Trying to understand and prevent mass shootings

The Violence Project has created a database of every mass shooting since 1966.

Whenever there’s a mass shooting, like the three last week, we ask ourselves two questions: Why? And, how can we keep it from happening again?

The Violence Project, a nonpartisan think tank, strives to answer those questions. Under a grant from the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Violence Project has created a database of every mass shooting since 1966. Note that they don’t include shootings that resulted from an underlying criminal activity, like an armed robbery, or from “commonplace circumstances” such as an argument or a romantic triangle.

The database contains information on 160 perpetrators of mass shootings, including details of their lives and the communities and locations where the shootings took place. Researchers interviewed incarcerated shooters, family members, first responders, and survivors, and studied shooters’ social media postings and suicide notes.

The database shows that most mass shooters experienced trauma and exposure to violence at a young age. They had a parent who committed suicide, or they were severely abused, or heavily bullied, or they witnessed domestic violence. Ensuring children have access to mental health services after such trauma could reduce mass shootings.

In addition, nearly every mass shooter in the database had an identifiable crisis in the weeks or months leading up to the shooting, for example, getting fired or a romantic rejection. They often had a specific grievance that made them angry or despondent. Most – nearly 80 percent – were suicidal. Nearly all were male.

Most mass shooters studied other shootings. They see what others did to gain notoriety and follow that example. Indeed, according to Violence Project founder Jillian Peterson, mass shootings are “socially contagious.” It’s not that someone who’s never thought about killing people suddenly decides to do so. Rather, people who have been thinking about committing a mass shooting see how much attention a perpetrator is getting and decide that now is the time to do what they’ve been thinking about.

Indeed, Violence Project researchers found that nearly 80 percent of mass shooters “leaked” information about their plans beforehand to someone. The shooters gave clear warnings that were either missed or ignored. Or the people who were “told” or sensed something was wrong didn’t know who to contact with their concerns.

Peterson notes that the signs to look for include marked changes in behavior, making specific threats of violence, and showing a fascination with mass shootings. If you know someone is going through a crisis like a job change or a relationship break-up, or has a history of early childhood trauma, be especially mindful if they talk about violence or shootings. And if you have concerns, reach out to someone who can help, especially someone trained in crisis intervention, de-escalation, or suicide prevention.

Peterson noted on “CBS This Morning” last week that she has also studied 200 mass shooters who did not follow through with their plans. Many were actively planning their attack, even gathering weapons, until someone stepped in. “Oftentimes it actually doesn’t take that much to get someone through that crisis point,” she said. Even something as simple as asking, “Are you okay? What can we do to help you?” can be enough to prevent a shooting.

We need to stop heated, racist rhetoric that gives some mass shooters, like the El Paso gunman, the validation they seek to justify their violence. And we need to make it harder for shooters to get the guns they use, with robust background checks and “red-flag” laws that allow courts to take guns from people who pose a risk to others or themselves, including domestic abusers.

We also need to get rid of assault weapons. The first mass shooting in the Violence Project’s database occurred in 1966, when a man climbed to the top of a tower at the University of Texas in Austin and opened fire with a rifle. He killed 14 people and wounded 31 others during his hour-and-a-half-long shooting spree.

Using an assault weapon, the Dayton shooter killed and wounded almost as many in just 30 seconds.

We can stop the peculiarly American epidemic of mass shootings. But only if we find the political will to pass sensible gun laws and the social will to help people before they pull the trigger.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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