Mass School Shooters Share Traits

James Alan Fox

April 10, 2012


When the first headlines hit online news sites about the recent shooting spree at Oikos University, a small and previously obscure school in Oakland, my mind immediately considered the possibilities. The gunman could very well be an older student — or perhaps former student — with a grudge against the school. Within hours, reports surfaced that the alleged murderer of six students and one staff member was a 43-year-old man who had been enrolled in the nursing program.

I don't claim to be clairvoyant. I'm just someone who has studied the 20 campus shootings that resulted in multiple fatalities over the past two decades. The average age of these assailants exceeds 35, with several being well into their 40s. Unlike a traditional-age college student who might dismiss a failing grade or an expulsion as a temporary setback, older students often view their pursuit of a college degree as their last hope for success. Failure at this stage of life can leave them feeling that they are simply out of options.

Half of these campus shootings have been at the hands of students from graduate, law, medical or nursing schools. Unlike the typical young undergrad exploring life's many possibilities, students in graduate and professional programs often lack balance in their personal lives. They spend long hours cloistered in the library or lab, at the sacrifice of their marriages, friendships and hobbies. If and when academic disappointment and frustration become overwhelming, they often have no one left to turn to for comfort and support.

Victims of unfair treatment?

Many campus shooters — such as One Goh, who has been charged in the Oakland killing spree — see themselves as the victim of unfair treatment. They believe that faculty, students or the institution as a whole have ignored or mistreated them. From their irrational perspective, murder is justified payback.

Here, too, lack of support is a critical void. They have no one close to help provide a much-needed reality check on their growing suspicion of persecution or sense of injustice. Rather than sudden explosions of rage, these murderous assaults are deliberate attempts to get even and save face, involving detailed planning on the choice of weapon, clothing and location. In 2008, Steven Kazmierczak killed five students, and then himself, on the campus of Northern Illinois University. According to a 300-page report later released by the university about the shooting, Kazmierczak fantasized about killing students, and himself, before carrying out his rampage.

Some of the advanced students who have gone berserk were once at the top of their class in high school and college, but then found themselves struggling to get by with passing grades. At a point in life where they are no longer supported financially by parents, they experience great pressure to juggle employment with coursework and thesis research, having little time left over for attending to social networks. Their entire lifestyle and sense of worth might revolve around academic achievement.

Moreover, their personal investment in reaching a successful outcome can be viewed as a virtual life-or-death matter. In 2002, 43-year-old Peter Odighizuwa, frustrated over his continuing academic struggles, killed three and wounded three at the Appalachian School of Law.

Do-or-die circumstances

This do-or-die perception can be intensified for foreign students from certain cultures where failure brings shame upon the family. In fact, nearly one-third of the perpetrators of campus shootings from recent years were foreign-born, mostly Asian, including the man of Korean descent arrested and charged with the Oikos shootings. Foreign students experience added pressures because the academic visas allowing them to remain in this country often depend upon their continued student status. In addition, their sense of isolation, sometimes linked to a language barrier, leaves them with a limited support network. That important network of friends and family could be thousands of miles back home overseas.

In the hours and days after the Oikos shootings, the emerging facts confirmed that in many respects Goh, the alleged gunman, indeed fit the mold. The assailant apparently was hunting for one particular school administrator with whom he had argued over a tuition refund. Unable to locate his intended target, the gunman settled for anyone affiliated with the school.

Violence still unpredictable

Just because the alleged murderer and his motive are virtually textbook doesn't mean that such behavior would have been foreseeable. Although there are certain predictable characteristics to these cases, the episodes themselves are in no way predictable. Rare events can never be anticipated, no matter how ominous the circumstances and plentiful the warning signs. Despite the fear-inspiring and sensational headlines of random shootings, college campuses are exceptionally safe, with homicide rates far below the level for their surrounding communities.

Of course, no college campus — large or small, public or private, urban or rural, well-guarded or wide open — is completely invulnerable. But some common traits to these uncommon acts cannot be ignored.


James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and author of Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool to College.