This article is adapted from “Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America,” a new book by Mark Follman.
Many people remember where they were when they first learned the news on Dec. 14, 2012. I was on vacation with family at an adventure cornucopia for kids built inside a former shoe factory in my hometown of St. Louis. As my wife and I stood watching our nieces, ages 4 and 6, scamper through tunnels and down slides, we also harbored the secret joy of having just learned that we would soon welcome our own first child into the world. Then my phone began to buzz with news alerts and urgent messages. For the previous six months, my work as a journalist had been focused on investigating the recurring problem of mass shootings, but even that familiarity couldn’t prepare me for the headline: “Gunman kills 20 schoolchildren in Connecticut.”
There remains something baffling about our societal response to mass shootings, especially when other ways exist to diminish the peril.
The Sandy Hook massacre opened a horrific new chapter of a chronic American story, quickly to be framed by the contentious national argument over gun control. Before long, however, I would start to learn of a very different way to look at the daunting phenomenon of mass shootings and what could be done to stop them, as the problem escalated over the next decade.
In a spring season riddled with mass gun violence nationally, the emerging field of behavioral threat assessment, the focus of my new book, offers hope for transcending our paralyzed gun debate and reducing this epidemic. If we look past enduring myths and better recognize what leads up to some mass shootings, we can do more to prevent them.
Many mass shootings, like the one in the New York City subway in mid-April, are carried out by lone offenders who plan their attacks and engage in warning behaviors. Contrary to popular belief, perpetrators of these crimes don’t just suddenly “snap” or come out of nowhere. The accused subway shooter, for instance, posted disturbing videos online, drove to New York from far away, outfitted himself with gear and deployed smoke grenades as he opened fire. On Friday, evidence police found in an apartment in Washington, D.C., where a suicidal gunman had opened fire at a school across the street, wounding four people, indicated an attack planned well in advance. Case research shows it’s often possible for people around these offenders to notice escalating warning signs — especially with the school-shooting threats that spike this time of year — and reach out for help before it’s too late.
That step frequently is a crucial first link in the work of threat assessment, whereby community-based leaders in mental health, law enforcement, education and other disciplines work together to intervene constructively with people who are planning violence. From K-12 schools to specialists at the FBI, threat assessment teams have helped steer troubled individuals away from what the field calls the “pathway to violence.”
I first began to learn about the field of behavioral threat assessment in 2013, about a year after turning my attention to a spate of gun rampages and working with colleagues at Mother Jones to build a first-of-its-kind database we called “A Guide to Mass Shootings in America.” My initial analysis of cases revealed that more than half of the killers ended their attacks in suicide. I grew aware of another stark pattern: Details from news reports, court and police records and my interviews with experts made it clear that many of the perpetrators had acted in worrisome or disruptive ways prior to attacking, often for a long time.
These had been potentially lifesaving warning signs, and yet the saturation of news coverage following mass shootings almost always told a different story, routinely quoting people who knew or had come in contact with the killers and expressed utter surprise in the aftermath: “I never imagined he’d do something like this” or “Nobody could have seen this coming.” Evidence from dozens of cases suggested those perceptions were mistaken.
The theme of astonishment was further contradicted by a remarkable development: Many attacks in the making were being stopped, according to the top law enforcement official in the United States. Ten months after Sandy Hook, in October 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder stated in a speech to the nation’s police chiefs that the FBI had helped thwart more than 100 “active shooters” since the beginning of that year. Now that was compelling news. I soon learned that a little-known threat assessment team within the FBI’s elite Behavioral Analysis Unit had been ramping up outreach to state and local law enforcement agencies, public universities and other institutions around the country to assist with threat cases at the request of local leaders.
Meanwhile, America’s endless debate over guns bred apathy and surrender. Even as the nation was freshly grieving Sandy Hook, one criminology paper argued: “Eliminating the risk of mass murder would involve extreme steps that we are unable or unwilling to take. … Mass murder just may be a price we must pay for living in a society where personal freedom is so highly valued.” I couldn’t accept that way of thinking, especially not as a father-to-be who, like so many parents around the country, would soon have to contemplate school safety for his child.
In the two-plus decades since the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, school security has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry, with heavy emphasis on reactive measures such as physically fortifying buildings and conducting lockdown drills. But while disaster preparedness at a fundamental level makes sense, those measures won’t stop attacks from happening in the first place. There remains something baffling about our societal response to mass shootings, especially when other ways exist to diminish the peril.
Decades of research from threat assessment experts makes clear that profiling individuals according to demographics or personal characteristics is futile for trying to predict who might become a mass shooter. Instead, the field’s focus is on using multidisciplinary expertise to evaluate patterns of behavior that can foretell violent acts. For schools, experts further emphasize the need to foster prosocial connections and constructive help for troubled youth who appear headed down a dangerous path.
Every case that I chronicle in my book, from major tragedies to others successfully averted, involves a subject who showed a mix of warning behaviors — not fulfilling any checklist, as the public commonly expects per the notion of criminal profiling but comprising a set of actions and conditions that revealed danger. These range from personal deterioration and threatening communications to a fixation on graphic violence and attack planning. No single warning behavior forecasts violence; it is their variety and coalescence in each individual’s unique case that threat assessment experts must evaluate and work with. Over time, I came to see how greater recognition of warning signs, both among trained professionals and everyday citizens, has broad potential for reducing mass shootings.
Leaders in threat assessment subscribe to a hard-won belief that good can, and frequently does, win the day. They include innovative mental health specialists, elite FBI agents, psychologists who became cops — and even a few ordinary people who were harmed by mass shooters’ bullets and responded with extraordinary courage, who have since helped expand awareness of this method. Collectively, their work debunks myths about mass shooters as inscrutable monsters and reveals a strategy whose twin goal is heading off violence while getting help to people in serious need of it.
Mass shooters are more like us than we tend to think. “We all have this in our nature,” said psychologist Lisa Warren, an expert on stalking and threatening communications who leads a threat management firm in Australia. Social barriers, she noted, are what keep most people from deciding to kill.
Progress on reducing these attacks, in other words, could also mean no longer treating the problem as an inexplicable, unresolvable evil. The closer we look at how mass shooters act and under what circumstances, the better the chances for stopping the next ones.