A week of mass shootings this summer has again spotlighted the horror of gun violence in public spaces. A 19-year-old gunman opened fire at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California on July 28, injuring 13 and killing four (including the gunman). In El Paso, Texas, less than a week later, a lone gunman killed 22 people and injured 24 others. In Dayton, Ohio, a day later, a gunman shot 26 people during a 30-second attack, killing 9 and injuring 17.
Rising active shooting incidents
Beyond the grim statistics are three distinct incidents, linked only by the compressed timeline of their occurrence. Still, there is a tendency to want to find a pattern: Why do these incidents happen? How can we prevent them?
In total, 91 people were killed and 107 more were injured in locations such as workplaces, schools, and public areas
One attempt to analyse trends and commonalities among mass shooting incidents is a research report published by the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) titled “Mass Attacks in Public Spaces – 2018”. Looking at the totality of major mass attacks last year, the report seeks to find patterns that can shed light on the attacks and suggest strategies to prevent and mitigate future incidents.
Between January and December 2018, 27 incidents of mass attacks – in which three or more persons were harmed – were carried out in public spaces within the United States. In total, 91 people were killed and 107 more were injured in locations such as workplaces, schools, and other public areas.
The National Threat Assessment Center report considered all the mass attack incidents in 2018 and analysed some trends and statistics:
- Over half (59%) took place between the hours of 7 a.m. and 3 p.m., and 63% of the attacks ended within 5 minutes of when they were initiated.
- Most of the attackers were male (93%); the youngest was a 15-year-old student and the oldest was 64.
- Nearly a fourth of the attackers (22%) had substance abuse problems, and half (48%) had a criminal history, whether violent or non-violent.
- About two-thirds (67%) experienced mental health symptoms, commonly depressant and psychotic symptoms such as paranoia, hallucinations or delusions. Almost half (44%) had been diagnosed with a mental illness prior to the attack.
- The main motives were domestic, personal or workplace grievances (52%); followed by mental health/psychosis (19%); 22% had unknown motives.
- Most (85%) of attackers had at least one significant stressor in their lives in the last five years; 75% had experienced stressors that occurred in the previous year before the attack. Personal stressors included the death of a loved one, a broken engagement of physical abuse. Work- or school-related stressors included losing a job, being denied a promotion, or being forced to withdraw from classes. More than half of attackers (56%) experienced stressors related to financial instability. Personal issues such as homelessness or losing a competition were also stressors.
- Nearly all the attackers (93%) engaged in prior threatening or concerning communications. Most of the attackers (78%) also exhibited behaviors that caused concerned in others. For the majority of the attackers (70%), that concern was so severe that others feared specifically for the safety of the individual, themselves, or others.
The Secret Service report also analysed the overall impact of several factors:
- Mental health and mental wellness - Mental illness, alone, is not a risk factor for violence, and most violence is committed by individuals who are not mentally ill. Two-thirds of the attackers in this study, however, had previously displayed symptoms indicative of mental health issues, including depression, paranoia, and delusions. Other attackers displayed behaviors that do not indicate the presence of a mental illness but do show that the person was experiencing some sort of distress or an emotional struggle.
- The importance of reporting - Since three-quarters of the attackers had concerned the people around them, with most of them specifically eliciting concerns for safety, the public should be encouraged to share concerns they may have regarding coworkers, classmates, family members, or neighbors.
- Need for a multidisciplinary threat assessment approach - There is a need to standardise the process for identifying, assessing, and managing individuals who may pose a risk of violence. Law enforcement and others are taking steps to ensure that those individuals who have elicited concern do not “fall through the cracks.” Law enforcement personnel should continue developing close partnerships with the mental health community, local schools and school districts, houses of worship, social services, and other private and public community organisations.
Threat assessment refers to a proactive approach to violence prevention, an investigative modelMany of the resources to support the threat assessment process are already in place at the community level, but require leadership, collaboration, and information sharing to facilitate their effectiveness at preventing violence, according to the report.
‘Threat assessment' refers to a proactive approach to violence prevention, an investigative model originally developed by the U.S. Secret Service to prevent assassinations. It has since been adapted to prevent all forms of targeted violence, regardless of motivation, including K-12 school shootings and acts of workplace violence. When implemented effectively, a threat assessment generally involves three key components: Identify, Assess and Manage.
Identify, assess and manage
Public safety entities rely on people who observe concerns to identify the individual to law enforcement or to someone else with a public safety responsibility. In educational settings or workplaces, concerns may be reported to a multidisciplinary threat assessment team that works in conjunction with law enforcement when needed. The responsible public safety entity is then tasked to assess the situation to determine how they can manage any risk of violence posed by the individual.