Inside the Mind of the Active Shooter

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

Adam Lanza had multiple mental illness diagnoses from an early age with a form of autism being the predominant diagnosis; however, it should be noted that autism is not correlated with violent or criminal actions. Like Cho, he was painfully shy and avoided contact with others at all cost, even when the avoidant behavior made him appear very odd.

In contrast to Cho and Lanza, Harris was not widely thought to have mental illness; but he is now believed to have a Psychopathic Personality Disorder. Klebold often appeared depressed and more troubled than Harris.


Threat Assessment

What does studying events such as these tell us about the psychology of the most dangerous of the active shooters? First, there is a widely discussed but inaccurate belief that these mass murderers had significant stress which, combined with mental illness, caused them to “snap” — implying that when events became overwhelming, they lost their footing and more or less impulsively committed horrific acts. The idea of suddenly snapping when stress got too high does not fit with the facts in most cases of mass murders, including these three examples.

Most school shootings (as opposed to mass murders) are less planned and more impulsive, often done either in sudden bursts of anger or in retaliation for a perceived slight. In contrast to relatively sudden and impulsive acts of violence, mass murderers usually demonstrate extremely careful planning and careful execution of plans which were conducted in a calm manner. This repeated observation has changed the field of threat assessment.

We now know that most mass murders are not the product of stress tipping the scale to a point where someone suddenly snaps, but the product of a person or persons capable of planning what Meloy (1997) calls “Predatory Violence.” Is this a form of mental illness? That question may not be fully answerable at this time, but if it is, it is not mental illness as we usually define it.

What is in the mind of an active shooter? Research has shown that an active shooter’s mind is focused on the violent act, and especially on their plan as to how to carry it out. Active shooters often verbalize multiple justifications for the perceived wrongs and injustices that were done to them — justifications which seem immature or ludicrous to us.


How to Recognize the Warning Signs

How do security professionals recognize active shooters? In most cases, active shooters give clues to their plans — frequently only to those close to them. Usually, the way to recognize an active shooter is to obtain information from those who have access to clues left by, and behaviors of the shooter.

Holders of information, therefore, can be quite varied. In Cho’s case, other students, teachers, former school officials, mental health professionals and family all had pieces of the puzzle. Increased communication is greatly facilitated by the development of Threat Assessment Teams within an organization or school.

Due to the varied nature of shooters and informants, Threat Assessment Teams function best if they are represented by multiple disciplines, usually including Security, HR, Administration, Student Representatives (if a school), Legal Departments and a consultant Threat Assessment Expert who may be trained as a Forensic Psychologist. Threat Assessment Teams may include other disciplines to fit the structure and culture of an organization or school.

These teams are developed to create and continually encourage communication of concerning or threatening material. They collect and share information to facilitate rapid and effective assessment and responses to threats or perceived threats when they occur. By obtaining, sharing and assessing threatening communication, Threat Assessment Teams often prevent a threat from becoming an active incident, and successfully deescalate and manage threats and their effect on a corporation, school or organization.