On April 26, 2002, 19-year-old Robert Steinhauser opened fire at Johannes Gutenberg secondary school in Erfurt, Germany, killing 13 teachers, two students, and one police officer. He wore a black Ninja-style outfit and a black ski mask. After declaring, “That’s enough for today,” he committed suicide by turning the gun on himself. The massacre appears to have been motivated by revenge against teachers. Steinhauser had failed a required university entrance exam in 2001 and was denied the opportunity to retake the exam one year later because he had missed classes and faked excuse notes.
The Erfurt massacre is one of the worst school shootings in history. More people were killed as a result of Steinhauser’s killing spree (16) than were killed at Columbine High School (13) in Littleton, Colorado, 1999. At the time, the minimum age for gun ownership in Germany was 18. Steinhauser was legally entitled to own firearms and was a member of two gun clubs. He carried two weapons into the school, a 9-mm Glock 17 (a semi-automatic pistol) and a pump-action (slider) shotgun, though he used only the former in the massacre. Steinhauser had valid licenses for both weapons. According to Blenkinsop (2002), the Erfurt mass killings coinci-dentally occurred just before the German parliament passed legislation that tightened gun laws. Pump-action shotguns were banned in the new legislation, and the minimum legal age for gun ownership was raised from 18 to 21.
In addition to being a gun enthusiast, Steinhauser secretly owned a collection of videos that featured “extreme use of weapons” and violent video games, according to a representative of the German police. In the wake of the Erfurt attack, some conservative critics of the German government, such as the leader of the opposition party, called for the banning of such “killer games” and tougher controls on those who sell them.
The Erfurt massacre is of one of several such crimes that took place during the 1990s and 2000s, although most happened in the United States. The increase in frequency in school shootings has sparked discussion about what should be done to avoid future massacres. The levels of violence exhibited, the inability to predict such incidents, and their sensational nature have resulted in widespread publicity and speculation on the approaches to thwart future school shooting sprees. Most strategies have focused on “zero-tolerance” approaches–that is, policies that administer punishments for infractions such as possession of drugs and weapons in school. Such policies have also been used as strategies against behaviors such as bullying. Zero-tolerance approaches are controversial. Casella (2001), for example, describes them as responses that do little more than appease the fears of parents and the scrutiny of journalists, rather than attempt to grapple with social explanations of violence such as school shootings.
The proliferation of zero-tolerance policies belies the fact that school shootings, although horrific and captivating of public interest, are exceedingly rare. The degree of reaction–in the form of journalism, research, books, policies, and public discussion–is disproportionate to the actual numbers of school shootings that have taken place in the last few decades. Such preoccupation with school shootings constitutes a moral panic–a term that refers to overreactions to a social phenomenon that is extraordinary or unusual but is widely perceived as a threat to social order and norm.
Media coverage of school shootings tends to focus on the upbringing and psychological state of the perpetrator to explain why such massacres happen. For example, according to a BBC report, Steinhauser was described as “normal” by those who knew him. The report added that
Faced with this inability to explain Robert Steinhauser’s individual psychology, it was left to Interior Minister Otto Schily to pose the wider question: “We must also ask ourselves the deeper question of what actually is going on in our society when a young person causes such disaster in such a way.”
To answer that question is difficult, especially if the focus of the question is a gender-neutral “young person.” News reports often describe school shooters as “youngsters” or “kids.” Sensationalizing the Columbine massacre, Time magazine, on its May 3, 1999, cover story, described the perpetrators as “the monsters next door.” The driving question of such commentary is simple: Why? Gender-neutral language is perhaps one of the reasons that concrete insights are elusive. It is not generic “kids” or “monsters” who perpetrate school shootings. Rather, the overwhelming majority of school shooters are boys. One notable exception is the case of Brenda Ann Spencer, who, at the age of 16, shot and killed two adults and injured eight students in San Diego, California, in 1979. The shooting inspired the hit song “I Don’t Like Mondays” by the British rock group the Boomtown Rats.
Another obvious but mostly overlooked fact about school shooters, including Steinhauser, is that the majority are not only male, but also white. An exception is Seung-Hui Cho, a 23-year-old South Korean student who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech University in 2007. Wise (2001) argues that whiteness as an unnamed pattern explains why the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has not created “profiles” of school shooters, as agents would have if the majority of such killers were black. Whiteness as a commonality has mostly escaped meaningful analysis.
The Spencer and Cho cases aside, the perspective that school shootings are perpetrated by disturbed individual youth is “dangerously shortsighted,” according to anti-violence activists Jackson Katz and Sut Jhally (1999). They emphasize the gendered nature of school shootings in their argument that school shootings are “not a case of kids killing kids. This is boys killing boys and boys killing girls.”
The socialization of boys, Katz and Jhally argue, is heavily invested in reducing boys’ emotional capacities in favor of fostering and rewarding aggression, toughness, and individualism. Combined with social norms of masculinity, the mass media are a significant factor in promoting a “tough guise” (Jhally, 1999) to which boys and men are expected to adhere to gain masculine status. From such a perspective, boys are taught to deal with conflict in verbally and physically aggressive ways. Of course, not all boys subscribe to such normalized notions of masculinity. Nevertheless, socially detrimental behaviors such as aggression are glamorized and idealized in various forms of mass-media entertainment aimed at boys. Further, boys who do not or cannot subscribe to socially normative ways of sounding and acting like a boy are typically rejected as sissies, fags, or queers.
The Steinhauser case, like other cases of school massacres, incited a call not only for tighter gun controls, but also for bans of violent video games and other forms of media. It also compelled many Germans to consider that school shootings are no longer a phenomenon specific to the United States. While theories and strategies have been offered to explain and prevent school shootings, Newman et al. (2004) suggest that doing so requires the development of a theory that is predictive in its capabilities. Most youth are exposed to violent media and many have guns at their disposal, yet school shootings remain extremely rare. Thus any such theory, Newman et al. argue, is highly unlikely to be valid.
- Bergling, T. (2001). Sissyphobia: Gay men and effeminate behavior. Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park.
- Blenkinsop, P. (2002, April 27). Shootings to reignite debate on gun control. Toronto Star, p. A26.
- Caistor, N. (2002, April 28). Profile of a teenage killer: “Why?” is the question many Germans are asking. BBC News Online. Retrieved November 24, 2008, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1956206.stm
- Casella, R. (2001). At zero tolerance: Punishment, prevention, and school violence. New York: Peter Lang.
- Connell, R. W. (2007). Masculinities (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Polity.
- Glassner, B. (1999). The culture offear: Why Americans are afraid ofthe wrong things. New York: Basic.
- Helm, T. (2002, April 29). Teenage gunman wove web of deceit, police say: Massacre in Germany: Parents thought he was taking his final exams. National Post, p. A12.
- Jhally, S. (Director). (1999). Tough guise: Violence, media, and the crisis in masculinity. [Motion picture]. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation.
- Katz, J., & Jhally, S. (1999, May 2). The national conversation in the wake of Littleton is missing the mark. Boston Globe, p. E1. Retrieved from http://www.jacksonkatz.com/pub_missing.html
- Larkin, R. W. (2007). Comprehending Columbine. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
- Murphy, C. L. (2002, April 30). Playing the game: Germany’s teenage killer. BBC News Online. Retrieved November 24, 2008, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1959632.stm
- Newman, C. S., Fox, C., Harding, D. J., Mehta, J., & Roth, W. (2004). Rampage: The social roots ofschool shootings. New York: Basic Books.
- Pascoe, C. J. (2007). Dude, you’re a fag: Masculinity and sexuality in high school. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Wise, T. (2001, March 6). School shootings and white denial. Retrieved November 25,2008, from http://academic.udayton.edu/race/01race/white08.htm