Almost ten years ago, I was on the grass at Clement Park adjacent Columbine High School covering what would become the world's most iconic school shooting.
Last week, I was on the Internet reading about the Winnenden, Germany school shootings, and nothing had changed. The breaking news in the search for answers was a familiar brew of gun control, parenting, and violent video games. A tough Spiegel Online piece Monday brought them all together when a commentator wrote, "But we have debated about weapons laws and video games for long enough. Our biggest problem are parents who aren't doing their jobs."
I can't fully point the finger at the Winnenden parents, nor the Columbine parents. We still don't have enough information on either of them. (Although sadly, you might note, it's ten years after the April 20, 1999 Columbine shootings, and only about ten days after Winnenden.)
But I was surprised to see video games become the bogeyman again. Call me naive.
Tragedies can bring about positive change, and Columbine is no exception. Police have adopted "active shooter" policies to charge in rather than hang back and form a perimeter when facing school shooters. And there has been new scholarship into what makes school shooters tick.
I began a ten-year odyssey of book research because I felt there had to be some common denominators causing school shootings. Traditional theories of juvenile delinquency would not do; school shooters did not tend to be warped by drug abuse, physical abuse, or poverty.
It's wrong to say the video games played by Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had no effect on them. As I write in the book, previously excerpted here on Kotaku:
Video games may have given Eric and Dylan paths for their anger: Postal had details that previewed Columbine, and Doom's philosophy of the lone Marine against the rest of hell helped inform Eric and Dylan's us against them mentality. The game's tough as nails descriptions also seeped into their brains and influenced Eric's writings. Staring at the computer screen would keep Eric and Dylan from developing the social skills to merge with the rest of the world they so desperately wanted to connect with.
But Eric and Dylan were not the only ones exposed to the joysticks: In one week in 1997, sales of Postal hit 15,000 copies, according to the Wall Street Journal. The video games did not cause their anger. That came from elsewhere.
That elsewhere, I have found, is in America's seemingly picture-perfect backyard: Suburbs and small towns in the South and West. Virtually every Columbine-style shooting has occurred on those grid points. My forthcoming book Columbine: A True Crime Story, a victim, the killers and the nation's search for answers notes:
There is not just a psychological profile of school shooters, but an environmental one - one which fits both Eric and Dylan. School shootings overwhelmingly occur in suburbs and small towns, which may be rich in sports, shopping malls, and BMW's, but poor in diversity and tolerance. Deviation from the whitebread norm is punished, and the high school campus is often the sole arbiter of adolescent status. A loser at school feels like a loser through and through. School shooters have no escape hatch, and nowhere else to turn for self-esteem. Options outside of school off ered by a big city are not found in small towns and suburbs: There is no Hollywood Boulevard for the punk rockers.
The template for suburban school shootings may be the inner-city, youth violence epidemic from 1985 to 1995 that "seeped into pop culture" as one study put it. Columbine, along with Littleton and the other school shooting locales, are the exact opposite of crime-infested, poverty-ridden high schools in Detroit and Watts. But thousands of Columbines across the country are tough, in their own suburban and small town way. Status and cliques are as virulent as gang warfare, and the outcasts face stiff odds. After too many marginalizations, dating rejections, or bottles thrown at them white, middle-class, disaffected youth may have hijacked the violent, inner-city solution.
The homes to school shootings have different names but the same genetic makeup: Springfield, Oregon. West Paducah, Kentucky. Pearl, Mississippi. Santee, California. They form a violent crescent through the South and West. Here, the spiritual forefathers of school shooters are Western gunslingers and Southern duels. Simply put, the psychologist Richard Nisbett notes, "The U.S. South, and Western regions of the United States initially settled by Southerners, are more violent than the rest of the country."
Jeff Kass, a former reporter with the Los Angeles Times and more recently the Rocky Mountain News, is the author of Columbine: A True Crime Story - A Victim, the Killers and the Nation's Search for Answers