Why Young Men Commit Mass Killings

By Sam Jolman | May 18, 2013

“But in contemporary society, we have trouble talking about the obvious: the transition from boy to man is a risky endeavor, and there can be a lot of collateral damage.”  Erika Christakis, Time Magazine web article

“Most men are dead by 27 even though we don’t bury them until after 72.”  Don Hudson

Its instantly obvious now isn’t it?  That all of these mass killings are committed exclusively by young men.  I’m not the first to point this out.  But the insight comes to me every time there’s a terribly fresh example in the headlines.

For me that reminder came yet again last week.  On Wednesday night a man in our city was stabbed to death.  Carlos was his name.  He was a 38 years old father to a young teen and going through some hard times with his wife, I learned as I scrolled through the article online. The police found him slumped over in his front yard. And they took into custody a 20 year old young man as the prime murder suspect.

I sighed real deep, looking into the eyes of that young man’s picture.  Did he know he’d taken the lives of two people that night?  His victim would soon be in a grave and he would waste his existence in a jail cell.

This is the story these days.  The Boston Bombing brothers were 19 and 26.  The Newton shooter, 20.  Another one in my backyard, the Aurora movie theater massacre was carried out by a 24 man. A 23 year old young man ravaged Virginia Tech.  The Oklahoma city bomber was 26. And the Columbine killing duo were 17 and 18 respectively.

And on and on and on…

All young men.  Its too coincidental to be coincidence, can we agree?  Indeed its not.  According to an FBI report, in 2011 nearly a third of all violent crimes were committed by young men aged 18-24.  If you extend age to 29, its nearly one in two.  That’s a staggering statistic.  Pandemic.

I suppose you might conclude that this means young men are dangerous.  Volatile.  Maybe inherently open to carrying out violent fantasies.  They aren’t.  But I do believe they are vulnerable to something else:


I sat with a young man recently who was sent to counseling by his parents because they caught him throwing a full tilt party when they left town.  Turns out he’d been drinking a lot his senior year and his parents were freaking out.  Understandable.  So he ended up in my office.

Parents often seem to want therapy to go really well and really fast.  Fix my kid in two sessions or less.  No pressure.  But there’s just no way to speed up the process of unpacking a young man’s heart.

So we started talking, me just getting to know him and his life, his heart, his struggles.  He loved lacrosse and hated his school.  He didn’t really have a girlfriend but liked a few girls here and there.  His friends were his life.  And when I asked him about his drinking, he simply said, “Its just really fun to party. And I gotta have fun while I can.”

I found out he was pretty discouraged about college.  And really about life itself after college.  “It just seems like I’m destined to a desk job somewhere.  And like life ends then, once you have kids and get married.  It certainly happened that way for my dad. His life is so boring and dead.  I guess it seems that way for all guys that age.”

My heart broke for this young man.  His drinking made sense to me even though it was definitely dangerous to his life.  And it should for you too.  You need to hear that he was thirsting for life, literally to have life as alive as a party.  And that adult life for him looked daunting, lonely, soul killing.  Eat, drink, for tomorrow we die.  Or at least die at a soul level.

This young man is not alone.  I think most young men feel some despair about finding a meaningful life in the adult world of men.  We have to understand that these young men have huge hearts and tanks full of energy to throw at a cause. They want to find a life worth living, something to spend themselves in.  And they live with the wonderfully audacious sense that they can change the world.

You may say this is too idealistic for the real world, even grandiose.  But I’d say you probably wanted the same thing at some point and lost it. We get that beat out of us pretty soon.  Young men on the other hand still have their dreams and their hopes intact.

And understand that this same desire leads good young men to be very brave and to do very selfless things.  Like go to war for their country or run into burning buildings to save lives.  These are the same young men Jesus gathered around him.  As scholar Ray VanderLaan points out, the disciples were not middle age men, but teenagers or young 20 somethings.  And they turned the world upside down for the gospel.

Its true that evil wants to do something with these young men too.  When a good cause doesn’t come, and despair guts a young man, he will either find an addiction to numb his pain or be tempted to make his mark on the world not matter the cost.  For some, this means going out in a blaze of death and destruction rather than to live as a nobody.  The columbine shooters were certainly motivated by revenge on their peers.  But its clear in their writings that the desire to go out big topped their list.  They hoped to rival the Oklahoma city bomber.

These young men are not necessarily crazy either.  Some certainly are.  But as Timothy McVeigh’s psychiatrist said, “He was a decent person who had allowed rage to build up inside him to the point that he had lashed out in one terrible, violent act.”  He went to war and saw an America that wasn’t always right.

We need to do something for our young men.  And we’re not talking about this at all. When Newtown happened, we talked as a nation about gun control and mental health screening.  And we’ve taken action on these fronts.  But no one is talking about how to offer greater hope to young men.  No one.

Well… not no one.  My friends Xan, Cory and Brett are.  They do it every day.  Or every day they get a chance.  They started and run an organization called Training Ground (check them out here).  Its an experiential leadership training experience like nothing else I’ve ever seen. And its completely dedicated to empowering young men.  Training Ground is built on the idea that young men are a massive asset to the future of our world.

Every year I get the immense honor of sharing my story one evening with each class of guys. Training Ground believes the only way a young man can find a life worth living is by meeting older men who found such a life.  These young men need to hear  and ask their questions of men who still have their hearts in tact.  And they need to be challenged to stomach the discipline and suffering it takes to get there.

I have never in my entire career as a counselor ever seen something change a person so drastically for the better and so quickly. A few years ago at the graduation ceremony for a class of these young men, I sat in the back smoking a cigar in tears.  I was awestruck.  I could not believe how profoundly these young men had changed since the first week when I talked with them.  These were beautiful men, deep hearted, passionate, articulate, and ready to change the world.

Its a big week for Training Ground.  Today nine young men come to live in Colorado and experience the summer program.

Its also been a big week for Cory Smith, one of the directors of the program.  Remember the man murdered in our city?  Carlos was Cory’s business partner in a painting company, the day job Cory keeps to support his real passion.  But Cory is going forward with this summer session nonetheless.  And I’ve got to believe that knowing his friend was murdered by a 20 year old has only galvanized his resolve.

Check out Training Ground’s website to get to know them and follow along on the summer program.  And please for the love of God, go find a young man to sit with and listen to and inspire.


  • SUCH a good word, wake-up call, Sam. Kind of like when, at 15, my oldest son handed me the copy of WILD AT HEART I’d given him to read and said, “Mom, YOU need to read this, too!” I did need to, and I keep needing to be reminded. We all do– thank you.

    • Thanks Sallie. Any mom who’d read wild at heart on behalf of her sons’s is an amazing mom. Well, well done!!

  • Sam, I can only surmise that your counseling is as fine as your writing, and that your heart is larger than both. I’d love to hear you share your story amongst those young men. Despair is truly a black hole that maims the heart. Its so hard to know what is most true about us when surrounded by darkness. Please keep writing and sharing, you do it so well.

    • Oh, thanks Drew! You’re always so generous with your words. Yes, despair is such a potent experience, for better or for worse. I’ll keep writing.

  • Those are dangerous and challenging years in the life of young man. Thank you for investing in these lives, it is so very needed.


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