Was Adam Lanza an Anders Breivik copycat? Why experts are skeptical

A CBS News report suggests that Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza was influenced by violent video games and Anders Breivik's Norwegian rampage. Experts cast doubts on both assertions.

Jason DeCrow/AP/File
A police cruiser sits in the driveway as crime scene tape surrounds Lanza home in Newtown, Conn., in this file photo. News reports suggest Adam Lanza had a private gaming room with thousands of dollars worth of violent video games and the windows blacked out.

New reports suggesting Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza was inspired by violent video games, as well as a desire to “out-kill” Norway mass shooter Anders Breivik, has added fuel to the firestorm over the role violent video games and copycat behavior play in mass shootings.

Law-enforcement officials speaking with CBS News say evidence found in Mr. Lanza’s home – including a trove of violent video games and newspaper clippings about the 2011 Norway mass shooting – led them to deduce potential motives behind the Newtown, Conn., massacre that left 20 children and six adults dead at Sandy Hook late last year.

But criminal-justice experts say research does not support a link between violent video games and mass shootings such as the one Lanza carried out Dec. 14.

“There is no research to support that violent video games are linked to violent behavior or to crime,” says Scott Belshaw, a criminal-justice professor at the University of North Texas in Denton. “Research does not substantiate that at all.”

According to the report by two unnamed officials briefed on the Newtown shootings who spoke with CBS News, Lanza aspired to outdo Mr. Breivik, who hunted down and fatally shot 69 people at an annual summer camp of the Norwegian Labor Party's youth wing in July 2011. Lanza may have targeted Sandy Hook Elementary because it was the “easiest target” with the “largest cluster of people,” according to CBS News.

Investigators formulated this theory after finding news articles about the Norway shooting in the Lanza home and posited Lanza may have felt an urge to compete with Breivik. The reports suggest that Lanza wanted to exceed Breivik’s body count, not that he was inspired by the extreme right-wing ideology of Breivik, who called himself a "Christian crusader."

Investigators also found thousands of dollars worth of violent video games in the basement of the Lanza home, where Lanza would reportedly spend hours honing his shooting skills in a private gaming room with the windows blacked out. Officials speaking with PBS’s "Frontline" say Lanza may have been inspired by these video games, since he changed the magazines of his weapons more frequently than needed.

Connecticut police have dismissed the report as speculation.

“All of it is speculation. There is no basis to the CBS story,” Connecticut State Police Lt. Paul Vance said in a statement read on CNN. “We have not established a motive. It's inaccurate," he added.

Experts in the criminal-justice community are similarly skeptical of ascribing violent behavior to video games.

“At this point, there is not much evidence to support this belief,” says Chris Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Texas A&M International University in Laredo. “To most of the criminal-justice community, this is a dead issue.”

For one, Dr. Ferguson notes, societal violence has been declining for the past 20 years while video game usage is rising. And countries that consume more violent video games than the US – like South Korea and the Netherlands – have lower rates of violence.

But, says Patrick Markey, a professor of psychology at Villanova University in Philadelphia, violent video games may have more of an affect on people with mental illness, like Lanza, than on the general population.

“There is research that suggests that people with certain personality characteristics might be more susceptible to it,” says Dr. Markey, who has conducted research examining how violent video games affect behavior. People who are very disagreeable, impulsive, moody, or neurotic are generally more hostile to begin with, says Markey, “but put violent media in front of them and their hostility goes up even more.”

Still, he warns against making a direct connection between the two.

“All you can show is that hostility goes up. It’s a huge leap to go from that to … going on a violent shooting spree,” he says.

And then there’s the chicken-and-egg conundrum of which came first. Did violent video games spark hostile tendencies in Lanza, or was he attracted to violent games because of preexisting tendencies?

“It’s not surprising that a 20-year-old male has these video games in his basement,” says Markey.

As for the role media coverage plays in copycat shootings, research is scant and experts are divided, though few suggest it plays a significant role.

“It’s probably not a key motive or the most common motive or a major motive, but it’s probably there as a tangential motive for some [shooters],” says Ferguson. “If the news media never reported on [mass shootings], would this all go away?” he asks. “No, probably not, but it is a small piece of the puzzle for some people.”

Dr. Belshaw of North Texas doesn't see any copycat motive.

“I don’t see the media perpetuating it by any means,” he says. “The offender is going to look at any sort of incident that happens and work that into their own delusion…. If the guy is going to do it, he’s going to do it. He’s going to find a reason to justify it.”

More than violent video games or copycat behavior, the largest factor behind the Newtown shooting, says Belshaw, is mental illness.

“We’re looking at it from the wrong perspective,” he says. “It’s not a gun issue or a video game issue or a media issue…. If anything comes out of this, it’s understanding mental illness.”

Like Belshaw, Texas A&M International's Ferguson says the larger lesson to be drawn from the Newtown shootings is avoiding jumping to conclusions.

“People want to put it into context, they want to know why,” he says. “To say this evil SOB is living in our community is not a comfortable narrative,” so people want to lay blame on some external factor, he explains. “It gives the illusion of control.”

As tempting as it is to find answers, he says, prematurely pinning blame can be irresponsible.

“We have to be wary that there are some things we want to explain, but can’t. We can do a lot of damage by focusing on the wrong explanation.”

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