by Elizabeth Landau
(CNN) — If you’re wondering who else in the United States might fit a “profile” of becoming a mass killer, just look around: They are everywhere, and they’re most likely harmless.
|KILLER–Photo of Sandy Hook Shooter Adam Lanza from approximately 2005.
Frighteningly, we have little idea about what separates those who ponder committing slaughter from those who go through with it. Experts say that risk factors, such as social isolation and rejection, are found in many people across the United States, a country shaken by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday, in which 20 children and six adults were killed.
Adam Lanza, 20, the shooter, whom police say turned the gun on himself Friday, attended the school. He has been described as quiet and socially awkward. There are still few details of what could have motivated his actions.
“The truth is that there are many people who have all the symptoms, and don’t get the disease,” said Jack Levin, professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University in Boston. “They may be loners, and strange and angry and have access to firearms, but they don’t hurt anyone.”
Experts in criminology can point to various mental, physical and situational factors that many shooters have in common, but most people who would fit into that box will never actually commit violent crimes.
Patterns in violent minds
In the United States, mass killers tend to be White males who perpetrate these acts in relatively well-to-do areas where violence is otherwise rare, places like Newtown, said Dr. Peter Ash, a forensic child and adolescent psychiatrist at Emory University School of Medicine.
Often, the killer has experienced chronic strain, depression or frustration over a long period, Levin said. In school, they were usually bullied, harassed and ignored.
The problems facing the men who commit these crimes are not uncommon, said James Garbarino, professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago and author of “Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them.” These include depression and anger about feelings of rejection and exclusion. Many of them have had some sort of mental health concern.
Dylan Bennet Klebold was one of the two high school seniors who participated in the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, appears to have battled depression. Klebold and Eric David Harris killed 13 people before they both committed suicide. Klebold wrote in his journal about suicide, according to the Jefferson County, Colorado, Sheriff’s Department. In one entry, he wrote: “I swear — like I’m an outcast, & everyone is conspiring against me. …”
Harris appeared to be a psychopath, lacking empathy, Levin said. Harris wrote in his diary, according to the sheriff’s department, “I’m full of hate and I love it.” He wrote in his 1998 yearbook, on the pictures of almost every student, words including “worthless,” “die” and “beat.”
Still, people with mental problems generally are not automatically violent. A 2006 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that only 5% of all violent crimes in Sweden are committed by people with severe mental illness, which is likely to be similar in other countries such as the United States, the study said.
Russ Hanoman, a friend of Lanza’s mother, described Lanza as “very withdrawn emotionally.” He and other acquaintances reported Lanza’s mother said that he had Asperger’s syndrome, a diagnosis of high-functioning autism that CNN has not been able to confirm. There is no link between autism and planned violence, autism groups have noted.
Killers tend to blame others, not themselves, for their problems. Mass killers tend to target people whom they imagine would torment them, or whom they blame for their distress, Ash said. Why Lanza would target young children remains mysterious. Did he want to provoke outrage? Ash wonders. Is it because children seem happy and carefree?
“I believe he also sought to get even with society at large by killing the most cherished members: our children,” Levin said.
Feeling alone, and with access to guns
Almost all the killers Levin has studied appeared to lack social support, having no one to turn to when in trouble. They reject their peers, and they are in turn rejected — “alone in a psychological sense,” Levin said.
Often the shooter has experienced a catastrophic loss, such as rejection from a girlfriend or getting fired from a job, Levin said. Parents may also inadvertently push teens and young adults over the edge by, for example, pressuring them to be successful.
Access to and training in the use of firearms is another major factor in executing a massacre like this, Levin said. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives confirmed to CNN that Lanza and his mother frequented several gun ranges over the past several years. Those who knew the mother said she kept many weapons, including assault rifles and handguns, in her home. Investigators believe Lanza took his mother’s guns to Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Although people have a constitutional right to gun ownership, they should not make them readily available to children who might be troubled or severely mentally ill, Levin said. School shootings in recent decades often happened with weapons taken from parents.
As much as mental health experts and criminologists may point to all these “warning signs” in the behavior of mass killers after a tragedy such as the Newtown shootings, the reality is that there are hundreds of thousands of people who fit that profile, Levin said. It’s very hard to predict who will commit such a crime.