Taking Aim at School Shootings: Stop Talking About Guns, Start Using Three Warning Signs

Op-Ed by Phyllis Coleman

It’s impossible to eliminate all school shootings.

But it is possible to stop many of them.

The debate about guns won’t do it. Neither side will budge from its belief: either that we need more or fewer guns.  No compromise.  No solution.

Unless we change course, we will continue watching as kids (and adults) pay for our failures with their lives, limbs, and mental health.

The proposed integrated approach presents a viable, effective alternative. Based on 50+ years of legal and mental health research, it uses three warning signs to identify potential offenders and then convince them they really don’t want to harm anyone.

Although perpetrators are generally white males up to age 25 with a connection to the school, experts caution that profiling based on characteristics does not work.

Heightened scrutiny based on behavior could.

Warning Signs

Up-Close and Personal Animal Abuse

Sadly, many children abuse animals.  However, researchers have discovered the type of brutality, rather than the mere fact of abuse, is significant in whether an individual will escalate to violence against humans.  For example, 90% of 23 school shooters who mistreated animals did so in an up-close and personal manner.


But not surprising.  Multiple studies establish such conduct justifies trying to detect and stop these sadistic kids.

By applying recognized warning signs, and eliminating false positives, the number of possible offenders becomes more manageable.  Engaging those who enjoy torturing or murdering dogs and/or cats using literally “get-your-hands-dirty” methods refines the search and improves the results.

Need evidence?  How about a 12-year, 2021 Secret Service report concluding “[t]he second most frequent motive for such shootings is ‘a desire to kill’ proven by ‘pleasurable feelings derived from animal abuse’”?

Scary.  And strong support for immediate action.

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Administrators creating or modifying school threat assessment procedures and forms must draft questions that expose up-close and personal animal abuse, especially toward dogs and/or cats.

State legislators should create “enhanced animal cruelty,” a felony defined as “killing or seriously injuring a companion, service, or emotional support dog or cat by up-close and personal abuse, such as, but not limited to, strangling, bludgeoning, burning, or mutilating.”

State laws should mandate (1) everyone, including veterinarians, report up-close and personal animal abuse and (2) other professionals cross report because animal abuse occurs in up to 88% of families under supervision for child abuse.

Domestic Violence

Dubbed “the link,” the connection between animal cruelty and domestic violence is well documented.  Between 49 and 71% of abusers harmed their partners’/spouses’ pets.


Legislators should redefine household residents to explicitly include “any companion, service, or emotional support dog or cat who resides in the dwelling.”  This could provide legal safeguards to the animal as a domestic violence victim and, with the federal Pet and Women Safety Act, free the estimated 48% of battered women who stay in abusive relationships to protect their pets.

Mental Illness

A 19-year-old strolls into his former high school with a rifle and kills 17 and injures 17 more.  Most people think he is “crazy” (word without legal or medical significance) because no “normal” person would do that.

But, although anyone who commits unprovoked mass murder is not mentally well, that does not mean he has a diagnosable mental illness.  And, even if he does, most mental illnesses do not make people dangerous.

Contrast conduct disorder, defined as “[a] repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age appropriate societal norms or rules are violated” which does contribute to aggressive behavior against humans and animals.  In fact, psychiatrists divide associated behavior into four categories starting with “Aggression to people and animals.”

Frequently found in male juvenile school shooters, “hurting animals” is typically the first symptom and the earliest clue of underlying problems.  The median age for onset is 6.5 years old. First graders.


Early intervention is often successful for juveniles with conduct disorder.  However, for the 30-40% who develop antisocial personality disorder, treatment is “extremely difficult.”  Because scientists now believe the human brain does not fully develop until at least 25, to assure those who could be helped obtain recommended care at the optimal time, judges should be required to order psychological evaluation and prescribed therapy for people in that cohort convicted of “enhanced animal cruelty” or a similar crime.

Going Forward

Review of widely reported mass school attacks since 2018 reveals at least three of the five shooters manifested all three warning signs.  This proposed strategy could have prevented them from carrying out their devastating massacres.  As for the other two suspects, not enough is known for meaningful analysis.  The shootings were too recent, and both are dead.

Nevertheless, it would not undermine the efficacy of, or need for, the proposal even if neither displayed any of the three warning signs.  Instead, it would reinforce the original premise that nothing will stop all school shootings.

One more concern.  If officials adopt the recommendations and the number of shootings plummet, there is no way to prove which, if any, suggestion(s) worked.

Doesn’t matter.  The other benefits are sufficient to justify the changes:

  • gruesome animal abuse reduced,
  • human and animal victims of domestic violence protected,
  • children with conduct disorder received needed treatment when it was likely to stop them from harming others and destroying their own lives,
  • innocent bystanders not victimized.

Most importantly, all five shooters exhibited behavior that should have alerted those around them that there were problems.  Almost every offender, especially the young ones, tells someone his plans.  When he does, that person must alert the authorities and they must respond.

Bonus: For those who continue to embrace gun control as the answer, presumably you agree that averting a school shooting by resolving a potential culprit’s issues so he no longer wants to harm innocent targets, or restricting his access to firearms so he cannot shoot anyone but not infringing Second Amendment rights, achieves everyone’s goals . . . all without firing a shot.

Phyllis Coleman, Professor Emerita of Law, Shepard Broad College of Law, Fort Lauderdale, FL. Professor Coleman explains her interdisciplinary recommendations to reduce the number of school shootings. She developed her multifaceted proposal based on her unique professional background and perspective as an animal advocate, one of the first full-time law professors to create and teach Animal Law classes, and decades teaching and publishing about laws affecting animals, families, and mental health. For further information, please read her recent law review article, Targeting School Shootings: Using Three Warning Signs — Animal Abuse, Domestic Violence, and Conduct Disorder — To Help Prevent Massacres, at https://nsuworks.nova.edu/law_facarticles/457.

Image: Pixabay

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1 Comment on "Taking Aim at School Shootings: Stop Talking About Guns, Start Using Three Warning Signs"

  1. Poppycock. The most reliable indicator of an impending school shooting is the recent visitation from one of the groups known to stage such events: FBI, DHS, ADL, DNC. Any active shooter drill shoot cause alarm.

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