just asking questions

A Different Way to Prevent Mass Shootings

Crosses bearing the names of those killed on Tuesday in Uvalde, Texas. Photo: Callaghan O’Hare/The New York Times

After the killings at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, this week, the now-familiar post-mass-shooting routine of anguish and Republican intransigence began again — for the second time this month. A nation awash in guns seems fated to repeat this cycle perpetually. But in his new book, Trigger Points, Mark Follman, a national-affairs correspondent at Mother Jones, offers a small measure of optimism. He explores a less-traveled path to preventing atrocities, embedding with teams of FBI agents, forensic psychologists, and other experts who have used behavioral threat assessment to stop violence before it starts. I talked to Follman about the prevalence of mass shootings in American society, the possible pitfalls of behavioral threat assessment, and the fatalism that permeates this issue.

I want to start with the question of why you think there have been so many of these shootings lately. In the ’90s, we had Columbine, which was a huge shock to America. In the decades before that, we had a few infamous mass shootings, like the one at the University of Texas in 1966. But in the last 15 years, we’ve had one after another, from Virginia Tech to Charleston to El Paso to Uvalde. Twelve of the 20 most fatal shootings in the U.S. have happened since 2007, even as the murder rate declined for most of that time. And while the semi-automatic rifles that are the weapons of choice in these shootings were banned for ten years, from 1994 to 2004, they were widely available before then. So what do you think is going on here?
It’s a hard question, and I think the answer is complex. There are a number of factors feeding into it, in my view. One, of course, is the ever-higher availability of guns. We have an estimated 400 million of them now, and they’ve become even more loosely regulated in a number of states throughout the country. So access to firearms for people who are committing this type of crime is readily available, and obtained through legal purchase. That’s the case in the recent attacks we’ve seen.

I also think the perception of this form of mass gun violence has been impacted a lot by digital media. I know through my reporting that there has been a growing number of cases where perpetrators of mass shootings are seeking notoriety, and justification for a valid solution to their problems. This may be hard to relate to for most people, but it’s the kind of thinking that goes into the vast majority of these attacks.

I also think it’s clear we’re also living through a period of increased political volatility and polarization. The extremism in our politics has become more mainstream and more normalized, and I think that’s fueling violent behavior in some ways. You combine that with the availability of firearms, social media, and also the stresses of the pandemic era — all these things are intertwined in a way that I think has become more combustible and dangerous. That’s not a scientific answer, but it’s intuitive, and I think it speaks to the different forces that are at work here.

Some of these shooters hang out on the internet all the time and become radicalized politically or ideologically. But you’re saying that the mere existence of the internet can have a radicalizing effect, since they see others there get the notoriety they’re looking for. 
It’s not a matter of causation. Social media, news-media coverage — those don’t cause people to commit mass shootings. But I do believe there’s an accelerating effect from this material that people have access to online. It speaks to the growing field of preventative work I focus on in the book, because there are increasing warning signs of this nature in the behavior of mass shooters. We’ve seen them posting threatening communications, photos of firearms, posing with firearms, admiration for previous attacks. So this is a cycle that is feeding on itself, and it’s apparent in the forensic case evidence of these mass attacks.

Your book focuses on behavioral threat assessment — getting people to recognize possible warning signs, which you say are commonplace before a shooting like this week’s, and then intervening before tragedy happens. We know the Texas shooter exhibited plenty of alarming behavior, and that he had a very troubled home life. What would a successful implementation of threat assessment have looked like in this case?
An important part of the mission of threat assessment is to raise community awareness of the warning signs that lead to targeted violence, and to cultivate trust in this method for dealing with it. People need to have a sense of where they can turn for help. If you have a threat-assessment team in place, experts in mental health, law enforcement, and education work together to evaluate specific cases of concern. They make a plan to intervene and use constructive measures to get the person off of what the field threat assessment calls the pathway to violence. The way they do that is by gathering information from people around the offender — that’s where these warning behaviors become important, because they learn about those threatening comments, they learn about patterns of aggression that have gone on in the home, in the school, elsewhere. They then evaluate the level of danger, and determine the best way to intervene constructively with the person who is causing concern. That’s how most of the threat cases begin, when somebody speaks up because they’re worried or anxious about the way someone’s behaving.

But wouldn’t this plan require a threat-assessment team in every town in America, and a mass-education campaign so that people know the warning signs, who to talk to, and so on? Presumably a place like Uvalde, Texas, isn’t that well-equipped for this. 
This is an important question, and one I asked in reporting for the book: How do you scale this, in a community and across the country? It is going on in a lot of places — there are a handful of states that require threat-assessment programs in their public schools. It sounds complicated and resource-intensive, and it can be, but when I ask that question of leaders in the field, an answer that I got that I found persuasive is that this model seeks to use infrastructure that is already in place. A threat-assessment team is going to include and/or be led by administrators, school psychologists, counselors — there may be school resource officers on the team — working together in a collaborative fashion.

There are a lot of alienated or disturbed teenagers out there who might claim that they’re going to commit an act of violence, even shoot up a school. And the vast majority of them won’t do anything. How realistic is it to expect people to know the difference between idle chatter and something more menacing? And might this create a situation where people are actually oversensitive to signs of trouble?
I think that’s an important reason why this model could be so useful and effective — because it’s a big challenge to sort through all the noise, especially with juveniles, who make threatening or reckless comments all the time and may not be serious about it. Determining what things mean in the larger picture of a case, in terms of patterns of behavior, is difficult.

It’s important to recognize that this model understands fundamentally that no single factor is predictive of anything. So a kid making a threatening comment or posting something online that’s disturbing tells you nothing. And there are significant questions that come up with this approach. Is this dragnet surveillance? Are we going to start invading everyone’s privacy? Is it going to stigmatize people as dangerous or crack down on people in ways that are unfair? All those questions are top of mind for folks who do this work, who are leaders in this field. They have to do this with respect for civil liberties and privacy, and balance that with the need to take proactive steps to address situations of concern. I mean, look at the opposite — when we have cases where we see all kinds of warning bells going off and nobody does anything about it until it’s too late.

How do red-flag laws, which have become more common since the Parkland shootings — though they’re often underused — fit in with the threat-assessment programs? 
There’s a strong synergy between threat-assessment work and red-flag laws. When you have an individual who is raising real concerns, who’s thought to be a danger either to themselves or others, one of the first questions a threat-assessment team will ask is, “Does this person have access to a weapon? Do they have the means to commit violence?” And so you can see how a red-flag law could be very useful in that situation. Interestingly, that policy has strong bipartisan support in many places. We often hear the pro-gun side of the political debate saying that this is all about mental illness, and that we can’t let crazy people get guns. Well, that framing of the problem is misleading and wrong in some fundamental ways with respect to mental health, but the point I’m making here is that this is precisely what they and others are calling for — to keep guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous people. And that’s what red-flag laws are designed to do. They now exist in 19 states. That’s a big and rapid change in the last few years.

Do you think threat assessment is a more realistic way of preventing mass shootings than background checks, or closing the gun-show loophole, or the small-bore gun laws that are always proposed and never put into place after these massacres? 
I see threat assessment as a potentially very effective and powerful additional tool that we can use as a country to deal with this problem. The motivation for me to write the book was asking the fundamental question: What more can we do to solve this problem? Because we all know where the gun debate has gotten us over years, over decades. It’s a vitally important debate and it will go on, but my feeling became, it can’t be the only way we tackle this problem, because clearly we aren’t making enough progress quickly enough.

So it’s not either/or — in my view, it’s all of the above. It’s going to take coming at the problem in various forms, and I think community-based violence prevention through this method has great promise. I go inside a lot of cases in the book where it has been used to remarkable effect. We’re talking about cases of individuals who were setting up for pretty scary situations, who were voicing deep rage and grievance, showing signs of suicidality — which is a significant factor in many mass shootings. They were taking steps to plan a violent attack, acquiring weapons or seeking to acquire them, and so on. When I looked at these cases over time, there was a very vivid sense that these were people who, had there not been an intervention of this kind, would have almost certainly gone on to commit a violent attack. And I think possibly dozens of mass shootings have been stopped using this process. We don’t hear about them in the news, because the outcome is successful in the sense that there is no violence. Showing results from this work is tricky; as I say in the book, you’re proving a negative. How do you know you’ve prevented violence if violence doesn’t occur? But again, as I said, I was able to go deep inside these cases and see very compelling evidence that these were seriously dangerous situations.

Understandably, there is a tremendous amount of fatalism around this issue — a sense that nothing can be done to stop the awful cycle of mass shootings. How do you respond to that sort of attitude?
I think the cultural resignation we’ve developed around the problem of mass shootings is unhelpful. I think it’s become part of the problem itself, in a couple of ways. It cements this idea that there’s nothing we can do, or that nothing ever really happens, and that can be self-fulfilling. I think it originated as an impassioned argument about the shameful political stalemate that we’re in, watching this violence repeat over and over. And that’s understandable. But as a practical matter, it’s also wrong, in my view. There’s a lot more we can do, beyond the gun debate. This method of prevention is one very significant way forward. And furthermore, looking again at case evidence, this narrative that we have — that this is an endless problem we can’t ever stop — I think is fueling the problem from the perspective of mass shooters. We know that mass shooters seek notoriety, and we know that they pay close attention to media and political narratives. It’s in the materials that they seek out and in the materials they produce themselves, in the comments they make, in the things they write. And so by reinforcing the idea there’s nothing we can do — in a certain sense, that validates this form of violence.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More on Gun Violence

See All
A Different Way to Prevent Mass Shootings