Investigations

How a Loner Became a Mass-Murderer: Report on Sandy Hook School Killer Reveals Shocking Details

As Adam Lanza's mental health deteriorated, his access to firearms did not.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) Gina Jacobs

The short life of Adam Lanza, the killer responsible for the 2012 mass shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, was a perfect storm of missed cues, bungled mental healthcare, overwhelmed and absentee parenting, easy access to guns, violent video games and online chats where murder was discussed like baseball scores.

These are some of takeaways from a 114-page report issued by the state of Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate that spent more than a year taking a hard look at Lanza’s life, his medical history, mental health treatments, school experiences, relationship with his parents, and life online—all to ask what could have been done differently.

The report, which reads like a slow-motion train wreck, is careful to avoid drawing hard conclusions about what factors went wrong and exploded in Lanza’s killing of 27 people on Dec. 14, 2012. Instead, it seems to say that every thread was a factor as Lanza spiraled downhill and burrowed into an internal violence-filled fantasy land.

“While we describe the predisposing factors and compounding stresses in AL’s life, we do not conclude that they add up in an inevitable arc leading to mass murder,” the report concludes. “There is no way to adequately explain why AL was obsessed with mass shootings and how or why he came to act on his obsession. In the end, only he, and he alone, bears responsibility for this monstrous act.”

However, the report describes the factors that contributed to Lanza’s mass murder spree at a location he knew very well—the grade school where his absentee father took him as a young adult on walks to try to talk to him. These factors—from his medical history, to the quality and effectiveness of the care he received privately and through school, to his access to guns and violent online fantasyland—pose the question of what might have unfolded if any of these variables had differed.

The most obvious question concerns Lanza’s lifelong access to guns, from an early age to his teenage years when it was clear most of the mental health interventions weren’t changing his behavior. The report says:

AL grew up in a home where it was commonplace to use guns for recreational activity. It cannot be overlooked that as his mental health deteriorated and his isolation from the world increased dramatically, his access to guns did not diminish. His parents, and certainly his mother, seemed unaware of any potential detrimental impact of providing unfettered access to firearms to their son.

Particularly in the waning months of AL’s life, when his mother noted that he would not leave the house and seemed despondent, it is not clear that she took measures to curtail his access to guns or whether she considered his potential for suicide or other acts of violence. Additionally, there is no mention of access to or use of firearms in any other available educational, medical, or mental health records.

This summation is followed by others describing Lanza’s ongoing relationship to guns against a backdrop of fractured family dynamics. He often got what he wanted, as the path of least resistance in a broken home that didn’t know what to do with him.

In later interviews with state police, Mr. Lanza [the father] indicated that he had never given or purchased a firearm for AL but that he assumed Mrs. Lanza [the mother, who he murdered] had. Mr. Lanza indicated that he was unaware that Mrs. Lanza was buying AL his own guns, as opposed to simply doing shooting activities together. Mr. Lanza indicated he knew AL had access to guns when he took him to a shooting range and AL had two long guns that Mr. Lanza believed were purchased by Mrs. Lanza.

The report backs away from the conclusion that access to guns was a decisive factor, saying, “while millions of people in the developed world may have schizophrenia, only an infinitesimal number of those individuals will engage in acts of violence. But rates of gun violence around the world do vary widely based on access to guns.”

Gun-control advocates counter that argument evades the basic truth that access to guns is directly tied to their use in violent assaults, particularly inside the home. “We cannot ignore this simple truth: Too many shootings occur because proper weight has not been given to the risks that come with gun ownership,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, commenting on the report. “A gun in the home increases the risk of an unintentional shooting, suicide and homicide.” 

The report also describes in great detail the long history of the parents’ efforts, especially his mother and public school officials, to get mental health conseling for Lanza and place him in what they hoped would be positive settings where he might outgrow anti-social behaviors. Looking backward, the report questioned whether government case workers and clinicians should have deferred to Lanza’s mother, who claimed she didn’t need more help, when, in retrospect, she clearly did.

A review of AL’s history raises questions regarding whether any providers, particularly the educational system and pediatrics, viewing a youth with profound developmental and mental health challenges, who was at times borderline or actually anorexic, and who was often unavailable for school or treatment, considered that AL’s parents needed assistance or otherwise lacked capacity to ensure that his specialized needs were met.

The report skirts the key question of whether Lanza’s mental illness was of a magnitude that could not be treated through the mix of therapies that were available through schools and private clinicians. In retrospect, it suggests that the state should have acted to step in earlier, because there were clear signs that his mother, left alone as his primary caregiver, was more than overwhelmed and depressed by the ordeal.

The role of a child welfare system may inevitably be to compel a family into support services, a role that may, admittedly bring with it suspicion or fear on the part of the child or family. However, it is fair to query here whether the Lanzas, after all engagement with community mental health services ended, needed to be compelled into services and whether this type of action may have arrested AL’s deterioration and isolation from the community….

People who knew Mrs. Lanza described her as spending a lot of time in a local restaurant and bar during this last year. According to one individual, Mrs. Lanza was often at the bar and she would stay late. When asked about AL and son Ryan, Mrs. Lanza would rarely speak about AL. Interviews indicate that Mrs. Lanza may have expressed some concern to friends or acquaintances about AL, particularly in 2012, noting that he had not come out of his room for months and that he would not engage with her. She worried that he did not care about her at all.

The report reconstructs how Lanza spent most of his time in the years before the killing spree at his home, where he later murdered his mother, and at the elementary school. Playing a video game called “Dance Dance Revolution,” Lanza would work himself up into a physical frenzy akin to running long-distance races.

Reports were that AL would dance for hours at a time. Per description, he would whip himself into a frenzy, a behavior consistent, possibly, with a need to contain anxiety-producing impulses and thoughts. There were days when he would not do anything else but Dance Dance Revolution. He generally would do it alone except for his one friend at the time. AL would sometimes engage in this activity for ten hours at a time. He would move until he was drenched in sweat, not eating for extended periods. He would then retreat into the bathroom and wipe himself off, sometimes returning to the activity once again.

Lanza also played a variety of combat-oriented video games, including some that put him in the role of a “first-person shooter,” the report said. He also had more than a passing interest in researching mass shootings, reading biographies of the killers, and talking about this interest with another youth (who cut off ties to Lanza six months before the shootings) and in chatrooms, the report said.

AL and the friend also talked about their interest in mass murderers or serial killers, but this was just considered to be a mutual morbid interest. Both he and his acquaintance liked horror movies. In June of 2012, he and his primary acquaintance had a falling out and stopped spending time together. AL began researching mass shootings on the computer in 2011. His interest accelerated until he appeared to be obsessed with the details and narratives of these shooters. He and cyber-acquaintances would write about their mutual interest in various shooters and incidents.

The reports’ authors wring their hands over what could have been done differently. Teens today live in a world where their forms of recreations are often filled with violent books, movies and video games. The report’s biggest takeaway seems to be that any household plagued by anti-social bahaviors—if not mental illness—needs to reduce risk factors that can erupt in violent explosions, such as ready access to firearms.

The report chronicles Lanza’s last months, showing an all-but impending explosion.

Over the last months of AL’s life he was also closely connected to a small community of individuals that shared his dark and obsessive interest in mass murder.

July 23, 2012 (from AL to Cyber-Acquaintance): “My interest in mass murdered [sic] has been perfunctory for such a long time. The enthusiasm I had back when Virginia Tech happened feels like it’s been gone for a hundred billion years. I don’t care about anything. I’m just done with it all.

The report says that Lanza was utterly alone, unaccountable and drifting without any boundaries. The investigators found a draft college application essay in which he argued that pedophilia “should not be considered abhorrent or illegal.”

While not everyone who is cut off and isolated is a mass murderer-in-waiting, the report affirms that people who are socially isolated and left to drift on their own are not only endangering their own well-being but are likely to inflict some harm on others that reflects their obsessions. In Lanza’s case, that obsession was extreme violence.

[Cyber] Acquaintances wrote back and forth [to Lanza] regarding various sources of information about shootings, including school shootings. His peer and community influences, present through much of his life, at least in some fashion, through school and family, had largely gone away. Replacing these influences was a narrow group of peers who exerted no positive, regulating force on AL. Unlike normalizing influences and positive community peer groups, his cyber group would have had little willingness or ability to stop his dangerous trajectory or to offer cautioning feedback to him about his impulses.

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Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).