I've been resisting writing this for years because it is going to make me sound (potentially) like a crazy person, but now that we're doing a mass shooting per day here in the Land of Freedom it seems like it needs to be said.
Like millions of Americans, I had an unpleasant time in the K-12 educational system. By that I mean I got picked on a lot and "bullied" in the parlance of the 21st Century. This was by no means an experience that makes me unique. In hindsight, frankly, it makes perfect sense. I was an odd combination of extremely weird and not shy, so rather than keeping to myself I actively engaged with my peers even though I lacked the interpersonal skills to interact successfully. Nothing happened to me that was particularly scarring or that hasn't happened to lots of other people with no particular ill effects. Sure it made me dislike school a little more and it probably had some long term effect on the way I deal with people in social situations, but all in all I would say it fell within the range of Normal childhood experiences.
When you get picked on as a kid, especially as a male in a society in which you are strongly encouraged toward aggressive and violent forms of entertainment and behavior, I don't think it's all that unusual to throw the occasional Eight Year-Old Hissy Fit and think something like, (say in petulant child-voice) "I hate everyone and I'm gonna blow up the school!" Nor is it particularly odd to have a juvenile fantasy about going Bruce Willis on the people who pick on you on the playground. As a young male raised on a steady diet of action films, GI Joes, and video games where you kick and punch and stab and shoot everything in sight, there's nothing surprising about that. There were times when I had particularly bad days in middle school and junior high where I spent an afternoon at my desk thinking how fun it would be to get revenge. My best friend and I created a comic with a protagonist named, creatively, "Super Ninja" and drew strips that inevitably ended with the titular hero cutting the heads off of whoever had spent that lunch period making fun of us.
Today, school administrators would have lost their shit when they discovered our poorly-drawn little strips, but at the time it seemed perfectly harmless. It was understood – by me, by my friend, by everyone involved – that no one was actually going to do any of this. The line between fiction and reality was clearly demarcated. We all understood that two ten year-olds who got picked on a lot for being nerds were retreating into a harmless fantasy in which they didn't get picked on so much. The point is, at no point did it ever occur to me, or any of the other kids who got picked on, to actually blow up the school or shoot anybody. It wasn't even within the realm of possibility.
In short, I don't think it's particularly rare for young people who get picked on to have an imagination that creates revenge scenarios. And, as a kid whose dad took him to see RoboCop on opening night when he was nine years old, I don't think it was particularly odd that sometimes those thoughts involved cartoonish amounts of violence. I may be wrong about this, and in fact I am some kind of rare and dangerous psychopath. In any event I turned out alright, notwithstanding the poor career choice.
It's easy and quite fair to blame the constant and easy availability of guns for the increase in spree-type shootings in the US, particularly in schools. There are too goddamn many people who have too goddamn many guns available for acquisition with almost no effort. What that does not address, however, is why the line between thinking about something and doing it seems to have disappeared or at least retreated. Prior to the mid-1990s, school shootings were almost unheard of and usually perpetrated by disturbed adults rather than students. Yet I don't believe for a second that during that time period, school kids never thought about doing violent things. We watched violent movies and played violent video games and played football and listened to The Rock Music and all of the other supposed triggers and causes that purport to explain the waves of violence in the past two decades. Despite all of that, we managed to think "I hate everyone and I'm gonna blow up the school!" without actually trying to blow up the school. Somehow kids managed to think about going Terminator on grade school bullies without doing it.
I don't know what changed, when, and why. Blaming the media coverage or entertainment or shoddy parenting all feels lazy and unconvincing. Spree killers have always received heavy media attention. Entertainment has always glorified war, fighting, and violence (particularly of the Death Wish "revenge" variety). There have always been lots of bad, negligent, or abusive parents. This generation of kids, however, is noticeably different in how willing some of them – still a very small minority out of the whole, yet far too many overall – are to turn their normal reactions to normal juvenile and adolescent social problems into concrete plans for mass murder.
I have always been hesitant to write this because people do not readily admit to having ever harbored a violent thought. We're all supposed to say that when we got picked on as kids we had emotionally healthy, adult responses and we never thought about shooting things or blowing stuff up like the Good Guys did in every movie, game, comic, and TV show we saw. But I think that recognizing that this is not especially rare is an important part of being able to understand why the distinction between thought and action has weakened and devise some useful ideas about how to strengthen it again.