The FBI recently released the results of a study exploring the pre-attack behaviors and characteristics of active shooters. The study examines incidents between 2000 and 2013 and builds on a previous report that focused on the circumstances surrounding active-shooter events.
The new report is wide-ranging, attempting to answer the questions, “How do the active shooters behave before the attack?” and “Why did they attack?” The goal: to identify behaviors that might serve as clues that an individual is on “a pathway to deadly violence.” Because we all have the possibility of interacting with a shooter before they carry out their act, the report has findings that pertain to all roles in society. For our purposes, however, let’s focus on some key takeaways for law enforcement officers.
1. There ARE signs.
Following an active-shooter incident, news reports are filled with interviews of people who knew the shooter. Often these people express shock that their neighbor, peer or co-worker could have done such a thing. Other times, such as with the Parkland shooter, numerous people come forward after the fact to report signs that something was not right with the shooter. So do shooters exhibit signs prior to their attacks?
The report says yes. “In the weeks and months before an attack, many active shooters engage in behaviors that may signal impending violence,” the authors write. “While some of these behaviors are intentionally concealed, others are observable and—if recognized and reported—may lead to a disruption prior to an attack.” Knowing what the signs are, and to ask family members, friends and co-workers whether they’ve seen such signs, may help law enforcement officers intercept a shooter.
Granted, just because a behavior is reported or identified doesn’t mean law enforcement can always do something about it. However, understanding more about the pre-attack behaviors of active shooters can help officers do a more thorough job of follow-up when such reports come in.
2. In many cases, signs were reported to law enforcement.
In 41% of cases, concerning behavior involving active shooters was reported to law enforcement before the incident. While that’s not enough—we must encourage people to increase reporting—it also represents a substantial opportunity for law enforcement intervention.
“Concerning behaviors” include leakage (intentionally or unintentionally revealing the desire to commit a violent act), changes in work performance, threats/confrontations, anger, physical aggression, drug and alcohol abuse, and violent media usage, among others. Each active shooter displayed four to five concerning behaviors over time.
And the behaviors didn’t go unnoticed. “At least one person noticed a concerning behavior in every active shooter’s life, and on average, people from three different groups noticed concerning behaviors for each active shooter,” the report notes. Teachers and students were most likely to note concerning behavior in shooters under 18 years of age, while spouses and domestic partners were most likely to notice it in adult shooters.
Critically, 25% of the time, the person noticing the behavior was a law enforcement officer.
3. The “usual signs” may not be the ones to look for.
When following up on a report of concerning behavior, it’s natural to look for past criminal trouble, a history of violence and firearms-related offenses. But the report notes these signs may not be present in active shooters.
Just over one-third of the adult shooters had criminal convictions prior to the active-shooter event, and the authors caution against expecting to see a pattern of criminal activity: “The active shooters had a limited history of adult convictions for violent crime and a limited history of adult convictions for crime of any kind … Perhaps most noteworthy is the absence of a pronounced violent criminal history in an overwhelming majority of the adult active shooters. Law enforcement and threat management professionals assessing a potentially violent person may therefore wish to avoid any reliance on demographic characteristics or on evidence (or lack thereof) of prior criminal behavior in conducting their assessments.”
Inappropriate firearms use—defined by the investigators as “interest in or use of firearms that appeared unusual given the active shooter’s background and experience with firearms”—was also not a common warning sign. “Contextually inappropriate firearms behavior was noted in approximately one-fifth of the active shooters,” the report notes. About 40% of the shooters purchased a firearm “legally and specifically for the purpose of perpetrating the attack.” Only 2% purchased the firearm illegally and only 6% stole it.
However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t behavioral clues. More than 60% of the active shooters had a history of acting in an abusive, harassing, or oppressive way (e.g., excessive bullying, workplace intimidation), while 16% had engaged in intimate partner violence and 11% had engaged in stalking.
4. Mental health is a big influence, but it doesn’t mean mental illness.
The report identifies 15 stressors that affect active shooters and possibly contribute to their violent acts, such as marital problems or financial strain. Active shooters typically experienced multiple stressors in the year before they attacked. By far the most common stressor: mental health issues, experienced by 62% of the shooters studied.
This is not to imply that a high percentage of shooters are mentally ill before their acts. “The stressor ‘mental health’ is not synonymous with a diagnosis of mental illness,” the authors note. Rather, it indicates the active shooter “appeared to be struggling with (most commonly) depression, anxiety, paranoia, etc. in their daily life in the year before the attack.”
In fact, the FBI could only verify that 25% of the active shooters studied were known to have been diagnosed by a mental health professional with a mental illness of any kind prior to the offense. Considering that one in five adults experience mental illness in a given year, this number is not all that different from the general population.
5. When grievances move from specific to general, an attack may be imminent.
Nearly 80% of the active shooters were motivated to attack due to what the report calls a “personal grievance”—the feeling that an action was directed against the shooter personally. These include:
• Adverse interpersonal action against the shooter
• Adverse employment action against the shooter
• Adverse governmental action against the shooter
• Adverse academic action against the shooter
These are primary avenues of investigation for officers following up on reports of concerning behavior. As the authors note: “The types of grievances most commonly experienced by the active shooters in this study may be important considerations for the many threat assessment teams and law enforcement professionals who work each day to assess a subject’s progression along the pathway to violence.”
In contrast to many media depictions, grievances driven by non-personal considerations—such as extreme ideologies or hatred of a specific ethnicity—accounted for less than 7% of the cases: “In general then, active shooters harbored grievances that were distinctly personal to them and the circumstances of their daily lives.”
But there’s a caveat. The authors note, “The FBI has observed that when an active shooter’s grievance generalizes—that is, expands beyond a desire to punish a specific individual to a desire to punish an institution or community—this should be considered to be progression along a trajectory towards violence and ultimately a threat-enhancing characteristic.”
Empowering officers and civilians
Identifying potential active shooters will never be easy—simply too many factors contribute to an individual’s decision to commit violence on a mass scale. But studies such as this one are important in our quest to peel back the curtain, exposing through data and objective study what we cannot see in the flashing lights of the latest school shooting or nightclub tragedy.
“There is cause for hope because there is something that can be done,” the authors note. Law enforcement officers must carry that hope—as well as a determination to educate themselves on the warning signs, encourage early reporting by civilians, and ensure threat assessments are constantly evolving to incorporate the latest findings.