CHICAGO – It happened after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Colo., and now Sandy Hook: People figure there surely were signs of impending violence. But experts say predicting who will be the next mass shooter is virtually impossible – partly because as commonplace as these calamities seem, they are relatively rare crimes.
Still, a combination of risk factors in troubled kids or adults including drug use and easy access to guns can increase the likelihood of violence, experts say.
But warning signs “only become crystal clear in the aftermath,” said James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminology professor who has studied and written about mass killings.
“They’re yellow flags. They only become red flags once the blood is spilled,” he said.
Whether 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who used his mother’s guns to kill her and then 20 children and six adults at their Connecticut school, made any hints about his plans isn’t publicly known.
Fox said that sometimes, in the days, weeks or months preceding their crimes, mass murderers voice threats, or hints, either verbally or in writing, things like “don’t come to school tomorrow,” or “they’re going to be sorry for mistreating me.” Some prepare by target practicing, and plan their clothing “as well as their arsenal.” (Police said Lanza went to shooting ranges with his mother in the past but not in the last six months.)
Although words might indicate a grudge, they don’t necessarily mean violence will follow. And, of course, most who threaten never act, Fox said.
Even so, experts say threats of violence from troubled teens and young adults should be taken seriously and parents should attempt to get them a mental health evaluation and treatment if needed.
“In general, the police are unlikely to be able to do anything unless and until a crime has been committed,” said Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a Columbia University professor of psychiatry, medicine and law. “Calling the police to confront a troubled teen has often led to tragedy.”
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry says violent behavior should not be dismissed as “just a phase they’re going through.”
In guidelines for families, the academy lists several risk factors for violence, including:
• Previous violent or aggressive behavior
• Being a victim of physical or sexual abuse
• Guns in the home
• Use of drugs or alcohol
• Brain damage from a head injury.
Young adulthood is when psychotic illnesses typically emerge, and Appelbaum said there are several signs that a troubled teen or young adult might be heading in that direction: isolating themselves from friends and peers, spending long periods alone in their rooms, plummeting grades if they’re still in school, and expressing disturbing thoughts or fears that others are trying to hurt them.