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Jared Loughner, Columbine and Diversion

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Tucson shooting suspect Jared Loughner shared an unusual legal background, known as diversion, with the Columbine killers, as recounted in the New York Times. It may also be a window into the character trait of these mass shooters.

"In September, Mr. Loughner filled out paperwork to have his record expunged on a 2007 drug paraphernalia charge," the Times reported. "Although he did not need to bother -- he had completed a diversion program so the charge was never actually on his record -- the incident stuck in the mind of Judge José Luis Castillo of Pima County Consolidated Justice Court."

A number of things stood out for Castillo: That Loughner knew how to fill out the paperwork, but also that he had finished the program "in almost record time and had been very polite." Sound familiar?

The same thing occurred with Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. They entered a diversion program about a year before the shootings for a minor crime compared to what would come: Breaking the window of a van and stealing some electronic equipment. The diversion program allowed their record to be scrubbed clean once they completed about a year's worth tasks such as community service and anger management.

Like Loughner, the suspect in the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Columbine killers finished their program quickly - graduating early and with high marks. Some of that may have been due to poor oversight. But they were probably smarter than the average diversion client. Harris indicated on a checklist he was homicidal, but may not have otherwise seemed outwardly violent. In fact, Harris and Klebold seemed more intellectual than anything else, the diversion counselor recounted in a deposition revealed in my book Columbine: A True Crime Story.

Indeed, the violence of the Columbine killers was not violence for the sake of violence, and blood and guts (though in their writings they looked forward to the gore). It was violence with a message which was, at its most basic, revenge for being made outcasts. Revenge for whatever reason is often the base motive in school shootings. Revenge after a breakup, revenge after a disciplinary action, etc.

Because there is a studied philosophy behind these mass shootings - although the actual logic may be quite tortured - violence may not be the overriding character trait leading up to the shootings. But shooters still do "leak" their intentions both verbally and otherwise. Loughner's words and actions did scare enough people at his community college that he was asked to leave the school.

Psychologist Aubrey Immelman, who I interviewed extensively for my book, believed diversion may have even pushed the Columbine shooters closer to the act given that they chafed under the guidelines of the program. Loughner's actions are a bit more removed in time from when he was in diversion - about three years versus a couple months - so there may not have been as much of a direct effect. But having to deal with the diversion program, and worrying that any record might prohibit him from getting a gun (a thought that crossed Judge Castillo's mind), might have been added to his grab bag of grievances.

While it appears Loughner may have been clinically, mentally ill, it may forever be an open question as to how much outside factors such as the diversion program, political rhetoric and a Wild West mentality were aggravating factors.