An Interview with: Mark Follman

An Interview with: Mark Follman

Mark Follman is the national affairs editor at Mother Jones. Since 2012, his in-depth investigations into mass shootings, child gun deaths, and the financial costs of gun violence have been honored with multiple journalism awards. Mark is a former editor of Salon and a cofounder of the MediaBugs project. His reporting and commentary have also appeared in the New York Times, The AtlanticRolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and on Fox News, MSNBC, and NPR‘s All Things Considered.

In July 2012, Mark and his team at Mother Jones created the first open-source database on mass shootings in America. Mark’s team also learned that a large number of mass shooters have modeled their attacks on previous mass shooting incidents. His recent article, Inside the Race to Stop the Next Mass Shooter, was the cover story for the November-December issue of Mother Jones.

Mark agreed to talk with me about the important issue of gun violence in the U.S., along with his in-depth investigation into the practice of Violence Threat Assessment and how it seeks to prevent mass shooting.

I understand that you are the national affairs editor at Mother Jones. How would you describe your role within the organization?

As the national affairs editor at Mother Jones, I help run our coverage of national news events. I also oversee other investigative projects that are similar to the investigation into mass shootings. For the past 3 years, I have spent the majority of my time researching and writing about various aspects of gun violence.

What sparked your interest in writing about child gun deaths, the cost of gun violence and mass shootings?

I began focusing more intensively on the topic of gun violence after the July 2012 mass shooting at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora Colorado. I wanted to know how frequently this type of attack occurred and found that no database existed. I wanted to know more about who was carrying out these crimes, how and why. So, I set out to answer those questions, beginning with building the database.

What are the most significant and/or surprising things you’ve learned about mass shootings and gun violence?

We soon learned that public gun massacres, while still relatively rare, have increased in frequency in recent years. There is some debate around that, and it is focused primarily on the definition of “mass shooting.” We focused on gathering data on seemingly indiscriminate mass shootings that took place in public, in which four or more victims were killed. This is consistent with the FBI’s long-standing definition of mass murder, though there is really no official definition for “mass shooting.” We did not include family/domestic murders in private homes or gang-related attacks—those are distinct crimes with different policy implications.

Our conclusion that the incidence of mass shooting has increased over the past several years, has since been corroborated by the FBI Active Shooter study and an independent study conducted by Harvard researchers using the data we collected.

It was also striking to learn that the vast majority of mass shooting perpetrators, more than 80 percent of them, had used legally obtained firearms.

Another important finding was that many mass shooters have serious mental health problems, and some show signs of that, prior to attacking. But there is a crucial point to keep in mind here: This is not the same as a causal relationship between mental illness and violence. A large body of research shows that most people with mental illness are not violent. What we found was that many mass shooters had mental health issues, along with many other factors that contributed to their actions. But mental illness by itself is in no way predictive of who might commit a mass shooting.

Have your goals changed at all since you began writing about gun violence? If so, how?

There is still a lot that we don’t know about our nation’s problems with gun violence, which are significant, to say the least. Research into gun violence has been suppressed for nearly two decades, primarily due to politics surrounding the issue. This lack of awareness and understanding exists even in law enforcement, education, and mental health circles. This keeps me motivated to continue to shed more light on problems of gun violence through data-driven reporting.

Is there anything else you would like my readers to know?

It’s difficult to prove that a practice is effective at preventing violence, if that violence doesn’t in fact occur. How do you measure that? You’re proving a negative. But from what I’ve learned about threat assessment, while it is not a solution on its own—clearly the availability of guns and access to mental health care have to be part of comprehensively addressing mass shootings—it seems to be a promising strategy in at least some cases. Having attended the ATAP (Association of Threat Assessment Professionals) conference this past August, I learned a lot from listening to experts among the 700+ member attendees. I think it’s interesting that threat assessment teams are now required in three states for public higher education institutions (Virginia, Connecticut and Illinois), and in one state (Virginia) for Pre K-12 schools, with the possibility of another state on the horizon (Oregon). That suggests it’s increasingly being seen as a useful tool for combatting this problem.

I have been surprised at how powerful the response to the article has been, from the general-public, media, law enforcement, mental health professionals, and educators. I think there is a lot of desire to have the sense that something can be done to help stop mass shootings, that it’s not just a hopeless problem that will go on and on. Some of my colleagues in the media have responded quite positively to the idea that they might want to rethink their role in the copycat effect. Knowing what we know now from forensic investigations of mass shooters and how the media can affect them, I think this is a valuable conversation for us to be having.

I want to express my sincere thanks to Mark for taking the time to share what he’s learned with my readers. If you have not yet read Mark’s enlightening article, Inside the Race to Stop the Next Mass Shooter, I highly recommend doing so. Mark can be contacted at mfollman@motherjones.com.