In 2014, the FBI published a report titled A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States between 2000 and 2013. The report focused on the circumstances of 160 active shooter events that had occurred from 2000-2013. In July, 2018, the FBI released the second phase of the study entitled A Study of the Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States between 2000 and 2013.
This report details behaviors and warning signs that occurred before an attack, providing readers with increased awareness of what to look for in our own settings. In the aftermath of an active shooter incident, we often listen as the media dissects the risk factors and warning signs that may have been missed. It might begin to sound as if there is a consistent profile of the active shooter.
I want to stress one thing: experts and authorities are still very clear on the fact that there is no profile of an active shooter.
While it is true that certain behaviors and characteristics appear in multiple individuals that have perpetrated this type of violence, each situation must be assessed on its own. An assessment is valid for a moment in time. Risk will either be increased or decreased as circumstances and individuals change. It is this fact that gives us hope. When we identify threatening situations and individuals early, we can intervene and reduce, or even eliminate, the likelihood of violence.
What the study tells us
The key findings of this phase II study that I believe are most pertinent to those of us who work in schools are:
- The 63 active shooters in the study did not appear to be uniform in any way such that they could be readily identified prior to attacking based on demographics alone.
- Active shooters take time to plan and prepare for the attacks, with 77% of subjects spending a week or longer planning their attack and 46% spending a week or longer procuring the means for the attack.
- The FBI could only verify that 25% of active shooters in the study had ever been diagnosed with a mental illness. Of those diagnosed, only 3 had been diagnosed with a psychotic disorder. The FBI further states that, “declarations that all active shooters must simply be mentally ill are misleading and unhelpful.”
- Active shooters were typically experiencing multiple stressors, an average of 3.6, in the year before they attacked.
- On average, each active shooter displayed 4 to 5 concerning behaviors over time that were observable to others around the shooter. The most frequently occurring concerning behaviors were related to mental health, problematic interpersonal interactions and leakage of violent intent. In 56% of cases, the first incidence of such behavior occurred more than 2 years before the attack.
- For active shooters under age 18, school peers and teachers were more likely to observe concerning behaviors than family members. In 12 student shooters studied, 92% of cases involved a schoolmate noticing concerning behavior before the attack.
- When concerning behavior was observed, the most common responses were:
- communicate directly with shooter 83%
- do nothing 54%
- report to a non-law enforcement authority 51%
- discuss with a friend or family member 49%
- report to law enforcement 41%.
- In cases where the shooter’s primary grievance could be identified, 33% were related to an adverse interpersonal action (or perceived action) against the shooter and 16% were related to an employment action (or perceived action) against the shooter.
If you’d like to read more of the report, you can get it here.
Next steps for schools
If you don’t have a threat assessment team in place, I urge you to make it a priority this school year. Threat assessment is a research-based prevention and school safety strategy that will help you identify and intervene with not only potentially violent students, but students who are struggling on many levels. Those students need our help. We can’t help them if we don’t know who they are.
I’ve trained schools across the country to implement this practice. Is your school next? Contact me here to find out how I can help.