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February 21, 2013

Are the Brains of Rampage Shooters Different?

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What goes on in the brain of a rampage shooter? Is there some distinguishing feature of a person’s brain or personality that can be a signal that they will commit mass violent acts? As a part of PBS’s “After Newtown” project, a week-long look at the state of gun violence in America, The NewsHour teamed up with Frontline to take a look at the psychology of killers, and attempt to answer some of these questions.

They first looked at Andy Williams, who at 15-years-old killed two students and injured 13 others at his high school in California in 2001.

His father said that growing up, Andy  was the class clown.

“That’s the thing, You don’t expect the silly clown to do something like this, to go kill people.”

However, he was the new kid at school and had suffered bullying even from those he called his friends.

While most rampage shooters die in the act, either by self-inflicted wounds or by police, Andy is one of the few shooters who is still alive today. He is currently imprisoned in a  California correctional facility.

When asked what happened that day, he said, “At 15, I didn’t really think, like, all that stuff through. I didn’t think two boys were going to die. I didn’t think 13 people were going to get shot. I just thought I was going to make a lot of noise and that the — and that the cops were going to show up.”

But while scientific brain scans have found that there are certain tendencies common in the brain activity of criminals, there is no way to know exactly who will lash out with violence and when.


“One of the most infuriating things as a scientist and as a person is this attempt to try and find some diagnostic label, some neat diagnostic box to put this person into and — and thus explain why they did this terrible, terrible thing,” – Josh Buckholtz, Harvard University.

Warm up questions

1. What are some famous incidences of school violence that you have heard of? What do you know about them?

2. What is bullying? What are some of the consequences of bullying?

3. What are the differences between bullying, being mean, harassing and making someone feel bad?

Discussion questions

1. What did you find most interesting about this video?

2. Do you think schools should have better mental health resources? If so, what can they do?

3. Is bullying a problem at your school? What do you think can be done to reduce bullying?

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