Recognizing Mass Shooters: The Warning Signs & Common Traits That Can Help Predict Violence

Sep 6, 2019

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According to James Silver, a local professor who extensively researched the topic of active shooters with the FBI in a 2018 study, there are commonalities among these perpetrators and many warning signs before an act of violence occurs. Silver offers a solution he says could help bridge the divide on this issue.


GUEST: 

James Silver - Assistant professor and criminologist in the criminal justice program at Worcester State University. He's a former federal prosecutor and co-authored a 2018 FBI study on active shooters.  he is also co-author of Almost a Psychopath.

Related Reading.

You can get a PDF of the 2018 FBI report on active shooters co-authored by James Silver here

Read highlights and listen to Radio Boston's interview with James Silver

As reported by The Washington Post, according to the FBI, active shooters usually get their guns legally and are frequently motivated by grievances in their lives. 

Some reporting on the more recent mass shooters:  Midland and Odessa, Texas; El Paso, Texas; Dayton, Ohio

In many cases involving mass shootings, warning signs have been overlooked or unheeded, as in the Parkland, Florida shooting, the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, and the church attack in Charleston, South Carolina.    

USA Today's Behind the Bloodshed: The Untold Story of America's Mass Killings.

Transcript:

This is a computer-generated transcript and may contain errors. 

From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Laura Knoy and this is the exchange.

Laura Knoy:
There's a familiar script that seems to accompany most mass shootings. The perpetrator is almost always a white male. He's commonly nursing a grievance of some kind, a feeling that he's been wronged by an individual or society. He often but not always, obtains his weapons legally. And most shooters give warning signs that they have violent intentions. Recognizing these common characteristics is important our guest today says because it could help stop these attackers before they strike. We're talking this hour with criminologist James Silver. He's an assistant professor in the criminal justice program at Worcester State University. He's also a former federal prosecutor and co-author of a 2018 report with the FBI called A Study of Pre Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters. Today, an exchange. Can we profile a mass shooter before he takes action? And if we can, then what?

James Silver:
Well, I very much appreciate the invitation and I'm happy to be here.

Laura Knoy:
What's the biggest misconception that you hear, James, when it comes to the people who perpetrate mass murder?

James Silver:
I think the biggest misconception out there, which is unfortunately, I think being perpetuated by various politicians in our country, is that this is directly related to a mental illness, that almost all of these attackers are driven by mental illness. And that's just not the case. It's a multifactorial mix of stresses and grievances and circumstances that lead people to do this, which isn't to say it is never mental illness, but research that I've done, be sure to other people have done, has shown that that's rarely the single cause.

Laura Knoy:
And I definitely want to get into that mental illness piece with you and all this multifactorial descriptions that you talk about. But just ask you right off the bat. James, the verb to profile somebody. When we talk about profiling a mass shooter, it's pretty fraught. We hear a lot about racial profiling after all this research that you've done. Can we really profile somebody who might be a mass shooter?

James Silver:
I don't think so. And I don't I would say that most people who research this and most law enforcement professionals would say the same thing, probably not a profile, at least not in the way that most people think about the word profile. So in the report I did, I co-authored with the FBI, we looked at 63 active shooters in the United States over a period of about 13 years. We did a really deep dive into their circumstances as best we could by using the original law enforcement records that were made available to the FBI. What we found is that there really is not a demographic profile. We can't see a shooter is a certain age or certain race. But as it turns out, in our study of active shooters, for example, while most of them were men, the age range went from 12 to 88. Really not very specific. Even in terms of race. It turns out that people think of mass shooters as being white and they are about 60 something percent of the time, according to most research. But, you know, that's about the percentage of white people in this country. So there's not really a demographic profile we feel comfortable trying to use. So I think it's important also to focus on the title we gave to our report, the 2013 report. It's a study of pre attack behaviors. So what we think is important and I say we most researchers and I think people at the FBI think is important is looking at behaviors. So it's not who it is. It's what people are doing. So we're really trying to focus on the idea that there are observable signs that somebody might be moving on a pathway to violence.

Laura Knoy:
Well, so let's talk about that. So there's no demographic profiling, you know, race, age, religious belief, whatever. But that does seem to be a lot of commonalities, James, in terms of these pre attack behaviors. So grievances. Let's talk about that one. That's a big one in the report. What are these grievances about typically, and are they more often aimed at a single person or a group of people?

James Silver:
That's a great question. So a grievance, at least the way we use it in sort of this criminology and threat assessment fields is really about something more than just being angry. So this isn't I get mad at a driver or I get mad at my spouse or my boss at work because of a certain incident. A grievance is a more longstanding and intense feeling that you've been wronged. So it's more than just anger. It doesn't dissipate. And sometimes we describe it as sort of an injury that won't heal. It becomes I don't want to see an obsession, but maybe a driving force in a person's life where they feel that they need to somehow right this wrong and balance the scales and that these grievances are what we find often drive a mass attack. Now, as to whether they're normally against individuals or against institutions, it widely varies. It could be you feel you've been a. Treated unfairly at work, and again, not just that you missed out on overtime shift or somebody got a promotion, you didn't, but that that happened because people want to treat you unfairly. So it could be something at work, it could be against a race, it could be against a gender. There are mass shooters who literally have been obsessed with the idea that women as a whole treat them unfairly. So it's the existence of a grievance. It could be against an individual or against a group or against a race. But what we find is that's what drives this behavior. And these folks don't just snap and get angry one time. There's a feeling of unsettledness and unfairness in their lives that leads them to plan and prepare. And we almost always find there's planning and preparation. These aren't snap decisions.

Laura Knoy:
I'm glad you mentioned that, because often people who know these perpetrators say he just snapped. You're saying it doesn't happen that way?

James Silver:
It happens rarely. Okay. So I've studied the 63 active shooters we did with the FBI. I also did a study of 115 mass murderers. Very few instances. And I mean, in the single digits where it just seems that the person got angry at the moment and went and got a gun and killed people. It's very rare. Much more commonly, we find that these people were angry and had a grievance over least days, oftentimes weeks, sometimes months and years.

Laura Knoy:
When asked about the mental illness piece and kind of tie it to this grievance factor that you found is so common in many of these mass shootings, a lot of people who aren't mental health experts or law enforcement experts, like you might say, OK, no official diagnosis of a mental illness. But to nurse a grievance like that, you know, to the point where you get so full of rage and hate and violence is crazy. And I'm using sort of common, you know, air quotes here, common lingo. So what do you think? I mean, a lot of people have grievances. You know, I get upset when I see people driving and looking at their cell phones at the same time. But I'm not going to use that grievance to go out and commit mass murders. So to the ordinary person. James, it does seem like mental illness.

James Silver:
Clearly, it seems if you were going to go out and shoot a number of people in public, it does seem that you would have to be mentally unbalanced to even consider doing that. And I can understand that. It's important, though, to note that we're not talking, though, about people who are mentally ill is in the sense that they're delusional or psychotic when they commit these attacks, although that does happen again fairly rarely that a person is actively delusional or actively psychotic during an attack. So it's true. A lot of people have grievances.

James Silver:
Most of them, the vast majority, will never pick up a gun and go out in public and try and shoot somebody. What we find, though, is that the grievance is part of this, as I said, multifactorial mix that just causes this to happen. So mental illness may be part of that. There may be a grievance, there may be a history of mental illness, but there are likely other things going on in the person's life that caused them to have just stress that they can't handle. And a certain mentality that leads them to think they have to somehow take action to right this wrong that they perceive. And I'd like to also point out that grievance doesn't have to be based in reality. Some of these grievances are just the perceptions of the person. Nevertheless, I don't think it's driven primarily by mental illness.

Laura Knoy:
Michael e-mails us and asks what percentage of shooters were using or had recently used medication to treat mental illness. Michael, thank you.

James Silver:
Great question. And I think that gets to the heart of what people think that most of these people are have a diagnosed mental illness. So in our study of the active shooters that we did with the FBI, we found about 25 percent of those shooters had a diagnosed mental illness, 25 percent diagnosed mental illness over the course of their lifetime at some point. So we're not even seeing that at the time of the attack, 25 percent of them had Mental illness that was, I don't want to say active, but it's important to remember that mental illness can be episodic. Right. You may have a mental illness, but doesn't mean you're constantly displaying symptoms. So even in our sample, 25 percent at some point in their lives had a diagnosis of mental illness. It is unfortunate that even the FBI is not able to get mental health records and medical records for these shooters. So for a lot of them, we don't really know. I would say, though, in direct answer to the question. Less than 25 percent were prescribed a medication for mental illness at the time of the attack. As far as we could tell.

Laura Knoy:
Here's another e-mail from Peter in Derry, who says, As an evaluator of suicide risk for 16 years, I have found similarities between suicide risk and active shooter risk. Please highlight those similarities. Peter, I'm glad you wrote because in your study, James, you say, forty eight percent of these mass shooters had suicidal ideation or engaged in suicide related behavior. That's huge.

James Silver:
That is huge. And that's not just from the study that I co-authored with the FBI. A lot of research shows that there is this intersection of suicidality and homicidality that we find in these mass shooters. So if you think that the average per year population is maybe 2, 3, 4 percent that have suicidal ideations or engage in any suicidal behavior, 4 percent versus 48 percent. And in many other studies, 50 percent or 60 percent of these shooters are suicidal. It is an interesting and important factor that we take into account. Many of these shooters are suicidal. They either commit suicide themselves. Or engage in what appears to be an attempt to have the police officers kill them. I think it's also interesting that not only are roughly half of these people suicidal, what I found in my research and again, the FBI study and other research I've done is, even if not suicidal, these mass shooters don't plan beyond the event. It's important. Remember, these people are not trying to get away with it. They're there. They're not they're not wearing masks. They're not attacking where there's no cameras. They really don't care. This is a final life act for them. And even the ones who aren't suicidal, they're clearly going to spend the rest of their lives in prison. And that's as far as they get. So there's something about this. Grievance, wanting to settle the score and that being the final thing they do that is both interesting and important from a threat perspective, threat assessment perspective and law enforcement perspective.

Laura Knoy:
So after one of the most recent mass shootings and sadly I can't remember which one because there have been so many this summer. But after one of them, some politicians were saying we should impose the death penalty on these people, sounds like that really won't make a difference.

James Silver:
It just doesn't seem like it's a very reasonable response to this. These people are suicidal. And as I said, even the ones who aren't suicidal are just not planning beyond the shooting part. I find it hard to believe that the death penalty would affect their calculus about their actions. I suppose it's not impossible, but it doesn't seem like a very practical solution.

Laura Knoy:
This is from Sarah in Concord. Please ask your guest to comment on the prevalence of mass murders with prior incidents of domestic violence. That's another link that I have seen come up again and again.

James Silver:
So that's also a great question. And one thing I think is important to note is the study that the FBI did about active shooters, are people going out in public trying to kill others. The other research I've done has also been what we call public mass murderers. So people who go out in public, what's really important and particularly in regard to domestic violence, is more than half of mass shootings where three or four people are killed are actually domestic incidents. They don't happen in public spaces. So their tie to domestic violence is extremely powerful. Those again, that's a majority of these mass shootings. Likely have some link to domestic violence. It's important, though, to note those aren't the ones we talk about. All the incidents that people commonly speak about and that make the news are the ones that happen in public. So that's where actually a lot of my research has been has been in these public incidents, because that does seem to drive the discussion in the public incidents. There's less of a link to domestic violence. And at least as far as we can tell, most of these active shooters and mass shooters really don't have long criminal histories. There are some who have had domestic violence incidents and some who have had domestic violence convictions. But it's less than 10 percent, I would say. Although, again, in the the private sphere where actually most of these mass shootings happen, there's a much stronger link to domestic violence.

Laura Knoy:
And when we say mass. By the way, I mean, I hate to get so nitty gritty, but how many people does mass involve?

James Silver:
That is a question of some dispute among researchers.

Laura Knoy:
If one person is shot to death, it's a tragedy right there.

James Silver:
Right so there are some researchers who will say a mass killing is at least three people who are killed, not including the shooter if he or she is killed or kills themselves. Others say four there are in the active shooter report we did with the FBI. We just said anyone who's trying to kill people in public. Doesn't matter in fact, if anyone is killed. So in the active shooter report we did, some of the people in our sample didn't actually kill anyone either because they have bad aim, the gun jammed or whatever happened, people survive their injuries. So the idea, I think, for most people is we're talking about going out into public and trying to kill more than one person. Although, you know, there's there are people who think there should be some some number, some some limits put on this. I think a better view for most people is you're out in public trying to kill more than one person.

James Silver:
Another thread that your research shows is 24 percent of these mass shooters had served in the military and several shooters have had access to guns due to their military service, sometimes legally. Sometimes it turns out after the fact the military didn't connect the dots and the person should not have had the gun. So what did you learn, James, about the military connection? 24 percent is a lot.

James Silver:
It is a fair amount. And I'd say other studies show similar percentages of of mass shooters having a military connection. And it just makes sense, I suppose, that if you have some familiarity with a gun, you might choose that as your tool to settle your grievance. In terms of getting the guns, it's interesting, a lot of studies show that these mass murderers or active shooters, however, you want to use the term, are able to buy their guns legally. Some go out and buy them specifically to commit an attack. Others seem to already have had the gun in their possession. And just based on how long they've had it, we assume they didn't obtain the weapon for the attack. They just happened to have it. Some steal or borrow a gun, which they obviously shouldn't do. Very few actually purchased their guns illegally. Either have access to them, had them already in their possession, or are able to legally buy them. A quick aside, getting to the idea of mental illness. I did a study of one hundred and fifteen mass murderers in the United States and looking at just of those hundred fifteen each, if each of them had tried to buy their gun, legally, which is not what happened, but if they all had tried to, only four of them would have been prevented from buying a gun legally based on a pre-existing mental illness. The standard at the federal government level for not being able to buy a weapon based on mental illness is if you've been adjudicated insane in a criminal proceeding or involuntarily committed to a mental hospital.

Laura Knoy:
A very high threshold.

James Silver:
Very high threshold. So even if people have mental illness, it is not probably not going to prevent them from being able to purchase a firearm.

Laura Knoy:
So let's say that again, because it's important, the majority of mass shootings that you have studied, the perpetrators have purchased, obtained their weapons perfectly legally.

James Silver:
Or could have. In some instances, like in the study I did at 115, they didn't all go out and buy a weapon. But I wondered how many of them would have been prevented from buying a gun. And so we looked at it as best we could and we were using open source data. We didn't have access to medical records or psychiatric records.

James Silver:
But from what we could tell from the reporting done, we were able to say that one hundred and eleven of them would have been able to buy their gun legally, at least if you were looking just at the disqualifying mental illness provisions of federal law.

Laura Knoy:
This is the exchange I'm Laura Knoy today. Can we spot mass shooters before they strike? We're talking with criminologist James Silver, co-author with the FBI, a study last year on characteristics of these perpetrators and how to use this information to try to stop these rising tragedies.

Laura Knoy:
A couple other commonalities that I noticed in your research, James, 57 percent of these perpetrators were single at the time they acted. Does that matter?

James Silver:
It matters to the extent that we looked at was there life circumstances overall and what we found is. While there's no demographic profile of who these folks are and who's going to pick up a gun to go out and do this, we did find that overall. Generally speaking, they're under a lot of life stress. And so the fact that they're single may be an indication of that. Now, I'm not suggesting that people are single or under stress. However, it may be that they're having difficulty forming relationships or having difficulty maintaining relationships. It could be that there's a mental health component to that. Their employment status may have changed. Generally speaking, things are not going well in their lives, not in any way. We could use a checklist and say if if these five things happened, you're going to become a mass shooter or an active shooter. But what we found is they're commonly under stress of a variety of types, one of which may be reflected in the fact that they're commonly single, although not entirely socially isolated. I mean, they still maintain a place in the world. They do have residences. They're not all they're not homeless. But it's just things aren't going particularly well for them.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and in your research, you say, again, what emerges are individuals who fail to successfully navigate multiple stressors in their lives. If these people, again, as you said, mostly men, I think four have been women out of all the ones that we've seen, very few. If they are nursing these grievances kind of angry all the time, it makes sense that they'd be single. They'd be extremely hard to live with.

James Silver:
Again, you know, the idea is, I think at some point people thought that these mass shooters were literally like Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who, of course, was not a shooter, but somebody who lived completely off the grid, isolated, mentally ill, and clearly just a hermit plotting his revenge. That isn't exactly the case. They tend to be somewhat socially isolated, maybe don't have strong relationships. Probably not succeeding at work, although some of the people we've looked at have have had doctorates and master's degrees and have been professionals. So, again, that's what makes the the idea of a demographic profile so challenging.

Laura Knoy:
And again, you stress this earlier. Don't look at demographics, education levels, you know, race and so forth. Look at behaviors. And that's what you've been studying.

James Silver:
It really is. It's the circumstances. It's behaviors. It's what people do, not really who they are based on a checklist.

And again, in a few minutes, we can talk about what to do with that information about behaviors. That's these small light of hope. If I could call it that. James, in your report that if we could think more about these pre attack behaviors, maybe we can do a better job preventing.

James Silver:
Yes.

Laura Knoy:
One last quick question before we go to our callers. Why do many of these killers seem to just go after people they don't even know? I mean, they seem to be nursing a grievance, but sometimes it's aimed at a particular racial or ethnic group. But sometimes it's just, you know, spewing against anybody who happens to be within the line of fire.

James Silver:
There's a lot in that question and it's a great question. So recalling that, you know, more than half of mass shootings overall are domestic related. So clearly there there are targets that are family or intimate partner related.

James Silver:
Ok. But then looking just at the public shootings, most of them have a target. Most them actually have a person that they want to kill or at least a group of people. Maybe it's the administrative department at work because they've somehow are docking your pay or something like that.

Laura Knoy:
Or white supremacists who writes a grievance against certain racial or ethnic groups. That's on the rise.

James Silver:
Yes. There are some people who appear, as far as we can tell, didn't have any specific person literally just want to kill a bunch of people. In terms of a grievance, it's really hard to say what it is. Sometimes I just think of it as rage against the world. And it's not very specific and it's not really maybe even very helpful in trying to say how would we identify a person like that? They are in the minority. Most people seem to have a target in mind.

Laura Knoy:
Rage against the world again, expressed in the form of a mass shooting does sound to the average individual like a mental illness.

James Silver:
Well, you know, I'm not a psychiatrist or psychologist, and yes, it does sound like that, and I and I completely understand that. Maybe it is. It may well be. But what I would say is it's not something that we can. I don't know that there's a diagnosis for it. And I don't think it's necessarily helpful to say, therefore, it's all mental illness because it really probably isn't. One last thing I want to say about this idea of killing strangers. There is a thread in some of these more recent attacks and I mean the last five years where people literally may have been engaging in what we we call fame seeking behaviors, literally wanting to be famous by killing a certain number of people.

Laura Knoy:
That's creepy.

James Silver:
And sadly enough, I don't know. I don't recommend people do this. But if you went online, you could find fan clubs for the Columbine shooters and you could find fan clubs for the Newtown shooter and the Las Vegas shooter and in which these message, chat groups, what ever they are, people talk openly about wanting to beat a number, wanting to become famous in that way. And so number of criminologists I work with in a number of government officials and practitioners are very strongly moving towards this idea of not naming these mass shooters. During this interview, I will try never to say anyone's individual name, although I may slip up. The idea is that we don't want to give people attention for this behavior because it does seem that there have been mass shooters at the last five to seven years who are killing strangers, not because they're mad at the world, but because they want to be somebody and become famous.

Laura Knoy:
Ok, so fan pages for mass shooters. Can't anybody shut these down? I know the Internet is a wild and woolly place, but couldn't those be shut down or at least temporarily slowed down by some entity?

James Silver:
A great question. I'll put on my lawyer hat here as both a prosecutor and a defense lawyer, I think would be difficult to do. I think it's important. Remember that there are thousands of people on these fan pages, maybe tens of thousands. They're not ever gonna be violent. They are fascinated by this. And to be frank, we're talking about it today, too, right? It is. It's maybe unfortunate, but it's very interesting. Behavior does draw people's attention. I don't know that you could say you can't think about it or talk about it. I think the First Amendment protections would be sufficient that people could engage in this type of behavior online. It's unfortunate, though, that some of those people may then actually act on that. It's true, though. They're out there.

Laura Knoy:
Let's take another call and this is Maddie in Nashua. Hi, Maddie. You're on the air. Go ahead.

Caller:
My question actually did pertain to mass shooters online who are like groomed by these websites. They like Reddit or Twitter, and I just wanted to know the percentage of people that had gone online first and then we're just sort of like enamored by this community of violence. And then that sort of prompted them to just get out and do commit a violent act.

Laura Knoy:
It's a great question, Maddie. And you know, James, we hear about, in terms of international terrorism, people being sort of inculcated online, does that also happen with this form of domestic terrorism?

It's a great question. I think it probably does. I don't know that we'd have enough information to say what percentage. But again, a researcher that I work with at the University of Alabama, we are publishing a paper about fame-seeking mass shooters and specifically saying some of these people appear to act and do their mass shooting simply based on the idea that they would like to be famous. I don't know how many of them actually though, get on the Internet and are suddenly hit with this idea. I think it's more likely that they are, like I said, probably suffering through some stressors in their lives, not handling things well, probably, I would think, already had the idea of acting violently. Now they may go online and research past mass shooters just because they're fascinated with the idea. And maybe that's part of their their preparation to sort of get themselves mentally at the point where they're ready to do it. I don't know, though, how many of them are actually directly inspired to act just by going online and running into this type of material.

Laura Knoy:
Still, if someone has those thoughts and OK, so maybe they aren't quote unquote radicalized online, but if they have those thoughts and then they get inspiration and maybe even how-to tips, that seems problematic to me.

James Silver:
It is problematic. There's no doubt about it. But we do live in a society where free expression is highly valued. It would be difficult, I think, to say we can't have these types of conversations. Again, I'm not saying I'm a fan of them, but they're out there. I don't think people are probably radicalized. On the point of sort of the research part, it is interesting to think that you could go online and research how to do one of these attacks. The point that reality is, though, while I think it's not easy to do to get yourself to the point mentally where you ready to go out and shoot people, these aren't super sophisticated attacks. We're talking about people who sneak a gun in somewhere and pull it out and just start pulling the trigger. It's not like they're engaging in such tactical evasiveness that they're going to try to escape or somehow deflect attention. They're just going out in public, pulling out a gun and shooting. It's not that sophisticated. So I don't think. Again, I'm not saying that they never would look and say, boy, it would be kind of cool to use smoke bombs like they did in Columbine. Yeah, that might be cool. But it's not as if there's some magic formula that's hidden in past attacks.

Laura Knoy:
Sure. It's not high level stuff..

James Silver:
No.

Laura Knoy:
Let's go to another call. And this is Roderick in North Conway. Hi, Roderick. Thank you for joining us. Go ahead. You're on the air.

Caller:
Good morning. Good morning. Yes, I'm a retired psychologist and I have two questions. What I actually want to state, but I'm I'm struck by how clearly this gender difference. These are these shooters are males. And I'm struck by how clearly this shows the difference in how males as children are socialized by our society, then how we socialize females. But anyway, the second thing is actually a question. What what are all the women who have grievances? Males do not have the market cornered on grievances, I assure you. What are all the women doing with their grievances against society that the males are quite a contrast to?

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Roderick, what a question. Thank you for calling. Go ahead, James.

James Silver:
That is a great question. In your first comment, it is interesting. We say it's not a profile, but it is. It's ninety five, ninety seven percent men. Now, homicide generally is a male occupation. But it's more like 80 percent so the masculinity of mass murderers is even more pronounced than it is just for regular sort of single homicides. So that's a really good comment. The second part, I don't know. There are hundreds and thousands of people, I'm sure, who are nursing grievances right now in this country and who are never going to act violently. And it's true that maybe, you know, close to 100 percent of the women won't act violently. It's ninety nine point nine nine percent. But still, even for the men, it's probably ninety nine point five percent. It's a very aberrant behavior for anybody to have a grievance and pull out a gun and try and kill a bunch of people. I don't know. Why women don't seem to do it as much. But I also don't know why the vast majority of men with a grievance don't act this way.

Laura Knoy:
Thank you so much for the call, Roderick.

Laura Knoy:
Amelia emails Has your guests research found a relationship between states with lax gun laws and open carry laws and an increase in mass shootings? Amelia says it seems the shootings, at least the ones that made national news this last year, have been in states that are famous for their loose gun laws and gun culture.

Laura Knoy:
Now you're looking more at the people, James, and less about the weaponry that they use. But I wonder if you can shed any light on Amelia's question.

James Silver:
That is also an excellent question and a common one that people want to ask because it is important, right? What I'm talking about today is the people part of it. How do we find these folks? But clearly, there is a gun involved. Right. So that is a logical question to ask. There's a lot of research about this. It's not completely clear what the answer is and maybe more than than some issues in criminology, there are people with agendas doing research. There is definitely research out there that shows, though, that the looseness or laxness of gun control laws is positively correlated with more mass shootings. It's important to remember a couple of things about that, though. As I said, one, there's research that points the other way to mass shootings, while incredibly attention drawing and horrific and just the kinds of things that we put so much attention to. They're actually still really, really, really rare. There aren't that many in a year. Now, depending on how you define it. But if you were to say a mass killing is for people, there's there's like 20 or 30 here, which again, any single one is horrific and I'm not minimizing that at all. But it's just not that many data points considering 50 states and multiple years.

Laura Knoy:
Thank you very much for the question. Amelia, I want to talk now. James, if we could sort of pivot to what I earlier referred to as the small pinpoint of hope in your research. And that's OK. You explained all these warning signs, all these commonalities, not demographics so much, but commonalities among these people. What do you do with that? And I think that's one of the ideas that you've been putting out there in this research and that you're going to talk about before Congress later this month.

Sure. So later this month, I will be down in D.C. for what's called a congressional briefing. And I and other researchers in public mass violence are going to present ideas to legislative aides and we hope policymakers and get some of these ideas out in front of Congress. So one of the ideas that I like to use and promote is the idea that the United States Secret Service and the FBI Department of Homeland Security use, which is called threat assessment. And the idea is to try and identify people who are on this pathway to violence. So as I said, most of these attackers, the vast majority, don't just snap. They do engage in what researchers call discoverable behaviors. Which isn't to say they will be discovered, but they could be. There are actual signs. These folks display as they move towards violence.

Laura Knoy:
Such as give us a couple examples.

James Silver:
A great one I like to point to is a thing called behavioral leakage. So in the field of criminology and threat assessment. Right. Behavioral leakage means indicating to another person that you plan to attack a target. So it's not a direct threat. It's not me saying to Bob, I'm gonna go do something. But it's me indicating to those around me that I'm moving towards a violent act. And it could be things you say, things you write. People, neighbors might notice sudden fascination with guns. It could be things you draw. Post online. And this leakage, sort of an indication that you're going to attack is extraordinarily common.

James Silver:
It's important to remember, as I said, these folks are not trying to get away with it. And as they move towards it, they're not the best I think at hiding their their grievance and sort of their obsession with righting this wrong. So there are clues they give off. And it's a number of studies that show this, not just our study with the FBI, but studies I've done with public mass murderers, numbers of studies done of school shooters, lone actor terrorists, this leakage idea that that people are actually indicating they're going to attack is really common, like 60, 70, 80 percent of these populations right now are terrorists, mass murderers. Yes. There are signals now. Some of them are more subtle than others. And yes, there's always the hindsight bias. The person actually did shoot. So now it becomes more meaningful. But in our study, in the FBI study, we said, look, we're going to look and see were people engaging in behavior leakage. And did people notice it at the time? Were not saying looking back on it. Did that seem weird? What we looked for was people noting it at the time. A conversation with a friend a formal complaint at work. A police report. Anything like that. So at the time, we were able to find that most of our active shooters engaged in behavioral leakage that was actually noticed at the time before the attack.

Laura Knoy:
That's so frustrating.

James Silver:
It is frustrating. What we found is and this is, I think, understandable that people who notice these things, like the behavioral leakage, like maybe a fascination with mass shooters, like maybe a fascination with firearms are family and friends and acquaintances. And then they're in sort of a conundrum. Right. They've noticed something disturbing, but it's somebody they know maybe even care about quite a bit. It's hard to get them to do what might be useful.

Laura Knoy:
Let's talk about that after a short break. It's a really important point. This is the exchange I'm Laura Knoy.

Laura Knoy:
We're talking with criminologist James Silver, co-author with the FBI of a study of mass shooters who these criminals are and whether we can spot them and stop them before they strike. All right. We have all these characteristics. We know what these commonalities are. You said, and it was pretty striking, most of these mass shooters are not trying to, quote unquote, get away with it. They're not trying to hide it. They give lots of clues. Who is most likely to see these signs? James.And what keeps them from reporting these signs?

James Silver:
People who tend to notice these things are people who know the person of concern. Right. So in the FBI study, we tried to look at concerning behaviors that these shooters displayed and that were noticed so literally, again, not retrospectively, but at the time somebody noticed it and was concerned. It turns out that you know and that I don't think this is surprising, it's friends, family, neighbors, acquaintances, you know, people at work who notice this stuff. It's not usually strangers. So what happens is we said, let's look at what these folks do when they notice that concerning behavior.

James Silver:
And what we found and again, I think this makes sense, is the overwhelming response was to go talk to the person you're concerned about. Go talk to him. Almost always a him. Very rarely with anything reported to law enforcement. So people would talk to the person of concern. They might also talk to broader family members or other people in a friend group. But it sort of maintained a sort of a cone of silence essentially around the concerning behavior. There really was not an urge to go out and report this. Why might that be? Well, number one, loyalty, right? It's somebody you know.

Laura Knoy:
Might be your son, might be your brother in law.

James Silver:
Absolutely. There's also uncertainty. What do you do? I mean, you're saying you're concerned about something, but the person hasn't committed a crime yet. You're not saying my neighbor or my son just pointed a gun at me and threatened to kill me. Well, that's just a crime. Everyone knows you call the police for that. What do you do if you're just concerned that your son appears to be doing something inappropriate, something that might presage mass violence or violence of any kind? Right. You may not know it's going to be an active shooting out in public. But you're concerned. So part of the problem is getting people to understand that these concerns are maybe valid. Right. There's always also the uncertainty. Am I just seeing this the wrong way? So there's uncertainty, there's loyalty, and then there's probably a lack of understanding of what are my options. Because this isn't actually a crime yet.

Laura Knoy:
Well, that's the thing. And who wants to, you know, report on their brother in law or their son? The concern might be, if I do report these concerning behaviors, I'm gonna get my son or brother in law or whoever in trouble, unnecessarily, perhaps.

James Silver:
Absolutely.

Laura Knoy:
Maybe he then has a hard time. Maybe he gets a record or maybe he finds out that I'm reporting. And then maybe his repercussions for me, especially if I'm a woman in a domestic violence situation.

James Silver:
Well, that that the domestic violence situation, I think is its own unique concern. And I think a very important one. The idea that -- the FBI and again, I said the Secret Service and its partner of Homeland Security, the Department of Education -- they all promote this idea of threat assessment and using threat assessment teams. Now, a threat assessment team is not a law enforcement team. It's a team that probably can have but will have law enforcement in it. But a threat assessment team is going to have mental health professionals, social workers, law enforcement. And if it's a school school administrators, if it's a workplace H.R., folks, so a threat assessment team is going to try and do three things: identify potential violent offenders, assess them, and manage them. And the idea is to manage them off a pathway to violence. So ideally, if communities have threat assessment teams available to them, a concerned person might report to a threat assessment team.

Laura Knoy:
I see instead of to the local police, which is intimidating for people.

James Silver:
And the local police are probably going to be involved in this. But the idea is not necessarily that a threat assessment team is going to as a first reaction, say, arrest and prosecute. That's not what they're going to try and do. The idea is literally identify, assess, which means understand the person where they are, what their target might be, what their sort of personality is, what their behaviors are, stressors they're under. Also positive things in their life, like do they have connections with their family, with a trusted friend? Can we use those relationships to help the person? So a threat assessment approach is less about delivering punishment and more about providing support and services.

James Silver:
Now, it may wind up in an arrest. That may be, but there's good data out there that shows that it works. Now, I don't wanna get too technical, but Virginia is one state in the country that mandates threat assessment teams at all schools. A number of studies have been done. But one of the ones I like to talk about is a study where they looked at threats in schools, 1800 hundred threats over over a course of a year at a number of different schools. Thirty of those reports were considered to be serious, like an actual threat of violence, perhaps involving a weapon. Out of all of those incidents, only one percent of those students who were reported to a threat assessment team wound up being expelled. Which is sort of the you know, the the analogy of being arrested as an adult, right. That's the worst thing. Most of them were provided with services, mental health screenings, support services, educational services. So the idea was don't use a zero tolerance arrest and prosecute, or, in the school, zero tolerance, expel and kick out, work with the person and try and manage them off the path to violence. And again, of the majority of these threat concerns that were reported to threat assessment teams in schools, most of them were screened and then the decision was made, it wasn't an actual serious threat and no action was taken. So if threat assessment teams were available in communities, my hope would be people would say, I have a concern if I report it the default is actually going to be to try to help the person of concern and not necessarily arrest them. And that could give people more incentive to report.

Laura Knoy:
That's interesting. And I can see in the school setting, James, you know, because you're dealing with minors, so if someone does seem to be a threat and we talked about the link with suicide, you know, I can see the school counseling team kind of going in and saying, let us help you out. But how do you do that on a community level?

James Silver:
It's interesting. It is done on the community level. It not as often or as many places as I think it should be, but it is done. So we've seen it at universities, too. So it's not just with children. These are adults. There's a case I like to talk about, which was at the university in Florida. So I can't say which university. But a person was reported as being very threatening towards the professor and other students in a class. You would think that that would lead to an arrest and expulsion. It was reported to the university's threat assessment team and they came up with what I thought was a pretty creative solution.

They said, let's not kick this person out because then we don't have any contact with them or any insight into what they're doing. Instead, let's let this student stay at the university, but use online education. And with the provision that he was a man received counseling through the University Health Center. So the student got counseling, was online. Got the degree and moved on. And that situation was handled well by a threat assessment team. So let's talk about the community.

Laura Knoy:
Sure. Because again. OK. He's not a minor, but he's still in a school setting. You still have access. You still have the counter threat of if you don't engage in this counseling, you're out of here. So but in a broader community setting, you know, if someone, you know, is being pretty scary. How does a threat assessment team help you without actually knocking on the door and saying you're under arrest and give us your guns?

James Silver:
There's there's many approaches that can be taken, one of which is law enforcement, I think most of your listeners know this, doesn't just arrest people. Law enforcement frequently has contact with people on a non arrest, non prosecution basis. They provide services. They do go to people all the time and try and keep them out of trouble. So you could take that same model. And as some police departments are using now, you could have social workers or psychologists who are trained in threat assessment going out with police officers. On a more formalized basis, you might have a threat assessment team at a community that fields calls. Maybe it came into the local police department, maybe to regional regional threat assessment team. And so a call comes into a local community. They say, hey, we're concerned about this, maybe not a crime yet. But we don't want to ignore it. Let's kick it over to a threat assessment team where they could then assess. Are there things we might be able to do short of an arrest or short of waiting for a crime to occur? It's starting to happen. You've got the governor of Texas just signed an executive order mandating that Texas create regional threat assessment teams. So at the state level, it's starting to happen, although it's slow. At the national level, the FBI, United States Secret Service, both have, you know, sort of gold standard. The best threat assessment teams go in, which is great. It's just that it's difficult to think that those two units can handle all the threat assessment needs for an entire country.

Laura Knoy:
Well, they may have a good standard. But given the number of threats, there have been a lot that have dropped out of view for some reason. I mean, you've worked the FBI. You know this better than I do in Parkland, Florida, the FBI acknowledged that had not acted on information provided to the bureau's tip line. After the Pulse nightclub shooting in, again, Florida, the FBI said investigators had conducted a long investigation into the shooter, was interviewed three times, the case was cleared. So in this most recent incident in Odessa, the gunman himself had called the FBI many times, but an FBI agent said, look, we get thousands of calls. Crazy ramblings. Is quoted as saying. So in some instances, it's frustrating because, you know, after the fact, people say, yeah, that guy made me nervous. So I can understand your threat assessment team approach there, James, but then there's threat overload where there are so many tips that law enforcement is. Just overwhelmed and they can't, you know, sort out the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

James Silver:
Very, very good point. And a clear problem with this approach. This is a human endeavor. It's not going to be perfect. Literally, it could be a thing like the person who takes a phone call doesn't have the insight to see that particular person really is going to be a danger. If there's administrative problems, it is true. It is never going to be perfect. It's part of an approach, though, that I think is helpful. And I would say the threat assessment approach I sort of promote it has to be done in conjunction with perhaps gun control legislation, with other types of services, maybe literally overall, if there were better mental health care in this country or easier access, that would be helpful, too, I'm sure. So the threat assessment approach isn't a panacea. It's not going to change everything, but it does seem a model that works and we should I think be taking advantage of it as best we can with the understanding that mistakes are going to be made. Clues are going to be missed. It's not going to stop all these attacks.

Laura Knoy:
How does a threat assessment team work with so-called red flag laws or expanding background checks? There was a Washington Post ABC poll just out today. 86 percent of Americans said they support red flag laws. These are sometimes called extreme risk protection orders, I believe. So how does that all fit together, James?

James Silver:
So that is that that is obviously a growing movement. And it does seem like that's reasonably popular idea. So I would say that the threat assessment team would clearly want to take make use of that where it's available. It may be the best thing to do is to take a weapon away from a person who you think is a threat to himself or others. So I would definitely say it's part of the approach a threat assessment team would consider probably a very valuable tool, but it's not the only tool. And I really do want to stress that it's not just about getting the gun away from the person, because if a person is nursing a grievance and willing to plan. I don't think it's that hard to get a weapon in the United States of America. So it's a great approach. But again, it would not stop these attacks. Many of these folks, if they couldn't buy a gun legally or for gun, were legally taken from them temporarily, could still access a weapon if they wanted to.

Laura Knoy:
And you can find one online. You can find somebody willing to sell to you, even if you're the subject of a red flag law, even if you fail a background check. If you really want to do this, you can go out and get something.

James Silver:
I think that's clearly the case. We rely on a system where people don't always have to go through a background check. Sometimes they lie anyway, which is a crime, but it's rarely prosecuted.

Laura Knoy:
I mean, if you're going to conduct a mass shooting, you don't really care about no laws.

James Silver:
No you really don't. And it's also important, remember that about 40 percent of gun sales in this country are private. I don't mean I don't mean to disparage people who do private gun sales. I'm sure most of them are doing it responsibly. But it's hard to believe that if a person were the subject of a extreme risk protection order and the police came and took their guns away, that they would willingly tell a private seller that they're under that order. And I don't think a private seller would really have any obligation or maybe even a way to know that. So the red flag laws are great idea, and they're also part of a toolkit that I think is important.

Laura Knoy:
But you're more focused, it seems, James, in your research on these threat assessments and then sort of approaching the the psychological aspect of these people before they commit mass murder.

James Silver:
Some of it's psychological. Some of it is it frankly, I think the threat assessment team may not have real insight into the person's psychology, but if there's enough behaviors that they can identify that lead them to think there's a problem, the idea is to go in and try and come up with a plan to keep this person from moving further down this pathway to violence. And sometimes it could be addressing a grievance. The person's grievance may not be based in fact, or reality. But perhaps there's a way to assuage that person's concerns and somehow keep them from acting violently, which is not to say you're gonna make their lives perfect, or forever get rid of the threat the person might pose. But the idea is to smartly, creatively try to manage people from violence.

Laura Knoy:
What's it like for you to do this work? James, it's pretty grim. It's pretty creepy.

James Silver:
It is very grim.

Laura Knoy:
These people, you know, just the general public looks at them and says they're pretty awful.

James Silver:
They are. I mean, obviously, these are these are awful events. And the people who do them area I think probably suffering maybe from mental illness, just suffering from an inability to successfully navigate life. It is difficult research to do. I do it because I think I can make a difference. I and many, many other researchers who do this can make a difference. Certainly there's great research going on in gun control in these red flag laws, in mental health treatment, in threat assessment. And I think together trying to tackle problem that sadly seems to be increasing, my hope is that these threat assessment teams would at least, for my part, not only be involved in stopping mass violence, but maybe in sort of curbing violence, generally speaking, maybe it is domestic violence, right? Maybe it is normal violence that goes on in a city. So I've been a prosecutor and defense attorney in criminal law. I've seen what happens when people hurt each other. It's ugly. And I'm just trying to use the research I'm doing now and with others to prevent that as best we can.

Laura Knoy:
So in tackling this, you know, sort of terrifying problem of mass shootings, you're saying threat assessment teams could also get at other problems that are just as terrible for the people involved but don't make big headlines?

James Silver:
Absolutely. I think it's hard to believe that people would look at a mass shooter and say, I knew he was going to kill five people, but they might say I thought he was gonna be violent. So we can't really predict mass. But maybe you can predict violent and that's where we can step in and hopefully make a difference.

Laura Knoy:
As you said earlier, you're going to Congress later this month are going to make a presentation about this research. What do you hope comes out of that?

James Silver:
Well, as I said, Texas is just now starting to have regional threat assessment teams for the state. I'd like to see every state have threat assessment teams. It's it just seems that there's no reason we have to keep this model, which I think works at just a national level. Again, FBI and Secret Service are fantastic at what they do. But it could be done locally and more broadly.

Laura Knoy:
OK. It's really nice to meet you. Thank you very much for coming.

James Silver:
Absolutely. It was a pleasure. Thank you so much.

James Silver, assistant professor and criminologist at Worcester State University, former federal prosecutor, coauthor of a 2018 FBI study on active shooters. He's also co-author of the book Almost A Psychopath. This is the Exchange on New Hampshire Public Radio.

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