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Mass Shooters 'Do Have Many Warning Signs,' Researcher Says15:28
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Mourners last week visit a makeshift memorial for the slain and injured victims of a mass shooting that occurred in the Oregon District in Dayton, Ohio. (John Minchillo/AP)
Mourners last week visit a makeshift memorial for the slain and injured victims of a mass shooting that occurred in the Oregon District in Dayton, Ohio. (John Minchillo/AP)

Recent mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso have left many people asking the same questions, like: Why? And how do we prevent the next tragedy?

According to one researcher, recognizing the signs of a person in crisis and providing more services are keys to reducing mass shootings.

"What we found is there's a large number of warning signals," James Silver, assistant professor of criminal justice at Worcester State University, told Radio Boston. "We're not saying we're blaming anybody for not bringing a person to the attention of law enforcement. This isn't about blame or responsibility. But, in looking at these shooters, we found that they do have many warning signs."

Silver co-wrote a report, "A Study of Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 and 2013," and researched 63 active shooters to try and find common traits.

Silver's conclusions? The people — overwhelmingly men — who commit these acts carry a sense of grievance that festers into an "organizing principle." They will often tell people what they intend to do, either in person or online.

Mental illness is not a primary driver behind these shootings, according to Silver. Misogyny, racism and interpersonal anger were all bigger motivations of the subjects in the study.

Rather than approach these cases as purely criminal, Silver recommends communities build threat assessment teams, combining police, social workers, schools and other stakeholders to assess the problem and find services to help the individual. It's an approach Virginia has taken in its schools.

"Students are reported every year," Silver said. "The vast majority of them stay in school — they're not suspended or expelled or prosecuted — and the primary response is providing services. If that model were used elsewhere in the country I would hope that people would feel more comfortable reporting it because it's less law enforcement and more problem solving."

Interview Highlights

On the commonalities between active shooters in the study

"So what we found is they're overwhelmingly male, which is, I don't think surprising to many people. But that's not really very specific when it comes to trying to predict these things. So you say men. Great. Age range? Just in our study alone our youngest shooter was 12, the older shooter was 88. So basically talking about every post-pubescent male in America."

On why the people in the study turned to violence

"What we found is that, in this study and in other studies about mass shooters, there's normally what we call a grievance. A grievance is maybe not what it means in common parlance. We mean something more than just being angry. This isn't just a little bit of road rage or, 'I'm mad at a co-worker.' Grievance is something that's sort of like, we refer to it as sort of a wound that won't heal. It's a sense that you've been wronged in this world. There's an injustice and you need to correct it. Until it becomes sort of an organizing principle for these folks. And what we find is almost all of them have some grievance. What their grievance is really varies. It can be something as mundane as, 'I'm being treated unfairly at work.' It could be racially based. It could be misogyny. There's just so many different reasons I go into a grievance."

On whether misogyny is the driving force behind mass shootings

"I would say it's definitely more complicated than that. Misogyny is certainly something that's come up in mass shootings recently, but it's also come up in mass shootings over the past 30 or 40 years, so it's nothing new. It's just become noticed now. But there's other things that have gone into mass shootings like hate crimes, like just anger at a neighbor. There's sometimes mental health issues. And I think what we would say from this report and other research I've done is probably almost every one of these shootings is what we call multi-factorial. There's a bunch of different threads that go into forming a grievance."

On the role of mental health in mass shootings

"A lot of people, I guess, do think that mental illness drives almost all of this, and that's just not the case. So we found 25% had a diagnosed mental illness. Of course there could be underlying mental illnesses that aren't diagnosed because people don't go for care, care isn't accessible, whatever that might be.

It's important to recognize, too, the lifetime prevalence of mental illness in adults in the United States is around 50%. So the fact that many of these people have either diagnosed mental illness, or maybe those around them saying they showed signs of mental illness, really shouldn't be surprising. That's about half the adults in the U.S. It's unlikely, at least from the studies I've done ... that mental illness is the driving factor, the master explanation for most of these active shooting incidents."

On the role of gun control in preventing future mass shootings

"It's very interesting to understand that most of these mass shooters or active shooters are probably not prohibited by at least federal law from purchasing a gun if they want to. Most of them don't have a mental illness that has had them involuntarily committed. Most of them did not have the type of disqualifying criminal records that would keep them from buying a gun. So most of them can just buy a gun.

"It may be a failure. It is a reality, though. It is true. They can buy them. I did another study of 115 mass murderers. Those are people who killed at least four people in one incident, and only 4% of them would have been prohibited from legally purchasing a gun if they bought it just for the purpose of the attack they eventually carried out."

"It's really quite amazing how often people will tell others around them what they're going to do."

On potential warning signs before a shooter acts

"A very common thing is what we in the threat assessment and criminology field called behavioral leakage. This is a person indicating that they're going to do harm to another person. They're going to attack somebody. They're going to kill somebody. They'll say it in a blog. They'll talk about it with friends. It may not be something even that direct but it could be a threat. 'If I get fired I'm coming back. You know I've got guns.' It's really quite amazing how often people will tell others around them what they're going to do.

"So what we found is that in other types of warning behaviors — like a sudden fascination with guns, increased anger levels that are just disproportionate to the situations — are the types of things that could be noticed. We call them observable behaviors and they can be seen. What we hope is that, if people see them, they might take them seriously enough to report them to law enforcement."

On what friends and family should do if they know someone exhibiting warning signs

"I think it's important though that people understand, if you report somebody because they have this concerning behavior, the person you're reporting probably hasn't committed a crime yet. So law enforcement, if they do what is I think a best practice, use a threat assessment approach, they will be more interested in problem solving for the person of concern and less interested in punishment delivery. So it's really about saying, 'Can we help this person, because they seem to be heading towards a very tragic end, and let's move them off this pathway to violence.' "

On the hesitation some communities have about approaching law enforcement

"There's there's not a perfect answer to that but if a threat assessment team and community included law enforcement but also included, as I said, social workers, could be religious leaders, mental health practitioners, the idea would be spread the word that threat assessment is not about arrest and prosecution. That may be a result, and that's always a risk, right? But the idea would be can we provide services.

"So, for example, Virginia is a state that for obvious reasons has mandated threat assessment teams in its schools: universities, high schools and middle schools. It's used widely. Hundreds to thousands of people are reported. Students are reported every year. The vast majority of them stay in school — they're not suspended or expelled or prosecuted — and the primary response is providing services. If that model were used elsewhere in the country I would hope that people would feel more comfortable reporting it because it's less law enforcement and more problem solving."

On ways to break from the partisan nature of the debate

"I'd like to think that the threat assessment approach is one way to do that because, again, what we're talking about is, we're not saying there's a class of people who can't own weapons, or a class of people who should be afraid to own weapons, or we should be afraid of.

"What we're saying is individual people at different points in their lives have stresses, have responses that are violent, and those people we should be able to help if we can. We may not be able to. Obviously we won't find everybody. But this is more of a providing of services to individuals who have shown us that they're a threat. And so I would hope that it's it's not seen as a Big Brother approach to monitoring everybody and it's not necessarily a gun control approach. It's a providing services approach."

This segment aired on August 13, 2019.

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