School Shooters: Breaking Down the Narratives
By William Sullivan-Robertson
Note: I have purposely not referred to any school shooters, including the recent Florida Shooter, by their name. This is a practice I feel all media should adhere to, as many of these young men commit these horrendous acts in order to have their voice heard. We must reject this attempt at infamy.
Following the horrific murder of 17 people and injury of 14 others in a Florida High School, varying narratives are being pushed by the Mainstream media, social media and ideologues on either side of the political spectrum. Many on the left are predictably demanding more gun control, perceiving the ability of people to purchase firearms like the AR15 Rifle used by the Florida shooter as an unnecessary risk to the population. Those on the right however, demand their second amendment rights are not infringed upon and suggest different methods to combat said shooters, the arming of school teachers proposed by Trump being one potential method.
Unfortunately in the wake of this shooting, there are statistics, figures and narratives being peddled that are either false, grossly misleading or require further scrutiny. A statistic making headlines is one manufactured by Everytown(i), a gun control advocacy group. New York Daily News(ii), Business Insider(iii), and CNBC(iv) all reported the figure that 18 school shootings have occurred so far in 2018. In reality, this figure is grossly over exaggerated. Of the 18 incidents reported by Everytown, only 4 resulted in deaths, including the Florida shooting, with one of these 4 incidents being a suicide in a school bathroom.
There are some incidents included in the figure that are clearly accidental, one being a third grade student pressing the trigger of a School liason officers gun, discharging the weapon into the floor. Another incident listed describes a student picking up a loaded gun she assumed was an unloaded training weapon, firing it into a wall and injuring one. Of the 18 incidents cited by Everytown, only three included a shooter entering a school with the intent of murdering others. Of course this does not make the school shootings any less terrible, but misleading statistics and faulty premises do not contribute anything productive to the conversation.
Another claim, this one perhaps used more by the right, is the correlation between school shooters and the use of SSRI prescription medications. These correlations do certainly exist. The Florida shooter was reported as regularly taking medication for ADHD, likely Methylphenidate/Ritalin.(v) One of the Columbine shooters was taking Fluvoxamine (Prozac) regularly before he participated in the murder of 12 students, with toxicology reports indicating he likely took his medication that day.(vi)The Red Lake shooter who gunned down 9 people before turning the gun on himself, had just had his Prozac dosage increased to 60mg a night(vii) The Virginia Tech shooter was prescribed Prozac prior to his murderous rampage killing 32 people, though no Prozac was found in his system at the time of his death by suicide.(viii) The Northern Illinois University shooter was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder as a teenager, and regularly took Xanax, Ambien and Prozac. Just three weeks prior to the shooting, he had stopped taking his Prozac, during which time he displayed erratic tendencies. His girlfriend expressed bewilderment at the shooting, never having seen him display violent tendencies in their two years together.(ix)
SSRI’s are typically used as anti-depressants, so the severe affect these drugs can have on ones mental state are of course significant, but claims of inducing violent thoughts or behaviour require evidence. A Study titled ”Prescription Drugs Associated with Reports of Violence Towards Others” identifies 1527 cases of violence “disproportionally reported for 31 drugs” from 2004-2009.(x) The study ensures to only examine the cases of violence in which certain drugs appear higher than their expected rate. In other words, there were likely many more cases of reported violence than included in the study, but they were ruled out by the scientists in order to avoid false correlation. Of the 31 drugs disproportionately associated with violence, 23 are used to treat mental illness, and 8 are SSRI's, with drugs like Prozac appearing at a rate 10 times higher than expected.
Making the jump from correlation to causation in regards to this study and the school shooters should be done with caution, though there are certain incidents in which the drug, or irresponsible practices by the doctor, can be nailed as a likely cause. The Red Lake shooter had just had his prescription increased to 60mg of Prozac, a dose that a pharmacist informed me was the highest he’d personally seen in his years of practice, and one he considered very high for a 16 year old. The Northern Illinois University shooter had abruptly stopped taking Prozac just prior to his massacre. The pharmacist I spoke stated that suddenly ceasing anti-depressants can have drastic affects on ones brain chemistry.
Then there are other horror stories, such as the case of Christopher Pittman, a 12 year old who was prescribed Zoloft. Pittmans sister described Chris as acting manic, and he complained to his aunt that the medication made his skin feel like it was on fire. A few days after this, Chris murdered both of his grandparents with a shotgun. (xi) Cory Badsgard was prescribed Paxil after being diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. After complaining that the medication wasn’t working, his doctor abruptly discontinued the Paxil prescription and instructed him to work up to 300mg of Efexor over a 3 week period. On the first day Cory took the 300mg of Efexor, he stayed home from school because he didn’t feel well, waking up in a juvenile detention centre that evening with no memory of what had happened.(xii) Shortly after attempting to sleep, Cory had taken his high powered hunting rifle to his third period class and held 23 children and one teacher hostage, luckily being talked down by the principal before anyone was harmed.(xiii)
The anecdotal evidence of some mass killers having their dosage increased or suddenly coming off their medication before committing violence is suggestive of the required caution for these drugs. Another claim by the Right is the lack of a strong father figure in the lives of these young men. Right wing comedian Owen Benjamin tweeted: ”Of the 27 worst mass shooters in America only one was raised by their biological father. That’s a profound correlation…” (xiv) This claim is not entirely correct. One twitter user broke down the 27 most deadly mass shooters and the relationship with their father, and some, like the Virginia Tech shooter, were raised by both parents. There is still some correlation between mass shooters and lack of a father however, the recent Florida Shooter losing his adoptive father at just 5 years old. (xv) Likewise, the Sandy Hook shooter lived alone with his single mother(xvi), the Red Lake shooter lost both parents at a young age(xvii), and the 2017 Las Vegas shooter’s father was a renowned bank robber - in and out of prison for most of his life(xviii). The link between crime and fatherlessness extends beyond mass shooters.
One study from 1987 surveyed juveniles in custody throughout the United States, finding that 70% of Juvenile offenders did not live with both parents growing up, and more than half primarily lived in a single-parent family.(xix) US census data from 1994 tells us that 57% of inmates did not live with both parents growing up. Esteemed researchers on the issue, Cynthia Harper and Sara Mclanahan, concluded in 2004 that: "[C]ontrolling for income and all other factors, youths in father-absent families (mother only, mother-stepfather, and relatives/other) still had significantly higher odds of incarceration than those from mother-father families."(xx) (xxi) Considering other studies correlated criminal offenders with single parent households, the conservative claim of fatherlessness being a motivator for mass shooters may hold some weight.
Mass shooters disproportionately use SSRI’s or other mental health medication, some of them acting out seemingly as a direct result of sudden change in their dosage. Correlations between shooters and lack of a responsible father figure also exist, with many studies making this link for general criminal offenders. Perhaps doctors hold some responsibility for not prescribing these powerful drugs with enough care, though the guidance of a strong father figure may have ensured these young men never experienced mental health issues and sought medication in the first place. One thing seems evident, the issue is a lot deeper than access to firearms.
Author: William Sullivan-Robertson