Signs of the times: Can you recognize a potential teen shooter?

Phil Chalmers makes a point at Braham seminar.

This is the second in a two-part series covering two active shooter training events in Chisago and Isanti counties. 

“My name is Nik, and I’m going to be the next school shooter of 2018. My goal is at least 20 people with an AR-15 ... It’s going to be a big event, and when you see me on the news, you’ll know who I am. You’re all going to die ... Can’t wait.”

Nikolas Cruz recorded three cell phone videos planning his attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, before carrying out his plans on Valentine’s Day 2018. 

The 19-year-old former student killed 17 people and injured 17 others in the deadliest high school shooting in United States history.   

What caused the rampage? What could have been done to stop it? 

These questions were considered in a four-hour training seminar on Aug. 16 at Braham Event Center called “Prepare, Prevent & Respond,” presented by Phil Chalmers. 

Over the past 30 years Chalmers has interviewed more than 200 killers face to face, including school shooters and teen murderers. He wrote a book in 2009 called, “Inside the Mind of a Teen Killer.” 

“He’s a very, very textbook killer,” Chalmers said of Cruz. “His eighth grade teacher said, ‘I strongly believe that Nikolas is a danger to the students and faculty at this school. I don’t feel like he understands the difference between his violent video games and reality.’” 

A multiple-cause crime

Chalmers warned against pointing to one specific cause such as violent video games or the availability of guns as the single cause of the increase in school shootings. 

“Teen murder is a multiple-cause crime,” he said. “It’s not just one thing. There are three to six causes stacked up on each other.”

He detailed a list of 13 influences he’s discovered through his interviews with teen shooters and ranked them from least common to most common.

Chalmers said mental illness and/or brain injuries affect many teen shooters. They aren’t merely depressed, but suffer from mental disorders like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

Number 12 is no spiritual guidance or discipline.

“There’s no spiritual upbringing,” Chalmers said, “no reason to live, no purpose in life. They’re not being disciplined at school or at home.”

Chalmers said the next factors that can lead to shooting incidents are: poverty, peer pressure, and being drawn into cults, gangs and hate groups. 

At number 8 is the thirst for fame. The social media culture has increased the desire of young people to be known and remembered – even for a horrendous crime.

The use of illegal drugs, alcohol and misuse of prescribed medications also affect many young people.  

Chalmers said suicidal ideologies influence many school shooters. They come to a school shooting prepared to die. They assume they’ll be killed and many desire “suicide by cop.”

The cause Chalmers shared at number 5 is an obsession with deadly weapons.

“They love guns, bombs, knives,” he said. “This is the kid that collects 30 knives. He points a gun at the camera on Instagram and Snapchat.”

Violent media affects real life

Chalmers spent a large portion of the seminar giving insight into the number 4 cause: obsession with violent entertainment like video games, torture films, violent music and violent pornography.

“I’ve never interviewed a school shooter who has not played violent video games – ever,” he said.   

He reported that Adam Lanza, the Newtown killer, and Nikolas Cruz played video games 15 hours a day, including Grand Theft Auto 5, the most popular video game to date with over $6 billion in sales.  

Chalmers showed clips of the game from the viewpoint of players as they shot law enforcement officers in the face, shot multiple victims many times even as they writhed on the ground, simulated sex acts and how a gamer’s character shot a prostitute after sex and burned her body – all in realistic computer-generated animation. 

Grand Theft Auto 5 also has a modification available in which players can simulate the Columbine school shooting in bloody, graphic detail from start to finish.

Chalmers noted that bullying, the number 3 cause, is one of the strongest factors in pushing students toward violent behavior – it’s a short distance to lashing out after being on the receiving end of violence or humiliation.  

Chalmers said an unstable home life (number 2), which might include physical, sexual or mental abuse or abandonment, is a leading factor in violent behavior.   

And finally, at number 1, Chalmers said fatherlessness is the one factor he saw in the majority of the interviews he made with teen killers.  

“No dad, no order,” he said, “brokenness, a broken home.” This mirrors what researchers have found as a link between a majority of prison inmates.  

Warning signs precede attacks

While these types of life situations can lead to the development of a school shooter mindset, Chalmers said actual warning signs usually precede school shootings and indicate a young person is on the brink.  

“You need to teach the warning signs,” he said, “so people take them seriously and not let them slide.”

The number one warning sign is threats of violence, either spoken or posted on social media. 

Prior to the Parkland shooting, Cruz had placed video messages on Youtube and made numerous verbal threats to carry out a school shooting, but reports to the local sheriff’s office and the FBI weren’t acted on.  

Other warning signs include: posting pictures of guns and other weapons on social media, fascination with other school shootings and mass murders, making drawings of shooting people, keeping a journal of plans for violence, Peeping Tom behaviors, fascination with setting fires and cruelty to animals.

Along with the warning signs, Chalmers said parents and schools should watch troubled students for “triggers” – inciting incidents that could push them over the edge.  

“The number one trigger for male school shooters,” he said, “is when their girlfriend dumps them.” He said the few female school shooters were triggered by their parents saying they could not date a particular person. 

Aside from the dating triggers, Chalmers said others include: suspension or expulsion; arrest, even over a traffic ticket; dispute with parents and a bullying incident at school. 

The news isn’t all bad – with the intervention of families, counselors or other caring adults, Chalmers said a potential teen shooter can be stopped.  

“We must stand together with and assist parents who are out of options with their violent teens,” he said. “Let’s start spending our dollars now and get these troubled kids the help they need or we will, instead, be spending our money to apprehend and incarcerate teens later.” 

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