Rampage Shootings by Adolescents and Young Adults: The Problems with Risk Assessment and Implications for Primary Care


Matt Freeman DNP, MPH


Rampage shootings are rare but devastating events. In the aftermath of each attack, common questions are: “Could this have been prevented? Were there warning signs?” This review of literature was conducted through searches of PubMed, CINAHL, EBSCO, Google Scholar, as well as lay press articles about multiple rampage events. This article seeks to summarize research and address the medico-legal aspects of risk assessment for rampage violence in adolescents and young adults.

A “rampage killing” is defined as:

  • A homicidal attack on multiple people
  • The shooter(s) may start with a specific target, but go on to shoot others, and may be unaware of those who have been shot.
  • The attack strikes an entire institution (school, building, or community)
    (Newman, 2004)

In addition to the definition by Newman above, a rampage killing may be a homicidal attack or a suicide/homicide. Although a perpetrator of such an attack can be of any age, this article focuses on adolescent and young adult offenders, and it is specific to an attack with a firearm rather than an explosive incendiary device (IED), arson, or other means. In addition, this form of violence differs from terrorism, which may be sponsored by an external force or serves as an instrument to achieve a specific goal


Watches and Warnings

Prediction of future violence is analogous to prediction of violent weather. Tornadoes strike the United States more than any other place on earth, with about 1,000 tornadoes recorded annually (National Centers for Environmental Information, 2015). In order to mitigate the risk to life and property, the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center issues a tornado watch, indicating a confluence of conditions favorable for tornado formation (Edwards, 2015).

In the event that an actual tornado is identified by a trained “spotter” or a signature tornado echo is identified on radar, the local National Weather Service office issues a tornado warning, advising those in the storm’s path that there is a specific and imminent threat, and that they should seek shelter (Edwards, 2015).

Hook echo - filosofiaclimatica.blogspot.com:

A “hook echo” showing a tornado in Moore, Oklahoma. There were 24 fatalities.


Tornado prediction is an inexact science. The Storm Prediction Center employs a combination of computer models, real-time data, and forecaster experience. The Storm Prediction Center concedes that there are “not checkboxes” nor a “single threshold” that guides its decision-making process (Edwards, 2015).

The multiple variables and complexity of tornado prediction result in poor specificity. In fact, an actual tornado warning is only issued in 20 percent of tornado watches (Prentice, 2014). Even if a tornado occurs, it will most likely affect a small geographic portion of the tornado watch area. This can lead to false alarms, and public confusion about the difference between a watch and a warning (Samenow, 2011). In fact, the U.S. Weather Bureau (predecessor to the National Weather Service) was banned from using the term “tornado” until 1950, fearing public panic (Edwards, 2015).

Weather forecasters have a communication challenge: the public needs to be have confidence with forecasting tools, understand their limitations, while avoiding overstatement and panic.

Prediction of a school shooting is similarly complex and problematic A multitude of variables can conceivably predict an act of violence by an adolescent or young adult, but prediction tools are inconsistent. Like the genesis of a tornado, there is no distinctive profile of a youth who will carry out school violence. Primary care providers, have the responsibility to understand and communicate the current clinical evidence and limitations of risk assessment tools. Likewise, primary care providers need to be conscious of their duty to warn potential victims should a watch become a warning. 

Why is Risk Assessment for Violence of Significance to Primary Care Providers?

Rampage shootings, particularly school shootings, are an issue of national concern. Students, families, and communities have a shared fear of an attack. Primary care providers may be asked to field questions and coordinate care for adolescents and young adults who are feared to be violent. In other cases, families and communities may call upon primary care providers for advice and information about violence as a public health concern.

Clinicians working in school-based and school-linked health centers and college health environments may be asked to participate in behavioral intervention teams (BIT teams,) and should therefore be familiar with the complexities, legal implications, and processes pertaining to risk assessment.

In the aftermath of an attack, primary care providers may be called upon to field questions about the epidemiology and pathology of violent behavior as families and communities confront a tragedy.

Primary care providers may be the only point of contact into the medical and behavioral health systems. In the case of suicide, 90 percent of parents were unaware of an imminent suicidal risk in their child. Families may be unfamiliar with the signs of mental illness, or may in be denial that their son or daughter is exhibiting signs of problematic behavior. The courts have consistently upheld that a school or anyone else has the responsibility to intervene if a minor exhibits signs of violence (Heller, 2014).

Dylan Strom Roof cdn rt

Dylan Storm Roof, who murdered nine and wounded one at the Emanual African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo: filosofiaclimatica.blogspot.com)


The Problems with Risk Assessment

Suicide-homicide attacks are rare; affecting 0.2 to 0.38 per 100,000 people (Knoll, 2012). Rampage attacks are even rarer, since most homicides take place amid an interpersonal conflict between just two people (Dowd & Sege, 2012). In one study, 72 percent of murder-suicides occurred between two intimate partners (Violence Policy Center, 2011). Although there are certain states that report violent deaths voluntarily, there is no national database of mass or rampage killings (Burgess, Sekula, & Carretta, 2015). This article includes analysis of both homicide-suicide rampage attacks (such as Columbine High School) and homicide attacks (such as the Century Theater in Aurora, Colorado.)

Over-and under-estimation of risk can be detrimental in many circumstances, but has the potential for profound medico-legal implications in the prediction of violence. An under-estimation can result in potentially preventable morbidity and mortality; an over-estimation can result in needless evaluation, treatment, or scrutiny (Blumenthal, Huckle, Czornyj, Craissati, & Richardson, 2010). The results of an assessment suggestive than an individual could become violent may be rehabilitative and lead to treatment and follow-up but misinterpreted results have the capacity to be unduly punitive (Borum, 2000).


T.J. Lane, who murdered three and wounded three at Chardon High School, Chardon, Ohio (Photo: Facebook)


Like tornado prediction, risk assessment may include actuarial methods, such as validated inventories, as well as a clinician’s own experience and assessment.


Actuarial Prediction Methods

Actuarial prediction of risk includes inventories based on population data. Commonly used inventories include the Violence Risk Appraisal Guide (VRAG) and the Historical, Clinical, Risk Management Inventory (HCR-20). These structured inventories are based on population data, and do not integrate a patient’s affect, clinical presentation, or “dynamic” factors such as particular school or family circumstances. (Blumenthal et al., 2010).

A clinician’s individual assessment and judgment does not necessarily invalidate an actuarial assessment tool. For example, an HCR-20 score may identify a patient as potentially low risk for violence. But if the clinician learns that the patient is not taking medication as prescribed, carrying a weapon and making threats, these “dynamic” factors are absent in actuarial assessment (Buchanan, 2013). In fact, there is significantly poor consistency between clinical assessment and actuarial inventories (Côté, Crocker, Nicholls, & Seto, 2012).

Actuarial models have been misinterpreted in multiple studies. In fact, one review identified that statistical models were misinterpreted in 90 percent of studies that employed actuarial risk assessment for violence (Singh, Desmarais, & Van Dorn, 2013).

Researchers often analyzed the Area Under the Curve (AUC) while evaluating the utility of a risk assessment inventory or tool. This statistical tool is a component of “Receiver Operator Characteristic” (ROC) analysis. An ROC curve takes certain discrete “cutoff” values and then pairs these with a known variable. For example, an ROC curve might plot patients with sputum culture confirmed pulmonary tuberculosis versus a radiologist’s analysis of a “small,” “moderate,” or “large” likelihood that the patient has tuberculosis. A larger area under the curve suggests that the radiologist is rating patients with known tuberculosis as having a “high” likelihood of having the disease (Hanley & McNeil, 1982).

The AUC has been misinterpreted as a proportion of individuals who did or did not commit violence or a predictor of violence. One of the greatest problems is that ROC models do not have standard benchmarks. Many were described as having “small,” “moderate,” or “large” magnitude without an agreed standard of what these designations mean (Singh, 2013). An AUC analysis provides only relative ranking for the scale used in the study. Area Under the Curve analysis does not differentiate between the levels of sensitivity and specificity at a specific cutoff point (Campbell, 2004).

In one study of violence assessment, a study predicted recidivism among sex offenders using an AUC analysis. Upon further statistical analysis, 45 percent of 209 classifications of “violence” were mistaken, yielding 94 false positives, and therefore 94 people who were inappropriately detained. Furthermore, the analysis was so insensitive that it missed 40 percent of offenders who were released and repeated violent acts (Campbell, 2004).

Most studies also had comparatively small sample sizes (less than 200), which can lead to inaccurate interpretation of ROC analysis (the methodology for establishing the area under the curve.) Lastly, most risk analysis measures did not include temporality, so a violent offender’s risk assessment was not correlated in a time-to-event analysis (Singh et al., 2013).

Should we abandon the use of actuarial analysis? Actuarial risk assessment tools can still be a part of an overall assessment, but must be interpreted with caution. Some researchers suggested that inventories such as the Structured Assessment of Violence in Youth (SAVRY) may be helpful for other purposes. A higher risk score may not necessarily be predictive of violence toward others, but may positively identify related behavioral problems, such as school truancy and drop outs (McGowan, Horn, & Mellott, 2011).

Moreover, it is the action that one takes as a result of the assessment, not the method of assessment that is of greater importance. If an assessment by any method leads to the accurate prevention of morbidity and mortality without over-estimation of risk, then the assessment has been a worthwhile tool. (Carroll, 2007).


Characteristics of School Violence Perpetrators

School violence has been viewed as a maladaptive mechanism to confront stressful circumstances, such as early exposure to violence. This is consistent with a similar thought process in adolescents who run away, drop out of school, commit crimes, or attempt suicide. This has been described as a “precocious role exit:” an adolescent under stress “exits” his or her growth as a teenager prematurely, resulting in behavior that is dangerous to himself, herself, or others (Haynie, Petts, Maimon, & Piquero, 2009).

Some studies of violence describe it as a dichotomous variable: the degree of violence and its deadlines are not taken into account. In these studies the strongest predictors were direct exposure to intimate partner violence and indirect exposure to the suicide of a friend or family member (Haynie et al., 2009).

Rampage killers differ from other perpetrators of violent crime. Rampage attacks are—fortunately—statistical rarities, and therefore difficult to study. Furthermore, many attacks are suicide-homicide attacks, so critical information about the killer’s psychological and medical status is often unknown. In a study of multiple rampage killings, the perpetrators were not deemed to be impulsive, did not have known mood or thought disorders, and planned their attacks carefully—often for months (Mullen, 2004).

Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who killed 12 students, one teacher, and wounded 21 at Columbine High School, Littleton, Colorado (Photos: AP)


In the case of adolescents and young adults, the role of impulsivity is difficult to establish. Although adolescents may have impulsive traits, “sensation seeking” and development of impulse control can be components of healthy adolescent development (Romer, 2010).

Although the study population of school shooters is too small to make significant generalizations, researchers have suggested the role of “honor” in rampage attacks. This refers to a protection of social status; in other words, an adolescent or young adult who feels that his social status (honor) has been threatened, he or she may respond with a violent counter-attack. The culture of honor is inconsistently related to climate, rurality, and socio-economic status (Brown, Osterman, & Barnes, 2009)

In studies of adolescents who carried firearms to school, the most commonly cited reason was for a sense of protection and respect. About one-fifth of firearm-carrying adolescents stated that it was permissible to shoot someone if he or she demonstrated disrespect (de Apodaca, Brighton, Perkins, Jackson, & Steege, 2012).

A long list of risk factors may contribute to violence in adolescent and young adult patients. There is a dearth of clinical evidence to support these risk factors.


History of Violence

Although a history of violence appears to be the most convincing predictor of future violence, most perpetrators of school-shootings are first time offenders (Dill, Redding, Smith, Surette, & Cornell, 2011).

The history of violence risk factor also affects the utility of deterrence measures. From a developmental perspective, adolescents may not have the maturity to comprehend the legal consequences of violence. Adolescents are typically focused on short-term benefits, not long-term consequences. (Dill et al., 2011).

For those adolescents with a history of illegal—but not necessarily violent—behavior, there is no evidence to suggest that “boot camps” or “shock incarceration” like “scared straight” deter adolescents from violence (Dill et al., 2011).


Major Mental Illness

There is an inconsistent relationship between violence and diagnosed major mental disorders. This inconsistency has been suggested to be a function of variance of research methods, as well as confounders such as substance abuse and personality disorders (Douglas, Guy, & Hart, 2009)


Thought Disorders

Threat/Control-Override (TCO) delusions are correlated with violent behavior in those patients with an existing diagnosis of a mental disorder. “Control override” refers to thought disorders in which a patient is under the delusion that he or she is no longer under the control of his or her own thoughts. This may be characterized as:

  1. A belief that some force is placing thoughts directly into one’s mind
  2. A belief that someone could “steal” one’s thoughts
  3. A control of thoughts through television or radio or forces imparted by hypnosis, magic, x-rays, or lasers
    (Teasdale, Silver, & Monahan, 2006).


The power of a TCO delusion makes some conceptual sense. If one receives uncontrollable messages from an outside force, it seems that these could lead to a compulsion to commit an act of violence. Although the study population is small, none of the recent rampage shootings have included a discussion of thought disorders in the perpetrator’s psychiatric history. These include James Holmes in Aurora, Colorado in which there was only a passing possibility of psychopathy noted in his medical chart (O’Neill & Weisfeldt, 2015); Dylan Kliebold and Eric Harris in Littleton, Colorado (Cullen, 2009); Adam Lanza in Newton, Connecticut (Ferguson, 2013); and the presence of a thought disorder was disputed in the case of T.J. Lane in Chardon, Ohio (Caniglia, 2013).

Threat/Control Override Delusions have been cited in individual cases of violence, but have not been demonstrated to be a consistent, reliable risk factor based on one-year follow-up of patients discharged after a psychiatric admission (Appelbaum, Robbins, & Monahan, 2000).

In the case of Cho Seung-Hui, who killed 33 people, including himself, at Virginia Tech, a thought disorder was considered but later dismissed. In a court evaluation prior to the shooting, Cho was described as having a “flat affect and depressed mood,” but “his insight and judgment are normal (CNN, 2007).”

Cho Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 and wounded 17 at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia (Photo: NBC)


Personality Disorders

In the adult population, personality disorders are a weak predictor of the frequency of violent behavior as well as recidivism. Since personality disorders persist over time, the relationship between a personality disorder is difficult to confirm due to a lack of temporal relationship (Logan & Johnstone, 2010)

Psychopathy (Antisocial Personality Disorder)

Antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy or sociopathy) is not necessarily defined by violent behavior. The disorder does correlate with violence, substance abuse, and low intelligence in both adolescent and adult samples. But psychopathy is often undiagnosed, and the so-called “successful psychopath” is afflicted by the disorder but never faces criminal convictions. In the case of adolescents, the official diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder requires that the patient be at least 18 years or older (American Psychiatric Association. & American Psychiatric Association. DSM-5 Task Force., 2013), so there may be a form of artifact in underreporting due to the age criteria for diagnosis.


Dissocial Personality Traits

“Dissocial” or “antisocial” traits refer to personality elements that may be a component of antisocial personality disorder, or these traits may exist on their own.

Dissocial traits have the strongest conceptual relationship between personality disorders and violence is the “dissocial” dimension of some disorders. The dissocial component of a personality disorder includes detachment, flattened affect, and decreased empathy. It is theorized that this dissociation is a defense mechanism against criticism. (Logan & Johnstone, 2010). As with “honor killings” discussed above, dissocial behavior serves to protect self image while still perpetrating violence.

The dissocial dimension of a personality disorder can also include paranoia. An individual with dissocial traits may someone vulnerable to narcissistic injury (such as a threat to one’s honor), and this can lead to paranoia. This particular form of paranoia is characterized by five functions:

  1. Putting oneself before others
  2. Insensitivity
  3. Suspiciousness and unwarranted grievances
  4. Ambiguous interactions can be misinterpreted as criticisms
    1. Violence can serve as a means to restore self-esteem
      (Logan & Johnstone, 2010)

Dissocial behavior can be aggravated by a concurrent major depressive disorder. It is unclear if dissocial behavior is a reaction to depression, a component of depression, or a result of depression (Logan & Johnstone, 2010).

In the realm of developmental psychology, dissociative behavior can be viewed as a function of identity disturbance comprising a labile affect, cognitive dysregulation, and unpredictable behavior (Logan & Johnstone, 2010).


Borderline Personality Disorder

Borderline personality disorder is not well-correlated with violence unless the borderline patient is suffering from a severe form of the disorder with a comorbidities (Logan & Johnstone, 2010).


Socially Inhibited Personalities

There is some evidence relating social inhibition with violent behavior. An avoidant individual may have shallow friendships, relationships, and sexual contacts, a lack of intimacy, low self-esteem, and may seek to hide his or her avoidant behavior. Social inhibition correlates with major depressive disorder and dysthymia as well as substance abuse. The combination of these personality functions, major mental illness, and substance abuse may correlate with a proclivity toward violent behavior (Logan & Johnstone, 2010).


Compulsive Personality Traits

Compulsivity can lead to self-doubt, guilt, and exaggerated sense of responsibility. When compulsivity is misunderstood or maladaptive, it can lead to anger and resentment. Compulsive patients may turn to substance abuse or violent behavior as coping mechanisms: means to confront a lack of one’s control over the environment or the behavior of others (Logan & Johnstone, 2010).

Three recent rampage killings by young adults included the possibility of diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): James Eagan Holmes in Aurora, Colorado, Adam Lanza in Sandy Hook, Connecticut; and Eric Harris at Columbine High School. Lynne Fenton MD, the psychiatrist who managed James Eagan Holmes at the University of Colorado, felt that Holmes’ preoccupation with rampage killing was consistent with OCD (O’Neill & Weisfeldt, 2015). Adam Lanza had been diagnosed with compulsive behavior at the Yale Child Study Center, but his mother declined treatment for him, particularly medication (Schwarz & Ramilo, 2014). Eric Harris, who committed a murder-suicide at Columbine High School, was prescribed Luvox (fluvoxamine), presumably for OCD. Reports stated that it is unknown if Harris was taking the medication, or if his diagnosis of OCD was confirmed (Salvatore, 1999).

Adam LanzaAdam Lanza, who killed 20 students, six staff, and then his mother in Newtown, Connecticut

Copycat Attacks

There is no evidence to suggest that a school attack will lead to “copycat” violence (Dill et al., 2011). First-hand or media exposure to school violence is not a predictor of future violence.


Violent Video Games

Dylan Kleibold and Eric Harris, who carried out the attacks at Columbine High School, played the video game, “Doom,” in which they played the role of shooters. There is inconsistent evidence that media violence, including video games, increases aggression. There is a potential for a dose/response relationship, but not every exposure to media violence leads to aggression. Studies thus far have focused on the role of media violence on non-fatal aggression, such as sexual harassment. These studies have shown widespread individual variation, and that media and video game exposure cannot necessarily be classified as “good” or “bad” (Dill et al., 2011).

Doom http-::blogs.longwood.edu:asaldana:files:2012:04:Doom


Inadequate Sleep

Based on data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, insufficient sleep correlates with multiple behavioral health problems in adolescents: poor academic performance, delinquency, irritability and poor stress tolerance, depression, suicidal ideation, and conduct disturbances. Male adolescents who reported inadequate sleep had higher odds of reporting carrying a firearm to school, and had greater reported impulsivity (Hildebrand, Daly, Nicholls, Brooks-Holliday, & Kloss, 2013).


The Role of Gender

Studies of violence have indicated that women are capable of violence but the quantity and type of violence they perpetrate is different from male counterparts. There is a paucity of data on the subject since there are no gender-specific prediction tools. Existing data suggests that women, including female adolescents, are less likely to perpetrate violence against strangers, less likely to perpetrate violence that results in a need for medical attention (Odgers, Moretti, & Reppucci, 2005).

Multiple studies suggest that women have a propensity to “tend and befriend” in adversarial relationships, whereas men tend to have a “fight or flight” responses (Teasdale et al., 2006). There is no evidence to support the use of violence prediction instruments in adolescent women. (Odgers et al., 2005).


Firearms and Rampage Violence

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reviewed results from the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS): 5.1 percent of high school students self-reported carrying a firearm to school during the previous month. Male students reported carrying a firearm more than eight times more often than female students (Dowd & Sege, 2012). The YRBS is a self-report survey, so this data is based on unconfirmed reports of carrying a firearm.
In addition to male gender, The AAP analysis identified gang membership, substance abuse, a history of victimization, and a history of violence as risk factors for carrying a firearm to school. Furthermore, adolescents typically over-estimated the proportion of their peers who carried weapons to school. This “normative assumption” correlated with greater likelihood of a student carrying a firearm (Dowd & Sege, 2012).

Tec-9 guns.com

Tec-9 assault weapons for sale online at tec9guns.com


National studies of firearm-related violence are limited. In 1996, the US Congress approved an amendment to an appropriations bill that effectively removed firearm studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC is forbidden from funding any study that might “advocate or promote gun control” (Frankel, 2015).

In developmental terms, carrying a firearm can be viewed as a maladaptive and dangerous means of coping with adolescent development. The AAP cites carrying a firearm as a function following aspects of adolescent growth and development:

  1. Search for identity and autonomy
  2. Curiosity
  3. Rites of passage
  4. Feelings of invincibility
  5. Impulsivity
  6. Mood swings (Dowd & Sege, 2012)

The combination of carrying a firearm and substance abuse is particularly problematic. In clinical trials, alcohol impairs judgment about when use of a firearm might be appropriate. And when such a weapon is used, the influence of alcohol reduces shooting accuracy (Carr, Wiebe, Richmond, Cheney, & Branas, 2009). Furthermore, firearm owners are more likely to engage in other risk–taking behaviors, such as drinking and driving, consuming more than 60 drinks per month, and unsafe gun ownership: heavy alcohol users are more likely to keep firearms loaded and unlocked (Wintemute, 2011). Although these studies were conducted with adult subjects, the “normal” risk taking and impulsivity of adolescents is a dangerous combination with substance abuse and firearm access.

Clinicians are in complex medico-legal territory when talking with patients about firearm ownership. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics advises discussing firearm safety as part of standard anticipatory guidance, this is not always legal. In 2014, the Florida Privacy of Firearm Owners Act passed in a 2-1 vote in the US Court of Appeals. This act forbids any healthcare provider from asking patients about firearm ownership, as this is deemed to be a violation of the patient’s privacy. Physicians opposed the act, deeming it to be a restriction of their First Amendment rights. The court ruled the Act had “only an incidental effect on physician’s speech.” It is anticipated that more states will pass similar legislation, and clinicians must be aware of state regulations that impact their ability to ask questions or offer preventive guidance about firearms (Hamblin, 2014).

The Florida Privacy of Firearm Owners Act is not absolute. It does permit clinicians to inquire about access to firearms or discuss firearm safety if it is deemed relevant to a patient’s care (Hamblin, 2014). Therefore, clinician in Florida cannot ask or advise about firearms during a routine visit, but it is permissible to inquire in the event that the patient has disclosed potential plans to inflict harm on his or herself or on others.


Planning and Arsenals

Although impulsivity could lead to a final conscious or subconscious decision to carry out a rampage attack, school shooters appear to plan for months and collect “arsenals” of weapons and ammunition. This is analogous to bomb attacks at schools. A joint study by the United States Secret Service and Department of Education found that 95 percent of school bombings were planned, some up to one year in advance (Vossekuil, Fein, Reddy, Borum, & Modzeleski, 2002).

  • In the months prior to his attack at the Century Theater, James Eagan Holmes purchased 3,000 rounds of handgun ammunition, 3,000 rounds for a semi-automatic rifle, and 350 shells for a shotgun (Dao, 2012). Holmes wrote a 29-page notebook, in which he pondered his perceived pros and cons of various means and venues of mass murder (Almasy, 2015).
  • Eric Harris also maintained a journal prior to his attack at Columbine High School. The journal included details of how he planned to obtain weapons for his attack. He wrote this about a year prior to the attack Harris and his classmate, Dylan Klebold, developed an arsenal of a double-barrel shotgun, a TEC-9 semiautomatic assault weapon, a sawed-off shotgun, a 9 mm semiautomatic rifle, a propane tank and fuse, and more than 30 pipe bombs (Cullen, 2009).
  • Adam Lanza prepared an arsenal including 1,000 rounds of ammunition, samurai swords, and a bayonet. Police searched the Lanza home after Lanza killed his mother, 20 children, six adults, and himself. The search revealed a holiday card from Nancy Lanza to her son, Adam. The card included a check for him to purchase another gun (Susman, 2013).

The efforts undertaken to prepare for these rampage attacks were elaborate. There is no screening tool to identify a patient who might be collecting such an arsenal or documenting plans for an attack. Likewise, firearm ownership is legal, and writing violent thoughts in a journal or concerning thoughts is not cause for a watch not a warning.

Specifics and planning should be taken into consideration if a patient has raised concerns for violent potential. In the case of interpreting a bomb threat to a school, the specificity of the threat is an indicator of its severity (Vossekuil et al., 2002).

A patient who expresses specific plans, such as a method, location, date, or specific potential victims of an attack, has moved from a watch to a warning. This is an indication to seek immediate collaboration with colleagues, including but not limited to mental health providers, families, schools, and law enforcement.

Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a provider may disclose protected health information if there is a “good faith” effort to lessen the threat of “serious and imminent” threat to self and safety. The law expressly permits disclosure to family and to law enforcement (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2008).

The medical and mental health services at post-secondary institutions are largely governed by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which contains similar to language about “good faith” and a “serious and imminent threat” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Education, 2008). Primary care providers should acquaint themselves with the federal privacy rules that govern their practice environments as well as state administrative codes that also govern patient privacy.


Duty to Warn

All healthcare providers working with a potentially violent patient need to be cognizant of their duty to warn a potential victim of a violent crime.

The “duty to warn” concept was articulated as early as the 1950s, when the American Psychological Association (APA) stated that a it is ethical to breach confidentiality when there is a “clear and imminent danger to an individual and society” (Huey, 2015). In 1976, it became the provider’s legal obligation to inform the potential victim (Burgess et al., 2015).

This “duty to warn” is sometimes referred to as a “Tarasoff Warning.” Prosenjit Poddar, a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley, expressed his wishes to inflict harm on a woman who had rejected his advances, Tatiana Tarasoff. Poddar sought care at the university’s counseling service. The providers at the counseling service informed the university police that Poddar had plans to harm an unnamed victim. Tarasoff herself was not informed. The university police interviewed Poddar; he denied any intent to harm Tarasoff, and the Chief of Psychiatry ordered that documentation involving the university police be destroyed. Prosenjit purchased a firearm two months later, shot, and killed Tatiana Tarasoff (Burgess et al., 2015).

Prosenjit Poddar and Tatiana Tarasoff (photo: dailycal.org)


The case against the University of California was originally dismissed by the lower court (Alameda County), but the California Supreme Court ruled that Tarasoff’s death was preventable (Burgess et al., 2015).

Some healthcare providers have argued that Tarasoff Warnings may be counterproductive since a patient may not disclose violent intent if he or she is aware that a breach of confidentiality is possible. But there is clear legal precedent that providers have an obligation to execute a Tarasoff Warning if there is sufficient concern for a victim’s safety (Huey, 2015). Just like a duty to breach confidentiality for an actively suicidal patient, providers have a responsibility to breach confidentiality for an actively homicidal patient.

A similar case arose in 2010. Kenneth Chapman visited the emergency department three times for severe depression. He was discharged from the emergency department on each occasion. Chapman subsequently murdered his wife, four children, and himself. His two surviving children reportedly settled with the hospital system for $11.5 million because there was a “clear, imminent, and reasonably foreseeable danger of harm by a patient to a known victim” (Burgess et al., 2015).

The “clear, imminent, and reasonably foreseeable danger of harm” criteria are difficult to fulfill. Lynne Fenton MD, a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado Medical Campus, testified that James Holmes never expressed specifics about a target or intent to harm anyone. He expressed homicidal ideation, but did not express his plan, intent, or means, which therefore prevented Fenton from breaching confidentiality or pursuing civil commitment. Without an articulated victim, there were no grounds for a Tarasoff Warning. Although Holmes was preparing a cache of weapons and had selected a target, he never articulated this to Fenton. Holmes subsequently killed 12 at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater (O’Neill & Weisfeldt, 2015).

holmes telegraph.co.uk

James Eagan Holmes, who murdered 12 and injured 70 at the Century Movie Theatre


Implications for Primary Care Providers

  1. Despite the devastating impact of a school shooting, the statistical likelihood is small.
  2. Due to the small study population, there is no clear, consistent “profile” of a potential rampage killer in any population (adolescent, young adult, or adult.)
  3. Substance abuse, male gender, and access to firearms are the most consistent predictors of rampage violence.
  4. Although mood disorders, compulsive traits, antisocial personality traits, and thought disorders can play a role in violence, these are not consistent predictors.
  5. Actuarial risk assessments can contribute to an assessment, but have poor statistical reliability.
  6. Medico-legal issues involving breaching confidentiality and inquiries or advice about firearms should not stop any provider from taking action. With collaboration, and legal consultation if warranted, the duty to warn and to protect the patient and public supersede privacy laws.
  7. Do not worry alone. Risk assessment is complex, and warrants immediate consultation and concerted action.
  8. There is an ongoing need for further research, particularly involving the effective use of actuarial models, exploring the role of compulsive personalities, and identifying the most reliable risk factors or constellation of factors so that attacks can be prevented.


Many primary care providers have had the experience of working with a patient who created anxiety about violence. These are often patients within the realm of a “tornado watch:” multiple “ingredients” for violence are present, but predictive science is not yet adequate to identify what might cause a particular thunderstorm to spawn a tornado and what might cause a troubled adolescent or young adult to commit a mass murder. Clinicians walk a line between confidentiality and duty to warn, the need to take action and the need to recognize what constitutes unsettling but not violent behavior.

Primary care providers should be aware that there is no reliable method of predicting rampage violence, but collaboration and respecting the duty to warn where applicable are important for every clinician. There is a clear need for further research into the prediction of rampage violence, but it is a difficult area to study due to the small study population.

Nancy Lanza NY daily news

Nancy Lanza, who was shot at close range by her son. In the Lanza home, police found a holiday card from Mrs. Lanza to her son. It included a check for him to purchase another firearm.


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This article was presented at the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series at the University of South Florida in July 2015.

One editor at an academic journal declined to publish it, saying, “If rampage killings are so rare, why should we study them?”