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Introduction   Media coverage  In his own words   Reaction

Previous School Shootings

Prior to the Virginia Tech shooting, the deadliest school shooting in America's history took place at the University of Texas in 1966. In that instance, Charles Whitman climbed a clock tower and opened fire, killing 16 before the police killed him. The Columbine High shootings of 1999 were the worst in recent memory. There, two high school students killed a teacher and 12 students before they killed themselves.

Mass Murder: Prevalence and Risk Factors

Mass murder is incredibly rare. Generally defined as a murder with five or more victims, mass murders represent less than 1% of all US homicides. That rate has been stable for the past 25 years. Diane Follingstad, professor of clinical and forensic psychology at the University of South Carolina, notes that mass murder "is a low baserate thing. It just does not happen very often."

Premeditation

Mass killers don't just snap. Associate professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, Dr. Michael Welner says, "These people plan to carry out a mass killing without any indication of when they will do it. Instead of snapping, imagine a cage that someone has the capacity to unhinge. They simply decide that today is the day." Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who went on a shooting rampage at Columbine in 1999, prepared for months leading up to the attack. Virginia Tech's Seung-Hui Cho did the same. He observed the lawful 30-day waiting period between buying his first and second guns. The manifesto he mailed to NBC likely took days to complete. Investigators say he spent thousands of dollars preparing for the attack.

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Warning Signs

The 1999 Columbine shooting led the United States government to commission a study of 37 incidents of school violence between 1974 and 2000. The goal was to formulate a profile of likely perpetrators. The study found that greater than 50% of all attackers were at some point diagnosed with extreme depression. 25% had experienced problems with alcohol and drugs. A less clear-cut, but still statistically-significant percentage of attackers had been the victims of physical or sexual abuse.

But the study contained more troubling findings. More than 75% of the time, at least one person knew of the attacker's plans before the murders took place. In 40% of cases, people had detailed knowledge of those plans, including where and when the attack would occur. The study stressed that rampages are preventable if friends and family pay attention and report such behaviours.

Teachers and Students Wary of Cho

These lessons are especially poignant in Cho's case. After his rampage, investigations revealed both a past history of mental illness and present troubles. The Chairwoman of Virginia Tech's English Department told news sources that "there was some concern about him." One professor was so disturbed she insisted Cho be removed from her class. Students also recognised something was wrong. Upon reading his plays, Cho's classmate commented to a friend: "This is the kind of guy who is going to walk into a classroom and start shooting people." He was tragically correct.

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