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Nearly all U.S. mass attackers were male and faced major life stressor, report finds

A new report from the U.S. Secret Service analyzes 173 mass attacks that took place in the country from 2016-2020. It comes just days after two shootings in California – in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay – killed 18 people. Shown here is a mourner at a candlelight vigil for victims of the mass shooting at a dance studio in Monterey Park, Calif.
Qian Weizhong
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VCG via Getty Images
A new report from the U.S. Secret Service analyzes 173 mass attacks that took place in the country from 2016-2020. It comes just days after two shootings in California – in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay – killed 18 people. Shown here is a mourner at a candlelight vigil for victims of the mass shooting at a dance studio in Monterey Park, Calif.

The U.S. Secret Service has released a first-of-its-kind report that analyzes 173 mass attacks that took place in the country from 2016-2020.

It's the first time the agency has put together trends collected from five years of data; the report examines everything from when in the year the attacks took place, to behavioral changes exhibited in the attackers. The report, which comes from the agency's National Threat Assessment Center, looked at attacks that harmed at least three individuals, not including the attacker.

The report comes just days after two shootings in California in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay killed a total of 18 people. So far in 2023, there have been 39 mass shootings.

Lina Alathari, chief of the National Threat Assessment Center, said she hopes the research and guidance provided in the report can help prevent future mass attacks.

"We must do everything we can to prevent these, which is why we're putting out this research for you. There is no community that is immune from this," Alathari said.

Top data points from the report

  • Location: Most of the attacks took place in a variety of public and semi-public spaces across 37 states, and Washington, D.C. The most common locations for an attack were businesses, including restaurants and retail.
  • Type of weapon used: 126 of the attacks, or 73%, involved the use of one or more firearms. In nearly 1/4 of the attacks involving firearms, at least one of the firearms was acquired illegally by the attacker.
  • Demographics of attackers: 96% of the attackers in the study were male. The USSS says that this finding is consistent with previous analyses of mass attacks. 57% were white and 34% were Black.
  • Criminal history: 64% had a prior criminal history, not including minor traffic violations. 41% of the attackers were found to have a history of domestic violence, but only 16% if those individuals faced domestic violence charges.
  • Online presence: A majority of the attackers had a identified presence online, and nearly one-quarter were found to have conveyed "concerning communications" such as threats, and posts about suicidal ideations, previous mass shootings, violent content and hatred toward a specific ethnic group.
  • Stressors: Nearly all the attackers experienced "at least one significant stressor" within five years of the attack, most of which were issues with family and romantic relationships. 20% of the attackers experienced some kind of childhood trauma, including physical or sexual abuse, entering foster care, living in a refugee camp, or the death of a parent, the report says.
  • Financial and housing instability: 72% of the attackers experienced a financial stressor some time before the attack, and over half experienced it within five years. The report describes some financial stressors as bankruptcy, eviction, foreclosure and loss of income. 39% of the attackers also experienced unstable housing within 20 years of their attack, including homelessness and impending evictions.
  • Concerning behaviors and mental health symptoms among the attackers

    The report says that of the 180 attackers examined in the report, 58% experienced mental health symptoms prior to or at the time of their attack, some of which included depression and suicidal thoughts, and psychotic symptoms such as paranoia and delusions.

    The report makes it clear that mental health factors should not be considered causal explanations for why these attacks occurred.

    "Mental illness is not a barometer for dangerousness and it is not a correlation for mass attacks. The vast majority of individuals with mental illnesses in this country will never be violent. In fact, often, they are the victims of violence," Alathari said.

    The agency says violence like mass attacks are rarely spontaneous and almost always have some warning signs in the attacker. The report doesn't offer any kind of road map to prevent future mass attacks, but the agency recommends that "community systems" be set up to help identify and intervene when someone reports concerns about another person.

    With the roll out of the USSS's report, they are also holding a virtual event, and Alathari said 21,000 people signed up to attend from all 50 states and 80 countries.

    "Everyone has a role to play in prevention, it's [not] just one person's responsibility or one organization's responsibility. It is a community-wide, multi-disciplinary effort," Alathari said.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Deepa Shivaram
    Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.