Researchers studying active shooting suspects have identified several pre-attack behaviors shooters frequently engage in that may help friends and family members recognize a potential threat in time to alert authorities and prevent bloodshed, according to a report released by the FBI Wednesday.
“There is no single warning sign, checklist, or algorithm for assessing behaviors that identifies a prospective active shooter,” the report states. “Rather, 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.”
The report is not intended to be predictive or comprehensive, but it lays out patterns that many shootings adhere to: a male shooter carrying a legally-purchased firearm targeting specific people at a location they are familiar with who has exhibited several concerning behaviors in the year before the shooting.
“It’s extraordinarily useful because it validates work done by others in the FBI, law enforcement and mental health world that provided a better understanding of the characteristics of those who commit mass casualty attacks,” said John Cohen, former acting undersecretary for intelligence and counterterrorism coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security.
Despite a limited sample size, the report carries significant value for the public, police, and mental health professionals scrambling to identify threats and prevent attacks, according to Thomas Veivia, a retired FBI supervisory special agent who now serves as a law enforcement and crisis management consultant.
“The thing people need to keep in mind is this document serves well for the public as far as awareness, but these behaviors really need to be assessed and analyzed by trained professionals,” Veivia said.
This study represents the second phase of research that began with a 2014 report on circumstances of active shooter events that was based on 160 incidents between 2000 and 2013. This report narrows the sample to 63 active shooter incidents during that period for which researchers had enough material from law enforcement investigative files to answer questions about pre-attack behaviors.
One major conclusion drawn from the data is that these shootings are rarely spur-of-the-moment acts. Nearly eight in ten of the shooters studies spent a week or longer planning their attack, and 46 percent spent more than a week actively preparing for it. Only 12 percent planned for less than a day before acting.
Researchers identified an average of 3.6 stressors experienced by each shooter in the year before the attack, such as mental health issues, financial strain, conflicts with friends or family, marital disputes, or drug abuse. The report acknowledged that most people face such challenges regularly without resorting to violence, so the FBI focused on factors that “appeared to have more than a minimal amount of adverse impact” on the shooter.
On average, researchers found shooters exhibited four or five “concerning behaviors” prior to the attack that could have been observed by those around them. In every case, at least one concerning behavior was noticed by someone in the shooter’s life.
Mental health problems and unusual interpersonal interactions were seen in about 60 percent of the cases studied. Nearly every teen shooter and half of the adults exhibited “leakage,” defined as revealing clues to a third party about feeling, thoughts, attitudes, or intentions that may signal violent intent through direct communications or writings.
Researchers discovered less than a quarter of shooters surveilled or researched their targets. They emphasized this was not necessarily a sign that targets were chosen at random but more likely that shooters were already familiar enough with them.
In 73 percent of shootings, there was a known connection between the shooter and the attack site. In almost every case involving a shooter under 18, it was their current or former school. Similarly, most shootings involved at least one specifically targeted victim, even if there were random victims as well.
“Everyone’s looking for that outside attacker because they don’t want to believe the shooter is one of our own or sitting with us…,” Veivia said. “By nature, were programed to detect danger, but we’re conditioned to ignore it.”
Firearm acquisition was not found to be a particularly reliable predictor of violence. In 40 percent of cases, shooters legally bought firearms specifically for the attack, but 35 percent already had the guns they used and 11 percent borrowed or obtained them from others. Unusual firearm activity was only identified prior to 21 percent of shootings.
For 79 percent of shooters, investigators were able to determine a primary grievance driving them, typically some adverse action at home, work, or school. Nearly half of those shootings were spurred by an identifiable precipitating event.
The study also examined the use of “legacy tokens,” or communications prepared by the shooter to claim responsibility or explain their motives, often in the form of a manifesto, video, or social media posting. In 19 of the 63 cases studied, shooters created such tokens before they attacked.
In most cases, people who did recognize signs of trouble either confronted the shooter themselves or did nothing about it, meaning nobody except them and the suspect were aware of it. In about 40 percent of the incidents, at least one concerning behavior was reported to law enforcement before the shooting.
“Unfortunately, well-meaning bystanders (often friends and family members of the active shooter) may struggle to appropriately categorize the observed behavior as malevolent,” the report states. “They may even resist taking action to report for fear of erroneously labeling a friend or family member as a potential killer.”
Cohen, who now teaches at Rutgers University and is conducting a major research project on mass casualty attacks, said the findings largely track with conclusions he and others have reached.
“Even in the case of more recent ISIS-inspired attacks, we have found these attackers exhibit the same behavioral characteristics as those who commit other attacks in furtherance of other grievances,” he said.
Experts hope the new research dispels some myths and stereotypes about active shooters as well.
“Knowing the race, religion, country of origin is less important than understanding the behavioral characteristics of a mass casualty attacker,” Cohen said.
The report makes clear there is no single demographic profile of an active shooter, though 94 percent of the shooters examined were male. Age and race varied widely, but most shooters were white and more than half were between 18 and 49 years old.
Of the 63 shooters, most were either in school or employed, 57 percent were single, and 24 percent had military experience. Although only 35 percent had prior criminal convictions, researchers found more than 60 percent had a history of acting abusive, harassing, or oppressive.
Mental health problems were the most common stressor and concerning behavior, but diagnosed mental illness only appeared in a quarter of cases. The report’s authors emphasized that mental illness should not be seen as a predictor of violence of any kind.
“Absent specific evidence, careful consideration should be given to social and contextual factors that might interact with any mental health issue before concluding that an active shooting was ‘caused’ by mental illness,” the report states. “In short, declarations that all active shooters must simply be mentally ill are misleading and unhelpful.”
Cohen agreed on the need to avoid stigmatizing those suffering from mental illness who do not commit acts of violence, but he disputed the notion that only 62 percent of shooters experienced any mental health problems.
“My argument would be anyone who goes out and commits a mass murder is going to have a mental health issue,” he said. “Mentally healthy people do not go out and commit mass murder.”
Now that the report is complete, the challenge becomes communicating its findings to those most likely to recognize these suspicious behaviors in a possible shooter but probably least likely to read a 30-page FBI study.
“As we have worked with jurisdictions that have put in place threat management capabilities, a major part of their effort involves educating the public and changing the way we talk about preventing these types of attacks with the public,” Cohen said.
The authors speculated people may be concerned about how law enforcement will respond if they report a loved one’s unusual behavior.
“I think they have to be aware the conventional wisdom of law enforcement is starting to shift. No longer is law enforcement looking to arrest and contain…,” Veivia said, explaining how authorities now handle such cases. “It’s called off-ramping, help them find the off-ramp of that pathway to violence.”
In most of the incidents examined by the FBI, concerning behaviors first emerged more than two years prior to the shooting. The behaviors themselves are things that are fairly common among the general population, but Veivia said people should instinctively recognize when they rise to an abnormal or unreasonable level.
“People really need to trust their instincts on these things and not be dismissive,” he said. “No single factor alone is indicative of violence. It’s coupling those multiple factors together.”
Cohen said some in law enforcement have grown frustrated that the understanding of the problem reflected in this report and similar is not playing a large enough role in public policy.
“That is why some of the political rhetoric that has become so common as it relates to terrorism and these attacks is so unhelpful, because it plays into the polarized us versus them environment,” he said.
The need to properly recognize, assess, and neutralize threats before a shooting occurs is only growing more urgent. According to the FBI, there were 30 active shooting incidents in the U.S. in 2017, the most ever recorded by the bureau in a one-year period.
“This is not a problem that’s going away,” Cohen said. “It’s a problem that’s getting worse.”