A new study of active shooter incidents released this month by the FBI shows that, on average, those who carryout mass shootings display four to five “concerning behaviors” that are observable to bystanders in the months leading up to the attack.
“As an active shooter progresses on a trajectory towards violence, these observable behaviors may represent critical opportunities for detection and disruption,” states the report, “A Study of the Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 and 2013.”
The study details the activities of 63 active shooters. And while it found that there is no one profile of a typical active shooter and no single warning sign or checklist for identifying somebody planning a mass shooting, there appears to be a complex combination of behaviors and interactions with bystanders that may often occur in the days, weeks, and months leading up to an attack. And in a large percentage of these cases, such behaviors are known to people who are in a position to report their concerns.
According to the study, the most prevalent way in which concerning behaviors were noticed was verbal communication by the active shooter (95%), followed by observing the physical actions of the active shooter (86%), written communication (27%), and online posts (16%). A large majority of active shooters (89%) demonstrated concerning behaviors that were noticed in multiple ways.
More than half of the 40 active shooters who had a specific target made threats or had a prior confrontation. When threats or confrontations occurred, they were almost always in person (95%) and only infrequently in writing or electronically (14%).
Nearly half of the active shooters had suicidal ideation or engaged in suicide-related behaviors at some time prior to the attack. In fact, an overwhelming majority of the 30 suicidal active shooters showed signs of suicidal ideation (90%), and seven made actual suicide attempts (23%). Nearly three-quarters (70%) of these behaviors occurred within one year of the shooting.
“The high levels of pre-attack suicidal ideation — with many appearing within 12 months of the attack — are noteworthy as they represent an opportunity for intervention,” the study concludes. “If suicidal ideation or attempts in particular are observed by others, reframing bystander awareness within the context of a mass casualty event may help to emphasize the importance of telling an authority figure and getting help for the suicidal person.”
Not surprising, the people most likely to notice concerning behaviors were those who knew the active shooter best — family, friends and classmates. However, these are the same people who were least likely to report their concerns, the report states. “For the very reason they are the people most likely to take note of concerning behaviors, they are also people who may feel constrained from acting on these concerns because of loyalty, disbelief, and/or fear of the consequences.”
Leakage occurs when a person intentionally or unintentionally reveals clues to a third-party about feelings, thoughts, fantasies, attitudes or intentions that may signal the intent to commit a violent act. According to the FBI, 56 percent of active shooters leaked information about their intentions, but those who received the information failed to act on it.
“It is troubling to note that no bystanders reported instances of leakage to law enforcement, perhaps out of a fear of overreacting or perhaps due to a lack of understanding as to what law enforcement’s response would be. This suggests that more robust efforts need to be made to educate bystanders (especially students and adolescents) on the nature of leakage and its potential significance,” the report concludes.