The right of the people to keep and bear arms: Part II

Examining school shooter Kip Kinkel and how mental health plays into gun debate

The cuffed hands of Kip Kinkel (above) following his shooting spree at Thurston High School in 1998 — courtesy photo

April 4, 2018 — Kipland (Kip) Kinkel always had trouble in school.

His parents, Bill and Faith, were popular and successful local teachers, as reported by Elisa Swanson in a 2000 University of Oregon publication on Kinkel’s life. Swansons’ work, along with research into Kinkel in 2000 by PBS’ Frontline, are the basis of the following article.

Kinkel had been having problems since the first grade with reading and writing. The problem was so bad that he was held back a year. The problem turned out to be dyslexia, for which he was placed in a special education program for reading. By contrast, Kinkel was also in a gifted program for his skills with math, which were impeccable. This juxtaposition between his feelings of achievement and embarrassment, success and failure, would eventually stoke the slow-burning embers of mental illness that had yet to be identified — or fully acknowledged.

Kinkel would go on to be a mass shooter, killing both his parents and two others at Thurston High School, located in Springfield, Ore, in May 1998.

How he came to that moment is a complicated study on the intersection of mental health, guns and mass shootings. As the current gun debate intensifies, Kinkel’s story raises questions about how much mental health plays into mass shootings, how to keep guns away from those with serious mental illness and the logistics of creating and implementing legislation.

The gun debate also raises questions surrounding the perceived stigma of mental illness, and how that may play a major role in propagating mass shootings.

The answers to these questions are not easy to ascertain, but an examination of Kinkel could provide a path forward in addressing the issue of mental health and mass shootings.


“I sound so pitiful”

When the Thurston shootings happened, people considered it with equal parts shock and cynicism. Much of the focus centered around the kind of music Kinkel listened to, like Marilyn Manson, or the violent movies he watched. It was brought up that he was picked on at school, and how that might’ve sent him over the edge. But it was also pointed out that he had recently been arrested for purchasing a gun from a classmate.

 He was just a bad kid.

 Looking at Kinkel’s history, it’s easy to see where that assumption came from. While the stigma of being in special education had worn on him, as Kinkel grew up, he began having problems beyond his learning disability, particularly from being bullied.

Though his parents reluctantly agreed to Kinkel’s request for karate lessons, Faith wanted more of what she felt were positive outlets for his issues. She allowed him to use their home internet connection in hopes of expanding his interests. This led to Kinkel, now a seventh-grader, and some friends looking up how to make bombs and ordering the bomb-making book, “The Anarchist Cookbook.” When Faith found out, she began to worry about the friends her son was hanging out with.

Those concerns were later underscored when, in 1997, Kinkel and a friend were charged with tossing rocks from an overpass — with one hitting a car. No one was injured, and a psychologist with Skipworth Juvenile Facility stated that Kinkel was not typical of the delinquents he usually saw, remarking that he was remorseful and quite straightforward with his role in the crime.

The doctor felt it was more of a “boyish” crime and best for Kinkel to complete 32 hours of community service, write a letter of apology and pay for damages to the car.

However, the incident was frustrating to Kinkel’s parents, with Bill feeling he was left with no recourse as to how to deal with his son. Faith suggested counseling and, in January 1997, she and Kinkel went to see Dr. Jeffrey Hicks for help.

“Faith said that she was concerned about Kip’s temper and his ‘extreme interest in guns, knives and explosives,’” Frontline reported. “She was afraid that Kip could harm himself or others. Faith asked that Hicks help Kip learn more about appropriate ways to manage his anger and curtail his acting out.”

Faith was also concerned about her son’s relationship with his father.

Hicks wrote that “Kip became tearful when discussing his relationship with his father. He reported that Kip thought his mother viewed him as ‘a good kid with some bad habits’ while his father saw him as ‘a bad kid with bad habits.’ He felt his father expected the worst from him.”

The counseling sessions revealed that Kinkel was having problems eating, stating that the food “doesn’t taste good.”

Kinkel often felt bored and irritable, and felt tired upon awakening most mornings. Kinkel was also finding it difficult to find things in his life that he looked forward to.

During his counseling, Kinkel also had other instances of acting out, including kicking another student in the head after the student had shoved him. He had been caught cheating in class, and also threw a pencil at another student who had made fun of him. Kinkel was ultimately suspended twice during this period.

After six counseling sessions, he was prescribed Prozac and, after 12 days, began sleeping better with no outbursts. Things began progressing so well for Kinkel that, after two more sessions, it was decided counseling was no longer needed, just the medication. But a few months after his counseling ended, Kinkel stopped taking his medication. At the suggestion of his father, he joined the football team as a lineman, where his small size and lack of experience left him feeling isolated.

“I sound so pitiful. People would laugh at this if they read it,” Kinkel wrote in his journal. “I hate being laughed at. ... Please. Someone, help me. All I want is something small. Nothing big. I just want to be happy.”

 In September 1997, Kinkel gave a talk in speech class on how to make a bomb. He showed detailed drawings of explosives attached to a clock. According to kids in class, another girl gave a speech on how to join the Church of Satan, so Kinkel’s topic didn’t raise any concerns, Frontline reported.

 It was at this point that a rash of school shootings began to occur — Pearl, Miss.; West Paducah, Ky.; Jonesboro, Ark. Kinkel would watch the aftermath of these shootings, picking apart how they were carried out, stating that he would be able to take more lives, and that the shootings were “pretty cool.”

Then, on May 20, 1998, he took $110 in cash to school and purchased a semi-automatic pistol from a friend, keeping the weapon in a paper sack in his locker. However, his friend had stolen the gun from his father, who discovered the gun missing. He contacted the school, which searched Kinkel’s locker and found the gun. When authorities arrived, he and his friend were arrested and escorted off the school premises, pending expulsion.

After taking Kinkel home, his father called a friend, who stated that Bill was very upset, not knowing what to do. He believed his son was completely out of control.

Soon after that phone call, Kinkel shot his father, then his mother and, soon after, scores of others at his high school, killing two others.

The incident shocked Oregon and the nation as multiple theories regarding his motive spread like wildfire.

But there was one key component that everyone was missing: Kinkel had schizophrenia with paranoia, the most common form of schizophrenia, an illness that affects roughly one percent of the world’s population. Symptoms include hallucinations, delusions, unusual or dysfunctional ways of thinking and movement disorders.

Why, despite the many signs and involvement of officials, no one identified this component points to some critical gaps in the mental health community, and the gun debate as a whole.


“Extreme Psychology”

Seventy-seven percent of Americans believe better mental healthcare monitoring and treatment would lead to fewer mass shootings, an ABC News and Washington Post poll found in February. While some believe mental health is a strong component of mass shootings, others believe it is the sole cause. But is there an actual link?

The answers are unclear.

The publication Mother Jones reported in November 2012 that 61 percent of mass shooters had signs of potential mental health problems, but the terms they used to define mental illness were broad. There are multiple symptoms of mental illness that mimic normal behavior, especially when dealing with teenagers, who actually carry out the majority of school shootings that have started the recent gun debate.

On the lower end of the spectrum, a February 2018 New York Times article reported that only 22 percent of mass killings were perpetrated by those considered mentally ill.

There are multiple reasons for the discrepancies in data, including varying definitions of what “mentally ill” constitutes, and what a mass shooting actually is. These biases will be explored later in this series.

But do definitions even matter in Kinkel’s case? Even if he had not been diagnosed with mental illness, the question remains: Doesn’t the very act of shooting strangers en masse qualify as evidence of mental illness?

As reported by U.S. News in February, the psychology of mass shooters is difficult to study.

 “It’s such an extreme psychology that it’s a special category,” former American Psychological Association president Dr. Frank Farley said. “In a sense, every mass murderer and serial killer has mental problems beyond the standard nomenclature.”

However, diagnosing that problem is difficult. Many mass murderers end up dead either by their own hand or those of police, the article reported, and there is generally spotty data about their lives beforehand. Because of the small sample size of mass shooters, and the relatively little information available, a proper diagnostic tool to predict a mass shooter is nearly impossible. Instead, people generally turn to already diagnosable conditions like schizophrenia to explain motivations behind mass shootings.

But getting such a diagnosis can be a difficult task, as Kinkel’s case illustrates.


“I’d be ostracized”

“You have to have some kind of mental health release,” one gun reform advocate at Florence’s recent March for Our Lives demonstration said. Another marcher at the event suggested having a mental health checklist before purchasing a gun.

But this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how mental health diagnoses are made. To diagnose schizophrenia, one has to exhibit at least two of the following symptoms most of the time for a month, and some mental disturbance over six months, including: delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech and behavior, catatonic or coma-like daze, or bizzare or hyperactive behavior.

Kinkel was evaluated by his counselor for seven months, but according to his therapist, was not exhibiting any identifiable symptoms of schizophrenia then. In fact, Kinkel had been having delusions since the sixth grade:

“I thought maybe others heard voices too but never talked about it,” Kinkel said. “It’s something I don’t want to talk about. I decided not to tell anyone about it. I didn’t want anyone to think I was nuts. I didn’t want to go to a mental hospital. I didn’t want my friends to know because that would end my friendships. I really didn’t want any girls to know because they wouldn’t want to be seen with me. ... My parents might think I was nuts; they would be disappointed with me. ... I’d be ostracized.”

There is thought to be a genetic component to schizophrenia, with higher incidents in families that have been diagnosed with forms of the illness. Kinkel’s family was no exception. A year and a half study of Kinkel family history found an “astonishing number of mentally ill individuals” going back three generations, a private investigator hired by Kinkel’s attorney found. Even his mother exhibited depression, being treated with antidepressants in 1981 and 1987.

But she didn’t tell Kinkel’s counselor that.

In fact, according to Swanson’s report, she clearly stated there was no history of mental illness in the family when asked by Kinkel’s counselor. As to why she didn’t tell, Swanson offered the following possibilities in the University of Oregon report:

“Either Faith knew about this history of serious mental illnesses, and chose to deny its existence to Dr. Hicks in the hopes that, by not discussing it, Kip might be less likely to be labeled mentally ill, or Faith did not know about this history because other family members shamefully hid their own mental illness and/or that of their relatives. In either case, stigma was the cause.”

This kind of information is vital when diagnosing schizophrenia, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

“It can be difficult to diagnose schizophrenia in teens,” their literature on the disease states. “This is because the first signs can include a change of friends, a drop in grades, sleep problems and irritability — common and nonspecific adolescent behavior. Other factors include isolating oneself and withdrawing from others, an increase in unusual thoughts and suspicions, and a family history of psychosis. In young people who develop schizophrenia, this stage of the disorder is called the ‘prodromal’ period.”

Beyond those symptoms, schizophrenia can also mimic other disorders, like bipolar and major depression. This is why it can take years, if not decades, to receive a proper medical diagnosis of schizophrenia, or any other mental illness. There were other signs of Kinkel’s condition in school, but they were largely ignored.

“Three weeks before the shooting occurred, Kip blurted out in class: ‘Goddamn this voice inside my head.’” Swanson reported. “His teacher filled out a ‘respect sheet’ regarding the incident. The bottom of the sheet stated, ‘The expected behavior for this situation was not to say ‘damn.’’ It continued: ‘In the future, what could you do differently to prevent the problem? Not to say ‘damn.’ The teacher, Kip, and Kip’s mother all signed the respect sheet.”

Once found, schizophrenia can be controlled while on medication. While it is a life-long illness, the recovery rates for those who receive treatment are 60 percent, according to the National Advisory Mental Health Council.

However, the stigma against those with the illness persists. Sixty percent of Americans believe that people with schizophrenia were likely to act violently toward someone else, per a January 2001 article by Harvard Health Publishing.

But the Harvard article puts that public theory into question.

“Research suggests that this public perception does not reflect reality,” the article read. “Most individuals with psychiatric disorders are not violent. Although a subset of people with psychiatric disorders commit assaults and violent crimes, findings have been inconsistent about how much mental illness contributes to this behavior and how much substance abuse and other factors do.”

A little over 27 percent of those diagnosed with schizophrenia are prone to acts of violence when drug and alcohol abuse are part of the equation. However, if drugs and alcohol are replaced with proper medication and counseling, the number drops dramatically to levels comparable to that of the general public.

“Kip later told Dr. Orin Bolstad that the Prozac was effective at alleviating the voices in his head and reducing the stress levels he felt; he characterized the summer he was in therapy and on Prozac as a ‘wonderful time’ and the ‘best summer ever,’” the Swanson study read.

Yet after only three months on the medication, Kinkel went off of it. Frontline reported that Kinkel had requested to be off the medication, but how the decision was finally made with the parents is unknown. Swanson suggested that it was because of Bill’s feelings toward psychiatry as a whole:

“My dad wasn’t too excited about it,” Kinkel’s sister said. “He felt that psychologists were like chiropractors, in the sense that they may not be as heavily needed as we think.”

Faith also told Dr. Hicks that her husband was not particularly supportive of counseling, did not think it would be helpful and did not want to participate.

Still, Bill was desperate to help his son, so he turned to one of the only thing he could think of: Guns.


“I have just killed my parents!”

When Kinkel was arrested for purchasing the gun at school, the police confiscated the firearm and sent him home with his father, Bill. But neither mentioned the multiple guns that the Kinkels had at their residence to the police.

According to Frontline, Kinkel had carried a fascination with guns for years. Bill, who staunchly opposed guns, never felt comfortable about it. However, Kinkel’s counselor, Dr. Hicks, did feel that it would be an appropriate bonding experience between the two.

As a gun owner himself, Hicks was able to speak openly and positively with Kinkel about firearms. Hicks would later say that he would never condone giving a patient like Kinkel a firearm.

Bill tried to appease Kinkel at first by purchasing him a BB gun and knives. But, as friends of the family stated, Kinkel kept insisting that his father buy him a real gun. Seeing that as a potential way to reach out to his son, Bill purchased Kinkel a Glock with the understanding that it would have to be locked up, fired only with Bill around, the money for the gun would have to come from Kinkel’s own money and safety classes needed to be taken. Under those same conditions, Bill bought Kinkel a semi-automatic rifle that same the year.

What Bill didn’t know was that his son had also been purchasing guns from friends.

According to Frontline, Kinkel was able to purchase an old sawed-off shotgun that way, as well as another handgun from a friend in the summer of 1997.

And then there were the bombs.

Numerous explosives were found in Kinkel’s house after the school shooting, which he had made using guide books like “The Anarchist’s Cookbook.” Kinkel would set the bombs off at a nearby quarry if he was having a bad day.

While shooting off firearms and playing with explosives is nothing unheard of for teenagers, Kinkel’s paranoid schizophrenia was also coming into play. While he had multiple delusions during this period, one made him believe that China would invade the United States, which he was preparing for — which is why he stocked up weapons, according to Frontline.

Finally, there was the gun that Kinkel bought at school that ultimately got him arrested.

When Bill took his son home from the police station that day, he called a friend, stating, “I don’t know what to do at this point” and that his son was completely out of control. According to Frontline, Bill threatened to take all of his son’s guns away.

Later that day, Kinkel took the rifle his father had given him and killed both his parents. After doing this, he listened to music from his favorite film, “Romeo + Juliet,” and wrote about what had just occurred:

“I have just killed my parents! I don’t know what is happening. I love my mom and dad so much. ... I’m so sorry. I am a horrible son. I wish I had been aborted. I destroy everything I touch. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I didn’t deserve them. They were wonderful people. It’s not their fault or the fault of any person, organization or television show. My head just doesn’t work right. God damn these VOICES inside my head. I want to die. I want to be gone. But I have to kill people. I don’t know why. I am so sorry! Why did God do this to me? I have never been happy. I wish I was happy. I wish I made my mother proud. I am nothing! I tried so hard to find happiness. But you know me I hate everything. I have no other choice. What have I become? I am so sorry.”

The next day, Kinkel entered Thurston High School in Springfield, where he killed two students and injured 24 others.

The question remains whether the tragedy could have been averted had Kinkel received more medical care.

“I think if he could have been under treatment with appropriate medication and appropriate follow-up, he would not have committed these acts,” said Dr. William Sack, who worked with Kinkel after his incarceration. “I think that if Mr. Kinkel takes medication, is consistently cared for by a psychiatrist that he trusts, in 25 or 30 years he could be safely returned to the community.

“I would be happy to have him as my next-door neighbor if those conditions were met.”

Since his incarceration, Kinkel, now 35 years old, has responded positively to medication and is “completely harmless,” according to his attorney. However, Kinkel was sentenced to 111 years in prison for the shooting, and multiple appeals have upheld that sentence.


 “Everybody would know”

Would a ban on certain types of firearms have prevented Kinkel from committing his mass shooting? Probably not. And neither would expanded background checks as they are currently written and enforced.

He didn’t purchase any of the weapons from a dealer, and Bill was the sole purchaser of the guns. And background checks would not have worked with the way Kinkel bought guns from his friends.

So how can those like Kinkel be prevented from getting their hands on guns?

The answer, at least in part, may come from examining Kinkel’s story and addressing the stigma of mental health and the role it played in the Thurston High shooting.

During the recent Florence March for Our Lives demonstration, gun reformers used phrases like “flagrantly psychotic,” “nuts” and “totally insane” when describing those with mental illness. However, labels such as those aren’t strictly a purview of the left, with gun rights advocates referring to the mentally ill as “demented” and “mentally disturbed” in public comments.

The use of that rhetoric increases the risk of pushing those with mental illness further into the shadows.

“I cried when he gave me medicine,” Kinkel said when he first received Prozac. “Because it meant that he knew I was crazy. And now everybody would know. Splotch on my record. No one would ever hire me.”

A Pandora’s box has recently been opened regarding mental health. As the issue has become a rallying cry to stop gun violence, so too has the stigma surrounding mental illness. Unless both parties come together to create meaningful, lasting changes to the mental healthcare system, the country will be left with more stigma.

And possibly, more Kip Kinkels.

Editor’s note: In the next installment of this series, the Siuslaw News will take a broader view of mass shooters, including their motivations, reasons for selecting their targets and in what ways those elements may or may not be impacted by gun legislation currently being proposed.

Note: This is part 2 of a continuing series. Find additional installments in the Special Series Archive, located here.