About guns & red flags: Parkland school shooting. SPECIAL REPORT
Year 3 - Week 10
ISSN 2603 - 9931
On February 14th a 19-year-old former student of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, from where he had been expelled some time before for aggressive behavior, returned to the school and gunned down 17 of his former peers and teachers, and wounding more than a dozen others, before he was arrested. According to witness accounts and the information released by federal law enforcement agencies, the attacker, Nikolas Cruz, wore a gas mask when he entered in the school armed with an AR-15 style rifle, multiple magazines ammunition and smoke grenades. Then he pulled the fire alarm and when students and professors started to evacuate the building, he opened fire over then. The attack ranks the third in the deadliest rampage school shootings after Sandy Hook Elementary School (2012) and Virginia Tech campus (2007), surpassing the sadly iconic Columbine High School (1999).
We can define a rampage school shooting as the act “when students or former students attack their own school. The attacks are public acts, committed in full view of others. In addition, although some people might be shot because the shooter held grudges against them, others are shot randomly or as symbols of the school (…)”. Rampage school shootings exclude two people having a quarrel that results in one of them shooting the other, since those targeted gun attacks exclude the element of indiscriminate or random victims (Langman, 2009b, 2). Rampage school shootings resemble workplace active shootings in the relation that connects the shooter with the target location and with the potential victims, but it excludes cases of targeted violence such as intimate partner violence or gang violence.
As more aspects emerge from the investigation and the Cruz’s personality, it is known that that the teenager was an orphan adopted at young age, and that both his adoptive father and mother had passed away some time ago. But it was his mother’s death what had finally destabilized the boy and sunk him in a deep depression. In addition to that, Cruz showed an early obsession with guns and a record of violence against animals, classmates and neighbors: he tortured, killed or dismembered some of the neighborhood pets, he had quarrels and fight with his classmates that led to his temporary expulsion of the high school, and many of his neighbors’ parents prevented their children due to his random and violent explosive behavior. At the time of the shooting, Cruz, who was living with a friend’s family after his mother’s death, had several weapons of his own kept in an arm-safe. Law enforcement sources informed after the shooting that in the past year Cruz had purchased ten weapons, all of them rifles, as well as BB guns and pellet handguns and shotguns (Brochetto, 2018).
The red flags: warning behaviors.
From this account, different sources are rising the question of the presence of a good number of red flags that went undetected for different law enforcement agencies, both at federal, State and local levels. This red flags are categorized as warning behaviors. Warning behaviors are acts which constitute evidence of an accelerating risk represented by an individual in an escalation of violence. They are acute, dynamic, and particularly toxic changes in patterns of behavior which may aid in structuring a professional’s judgement that an individual of concern now poses a threat -whether the actual target has been identified or not (Meloy 2012, 256). Warning behavior or “red flag indicators” are tools for risk assessment to signal risk factors which, if present, will classify a specific case as a high risk one. Generally speaking, warning behaviors are psychological parameters that normally show up as observable behavioral changes, so they may indicate triggering factors involved, but do not necessarily are observable, since in some cases they may be concealed by the observed individual. The Workplace Assessment of Violence Risk, which as theoretical framework differs from rampage school shooting cases in the age and location of target, considers five coded items that would be considered red flag indicators: motives for violence, fantasies and preoccupations, homicidal ideas, violent intentions or expressed threats, weapons skill and access, and pre-attack planning and preparation (Meloy, 2012, 258-259). At least the last four elements were given in Nikolas Cruz personality: he proclaimed in different occasions in social network as Instagram his will to kill social clusters as negroes, Jews or gays and he self-claimed a professional school shooter; he bragged about buying a good deal of weapons and tactical gear and body armor during months (Murphy, 2018), showing a well-planned and not spur-of-the-moment attack, an idea reinforced by the fact of how the shooting was conducted –the presence of numerous ammunition magazines or pulling the fire alarm reveal that planning in order to maximize the number of victims. But probably his family traumatic changes allowed these red flags to go unnoticed or to be seen as unconnected and due to the very same family issues the teenager had gone through in the last years.
Nonetheless, this general warning behaviors take a specific shape in the profile of the pseudocommando. In a by now classical article written by James Knoll in 2010, this profile is defined as “a type of mass murderer who kills in public during the daytime, plans his offense well in advance, and comes prepared with a powerful arsenal of weapons. He has no escape planned and expects to be killed during the incident. (…) The pseudocommando is driven by strong feelings of anger and resentment, flowing from beliefs about being persecuted or grossly mistreated. He views himself as carrying out a highly personal agenda of payback” (Knoll, 2010, 87-94). Knoll analysis is in turn rooted in P.E. Dietz (1986) and P.E. Mullen (2004), who assessed the figure as highly interested in arms and a personality marked by suspiciousness and lack of social integration, obsessional traits driving in many cases to a lack of social skill, and at the opposite side, narcissism, where the murder-suicide is part of the scheme. But because of this element of grandiosity, mass shooters in general and school shooters in particular tend to emulate their predecessors and overpassed them: according to Mullen, thus, mass shooters are imitators.
Following Knoll and Mullen’s definitions, we can profile Nikolas Cruz as a mass murderer due to the number of victims, being the ratio to consider a mass murder over four casualties during the same period of time, that is, without cooling off periods between victims (Dietz, 1986, 479-480). As we have mentioned the attack was previously planned as we may infer from the amount of ammunition and the modus operandi. Weapons played indeed a role in framing Cruz’s identity, as observed in his Instagram accounts and his interaction with peers. Finally, even though the pattern of the profile is the murder-suicide –by himself of killed by the law enforcement agents- that element of mismatch has a precedent: Jonesboro Westside Middle School and Andrew Golden and Mitchel Johnson.
Andrew Golden and Mitchel Johnson are an outstanding case because both of them are nowadays free citizens with a clean record. They were released from prison on their 21st birthdays since both of them at the time of the rampage school shooting were minors: Johnson was 13 and Golden was just 11 years old. The children got weapons from Golden’s grandfather in March 1998, went to their school in Johnson’s father van, took a concealed position nearby the school access and when Golden pulled the fire alarm and students and professors started to evacuate the building, both children started the shooting, killing four students and one professor and wounding 11 people more. Dressed in camouflage clothing, both shooters were arrested when they tried to run away in Johnsons’s van: the planning of the attack didn’t ended in suicide, but in an escape route that was prevented by police County. Similarities are at plain sight between Jonesboro and Parkland cases, but they go even further if we attend to the psychological profile of Andrew Golden and Nikolas Cruz (Bragg, 1998).
Langman’s categories: the psychopathic trait.
Unfortunately, warning behaviors are not is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Even though we can discover patterns, many other variables are interconnected. Not every bullied, depressed or narcissistic teenager becomes a mass murderer. A frequently considered factor in school shootings is the availability of fire weapons, and it is obvious that weapons define the modus operandi and even the prospective number of victims. But by itself, the presence of guns doesn’t explain school shootings. In areas where gun ownership is common and without presence of murders, as might be the case of no-go zones with rampant gangs gun violence, schools shootings are clearly aberrations in a context of a prevalent social norm of law-abiding use of firearms (Langman, 2009b, 5). The same can be said about violent media and videogames: there is not a direct connection, although probably they are a powerful influence with a role in desensitizing the adolescent and acting as a virtual rehearsal for the actual killing (Langman, 2009b, 9). Rejection seems to be another common element in many school shooters, actual one or perceived just by the shooter, but rejection is a common feeling in adolescents and school shooters remains just a marginal number. Depression is probably one of the clearer connected triggering elements; many of schools shooters felt failures more acutely and envy their peers who seem always to be happier and more successful. “This envy often turned to hatred, rage and homicidal thoughts. The combination of suicidal and homicidal impulses is particularly dangerous because it is hard to prevent murder when killers do not care if they live or die” (Langman, 2009b, 10), but even in this case, depression is not sufficient cause. It is also inaccurate that school shooters are loners: in most of cases, including Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the infamous Columbine High School shooters (1999), they had friends and acquaintances with whom they were engaged in social activities of different nature. But many of them felt lonely and even isolated. So then, what makes a school shooter different? The answer relies on the psychiatric specifics on the individual.
Psychology doctor Peter Langman presented in his 2009 research three types or categories of school shooters, the traumatized, the psychotic and the psychopathic. The traumatized category is formed by individuals coming from broken homes; they have suffered physical or sexual abuse, and they have at least one parent with substance abuse problems and one with a criminal record. The psychotic shooters all came from intact families with no histories of abuse, but on the other hand they present symptoms of either schizophrenia or schizotypal personality disorder, including paranoid delusions, delusions of grandeur and auditory hallucinations. Finally, the psychopathic profile also comes from intact families with no significant dysfunctions, and they demonstrate narcissism, a lack of empathy, a lack of conscience, and sadistic behavior (Langman, 2009, 81).
Psychopathic profile includes paranoid traits. These personality disorder presents an obsession with independence and self-control. According to David Shapiro, “they are concerned with the threat of being subjected to some external control or some external infringement of his will”. Likewise, a paranoid personality is extremely aware of power hierarchies and presents himself as proud and arrogant even though the internal feeling is of being small and weak (Langman, 2009b, 33-34). All these elements concoct a search for autonomy and empowerment seeking what may be interpreted through the unique message launched in the mass shooting. Antisocial trait refers to the lack of empathy and the rejection of social, moral or legal rules. Narcissism is a compensatory trait allowing individuals who feel inadequate in a social context to counter this perception by presenting an image of self-grandiosity to hide their weaknesses and their need of recognition (Langman, 2009b, 38-39). When this need of recognition to the self-created superior image is not committed, a common response is an act of revenge which is framed and rationalized to face the narcissistic injury (Neuman, 2015, 2). And finally, a differentiating element regarding other profiles: sadism or experiencing excitement and satisfaction through making others suffer as a manifestation of power to fill an inner emptiness with a feeling of power (Langman, 2009b, 41).
Those elements are common to shooters as Andrew Golden (Jonesboro, 1998), Eric Harris (Columbine, 1999), and according to the available information, to Nikolas Cruz. If we continue tracking the common elements between Jonesboro and Parkland, Golden was a charming children with his family and professors, while he behave totally differently with peers and neighbors, who were harassed and intimidated by Golden, and, especially, cats, which he systematically shot and torture in different ways according to his neighbor accounts (Langman, 2009b, 22-26). A similar account is referred by some of previous Cruz’s neighbors, who affirm that Cruz had rage outbursts with her adoptive mother, punching even the house walls, he had frequent fights with other neighborhood children and he liked dissecting animals in the yard by piercing them. Additionally, it was well know his obsession with firearms (Flores 2018). And as happened with Golden, who made a complete impression management in front of his family, Cruz also behave as a polite, normal boy. Impression management, another psychopathic trait, explains why the closest persons to the attacker may remain unaware of this warning behaviors: simply because the subject hides them so he guarantees the success of his plans. And even though we don’t know for sure why neither Golden nor Cruz committed suicide as Eric Harris, a feasible explanation is because their choice was the survival of their egos and not sending a message with their death.
Causes leading to a mass murderer pseudocommando figure are multivariable and interconnected, so they can interact with the individual and his environment in also multivariable ways. That is where lies the importance of a proper risk assessment and the attention to warning behaviors and potential red flags. Especially in the case of Nikolas Cruz, many questions remain unsolved, since the continuous leakage of his intention through social networks was unattended despite the efforts of neighbors and relatives in calling the attention of authorities. But probably the problem is set also in other direction: authorities are reactive, first the offense or crime is committed and then they deal with it. Preventive measures must be integrated in the equation, from friends and family to schools and social services, to assess accurately the level of risk in potential red-flag individuals, each of them according to their capabilities and professional training, and prevent that those red flags have access to fire weapons. Protocols as Run-Hide-Fight have proved effective for managing the incident, so as well appropriate training for dealing with and detecting warning behaviors, and establishing more functional channels of communication with the professionals who have to assess the risk would be of help. We, who are not psychologist but we work in security and armed incident management, are well aware of the need of prevention, and in this case early warnings may mean stop the crying before it starts.
Bragg, Rick. 1998. “5 Are Killed at School; Boys, 11 and 13, Are Held.” New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/03/25/us/5-are-killed-at-school-boys-11-and-13-are-held.html.
Brochetto, Marilla. 2018. “Depressed Ten’s Guns Didn’t Raise Red Flags for Host Family of Florida Shooter.” CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2018/02/20/us/florida-shooting-nikolas-cruz-snead-family/index.html.
Dietz, Park E. 1986. “Mass, Serial and Sensational Homicides.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. 62 (5): 477–91.
Flores, Rosa. 2018. “Neighbor Says Nikolas Cruz Always Showed a Worrying Dark Side.” CNN.
Knoll, James. 2010. “The ‘pseudocommando’ mass Murder: Part I, the Psychology of Revenge and Obliteration.” The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. 38 (1): 87–94.
Langman, Peter. 2009a. “Rampage School Shooters: A Typology.” Aggression and Violent Behavior., no. 14: 79–86.
———. 2009b. Why Kids Kill. Inside the Mind of School Shooters. New York: Saint Martin’s Press.
Meloy, J. 2012. “The Role of Warning Behaviors in Threat Assessment: An Exploration and Suggested Typology.” Behavioral Sciences and the Law., no. 30: 256–79.
Mullen, Paul. 2004. “The Autogenic (Self-Generated) Massacre.” Behavioral Sciences and the Law., no. 22: 311–23.
Murphy, Paul. 2018. “Exclusive: Group Chat Messages Show School Shooter Obsessed with Race, Violence, and Guns.” CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2018/02/16/us/exclusive-school-shooter-instagram-group/index.html.
Neuman, Yair. 2015. “Profiling School Shooters: Automatic Text-Based Analysis.” Frontiers in Psychiatry. 6 (86): 1–5.