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A Study of the Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States

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As of August 22, 2019, there have been approximately 255 mass shootings in the United States. August 22 was the 233rd day of 2019, which means that, so far, there have been more mass shootings in the US than there have been days of the year. The cover of a recent edition of Time Magazine has a collage of the names of the cities and identified locations of the shootings, with a one word message: “ENOUGH.”

Of course, to truly make “ENOUGH” a reality will most likely take years of a concerted effort by citizens, advocates, and law-makers to create the kind of change this nation needs. It will involve a major transformation in gun laws and attitudes toward violence; and a complete overhaul in our culture, given the pall of anger, intolerance and hatred which has steadily spread over this nation in the past few years.

Each of us must do something. Fortunately, as mental health providers, we can help. A study published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2018 can give us concrete ways of possibly playing a role in decreasing the likelihood of a mass shooting taking place.

Some points to ponder from the article

  • Declarations that all active shooters must simply be mentally ill are misleading and unhelpful.
  • Given the high prevalence of financial and job-related stressors as well as conflict with peers and partners, those in contact with a person of concern at his/her place of employment may have unique insights to inform a threat assessment.
  • On average, each active shooter (in this study) displayed four to five concerning behaviors over time (such as recklessness, violent media usage, changes in hygiene and weight, impulsivity, firearm behavior, and physical aggression). Early recognition and detection of growing or interrelated problems may help to mitigate the potential for violence.
  • Classmates (for those who were students), partners (for those in relationships), family members and friends most frequently noticed concerning behaviors. Early recognition and reporting of concerning behaviors to law enforcement or threat assessment professionals may initiate important opportunities for mitigation.
  • In general, active shooters in the study harbored grievances that were distinctly personal to them and the circumstances of their daily lives.
  • When an active shooter’s grievance generalizes — that is, expands beyond a desire to punish a specific individual to a desire to punish an institution or community — this should be considered to be progression along a trajectory towards violence and ultimately a threat-enhancing characteristic.
  • The high levels of pre-attack suicidal ideation are noteworthy as they represent an opportunity for intervention.
  • If suicidal ideation or attempts in particular are observed by others, reframing bystander awareness within the context of a mass casualty event may help to emphasize the importance of telling an authority figure and getting help for the suicidal person.
  • More robust efforts need to be made to educate bystanders (especially students and adolescents) on the nature of leakage (i.e., the shooter communicating in some way an intent to act prior to the shooting) and its potential significance.

Here is the full reference: Silver, J., Simons, A., & Craun, S. (2018). A Study of the Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 – 2013. Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice

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