A version of this story first appeared on The Federalist.
“Did you see that story on the news today?” my dad asked when I was about 11 years old. “A man caught his wife and kids trying to leave him. He came home, and they were packing up their things. He went in the house and got his gun. First, he shot the kids, then he shot the wife, and then he shot himself. They all died. You won’t ever leave me, will you?”
This was how my dad ensured my silence and submission. And my dad knew how to use his gun too. He proved that when he shot a neighbor kid’s dog right in front of me, from thirty feet away, just for the fun of it. I can still hear the dog’s yowls. They weren’t yelps, like you’d expect from a dog. They were screeches of pain and terror.
About a decade later, my dad once again threatened to murder my entire family. He didn’t threaten frequently, but I can recall a handful of occasions. He usually posed the threats as a joke or cloaked them in the context of a news story. This time, I was engaged to be married. I feared that the stressor of losing control of me might be the straw that broke the demon’s back. I stole his gun. I hid it, unloaded and wrapped in a towel, in a box of chintzy craft supplies, knitting, and fashion accessories I’d accrued as a teenager. It was the last place he’d look.
I left the ammo in his dresser drawer. It was my way of mocking him, as if to say, “I’ve taken your power, but left the bullets so you can play marbles with them.”
I never told the police about my dad’s abuse; his sexual perversion, murderous threats, or violent assaults. I loved my dad. I feared my dad. I still do. I didn’t want to hurt him, and I also didn’t want to risk being stuck in the same house with him if the police failed to arrest him. As a survivor of 20 years of domestic violence, I fully support my right as a mother to arm and defend myself should anyone ever threaten me or my family again.
My dad is not a school shooter. As far as I’m aware, he’s never shot anyone, although there is a family story that he once stabbed his sister in the hand. Nevertheless, he could have become a shooter and I didn’t tell a soul. I am certain that he is just one among thousands of violent offenders who slip under the radar because no one ever reports them. I suspect, like me, most don’t report because they both love and fear their abuser. No one wants to believe that their dad, brother, son, mother, daughter, or friend, could be the next monster on the five o’clock news.
Peter Langman, Ph.D., is a respected authority on mass shooters, particularly youth and school shooters. He has conducted extensive research and published works regarding the psychology of adolescent murderers. In a harrowing and fascinating study titled, Rampage Shooters: A Typology, Langman divides school shooters into three basic categories: Traumatized, Psychotic, and Psychopathic.
- Traumatized Shooters come from dysfunctional families. Of the kids in his study, all experienced physical or sexual abuse. They all had at least one parent who abused drugs or alcohol or who had a criminal history. “Among the traumatized shooters … all three had father-figures who engaged in criminal behavior involving the misuse of firearms,” notes Langman in his report. “In two of these cases, the fathers engaged in armed stand-offs with police.”
- Psychotic Shooters come from intact families with no history of abuse, parental addiction, or incarceration. They exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia or a schizotypal personality disorder such as delusional paranoia, delusions of grandeur, and auditory hallucinations. “The psychotic shooters were misfits in their own families,” Langman states, “and the differences between them and their siblings were obvious to their parents and teachers.”
- Psychopathic Shooters also tend to come from intact families with no significant dysfunction. These shooters exhibit narcissism, sadistic behavior, little to no empathy, and a lack of conscience. Langman notes that, “the psychopathic shooters successfully recruited followers to join them in their attacks … Thus, the presence of peer support may have contributed to their decision to commit a school shooting.”
Langman’s career has involved researching manifold cases, but this specific paper focuses on 10 school shooters who were all teenagers, with the exception of Seung Hui Cho, who was 23. The youngest was only 11. All together, these young shooters murdered 69 people and injured 92 between 1997 and 2007.
For any person, abused or not, to progress to a state in which they are capable of such profound cruelty, requires a process of moral and emotional deterioration which would be marked by increasingly aberrant behavior and attitudes. How did people miss the red flags that preceded these heinous crimes? How does a person grow violently abusive without someone noticing or intervening? How can a teenager manifest schizophrenic or sociopathic behaviors, yet no one sees?
Based on my experience with an abusive dad, I would suggest to you that many people saw.
In the case of the Parkland school shooter, Nikolas Cruz, there were 23 police reports warning the Broward County Sheriff’s Department that Cruz was a dangerous threat. These reports include accounts of Cruz hitting his adoptive mother, throwing her against a wall, fighting with his brother, exhibiting suicidal behavior, and threatening to shoot up the school on social media. There were several occasions where it seems that Cruz should have been hospitalized or arrested, but nothing was done. At one point, Cruz himself called the police to tell them that he was deeply troubled. One woman even reported Cruz to the FBI, stating that he was “going to explode,” and anticipated him “getting into a school and just shooting the place up.”
Stories are emerging of an angry and disturbed teen who held a gun to the head of his mother and brother; who assaulted several people, including the son of Roxanne Deschamps, the woman who took care of Cruz and his brother following the death of their adoptive mother in November, 2017. In a chilling 911 call, Deschamps warned police that she believed Cruz might shoot her and her family. Nevertheless, the police did not intervene. Notes were taken, reports were logged, but no apparent effort was made to provide for Cruz’s mental health or the safety of those around him.
This is every abuse victim’s worst fear: That they’ll report abuse, but the police will do nothing, and they’ll be left alone with an abuser who knows that they reported them. Unfortunately, this seems to be exactly what happened in Florida. Broward County Sheriff’s Department has demonstrated to the nation that being disbelieved or abandoned by law enforcement is a reasonable fear. Abuse reports across the U.S. will now likely decrease as gun purchases for self-defense skyrocket.
While Cruz himself is an abuser, it’s safe to say he falls under Langman’s Traumatized Shooter category, if not others. His biological parents died, he was adopted, and then his adoptive parents died. According to police reports, he has a history of being bullied, bullying, and fighting. Whether Cruz suffers a schizotypal illness or psychopathic dysfunction is something for his doctors to decide. While reports assert he was diagnosed with disorders such as ADHD and OCD, these are not the type of diagnosis that would or should ever raise red flags. On the other hand, his suicidal behavior and murderous threats should have warranted medical evaluation.
But this isn’t the first time that school shooters have been enabled by neglectful family, friends, educators, physicians, or law enforcement officers. The following is a list of school shooters, most of whom were not included in Langman’s paper:
- On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho (23) killed 32 people and wounded 17 others at Virginia Tech using two semi-automatic pistols. An investigative panel later criticized educators and medical professionals who failed to notice Cho’s deteriorating mental health. It also noted gaps in Virginia’s mental health system and gun laws.
- On March 21, 2005, Jeffrey James Weise (16) murdered nine people, including his grandfather, before committing suicide at Red Lake Senior High School in Minnesota. Weise was born into a broken home. His mother was an alcoholic who abused him. His father had a criminal history and committed suicide by shooting himself during a police standoff.
- On February 29, 2000, Dedrick Owens (6) brought a gun to Buell Elementary School. He told 6-year-old Kayla Rolland, “I don’t like you,” before he pulled the trigger, fatally killing the little girl. Owen’s father was in prison for dealing cocaine. The boy had been living with his abusive, drug addicted mother before moving into his uncle’s crack house. Just a few weeks before he murdered Rolland, Owens had gotten into trouble at school for bullying and hitting other students, even stabbing one little girl with a pencil.
- On March 5, 2001, Charles “Andy” Williams (15) killed two and injured 13 at Santana High School in California. Williams had allegedly been bullied and abused by classmates. On two occasions he told people about his plan to “pull a Columbine,” but no one ever reported his threats to police.
- On September 24, 2003, John Jason McLaughlin (15) murdered 15-year-old Seth Bartell and 17-year-old Aaron Rollins. During his trial, three mental health experts diagnosed McLaughlin with schizophrenia, while others diagnosed major depression and emerging personality disorder. The families of the victims later sued the school district, the principal, and McLaughlin’s family, alleging that they knew what McLachlan was planning during the days preceding his crimes. The lawsuit was settled out of court for $200,000.
- On February 27, 2012, Thomas “T. J.” Lane III (17) murdered three of his fellow students and seriously injured two others at Chardon High School in Ohio. Lane had a criminal history including domestic violence and disorderly conduct. He posted death threats on social media accounts prior to the shooting.
- On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza (20) invaded Sandy Hook Elementary and murdered 20 children between six and seven years of age. Lanza was diagnosed with multiple mental health issues. A report from the Office of the Child Advocate noted that Lanza’s, “severe and deteriorating internalized mental health problems … combined with an atypical preoccupation with violence… [and] access to deadly weapons … proved a recipe for mass murder.” The report concluded, “It is fair to surmise that, had Lanza’s mental illness been adequately treated in the last years of his life, one predisposing factor to the tragedy of Sandy Hook might have been mitigated.”
Besides guns, each of these cases – and many more like them – bear two striking similarities. Firstly, each and every perpetrator manifested traumatized, psychotic, or psychopathic behavior in the weeks, months, and years leading up to their crimes. Secondly, each and every perpetrator was surrounded by people who failed to report or intervene when they witnessed disturbing red flags. Whether the people surrounding them were parents who were negligent, absent, or abusive; teachers, counselors, and school officials who ignored warning signs; law enforcement who failed to press charges or follow up on reports; or bystanders who failed to notice or report troubling behavior and threats; people who surrounded these shooters enabled tragedy by either neglecting to speak or failing to act.
Many of Cruz’s friends and acquaintances had the courage to report him to the authorities. They recognized the danger and they did exactly what they should have done. The fact that law enforcement failed them so miserably is something that will haunt every abuse victim who is thinking about picking up the phone. The damage that the FBI and Broward County Sheriff’s Office have done to the psyche of crime witnesses and victims across the nation through this catastrophic lapse is incalculable.
Like it or not, we have created a culture that disdains responsibility. Ironically, the very nature of this culture will make it very difficult for us as a society to take responsibility for our culture of irresponsibility. However, the words of Sheriff Israel and his repeated denial of blame for the inaction of his department, typifies this culture of irresponsibility.
“Deputies make mistakes. Police officers make mistakes. We all make mistakes,” Israel told Jake Tapper on CNN. “But it’s not the responsibility of the general or the president, if you have a deserter … Jake, I can only take responsibility for what I knew about. I exercised my due diligence. I have given amazing leadership to this agency.”
How many times have we seen stories of teens eating Tide Pods, but instead of asking where their parents are, people blamed Tide for looking too much like candy? How many times have we seen people blaming television, video games, or social media for the bad behavior of children, rather than examining that child’s parental figures or educational environment?
Most people don’t want to intervene into the mess of another person’s life. Most of us are happy gossiping and gawking at celebrities, but don’t even know our next-door-neighbor’s name. Most of us, when we see evidence of familial or mental dysfunction, think, “Oh well. Somebody else will do something about it. It’s not my responsibility or place, and I’m sure everything will turn out fine.”
But too often, we see that everything does not turn out fine. If we want to stop the next school shooter, there are a few practical things we must do.
- A Culture that is Emotional Invested in Relationships: We must foster a culture where people are aware and involved in each other’s lives. We must branch beyond Facebook and Twitter and talk to friends face to face. When we’re involved with each other on a personal level, we’re more likely to notice when things aren’t going well. We’ll see the black eye, the distracted stare, and hear the private worries of a stressed mind. People facing struggles will be more likely and better able to seek help, and children being neglected will be less likely to fall through the cracks. This is one area where small family-oriented churches play a vital role in keeping our culture emotionally healthy and physically safe.
- Reestablish and Reinforce the Healthy Family Ideal: A large percentage of the violence in America would vanish in a decade’s time if we focused on eliminating child abuse, child neglect, and domestic violence. Broken homes lead to broken communities, broken culture, and a broken nation. If we heal the family, we can fix the future. A large percentage of school shooters and violent criminals in general, report having had dysfunctional childhoods.
- Diligently Prosecute Criminals: We must enforce existing laws that combat crimes such as child abuse and the unlawful possession of guns. With few exceptions, it is illegal for a person convicted of a felony (such as domestic violence or drug possession) to purchase a gun. If criminals are prosecuted for their crimes, and entered into the national database, it will become much more difficult for them to acquire guns. The recent school shooting in Parkland could possibly have been averted had Cruz been prosecuted for domestic violence or assault. Had he been convicted, he would never have been able to purchase a gun.
- Take Care of the Weak and the Sick: We must make sure that people suffering mental illness and emotional challenges receive the care that they need. When a teenager, such as Cruz, calls the police to tell them he’s disturbed, that teenager should never be ignored, if only for his own sake and wellbeing. We must maintain a system that efficiently and comprehensively addresses the needs of people exhibiting depressive, delusional, psychotic, or psychopathic behavior. This is vital for their own happiness and health, as well as for the safety of our communities.
There is no question that every criminal owns complete responsibility for his or her actions. However, we as a society must also take responsibility for protecting each other, supporting one another, and providing for the very weakest and underserved among us. Our boys and girls deserve safe schools. Our kids deserve whole families. Our young adults deserve mental health care. Our teenagers deserve our love. We must promote a culture that fosters strong families, reinforces healthy marriages, nurtures tightly knit communities, encourages involvement in church and other familial organizations, treats individuals as dignified and valuable, and supports stay-at-home parenting and involved moms and dads. We need to get back to the basics and love our neighbor.
That is how we stop the next school shooter.