Sandy Hook Shooting: Why Did Lanza Target a School?

Perpetrators of mass homicide tend to lash out in the most vicious way possible, and that often means targeting innocent children

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Julio Cortez / AP

The scene outside of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where Adam Lanza shot 26 people dead, including 20 children, on Dec. 14, 2012

The killing of 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut has understandably shocked the nation, and details are just beginning to emerge about the shooter, Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old man who also murdered his mother. Events like these inevitably reopen debates about gun control, or more tenuously lead people to complain about American culture itself. Yet on the very same day, a 36-year-old Chinese man attacked 22 children with a knife at a primary school in China, suggesting that there is a critical factor with mass homicides that gets far less attention.

(MORE: Massacre of the Innocents: Chilling Details About the Gunman in the Schoolhouse)

For all the disbelief and dismay, we actually know pretty well that most such events are committed by individuals with a particular set of characteristics. As my colleagues Mark Coulson, Jane Barnett and I noted in a 2011 article in the Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations, school shooters have generally been found to 1) have a history of antisocial-personality traits, 2) suffer from mental illnesses such as depression or psychosis and 3) tend to obsess about how others, whether other individuals or society at large, have wronged them. (These conclusions are similar to the findings of a 2002 U.S. Secret Service report on school shootings.) These individuals seethe with rage and hatred and despondency, until they decide to lash out at individuals or a society they believe has done them great wrong. Mental health, as well as our failure to address it as a society, is at the core of these events.

(PHOTOS: Connecticut Community Copes After School Shooting)

Not all mass homicide perpetrators target schools, but schools do seem to be an unusually common target. People wonder why angry men (and an occasional woman) so often target innocent children who have done them no wrong. In the case of Sandy Hook, although early reports suggested that Lanza’s mother, Nancy Lanza, may have worked there, the school superintendent has since clarified that she was not a teacher or a substitute. In many other cases, there is no obvious connection. Watching the horror and great sadness that has descended over the nation in the past 24 hours, we have our answer. These perpetrators have lashed out against society in the most vicious way possible, inflicting the most pain that they could. That is the point of targeting a school.

(MORE: Funerals at Christmastime: Newton Prepares to Mourn)

Gun control may potentially remove one tool from the hands of potential perpetrators, but mass homicides occur in every part of the globe — Scotland, Norway, Germany, China. So while it may indeed be the right time to talk about gun control, as many are saying, it is also the right time to talk about mental health care in our country. Our country’s funding for mental-health services has only gotten worse since the 2008 recession. As the National Alliance on Mental Illness has been warning for some time, the existing level of funding is inadequate, so our nation’s ability to identify and care for the severely mentally ill has been hamstrung.

In my own clinical work, I’ve seen individuals I’ve identified as being potentially at risk for future criminal behavior because of their mental illness. Very often, there are simply few to no resources for them until they come to the attention of the criminal-justice system. Obviously, the vast majority of the chronically mentally ill won’t commit crimes, certainly not of the severity of the Sandy Hook shooting. But by leaving the mentally ill adrift to fend for themselves, we miss the opportunity to identify and treat some of these at-risk individuals before they escalate. Granted, neither gun control nor a well-funded mental-health system will prevent every mass homicide. But we leave ourselves — and more innocent children — vulnerable until we address both of those issues.

MORE: Erika Christakis: The Overwhelming Maleness of Mass Homicide

454 comments
StephenCook
StephenCook

If home schooling my child (if I had one), were not possible, I would teach them the proper way in which to conceal a gun and to defend him or herself against some maniacal punk in his or her classroom bent on murdering as many fellow students as possible! Then the perpetrator though crazy or not would be righteously dead and my kid will remain alive as it righteously should be!

carlarobertson16
carlarobertson16

That is so so sad what both of those men did to all of those kids that was 48 people killed in one day but if y'all havent heard this song before go to YouTube and look up Baby Kaley Heaven and it is a song about sandy hook but one more thing to say why did he go for 

Sandy Hook?This question is still needed to be answered

Speak2Truth
Speak2Truth

Why don't politicians turn the US Capitol and White House into "Gun Free Zones"? Because the consequences are utterly predictable. They don't want to get politicians killed.

Since Bill Clinton turned our schools into "Gun Free Zones", they've experienced exactly what we should expect. Columbine, Santee, Sandy Hook and so many others... now you know why these violent criminals target schools for their massacres.

doubter
doubter

Why Did Lanza Target a School?

HE didn't.  The question is, Why did the real shooters and planners, target a school?

SAIrby
SAIrby

Thanks for the mental health perspective. No short article can focus on every aspect; the author has provided good context for his view. I agree that neither gun control legislation nor mental health program funding will totally solve the problem. The question then becomes "are there certain measures that would help provide the environment for healing national ills?" Programs & laws can be the same as bandaid medical treatment so common these days, where they have no idea what causes it and simply try to ease symptoms. Contrary to that trend, I believe that we can get to the core issues and work on them...but it will take far more than Congress and mental health professionals.

pip
pip

This article is misleading - the stabbing in China resulted in no deaths, it was not a 'mass homicide' - simply because the attacker didn't have a gun. As for mass shootings occurring in other countries, a relevant point is how frequently they occur. Yes they have occurred in the countries you listed, but they're nowhere near as common as they are in the US. Nor is being murdered by a gun (it's about 30 times less likely here in Australia per head of population than it is in the US). There are many many reasons for these types of incidents, but they are definitely more common in the US than in other places around the world - perhaps it wouldn't hurt for the US to question why that's the case.

iain39
iain39

Why does nobody in the area know the Lanza family? Turns out his mother never worked at the school.  Nope, his mother was never known to the school at all.  A Newtown resident is interviewed and says, 'nobody knew the Lanzas. Everyone here knows everyone else, so it's hard to explain.'  Nobody saw the shooter, nobody saw the victims, there are no survivors, no injured children, and now it turns out nobody even knows the shooter, or his mother who was supposed to work at the school.   Stranger still, the films of parents all show them laughing before going on camera, and then smiling cheerfully about the death of their children, one of whom - whose funeral was just described as a fun event, is later seen hugging Obama! If this isn't weird, I don't really know what is.

esbuck
esbuck

We didn't like drunks, so alcohol was prohibited.  Problem solved?

We didn't like drug abusers, so non-prescription drugs were prohibiteded.  Problem solved?

We don't like murderers who use guns, so they call for prohibiting guns?  Will fools never learn that opassing a law doesn't solve a problem?

MalihehBanoo
MalihehBanoo


I believe Adam and Nancy lanza were upset mitt romney lost us election and went on a rampage.

LH
LH

Adam Lanza had visited the school the day before in which he had an "altercation" with four adults at the school. The next day he returned and shot 3:4 adults he had argued with. The fourth person was absent. What was the "altercation" about? We have not heard. His mother was connected with the school as was Adam. She volunteered at the school, and Adam had been a student there. 

mps270
mps270

Excuse my english: may be adam lanza mother had a lover(male or female) or a friend who was working in sandy hook  and adam thought that person was making influence on her mother about his future.If sandy school workers did not let adam to enter the school ,may be adam  switched a single target  (that friend or lover) for all school.May that friend or lover was not inside the school  that morning or at the entrance a sandy hook worker told him that person was not there that day so adam targeted the school itself to cause pain or because adam thought they were lying him so he targeted everyone.So my opinion is adam wanted to target a single person friend or lover of her mother.

xtong
xtong

he targeted a school because that's the one place that misfits and outcasts hate the most

Whatanotion
Whatanotion

He wasn't targeting the children.  He was targeting the parents and school administrators.  He hurt them and their families more than if he had shot a bunch of homeless people.  This was a communication and not a mere crime; although it did comprise a crime as well.   His removal from a social setting to an isolation via home schooling, after having had exposure to the richness of group school,  was a punishment too great for him to bear.   He may have expressed his sense of loss and want for love in a way far more effective than he could have done by crying in a ministers arms.  He presents the rest of us with a choice: how important is economic gain to a people hungry for society?    Ask these parents which  they would rather have;  more separation from the imperfect or a society with open arms for everyone?  

We have the right to associate with whomever we want.   WE have the right to bear arms.  WE have the right to remain silent.  WE have the right to squeeze the last dime of profit from the sale of  medical services and the insurance that has morphed into a silent partner in profit.  And we have the right to such a life; right?  Ask Alan Lanza if we have that right?  And then, try to understand his "no" answer.


nelisbr
nelisbr

In reply to gregkline...if manufacturers could design firearms that have the firing pin locked, and can only be unlocked by the owner's fingerprint or pin number, and if not fired for a certain time say 20 minutes or time set by the owner , it will automatically lock itself again.

sandflee1224
sandflee1224

The N R A leader has suggested a ridiculous solution to the tragic events concerning the Newtown, Conn events. I am unable to understand the necessity of being able to shoot the number of rounds that an assualt rifle can deliver, other than to be used against other human beings. How can a responsible adult justify the sale of these weapons to the public? The arguments for the carrying of guns that would enable an individual to step in and shoot these "lunatics" does not seem to be a valid argument since I am unaware of any news report to suggest that this has ever happened in this country. The guns do not kill, true, but automobiles do not kill without the misdirection of a errant driver BUT we have laws to proctect against their missuse. The production of motor vehicles is also controlled by standards designed to make them safer. We are not going to change the actions of certain individuals BUT we can limit the availability of these assualt type weapons to curb the effects of their misuse. Let's get real about this! Our constitution protects our right to bear arms but is that an open door to any type of weapon? I think not!

noah.thewritestuff
noah.thewritestuff

Mass killings occur in the US about every ten days. The reason that they occur in schools, movie theaters and malls is a very simple one —those are all places where citizens who are licensed to carry a concealed handgun, like myself, are not permitted  to do so. These so-called 'gun free zones' are nothing more than an open invitation to every lunatic, with which this country is more than amply supplied. 

There are laws already in place that, absent a Federal permit, prohibit possession of fully-automatic weapons. There are laws already in place, with the exception of one state, that require a permit to carry a concealed handgun. There are laws already in place, period. More laws would accomplish nothing. Lunatics and criminals don't comply with the laws already in place so what manner of specious thinking would lead anyone to believe that they would comply with new laws?

Just for the record, I am not a member of the NRA or any other firearms organization, nor do I work for a firearms manufacturer. I am, however, a citizen who has no criminal record and has not ever committed a crime. In fact, I haven't even had a traffic ticket in more than thirty years.

ihclvr
ihclvr

justmer while I do see your point, I was doing no more tha expressing my opinion. Clip mag what ever. Banning some actions will not at this time stop many other actions. In time perhaps it will make it more difficult (read not impossible) to get these things. Aslo consider with a 3 round pump you have 3 rounds before you need to reload. If the Principal or another teacher is armed, some lead will be coming your way. I am not even going to address the rest of your arming comments as I could come in with RPGs and hand grenades and a few LAWS and blow any conversaiton out the window.

PranabSen
PranabSen

There are mentally ill people everywhere. But the very easy accessibility and availability of  guns multiply the potential danger many times.

SusanCampbell
SusanCampbell

And now begins the accusations that someone who doesn't share your beliefs is immoral and hates our country.  How does you make such a giant leap from point A to point Z?  I am a very moral person who loves my family, my children, my neighbors, my community and  my country.  My brother and father both served illustrious military careers.  I have neighbors who are police officers and who have told me that they really hate that the "bad guys" are so well equipped.   So please, feel free to not share my opinions but do not question my morality or love of country.    

DaveTurson
DaveTurson

"Not all mass homicide perpetrators target schools, but schools do seem to be an unusually common target. People wonder why angry men (and an occasional woman) so often target innocent children who have done them no wrong. In the case of Sandy Hook, although early reports suggested that Lanza’s mother, Nancy Lanza, may have worked there, the school superintendent has since clarified that she was not a teacher or a substitute. In many other cases, there is no obvious connection."


Lanza was a student at Sandy Hook Elementary. I’ve read reports that his mother pulled him out of Sandy Hook Elementary at some point by claiming the school was not meeting his needs. She briefly home-schooled him before placing him in a Catholic school for a short time and then he went to a public high school. His mother may have instilled his hatred of this particular elementary school.



SusanCampbell
SusanCampbell

Wow, justmer...you have certainly convinced yourself that guns are not a problem.  Let's say that something as simple as making large capacity clips unavailable at least be considered.  That means many of the children in Sandy Hook would still be alive....not all, but many.  One child had 11 gunshot wounds which would not have been possible without the large capacity clips.  Are you so sure of your opinions that you can't make room in your mind for some kind of change...other than nothing?  And if you can't, you probably don't have children.   I venture to say that all you did was cut and paste your "evidence" below from some website where everyone shares your opinions.

justmer
justmer

He came along with a shotgun on his shoulder while a group of children were playing in front of the school. Without warning or provocation, he raised the gun to his shoulder, took deliberate aim, and fired into the crowd of boys.

Although it sounds sadly modern, the account was published in the New York Times more than a century ago.

Dated April 10, 1891, the article described an elderly man firing a shotgun at children playing in front of St. Mary's Parochial School in Newburgh, NY.

"None of the children were killed, but several were well filled with lead," the report said.

NEWS: Can Gun Laws Save Lives?

More than a century earlier, on July 26, 1764, a teacher and 10 students were shot dead by four Lenape American Indians in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, in what is considered the earliest known U.S. mass school shooting.

Indeed, killing or trying to kill a mass of people is not a modern phenomenon. For as long as there has been history, there have been gruesome mass murders.

"The terms amok, a Malayan word, and berserk, a Norse word, have been used to describe individuals going on killing sprees. Both terms have been around for centuries, which reflects the fact that mass murder is neither a modern nor a uniquely American phenomenon," Grant Duwe,director of research at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, told Discovery News.

PHOTOS: Where Gun Laws Are Most Lenient

Defined as bloody events that occur within a 24-hour period and that involve a minimum of four victims, mass murders have occurred all over the world, in different times, societies and cultures.

Some of the earliest recorded cases include the 1893 killing with guns and swords of 11 people (including an infant) in Osaka, Japan, the 1914 shooting of 7 people in the Italian village of Camerata Cornello, not to mention the case of German spree killer Ernst August Wagner.

NEWS: Gun-Control Petition Demands Congress to Act

In 1913, he stabbed to death his wife and four children in Degerloch, near Stuttgart, then drove to Mühlhausen an der Enz where he opened fire on 20 people, killing at least nine, leaving two animals dead and several buildings burned to the ground.

In 1927, South African farmer Stephanus Swart shot dead at least 8 people and injured 3 others in Charlestown, South Africa, before committing suicide.

In 1938 almost half of the population of the rural village of Kaio, near Tsuyama city in Japan, was murdered as 21-year-old Mutsuo Toi killed 30 people with a shotgun, sword and axe, injured three others and then shot himself to death.

Between 1954 and 1957, William Unek murdered a total of 57 people in two separate spree killings in the Belgian Congo.

He first killed 21 people with an axe, then shot dead ten men, eight women and eight children, slaughtered six more men with the axe, burned two women and a child, and strangled a 15-year-old girl.

NEWS: Advocates Looking to Fill Gun Control Loopholes

More recently in the bloody timeline of shooting sprees, some of the most dramatic incidents include the 1987 Hungerford massacre in England, where gun enthusiast Michael Ryan shot 16 people dead and wounded another 15 before committing suicide, the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Australia, where 28 year old Martin Bryant killed 35 people and wounded 21 before being caught by police, and the 1996 school shooting in the Scottish town of Dunblane.

There, failed shopkeeper Thomas Hamilton opened fire at a primary school, killing 16 children and a teacher before turning his gun on his mouth.

"I could have been one of those children," tennis player Andy Murray wrote in his autobiography, "Hitting Back."

Britain's highest ranked player, Murray was eight when Hamilton burst into the school and began shooting. He and his 10-year-old brother Jamie escaped the fire by hiding under a desk.

In the United States, two mass murder waves characterized the 20th century. One appeared in the 1920s and 30s and another in the mid-1960s, following a tranquil period in the 1940s and 50s.

The two waves, however, were qualitatively different, according to Duwe.

The author of "Mass Murder in the United States: A History," Duwe researched 909 cases of mass killing that occurred in the United States between 1900 and 1999.

"The first mass murder wave in the 1920s and 30s was comprised mainly of familicides and felony-related massacres, which, then as now, are less likely to garner extensive media coverage," Duwe said.

On the contrary, the second mass murder wave from the mid-1960s through the mid-1990s consisted of a greater number of mass public shootings, similar to the recent Aurora movie theater shooting and Newtown school shooting.

These incidents "have always captured a great deal of interest and concern," Duwe said.

Marked by the 1966 Texas Tower shootings where student Charles Whitman climbed a 27-story tower on the University of Texas campus shooting dead 14 people and wounding 31 others, the mid-1960s do not actually represent the beginning of an unprecedented mass murder wave in the United States.

"Since 1900, the highest mass murder rate was in 1929. Mass public shootings are one of several types of mass murder and generally account for roughly 10-15 percent of all mass killings in the U.S.," Duwe said.

According to the criminologists, the 1990s had the highest number of mass public shootings with a little more than 40 -- an average of a little more than 4 each year.

The number of mass public shootings dropped below 30 in the years between 2000 and 2009.

"This year, however, the U.S. has had at least seven mass public shootings, which is the highest number since 1999," Duwe said.

justmer
justmer

Israel had a school shooting problem, they put guns in schools, shootings since then ?

ZERO

Israel had a airport security problem, we adopted most of what they do

If its good enough for your kids at the airport, why not their school

justmer
justmer

I OWN GUNS AND ILL MELT THEM ALL

Number of deaths for leading causes of death
Heart disease: 1,599,413
Cancer: 567,628
Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 137,353
Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,842
Accidents (unintentional injuries): 118,021
Alzheimer's disease: 79,003
Diabetes: 68,705
Influenza and Pneumonia: 53,692
Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 48,935
Intentional self-harm (suicide): 36,909

AS SOON AS YOU SPEND AS MUCH TIME AND EFFORT SAVING THE  2,838,501 LISTED ABOVE AS YOUR ARE ON THE 9,500 THAT DIE BY GUNS.

justmer
justmer

An estimated 24,000 people are killed by lightning strikes around the world each year 

9.500 in usa by guns

35,000 in usa by cars

ban cars and lightning

justmer
justmer

hmm why would they target a school ?

or a post office, if you recall thats where "going postal" comes from, numerous post offcie shoot ups by employees

is there a common denominator between these two disparate locations ?

i think there is

they are BOTH gun free safe zones

safe for the killer that is

MikeOsenkowski
MikeOsenkowski

May Adam burn in hell forever, how could you ever be forgiven?

RussHall
RussHall

Yes these creeps are all cowards. US politicians lack the gonads to - for one - prioritize mental health care over 8 lane highways and military missions. For two - take a stand on a stupid 2nd amendment made up in muzzle loader days. Instead of stomping off to the next middle east confrontation they should use their army to gather up some of the high powered weapons.