School Shootings, 10 Risk Factors You Need to Know

In recent years active shooter incidents in schools K-12 have relentlessly traumatized the American public leaving behind hundreds of senseless deaths, horrible injuries and deep psychological wounds.

An active shooter incident occurs when one or more individuals participate in an ongoing, random, or systematic shooting spree with the objective of committing multiple or mass murders (Mitchel, 2013). To better understand the gravity of active shooter incidents in schools we need to have a look at the statistics:

  • Between 2009 and 2018 there were 180 school shootings in 177 schools across the United States.
  • In 2018 alone, 35 people were killed in a school shooting and 79 were injured.
  • Since the Columbine High School shootings 250 more people have been killed in school shootings, and more than 236,000 students have experienced gun violence in schools.
  • As of December 3, 2019, the most recent shooting was 14 days ago where there was one person injured and 1,580 children present at Oshkosh West High School during the incident.
  • To find out more about school shootings and find the most recent incidents, click here.


With each school shooting we desperately seek answers to that one question that never seems to get answered to our satisfaction. Why?  Over the last two decades, researchers studying school violence have focused on uncovering the various risk factors associated with active shooter incidents. What they have found is that violent behavior is incredibly complex and does not have a single cause but is determined by multiple risk factors that often act together.

The Youth Violence Commission & International Society for Research on Aggression (ISRA), (2018), recently released a report identifying ten key personal and environmental risk factors to help the public understand why acts of extreme violence occur, and to help inform policy makers.

Personal risk factors

1)      Gender

Young men commit most of the violent crimes and the vast majority of mass shootings. Biological differences and perceptions of control or power associated with masculinity norms appear to be contributing factors for extreme violence.

2)      Aggressive behavior early in childhood

Research has consistently found that early aggressive behavior during childhood is a predictor of later aggressive, antisocial, violent, and criminal behavior, including mass shootings.

3)      “Dark” Personality traits and emotion regulation

Some people are more prone to aggression and violence than others. Youth who are characteristically angry tend to more aggressive and violent. Furthermore, those who have poor emotion regulation, have difficulty managing their anger. Typically, someone who has poor anger regulation will get angry often and quickly and experience intense anger for a prolonged period of time (has trouble cooling off).

Researchers have also found four “dark” personality traits related to violent behavior:

  1. Narcissism involves having grandiose self-views, a selfish orientation and a lack of empathy for others. When narcissist don’t get the respect or recognition, they feel they deserve, they can turn violent. Recent research has found narcissism is associated with mass shootings.
  2. Psychopathy is a term commonly used to describe deceitful, callous and manipulative individuals who have no regard to laws or norms, have no remorse and often commit violent crimes.
  3. Machiavellianism involves a mindset that ruthlessly focuses on gaining personal success and power by any means necessary, even if it means using aggression and violence.
  4. Sadists experience pleasure after hurting an innocent person.

4)      Obsession with weapons or death and mass shootings

The person has an intense interest or fixation with guns, bombs, or explosives. School shooters tend to have a fascination with previous shootings and glamorize previous incidents (Haeney, Ash & Galletly, 2018).

Environmental risk factors

5)      Easy access to guns

Research consistently shows that easy access to guns is a strong risk factors for violence. Moreover, firearms with large-capacity magazines allow the perpetrator to kill a greater number of victims in a shorter amount of time. On a psychological level, guns give the shooter the feeling of distance between him and his victims, making killing easier.

6)      Social exclusion and isolation

Bullying, regular victimization, marginalization or being ostracized by peers are risk factors for youth violence. Victims of bullying in particular, may develop feelings of resentment for a particular group of individuals or for a community (perhaps the school he goes to), which may contribute to engaging in acts of extreme violence such as mass shootings.

7)      Family and neighborhood characteristics

Some of the family characteristics that contribute to youth violence include divorce, child abuse, domestic violence, being on welfare and having a mother who is young or unemployed. Growing up in a violent neighborhood and witnessing crime are also risk factors for violence.

8)      Media violence

Whether violent films, music, TV programs or video games cause mass shootings often lead to controversial debates. Research shows that although violent media is not the sole cause of aggressive and violent behavior, including mass shootings, it is an important risk factor that can not only contribute to more aggressive and violent behaviors but also lead to fewer prosocial behaviors (Bushman & Anderson, 2015).

9)      School characteristics

School shootings are more likely to occur in schools that have a large class size and a high student-to-teacher and student-to-counselor ratio. In the ISRA Report of the Youth Violence Commission (2018), the authors point out that those characteristics can lead to students to feel socially isolated and feel that help would be difficult to get. Conversely, schools with a strong sense of community or spirit, may reduce the likelihood of school shootings.

10)  Stressful events

Stressful events and aggression are strongly linked and can elicit anger and violent behavior.

Gaining a better understanding of the multiple factors that contribute to school shootings can help prevention efforts at every level. Whether it translates into implementing into new laws and policies or whether it helps us identify and treat individuals at risk of perpetrating violence, understanding the “why” of school shootings can help us protect our children and communities.

If you’re concerned about someone’s behavior, make sure to check out our Identifying Warning Signs of Extreme Violence Checklist