Inside the Mind of the Active Shooter

Knowing your adversary is the first step to stopping your school’s worst enemy


On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho, an undergraduate student at Virginia Tech, became infamous for perpetrating the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in U.S. history. After his first two murders, he returned to his dorm room, and in between the first round and the next 30 murders followed by suicide when he was cornered, Cho was calm enough to collect and mail a package including videos and a manifesto to NBC news.

In the material he sent to NBC, he gave a glimpse into the thoughts of one active shooter. In a video, Cho said that the massacre could have been avoided: “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. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off.”

Those charged with providing safety and security to public or to private organizations must try to understand active shooters — they must come to know the adversary. Motives are sought, but in devastating mass murders, those motives often seem inadequate. For example, police found a note in Cho’s room in which he criticized “rich kids,” “debauchery” and “deceitful charlatans,” which is no different than the resentment of many a bitter and resentful person who is not at risk of committing horrific crimes. Stating that others “forced” him to do it rings equally hollow, and is not a rare feeling for many an immature child or adult.

On Dec. 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Conn., the second worst mass murder by a single individual in U.S. history. Like Cho, there were two separate periods in his shooting spree. Before driving to Sandy Hook, Lanza shot and killed his mother who was sleeping in her Newtown home. Like Cho, he had a second wind; Lanza went to Sandy Hook to wreak massive devastation of innocents, primarily 6-year olds. Similar to Cho, as first responders arrived, he committed suicide by shooting himself. But unlike Cho, Lanza did not conduct a PR campaign to justify his actions, and he did not mail or leave behind videos or manifestos.

This young man who had always tried to remain hidden was extraordinarily careful in hiding most of his thoughts. And he was careful to destroy his computer, leaving few clues behind. One item left behind, however, was telling — a 7-foot-long, 4-foot-wide, 9-point font spreadsheet that was so detailed, it required a special printer to print vast amount of material on a single page. Lanza’s highly organized document was a spreadsheet of worldwide mass murderers and attempted murders, showing meticulously detailed research into prior shooters. It listed more than 500 victims. One theory by the Connecticut State Police is that this spreadsheet was really a video-gamer’s score sheet. According to this theory, his ambition was to move to the top of the chart by having the highest number of kills in history.

Lanza was well-prepared. During his active shooting episode, after shooting the occupants of a room in the elementary school he dumped his unused ammo to have a full clip when he entered the next room, a tactical reload possibly learned from his video games. When the strap broke on his first weapon, an AR-15, he was prepared and went to his handgun. The Connecticut State Police believe he shot 6 year-olds because they would be easy kills for someone wanting to get the highest numbers of any killer.

On April 20, 1999, in Littleton Colo., (only a few miles from the Denver street where I grew up), two senior students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, murdered 12 students and one teacher. They injured 24 additional students prior to committing suicide. The Columbine High School massacre remains the deadliest mass murder at an American High School.

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