Is Getting BIG Attention a “Motive?”

© 2013 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Much is being made this week of trying to analyze the Sandy Hook school shooting a year ago. The report just came out giving details of the shooting, but gave “no motive” for the mass shooting of 20 children, six adults and himself at the school. “The obvious question that remains is: Why did the shooter murder 27 people, including 20 children? Unfortunately that question may never be answered,” the report said, according to the Los Angeles Times (See, “Sandy Hook Report,” by Tina Sussman, Nov. 25, 2013.) As I have stated in earlier blogs, a significant number of recent mass shootings have been by young men between 15 and 25. This is a development age when finding one’s identity and importance in the world is top priority for both men and women. But for young men, there is more importance placed on being powerful and less social support for just being yourself. (Not that it’s easy for young women, especially nowadays, but society is generally more supportive and protective of young women in general, and there is a more natural drive – probably biological – and more cultural rewards for pro-social behavior by young women.)

For young men with mental illness in this age group, finding an identity that will gain attention and respect is much more complicated. For isolated young men with mental illness, just perceiving oneself to be an outcast can trigger powerful feelings of anger, resentment, rage and desire for revenge against the society that seems to have rejected them at this key time in their development. The more isolated, the more the drive for BIG attention.

The Sandy Hook shooter was even isolated from his mother, who he apparently lived with but did not communicate with except by email. She apparently tried to get him help and felt at a loss for what to do. (He also killed her that day – with a gun she got for him.) I can certainly empathize with her, because I worked for many years with teenagers with mental health problems at psychiatric hospitals and outpatient clinics. I worked with parents and their children together in individual and family therapy, and saw how families can overcome social isolation for mentally disturbed teenagers, both boys and girls, including ending some physical violence toward their own parents. But this takes resources, such as inpatient hospitalizations and on-going counseling. Most of this has dried up over the past 20 years.

But the drive for attention does not go away. The question for such young adults is how to get it. And the more isolated and feeling like an outcast, the more they picture BIG attention. For some, it is to become famous inventing something, or recording a hit song, or athletic success. But if you have no outlets or support or push to be socially involved, then it can become a more destructive drive for BIG attention.

The Sandy Hook shooter apparently kept clippings of articles in the room in which he remained isolated. This has been true for other shooters. The way you get BIG attention these days is to do something newsworthy – but it has to be really BIG. As long as we continue to give names of shooters and show their pictures over and over again, we will get BIG shootings. We need to take away this reward for getting negative BIG attention. You’ll notice I never mentioned the shooter’s name here. We also need to take away the weapons of mass destruction which he legally obtained (with his mother’s help), which make it easier to have these fantasies of BIG GUN attention – which really makes the news. The bigger the better, it seems.

Instead, we need to help such young people and not allow them to become isolated with their fantasies of BIG attention. We need to take away the guns that make it so easy to kill themselves and to kill others. Do you know how many people have been killed in the U.S. by guns since the Sandy Hook shootings: 100? 1000? 10,000? (The answer is below in this article.)

As I said in my April blogs, after a mass shooting in Australia in 1996, they passed a very strong mandatory gun buy-back law.

“There is a wide consensus that our 1996 reforms not only reduced the gun-related homicide rate, but also the suicide rate. The Australian Institute of Criminology found that gun-related murders and suicides fell sharply after 1996. The American Journal of Law and Economics found that our gun buyback scheme cut firearm suicides by 74 percent. In the 18 years before the 1996 reforms, Australia suffered 13 gun massacres — each with more than four victims — causing a total of 102 deaths. There has not been a single massacre in that category since 1996.”


In the United States, there have been over 10,000 people killed by guns since the Sandy Hook massacre. “An estimated 10,883 people have died as a result of gun violence in America since the Newtown massacre on Dec. 14, 2012.” (The New York Times, “Weekend Gun Report: November 22-24, 2013” by Jennifer Mascia, Nov 25, 2013.)

We need to find ways to give struggling young men BIG attention, without giving them BIG guns.

This Thanksgiving, let’s give some BIG attention to the young men in our lives between 15 and 25 – for just being who they are and encouraging them to develop themselves in positive ways, with BIG fantasies of doing good deeds and leading good lives – long lives.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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