The Psychology of Spree Shooters

A closeup of a hand point a gun toward the camera

Most spree shooters are loners. They are either schizoid (with deficient interpersonal skills) or paranoid and even paranoid-schizophrenic (psychotic, delusional). Their dysfunction is all-pervasive: their family life, career, romantic relationships, professional and material accomplishments are all adversely affected by their mental mayhem. They feel excluded and shunned and are profoundly ashamed of and frustrated with their inadequacies and with their sadistic, self-destructive, suicidal, and self-defeating “inner judge” (inner, introjected “voices” or narrative). This frustration builds up and results in pent-up aggression which ultimately manifests as furious, uncontrollable rage. The typical spree shooter is in love with all things violent: guns, the military, police work, virulent racism, and crime.

Since spree shooters have no one to share their emotions with, these tectonic and volcanic shifts gets shunted (displaced): when the spree shooter seeks to explain to himself why he is so angry constantly, he blames it upon his ultimate victims and their behavior or idiosyncrasies. Members of despised minorities (Roma, Jews, blacks, homosexuals, etc.) are perfect scapegoats because their persecution is socially-sanctioned and the spree shooter catches two birds with one shotgun: for the first time in his life he feels that he “belongs”, that his conduct is socially-acceptable and peer-condoned; and he vents his fury on easy, vulnerable, risk-free targets.

During the attack, the spree shooter feels elated and his anxiety relieved. Contrary to the persistent myth, the shooter is aware of his environment, but he suspends morality, judgment, and his sense of danger. The shooter usually takes his life as an act of defiance, not of desperation, rendering himself out of the reach of the Law. It is a grandiose gesture, sort of “Twilight of the Gods”. At the same time, self-annihilation tends to uphold the shooter’s view of himself as “worthless”, a sempiternal loser and an incorrigible failure.

The timing of the spree shooting is usually determined by a life crisis: losing one’s job, divorce, incarceration, personal bankruptcy, the death of a loved one or significant other. The spree shooter often hits rock bottom before he erupts.

School Shootings

Healthy narcissism is common in adolescents. Their narcissistic defenses help them cope with the anxieties and fears engendered by the demands and challenges of modern society: leaving home, going to college, sexual performance, marriage, and other rites of passage. There is nothing wrong with healthy narcissism. It sustains the adolescent in a critical time of his life and shields him or her from emotional injuries.

Still, in certain circumstances, healthy narcissism can transform into a malignant form, destructive to self and to others.

Adolescents who are consistently mocked and bullied by peers, role models, and socialization agents (such as teachers, coaches, and parents) are prone to find succor in grandiose fantasies of omnipotence and omniscience. To sustain these personal myths, they may resort to violence and counter-bullying.

The same applies to youths who feel deprived, underestimated, discriminated against, or at a dead end. They are likely to evoke narcissistic defenses to fend off the constant hurt and to achieve self-sufficient and self-contained emotional gratification.

Finally, pampered adolescents, who serve as mere extensions of their smothering parents and their unrealistic expectations are equally liable to develop grandiosity and a sense of entitlement incommensurate with their real-life achievements. When frustrated they become aggressive.

This propensity to other-directed violence is further exacerbated by what Lasch called “The Culture of Narcissism”. We live in a civilization which condones and positively encourages malignant individualism, bad hero worship (remember “Born Killers”?), exploitativeness, inane ambitiousness, and the atomization of social structures and support networks. Alienation is a hallmark of our age, not only among youngsters.

When societies turn anomic, under both external and internal pressures (terrorism, crime, civil unrest, religious strife, economic crises, immigration, widespread job insecurity, war, rampant corruption, and so on), narcissists tend to become violent. This is because communities in anomic states offer little by way of externally-imposed impulse control and regulation, penal discipline, and rewards for conformity and ‘good behavior”. Narcissists in such settings of disintegration become serial and mass killers on a greater (Hitler) or smaller scale.

Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love, and runs the website Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited.Sam has served as the author of the Personality Disorders topic, Narcissistic Personality Disorder topic, the Verbal and Emotional Abuse topic, and the Spousal Abuse and Domestic Violence topic, Suite101.

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