The suspect in Friday’s Santa Fe High School shooting, in which eight students and two teachers were shot dead, had always been a “smart, quiet, sweet boy,” according to a statement from his family. The 17-year-old football player has elsewhere been described by classmates as a “very quiet,” “really quiet,” “quiet boy” who “did keep to himself” and “never really talked to other people.” Are school shooters ever otherwise?
Yes, but you wouldn’t know it from media accounts. In the aftermath of the Columbine shooting in 1999, researchers at the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education got together for a study of targeted school violence. Based on their review of 37 incidents that took place between 1974 and 2000, they concluded that attackers varied widely in their social competence. Just 12 percent lacked any close friends, while 34 percent were either characterized as “loners” or felt that way themselves. Meanwhile, 41 percent “appeared to socialize with mainstream students.”
It’s possible that school shooters are more likely to be quiet than the average high school student. For one thing, they could suffer from depression, anxiety, or psychosis—conditions that might lead a person to be perceived as noncommunicative. And a few of the most infamous school shooters have indeed exhibited extreme degrees of quietness: Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho was diagnosed with selective mutism, for example; Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza barely talked at all. Yet this modest correlation, if it’s really there, has been overblown in news reports.
The Explainer perused accounts of about a dozen recent school shootings and found the suspects were described as “quiet” types in almost every single case. The Parkland, Florida, suspect, for example, was said to be a “quiet, quirky outcast”; a recent killer in Kentucky was “a quiet boy who played the trombone”; another one in Maryland was “a pretty quiet kid”; and so on. (There are some rare exceptions: Jaylen Fryberg, a 2014 school shooter from Washington state, had been elected homecoming prince and was described as “one of his school’s most popular students”; and a 2013 shooter, Karl Pierson, “cultivated his speech and argument skills” in preparation for forensics competitions.)
If school shooters aren’t really loners as a rule—and if almost half participate in organized social activities, as that government report suggested—then why are they so often depicted as quiet types? It’s possible that the first people to answer reporters’ questions after a tragic incident are those who never really interacted with the shooter or knew him just in passing. That incidental lack of contact might then be misconstrued in retrospect: He never said a word to me, so I guess he must have been a quiet guy.
It could also be that calling someone quiet stands in for saying something else: that no one could have predicted what would happen. (Don’t blame me; he was quiet; we had no idea.) Or else calling someone quiet could be a reaction to surprise: Any shooter’s past behavior will end up seeming somewhat shy or nondescript in contrast to his sudden act of violence. Sources for such stories may be following a cultural script, as well—and giving the same sorts of answers they’ve heard from earlier iterations of the same story.
In any case, this obsession with killers’ taciturnity is not a new phenomenon. According to news reports, a 2005 shooter in Red Lake, Minnesota, “never said anything” at school. The Columbine killers were described (incorrectly) as “quiet” loners, too. A 1989 shooter at an elementary school in California was “quiet, off and occasionally violent.” And a 1974 sniper at a high school in upstate New York was a “quiet, well-behaved youth.” But if you go back far enough, it seems these labels weren’t always so obligatory. In reporting on Charles Whitman, the sniper who shot and killed 17 people from a tower at the University of Texas in the summer of 1966, the New York Times quoted a neighbor who lived across from where he grew up: “He was a noisy little devil.”
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Explainer thanks Laura Agnich of Georgia Southern University, Glenn Muschert of Miami University, and Peter Langman, author of School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators.