Exploring the Minds of Young Killers: Psychology, Gun Control, and the Colorado Theater Shooting
Author: Mathew G. Ituma
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 07/24/2012
The founding fathers of the United States of America made a constitutional amendment in December 1791 regarding guns and the American citizens. They inserted a clause about gun ownership stating that “being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” While it is understandable that this amendment served to protect the citizens who were mostly agrarian and needed guns for both protection and hunting at that time, it is undeniable that such an amendment does not serve the same purpose in our time. However, gun lobby groups have used this clause to clamp down on any attempts to control gun ownership in the US, arguing that such control constitutes a violation of the American constitution.
When confronted with the claim that too many guns are falling into the hands of criminals and children, Gun Owners of America (GOA) contend that children who grow up in families with guns handle them well and do not pose any threat to the general public. The fact that some people (often young people) do use guns to kill, however, is not well explained by the pro-gun lobby, nor is the right to bear arms seen in the context of contemporary US society, where ease of access to deadly weapons pose a very real threat to the safety and wellbeing of citizens.
This essay explores the psychology of gun usage as instruments of death by children in schools and criminals at large. I argue that away from the contested legislative and civil issues relating to gun ownership and usage, there are several other factors that lead young children and criminals to develop an appetite for gun use and a pathological mindset as well as the tendency to kill. To do this, I will refer to the valuable work of research psychologist Dr. Peter Langman (2009) on “why kids kill”.
As a site of serious contestation, young killers have attracted heated debates about their motives and sobriety. There are various theories to explain why children kill; many making reference to factors unrelated to age and gender. Some argue that kids and young adults kill because they have easy access to guns, but this is not able to explain incidences where other weapons such as knives are used. Others have suggested that mental health drugs are to blame, especially where they are prescribed but misused or ignored; others say it is in the killer’s DNA, that a “killer kid” will always be a “killer kid.” Most argue that kids and young adults kill because of emotional stress arising from situations beyond the control of the perpetrator. This position is generally supported where there is evidence of trauma resulting from abuse or bullying in schools, home, or within other social groups.
Looking at the recent Colorado massacre where more than a dozen people were murdered in cold blood by John Holmes in a movie theatre, in addition to the 10 cases involving young shooters that Langman (2009) studied, children and young criminals who kill are characterized by certain personalities and general tendencies. A cursory review of these aspects of killers includes trauma, psychosis, and psychopathy, among others.
History of trauma
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event after which, shock and denial are typical. The effects of such reaction include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, and strained relationships.” An examination of this definition through the lens of teen violence suggests that most of the youth who commit murder are traumatized. Some of them have a history of abuse and come from homes that are characterized by alcoholism, drugs, or jailed parents. But, perhaps surprisingly, there are others who come from very stable families. Young boys especially are attracted deviant peers groups, such as gangs, often starting to handle weapons such as guns to prove their masculinity or social status, and believe that such weapons would be able to solve some of their teen and early adulthood problems in life such as jilted love relations, revenge for previous abuse, or competition for girls. At the crest of their frustration, they pass a point of no return where they develop the urge to kill, harm or main for no apparent reason. That’s when kids and young adults kill because of trauma.
Individuals with symptoms of trauma rarely attract good friends. In an effort to correct this rejection, they become angry and sometimes defiantly violent. Langman’s (2009) study on “kid killers” revealed that school shooters had previously shown poor coping skills with deviant and hostile behaviors such as bullying and destruction of property. While we know comparatively little about John Holmes of the Colorado movie theatre shooting, there is some suggestion that he may follow this pattern. For instance, ABC news reports that “though Holmes was apparently a gifted scientist who had received a federal grant to work on his Ph.D. at one of the most competitive neuroscience programs in the country, he was a loner who – oddly for a young student – seemed to have no Internet presence.”
Digging further into the study of young shooters, Lenhardt, Farrell and Graham (2010) analyze diary entries of their research subjects, noting the prevalence of statements such as “I hate all of you people for leaving me out of everything,” confirming the correlation between exclusion from peer group membership and strong feelings of a potentially violent nature such as hatred or revenge. Social dynamics and peer pressure therefore become some very interesting sources of trauma that lead to hate and violence.
Some people who commit senseless murder, including some of the “kid killer” cases surveyed by Langman, claim that their actions are in response to alien voices directing them to kill certain individuals. While these hallucinations are likely to be very real from an experiential point of view, it is difficult to fully explain their actions from an examiners standpoint because the kids could as well be lying about their invisible masters. Therefore, most psychotic cases go undetected until tragedy happens. As is the case with trauma, psychotic people “have a problem establishing and maintaining relationships. They may lack emotional expression or show feelings in odd ways. This problem often results in a lack of intimacy and a sense of isolation” – and possibly, the same sort of social exclusion or rejection thought to provoke violence in non-psychotic individuals.
Psychotic individuals, however, are often subject to delusions through which they may conceive of themselves as some type of supernatural being such as god, the devil or some kind of super human. When such delusions wear off, and reality come knocking on the door, they may feel shamed and deceived, and may feel self hatred, leading them to what Langman calls “impression management”. When this fails, however, feelings of pain, shame, or guilt, and fear of their discovery or rejection by peers and relatives may lead to intense frustration and violent urges.
Egoistic sadists belong here. These individuals are characterized by pride and arrogance beyond any level of normality. Symptoms include sadistic tendencies, extreme feelings of superiority over others, and a sense of fulfillment when hurting other people and other beings such as plants and animals, or when destroying property. The presence of guns makes psychopathy more dangerous of a mental illness because it allows affected individuals to create more destruction, pain, and loss of life or property.
Psychopathic individuals often identify themselves with famously violent people and groups, such as the NAZI party, or with fictional characters such as wizards or villains.  Through such an identity, the killers develop a sense of hyper masculinity, often becoming truant and militaristic. In extreme cases, they have detailed fantasies of murder or other violent acts. Psychopaths are generally characterized by a deficiency of emotions, are usually fearless, and in many cases detached from the real world, but often also display remarkable intelligence.
Studies on the character and behavior of psychopathic individuals suggest that most are seemingly normal, and that their behavior cannot be explained from a rearing standpoint. There is no evidence that the condition can be related to violence in their homes, schools or other environments. Psychopathic behavior is thus difficult to explain using the social learning theory or human development principles, and for the same reason, cannot be easily treated since it is not always possible to identify it as a sickness in the first place.
Langman (2009) found that “kid killers” display an array of traits that may be helpful in defining their behavior and intentions. By studying their behaviors, attitudes, emotions, history, relationships, and preoccupations both in and out of school, we may form an idea of what goes on in their minds. It is important to remember, however, that we (as theorists) can only speculate and draw broad conclusions, many of which will be inapplicable to specific cases.
Because most teen-gun incidents take place in schools, Langman (2009) makes suggestions about how to limit the destruction of life and property by children now that the American gun owners club has muzzled the rest of us. He suggests that we should pay attention to third party complaints, limit kids’ privacy, and keep an eye on their lives in and out of school. If there is evidence of mental illness, parents will benefit from accepting it and seeking medical attention for their children. Parents and teachers are urged to keep guns away from children, even if it is a violation of the American constitution, and advised not to assume that threats are just threats. While it is still not clear what, if anything could have been done differently to avoid the recent Colorado theater shooting, community awareness and the maintenance of healthy social relationships may be our best hope to preventing further tragedies of this kind.
Bio: The author is a Ph.D. student at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences in the Department of Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution at Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, FL and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.