provide concrete answers on these types of crimes, the use of the profile categories helps narrow down conclusions and make more sense of them. Furthermore, the addition of the warning signs chapter not only provides more information but also is uplifting as it shows the reader that these events aren’t inevitable and can be combated through vigilance and knowledge. While the issue of school shootings may not seem relevant to Northern Ireland, it is important to acknowledge these risks without descending into fear mongering. This book provides a solid overview of something that, hopefully, our country never has to face.