Justifiably, we will heed a call to action in response to the shooting that left two young people dead at Saugus High School.
One political tribe will extend its thoughts and prayers and the other will demand sensible gun control. In a matter of days, the rhetoric and, sadly, the memory of the event, will vanish from the headlines. That is until it happens again.
The problem of mass shootings is complex. Likewise, a tangible solution will most likely be complex, but the threat can be assuaged by investigating the cohesion among mass shooters.
Ponder that most elected officials and every corporation of importance is protected by the employment of multidisciplinary teams trained in threat assessment.
These teams scrutinize behaviors such as threats posted on social media or those communicated to third parties. These depend not on political talking points, but on scientifically validated behavioral analysis. Yet inexplicably, in most jurisdictions, our children are not protected by this approach. This needs to change.
Criminologists Jillian Peterson and James Densley have been pursuing data-driven prevention strategies.
Their research has reviewed all mass shootings involving four or more deaths since 1966, and all shootings in workplaces, schools, and places of worship shootings since 1999. Their data reveal four commonalities among perpetrators of these mass shooters:
- First, these mass shooters experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at an early age.
- Second, virtually every mass shooter they studied had reached a recognizable crisis point in the weeks or months leading up to the shooting.
- Third, most of the shooters had studied the actions of other shooters and sought validation for their motives.
- Fourth, the shooters all had the means to carry out their plans. For instance, in 80% of school shootings, perpetrators got their weapons from family members.
Likewise, the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center published its 2019 annual report this month scrutinizing mass shooters for commonality. The findings revealed that two-thirds had a history of mental health symptoms, including depression, suicidal tendencies or psychosis.
Practically all had a significant life stressor within five years and made threatening communications. Three-fourths provoked concern from others prior to the attack. Research by the FBI identifies the same commonalities.
In spite of this, the media and many politicians tend to view each mass shooter as unique. They are not. Their focus ignores the commonalities and instead centers on the identification of the individual’s motive.
These actors and their narrative, whether it’s Incel, white nationalism, religious extremism or ideology, should be considered pieces of a larger puzzle. Rather than staring at the individual actor trying to understand him, it’s important to examine them in a broader perspective for commonality with other attackers.
The Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, the FBI, and criminologists such as Peterson and Densely realize that we can save lives by identifying and managing threats in a coordinated, behavior focused, multi-disciplinary methodology.
The science confirms that regardless of the narrative or motive, in nearly every instance other persons knew some details of a planned attack.
A coordinated system of information gathering, including anonymous reporting, as well as public awareness of the need to say something when people become aware of concerning behavior is needed.
Every regional jurisdiction must possess a multidisciplinary threat management plan to investigate concerning behaviors. These teams must utilize behavior driven standardized criteria based on science. Recognizing the commonality with childhood trauma, these teams must ensure that children receive evidence based services.
Some ideas put forward by Peterson and Densely to prevent future mass shootings: potential shooting sites can be made less accessible with visible security measures like metal detectors and police officers.
They advocate for weapons to be better controlled, through age restrictions, permit-to-purchase licensing, universal background checks, safe storage campaigns and red-flag laws, measures that help control firearm access for vulnerable individuals or people in crisis.
Peterson and Densely also recommend making it more difficult for potential perpetrators to find validation for their planned actions by pointing to media campaigns like #nonotoriety, which seeks to starve perpetrators of the oxygen of publicity and by looking at how we consume, produce, and distribute violent content on media and social media.
The crisis of mass shootings and school shootings is complicated. But there also are common threads. Solutions need to be based in science not exaggeration.