Inside the Mind of the Active Shooter

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

Much has been written about the motives of these self-described outcasts, which was fueled by Harris’s website that included blog postings documenting his growing anger at society. Harris’s website included numerous death threats. Klebold gave access to this private website to one of Harris’s intended targets, which led to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office finding numerous threats directed against the students and teachers at Columbine, his hatred of society and a wish to kill those who annoyed him. Also on his website, Harris stated that he made pipe bombs and discussed his gun count. The Jefferson County Sherriff’s investigator wrote a draft Affidavit for a search warrant, but it was not filed. Eventually, Harris posted his and Klebold’s progress in acquiring guns and making the bombs which were used at Columbine. Journals of both Harris and Klebold documented their competition with Timothy McVeigh in their bomb’s destructiveness, plans to inflict maximum damage at Columbine and an escape plan.


The Role of Mental Illness in Mass Shootings

What is the role of mental illness in the commission of mass murder? Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, had a long history of mental illness that was concealed when he applied to the university. Cho was painfully shy since his earliest years and the level to which he would not interact socially, participate in group activities or speak aloud, even in class (selective mutism) was dramatic and rare, and noted from the earliest years of his education.

His first mental health contact occurred during the summer before Cho started seventh grade, due to the severity of his social isolation and his unwillingness to discuss his thoughts or feelings. He was diagnosed with severe Social Anxiety Disorder, and Cho’s shyness and awkwardness was painful to watch. Psychological testing showed immaturity and a lack of verbal skills, but his IQ was above average. Cho continued to isolate in middle school but had no reported behavioral problems and did not get into any fights. In the middle of eigth grade, Cho suddenly became more withdrawn and showed symptoms of depression. His therapist was concerned about suicide despite no verbal indication by Cho.

One month after his therapist expressed concern, right after the Columbine devastation, Cho wrote a paper discussing generalized suicidal and homicidal thoughts, and said he wanted to repeat Columbine. Cho, who was already in therapy, was again seen by a psychiatrist who diagnosed Cho with Selective Mutism and Major Depression, and prescribed an antidepressant. Cho did well on the medication, smiled more and seemed brighter, but the psychiatrist discontinued it one year later as Cho no longer seemed depressed.

In tenth grade, Cho was placed in a Special Education Program for Emotional Disabilities. He was permitted to eat lunch alone and to provide verbal responses in private sessions with teachers rather than in front of the class. With this arrangement, Cho’s grades were excellent. He had Advanced Placement and Honors classes, but Cho’s thinking began to appear confused. In the eleventh grade, Cho’s weekly sessions at the mental health center came to an end because he resisted continuing and there was a gradual, if slight, improvement over the years.

Cho was strongly advised to attend a small college near his home, as he needed a great deal of support, along with school and family interaction. Cho ignored this advice and went to a much larger and more distant school, Virginia Tech, where only minimal interaction occurred with mental health. He was psychiatrically hospitalized for one night after uttering suicidal comments to his roommate, but he was let go. Cho’s grades deteriorated in his sophomore year and he became convinced his acne was not pimples, but the bites of mites — likely delusional thinking.

In his junior year, Cho’s social withdrawal became increasingly severe, his writing became hostile and violent and his behavior became threatening. During this year, he and his roommates went to a female’s dorm room where Cho started stabbing her rug with a knife. After being criticized, Cho wrote, “You low-life barbarians make me sick to the stomach that I wanna barf over my new shoes. If you despicable human beings who are all disgraces to [the] human race keep this up, before you know it you will turn into cannibals — eating little babies, your friends. I hope y’all burn in hell for mass murdering and eating all those little animals.”

Cho began taking unauthorized and unwelcomed pictures of other students, and some of these students stopped coming to class out of fear of Cho. His poetry teacher felt he was uncooperative and that he was trying to bully her. She refused to allow Cho back into class, stating she would resign if she was required to allow him to come back to class. The department chair took over on a one-to-one basis. Cho’s writings were of shooting or harming people. A roommate found a very large knife in Cho’s property and discarded it. Unfortunately, this information was not shared in any central or common setting — it was pieced together after the massacre.