5 Myths About Active Shooters - Debunked
By: Jeff Mount
A natural response to a scary, chaotic situation is to try to make sense of it. In the instance of an Active Shooter event, most people start with the shooter. Here are 5 common myths you’ve probably heard before – and the truths to help you prepare for and stay safe in the event of an Active Shooter situation.
Myth: Perpetrators have low self-esteem.
I’ve been hearing about this one since 1999, when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 12 people and then themselves at Columbine High School. This was the first time there was a public scramble to provide answers for such a tragedy, and everything from violent video games and movies to Marilyn Manson to gun laws took turns in the blame spotlight. But one factor got unique attention – low self-esteem.
Here’s the logic: A subject feels poorly about themselves. Others exacerbate this problem through insults, exclusion, and bullying. Because of the anger this produces, the subject retaliates through extreme, seemingly random violence.
The problem is that the research doesn’t support this theory. Rather, Special Agent Andre Simons of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, has published the research that narcissism, not low self-esteem, is usually present in shooters.
Truth: Perpetrators have excessively high self-esteem, and cannot cope with a world where they are treated as normal.
A shooter is likely a person who believes they are incredibly special – a tortured genius – deserving of unique and high attention and praise. When they do not receive such attention (and usually experience marginalization, as all of us do from time to time), Simons states that the subject perceives this as a humiliating experience, a public grievance, and an insult to their ego. This could be a relatively normal experience, such as a romantic interest declining a date, getting passed over for a promotion, or getting a mediocre grade on an assignment in school. Even then, this is not the grounds for a potential active shooter situation if the subject has some sort of coping mechanism, such as a positive hobby or another positive, nurturing relationship.
So the real formula goes like this: narcissism plus public grievance minus healthy coping mechanisms lays the groundwork for the subject to demand the attention and respect he believes his special status affords him. If he does not see another way to get it, he will possibly pursue it through violence.
Myth: Shooters are aware of making a decision to commit an act of atrocity.
Because the subject likely is not aware of the above factors contributing to considering such a horrific act, they are also not likely to experience considering an active shooter action as something they choose. Rather, they experience it as an inevitable result of actions and conditions outside of their control.
Truth: An active shooter subject may experience the planning process as something that is happening to them.
It as though they are being carried along a process outside of themselves, unlike a terrorist attack, which is a rational decision of violence based on an ideological perspective with a clear goal in mind. Many of the video messages and other legacy tokens left behind by shooters indicate that they believe they were left with no choice – that others forced their hand, and that they were somehow “required” by circumstance to carry out the violence they had planned.
Myth: A shooter will make specific threats on a target.
Oddly enough, most perpetrators of active shooter events have not given specific threats that include the dates, times, purpose, method, or locations of their attack. Hence, an anonymous threat would be counterproductive to the goals of a shooter, which is to gain infamy and notoriety through an actual act, not a threat. While every threat must be taken seriously, this is especially important for decision-makers at schools, companies, or government installations, since an explicit threat tends not to fit with the goals of a shooter.
Truth: A non-specific threat (“You’ll be sorry,” or “You may not want to be around on Tuesday”), especially combined with any type of suicidal ideation on the part of the subject, is much more concerning.
If a subject has expressed a willingness or a desire to die, and has also directed their attention in a non-specific fashion to a person, a group, or an organization, there is much greater cause for concern.
Myth: Active Shooters’ dangerous behavior is fueled by drugs or alcohol.
It stands to reason that if other risky or dangerous behavior is increased by the intake of chemical substances, that such extreme actions as an active shooter event would be impacted as well. While it is true that financial, sexual, or other recreational behavior may become much riskier as a subject is no longer planning for a real future past the actual shooting, there is little to suggest any correlation between drug and alcohol use, and violence of this type.
Truth: Shooters, especially in the weeks and days prior to the attack, often cease all use of drugs and alcohol, if they even used these substances in the first place.
In the weeks and days leading up to an event, if a subject previously used drugs or alcohol, they tend to go through a purifying period in which they cease use of such substances. Further, nearly all shooters who were killed by police or who took their own lives were found to not be under the influence at the time of the event. The thinking is that the god-like power over their victims, which is central to the purpose of the violence, is something that the shooter wants to experience without distraction or interruption of external influence. Hence they want to be sober and clear-headed to fully experience the devastation and power they feel over their targets.
Myth: The attack came out of nowhere.
This is perhaps one of the most infuriating statements made by well-meaning bystanders or interviewees on mainstream news media. The statement implies that the shooter, having lived an otherwise comfortable and well-adjusted life, simply woke up one day with a murderous rage, acquired weapons, chose a target, and sought to indiscriminately kill as many people as possible.
Truth: Just because a certain individual cannot detect warning signs, does not mean they cease to exist.
The development of many disparate factors, the research, the fantasy, the attempts and possible failure to utilize coping mechanisms, the contextually inappropriate acquisition of weapons, the training, the formulation of a legacy token, the purification from chemical substances, the selection of a staging area, and the perpetration of an actual attack, is something that takes months, in some cases even years. This myth is not only incorrect, but it is particularly damaging because it perpetuates the notion that nothing can be done, no one can know ahead of time, and that we as a society are at the mercy of these acts.