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  • Kirsten Rowe

Influence of childhood trauma on perpetrators of mass shootings

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

In yet another mass shooting, a teenage gunman took the lives of 13 individuals at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, New York on May 14, 2022. Tragedy struck again 10 days later when another teenage shooter killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Mass casualty incidents like these raise many questions, including what caused the perpetrator to commit these horrendous acts.

While every perpetrator’s motives differ, a 2019 study examining the life histories of 172 mass shooters suggests a potential connection between early childhood trauma and mass shootings. Doctors Jillian Peterson and James Densley reviewed 168 mass shooting incidents from 1966 to Feb. 2020 and analyzed various aspects of the incidents, such as the number of victims, the type of firearm used and the motivations for these offenders. Among other key findings, the investigators reported that 45% of school shooters witnessed or experienced some form of childhood trauma. An updated report by the same investigators found the prevalence of childhood trauma in school shooters to be even higher–68%.

Childhood trauma refers to the effect of a traumatic event experienced by a child that threatens their life or physical security. One of the most common ways that childhood trauma is measured is by examining the child’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which include, but are not limited to, incidents of abuse or neglect, parental incarceration and witnessing acts of domestic violence. Various studies have connected ACES to various long-term impacts on an individual’s health, including mental health concerns, obesity and heart disease. The CDC suggests that over 60% of adults have reported experiencing at least one ACE, and approximately 16% have experienced four or more types. A longitudinal study found a connection between children who experienced an ACE and adulthood violence; the research found that children who experienced maltreatment were 30% more likely to commit a violent crime in adulthood than those who had not.

While there is no comprehensive profile for school shooters, the presence of an ACE in childhood is a common risk factor. An article published in the Journal of Pediatric Health Care reviewed a study of 25 American male school shooters and found that 72% of the perpetrators (18 out of 25) reported they experienced at least one ACE. Although most people who have experienced an ACE do not become violent, and even less become school shooters, the connection between ACEs and violence is remarkable.

While no solution has any guarantees, addressing childhood trauma could lower the possibility of future mass shootings. One potential pathway is for children experiencing traumatic events to discuss their concerns and experiences with a trusted adult. School personnel such as teachers, guidance counselors and school resource officers, should be trained to recognize the warning signs of those who are experiencing an ACE. By doing so, they can better provide the student with resources to help foster stronger and healthier relationships and exercise trauma-informed care practices to prevent children from being retraumatized. State legislatures and other policymakers can support educators in this process by implementing policies and initiatives that increase the availability of resources to schools and communities. Ensuring the juvenile legal system is adequately prepared to serve youth who have experienced trauma could prevent further violence. Research has indicated that 75% to 93% of individuals in the juvenile legal system have experienced some form of trauma. The American Bar Association has provided some guidance for attorneys and judges to address childhood trauma. They suggest that juvenile defense attorneys connect their clients and their families to mental health services, divert cases from the courts and ensure juveniles are not unnecessarily removed from their families during or after the proceedings. By addressing ACEs in the juvenile legal system, instances of future violence will likely decrease. Unfortunately, there may always be mass casualty events, but providing necessary resources for children who have experienced childhood trauma may be the key factor in reducing them.


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