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How behavioral threat assessment can stop mass shootings before they occur

Mourners gather in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 2021, to remember the victims of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting.
Michael Ciaglo
Getty Images
Mourners gather in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 2021, to remember the victims of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting.

How do we prevent the next mass shooting before it happens? That's the question Mother Jones national affairs editor Mark Follman has been researching since 2012, when a gunman killed 12 people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.

Follman says the first step is recognizing the misconceptions we have about mass shootings — beginning with the notion that these massacres come out of nowhere, and that no one saw them coming. That's not the case, he says.

"This is planned violence," he says. "There is, in every one of these cases, always a trail of behavioral warning signs."

What's more, Follman says, the role of mental health is also widely misunderstood: "The general public views mass shooters as people who are totally crazy, insane. It fits with the idea of snapping, as if these people are totally detached from reality."

In actuality, Follman says, there's "a very rational thought process" that goes into planning and carrying out mass shootings. In his new book, Trigger Points, Follman writes about efforts to study the psychology and behavior of the shooters — and to deploy so-called "behavioral threat assessment" teams in schools and workplaces that work to get troubled people help before they turn to violence.

"If we study these cases and understand better what leads to them ... that gives us more knowledge to work with to prevent them," Follman says. "I think, conservatively, dozens of potential mass shootings have been stopped using this approach — perhaps even hundreds of them."

Interview highlights

On why he doesn't focus on gun regulation and background checks

/ Harper Collins
Harper Collins

That's a debate and a battle we've had for a long time in our country. I think that most people understand that making progress in that terrain has been really difficult. We have this kind of patchwork regulatory system throughout the country. In some places, it's tighter. In other places, gun regulations are much looser. And we have an enormous amount of guns. So when I began digging into the problem of mass shootings almost a decade ago now, I quickly began to wonder about other ways to think about the problem. That, for me, became an imperative, because the gun debate just seems so stuck. ...

A lot of people feel very frustrated and resigned about the political debate we have over firearms in our country. And I have felt that, too, in my reporting work on this subject for a decade. But for me, the question really became, what more can we do to solve this problem? This can't be the only way at it. And I do think that there is potential to do a lot more work of this kind to help reduce this problem.

On the basics of behavioral threat assessment and how it leads to an intervention

So most cases begin with an ordinary person sounding the alarm. ... A coworker in a workplace setting, or a peer, a classmate or a teacher in a school setting. Noticing things in a person that are disturbing or worrisome and maybe not understanding what it is, but having a feeling that something is wrong and speaking up about it, reaching out. That's how most threat cases in this field begin, and what a threat assessment team will do at that point is begin to look into the person's situation and gather information primarily by talking to people around that person, conducting interviews, looking at other information about them in terms of records that are lawfully available, if there's any kind of history of problems there in a school setting or in a work setting or otherwise. ...

The intervention is ideally intended to be constructive. You're trying to get in the way of the problem before it occurs.

Teams will often look at a social media trail or activity of a person as part of getting a holistic picture of what's going on with that person. And that allows them to do two things: First, to evaluate what the level of danger may be. Is this a person who is thinking about violence, who's focused on violence, who is perhaps planning and taking steps to prepare for it? Does this person have access to a weapon? These are all questions that they'll ask to evaluate. And then also looking at the set of information for thinking about what is the best way to intervene to step in and try to help this person? And that's a key principle of this work as well. The intervention is ideally intended to be constructive. You're trying to get in the way of the problem before it occurs. It's prevention. So the field is also learning that that's, in many cases, the most effective way to deal with somebody who is perhaps going down what the field refers to as "the pathway to violence."

On the benefit of taking action that's not not necessarily punitive

Often you're talking about situations where the person of concern has not committed any crime. They maybe haven't even broken any kind of policy. And yet they're stirring anxiety or fear in people around them. So what this method seeks to do is to step in and ... try to get a better handle on what the problem is going on with the person, what's the root concern or grievance. Often these are people who have deep grievances that they are having trouble letting go of, and they're seeking a way out of a problem that they feel stuck in. The constructive interventions may be counseling, support for education in a school setting, employment support, social services, these kinds of measures that are really intended to help a person improve their situation and thereby steer them away from thinking about potential violence.

On how the wrong kind of intervention can backfire

The case research in this field shows, over many years now, that often a punitive response to somebody who is raising concern can be ineffective and even counterproductive, it can actually exacerbate the danger. So there are many cases of mass shootings where the subject was given a restraining order or fired from a job or expelled from school — and again, that may be a necessary step in some cases — but if that's the only step, what the field has learned over the years is that it's not enough, that these people will come back, or they may go somewhere else and think about planning an act of violence and then carry it out. So by intervening constructively, there's often more hope to be effective with the work.

On how we measure a mass shooting that was prevented

It's tricky to show results, to show its effectiveness. There's a really good analogy that one threat assessment expert uses. [There's] a forensic psychologist Reid Meloy, who's a research expert in the field, as well as a practitioner, and he likes to compare it to cardiology, the practice of preventing heart disease. Doctors can't tell you how many heart attacks they prevented with the care and treatment they provide their patients. But they can do a lot to lower the risk. That's the goal of this work as well, to steer people to a healthier place, onto a better path, to move away from violent thinking.

On how media coverage and public attitudes around mass shootings have changed

If you think back just a few years ago, maybe a decade ago, mass shooter's images would be all over the place, all over news coverage on cable television. There would be quick and widespread sharing of their so-called manifestos, these documents and screeds that they would post online before committing an attack. A lot of that has gone away, because I think there has been a growing understanding that that kind of sensationalism is damaging, has some bad effects. It feeds into the desire of many perpetrators to get sensational media attention, to have notoriety, what's also known as the copycat problem. So there has been improvement with that.

I think now there's a different area where we really need to make progress in terms of our kind of broader cultural framing of this problem. ... [It's] the idea that we're so stuck with this problem that nothing ever really changes or that there's nothing we can really do about it. There's a kind of cultural resignation we have about it that I think is unhelpful. You probably know of the satirical headline from The Onion that we see after these attacks, "'No Way To Prevent This,' Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens." It's almost as if we've come to accept that. But I don't think that that's the case. I think there's potentially a lot more we can do about this problem with additional tools, including this kind of prevention work with threat assessment.

Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.