Utah psychiatrist peers into dark mind of school shooter

Mar 28, 2023, 5:00 PM | Updated: Mar 29, 2023, 9:07 am

school shooter...

An an entry to Covenant School has become a memorial for shooting victims, Tuesday, March 28, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/John Amis)

(AP Photo/John Amis)

SALT LAKE CITY — What is in the mindset of a school shooter? A Utah doctor examines the three mental steps that influence an active shooter or serial killer to act out.

Audrey Hale, 28, who killed three children and three adults at the Covenant School, a private Christian school in Nashville, where Hale was a former student, was under care for an emotional disorder and had legally bought seven firearms hidden at home, said Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake as CNN reported Tuesday.

Hale was shot and killed by police during the assault on the school Monday.

Officials “feel that she identifies as trans, but we’re still in the initial investigation into all of that and if it actually played a role into this incident,” Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake told NBC News.

“I was shocked when we first learned about this this story because part of what made it unique was that the police identified this individual [shooter] as a female, right,” Dave said. “They thought it was a teen female. We’ve since learned — and police have said this — that they believe this individual transitioned as a trans-male.”

The three parts in the mind of a school shooter

Dr. Hans Watson, a psychiatrist and owner of Dynamic Psychiatry, in South Jordan, Utah, joins Dave & Dujanovic to detail the mindset of a mass or school shooter.

Watson said three steps comprise the mindset of an active shooter or serial killer. He said the first step is the killer holds an altered sense of reality.

“That means you start creating a view of what the world looks like that has no contrary views being allowed there. You know, that could be ‘I only hang around people who have views similar to mine,’ that could be ‘I’m in a virtual world’,” he said.

The second step is impaired conflict-resolution skills, he said.

“That starts building a disastrous situation to where instead of being able to resolve conflict and see contrary views and work through it, it starts becoming: Since your view is different than mine, you must be bad, and therefore, the only way to make you change is for you to feel the pain I’m feeling,” Watson said.

He added the two steps join the third: a lack of empathy or feeling for those around you.

“The big difference between an active shooter versus a serial killer is an active shooter is somebody that has no ability to tolerate patience,” Watson said. “They have no delayed gratification, whereas a serial killer is a very patient person.

“This is somebody that’s so fragile that they just can’t tolerate if the world is about to show them a different view than they’ve come to believe,” he said.

School shooter’s resentment

“In your view, does his former attendance at that school in third or fourth grade play into it in some regard? Like there’s some sort of resentment there as the chief had spelled out in conversations with the national media?” Debbie asked.

Since he has not interviewed any person in the shooting-attack case, Watson said his response is speculation.

“I would be investigating that immediately because that is really highly likely. If you have that impaired sense of what reality is, and you’ve never learned to incorporate other views because that could be conflicting, well, it’s easy to go back and say, ‘When was the first time I was miserable?’ It must be their fault,’ whereas the reality may be that that was the first time I should have learned to use conflict resolution but I never did.

“You can see how if you don’t have that ability, it’s easy to go back and say, ‘It must be all your fault why I’m struggling now’,” Watson said.

You are either moving forward or regressing

Dave said what stood out for him was that it has been 20 years since the killer attended the school.

People are either progressing or regressing in their lives, Watson said.

“It may have taken taken 20 years of regression, where at any point in there this individual — or any of us — could have said, ‘Let me learn to start to reflect,’ and that would have broken that cycle,” Watson said.

“That’s why so many people benefit so much from therapy and these types of things. They can totally change the course of their life.

“Sadly, we’re seeing an example that I suspect is somebody who never did break that chain because it would have been uncomfortable to start self-reflecting and see a new sense of reality and have to face what could have been a difficult, temporary thing” Watson said. 

Related reading: Listen more, talk less, when addressing school shootings with your kids


Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.  

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Utah psychiatrist peers into dark mind of school shooter