Leiden Safety and Security Blog

Lone perpetrators. To what extent are school shooters and lone wolf terrorists comparable?

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Lone perpetrators. To what extent are school shooters and lone wolf terrorists comparable?

The possible connection between lone wolves and school shooters has recently started to gain academic attention. This is not too surprising, as at first glance, it appears that school shooters and lone wolves have quite a bit in common. Both school shooters and lone wolves are presumed to live in isolation, have a higher than average rate of psychological disturbances and distribute their manifestos prior to attack. Comparisons can also be made with regard to motivation, objective and modus operandi. Furthermore, there appear to be similarities between the socio-demographic data of the two groups.

By conducting exploratory research it is possible to find out if school shooters and lone wolves are indeed comparable. While the definition of terrorism remains problematic, lone wolves are defined as solitary actors that do not take direct orders from any organization. The definition of school shooters is much clearer: a deliberate attack carried out on school property by an (ex-) student or (ex-) employee. By creating and developing an extensive codebook, key components of these two phenomena can easily be compared. A comparative analysis adds to our understanding of (lone wolf) terrorism. This comparative analysis is the first step in determining whether policy transfer is viable between detecting and preventing lone wolves and school shooters. When comparing ten lone wolf attacks and ten school shootings in the United States between the years 2005 and 2010, some discrepancies immediately become clear.

An analysis of the mental health status reveals that eight of the school shooters were diagnosed with a mental illness, while only two lone wolves had mental health issues. Depression is also much more common among school shooters than among lone wolves. On the other hand, the rate of isolation and unfreezing - a personal crisis - amidst school shooters and lone wolves in our data set was comparable.

The motivation of a perpetrator can be indexed as personal grievance, political grievance or ideology. Political grievance is the perceived injustice against the group the perpetrator affiliates with. Although an ideology can be fueled by political motives, ideology is a far broader category, ranging from religious zealots to animal rights extremists. It should be noted that it is possible for a single perpetrator to fall into multiple categories. Nine of the school shooters were motivated by personal grievance, none were motivated by political grievance and only two by ideology. On the other hand, all lone wolves were motivated by ideology, whereas only three were motivated by personal grievance. Political grievance played a role for seven lone wolves. The large discrepancy in motivation, which is an important aspect of what constitutes as terrorism, marks a clear distinction between these two phenomena.

Not surprisingly, the socio-demographic data of school shooters and lone wolves varied greatly with regard to age and occupation. Still, the majority of the perpetrators were single Caucasian males with a previous criminal record or previous criminal activities. At the very least, this creates a group – albeit still in need of refinement – where the majority of the perpetrators seem to stem from.

Upon first glance the targets of school shooters and lone wolves were similar. Both data sets contained a high number of attacks that featured direct and random targets. Random targets and collateral damage were prominent. When analyzed further, however, another discrepancy appears: the perpetrators’ reasons for the choice of targets vary greatly. The direct targets of school shooters are often specific people that have grieved them in the past, whereas the direct targets of lone wolves are much more symbolic in nature. This means that the direct target a lone wolf would want to attack is often not in reach. The attack is therefore directed at an institution that represents it instead.

The current data suggests that school shooters and lone wolves are only comparable in a superficial way. There are clear contrasts in the mental health and motivation between the two groups. This does not spell the end of comparative analysis with regard to lone wolves.  More research is necessary to expand the current foundation and groundwork required for a better understanding of lone wolves. 

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