The Deadly Mix Behind Mass Attacks: Guns and Grievance

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At memorial for victims of Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.. Photo by TheNoxid via Flickr

Are the mass attacks that have spilled tragedy into workplaces, schools and other public places across the U.S. preventable?

The ongoing debate over whether stricter gun control measures, more attention to individuals with mental health issues, or stronger safety measures such as hardening public facilities and arming schoolteachers, remained unresolved this week following the release of the second annual report by the U.S. Secret Service on mass attacks in public spaces.

In its analysis of 27 mass attacks, defined as incidents causing harm to three or more individuals in a public space, between January and December, 2018, the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) identified a wide range of factors that contributed to the tragedies—touching only briefly on the specific policy options that have characterized the debate so far about how to address them.

The only constant factor, according to the NTAC, was that nearly all the perpetrators displayed “warning signs” that were not only identifiable well in advance, but had raised concerns among friends, co-workers or family members.

“While not every act of violence will be prevented, [the NTAC] report indicates that targeted violence may be preventable if appropriate systems are in place to identify concerning behaviors, gather information to assess the risk of violence, and utilize community resources to mitigate the risk.”

The report also noted that firearms were deployed in 89 percent of the incidents, even as it cautiously avoided any recommendations concerning stricter gun control.

Of the 24 incidents where firearms were used, at least 10 of the shooters possessed their weapon illegally at the time of the incident, including eight who should not have had guns because they were under protective court orders or had previously violated federal or state laws, and two who were minors.

The profiles of the attackers in the 2018 tragedies were strikingly similar to 2017: most were male, most exhibited symptoms of mental illness, and most were acting out of some perceived grievance, either political or personal.

While the number of incidents remained relatively the same (27 in 2018, compared to 28 in 2017), the toll last year was significantly less.

Some 91 people lost their lives and 107 were injured in 2018 attacks, including high profile ones like the Oct. 27 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., which left 11 dead; the May 18 shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Tx. (10 killed, 13 injured); the June 28 attack on a newsroom in Annapolis, Md. (five dead); and the Feb. 14 attack at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Fl., (17 dead, 17 wounded).

In 2017, 28 mass attacks resulted in 147 lives lost, and 700 injured. The Oct. 1 mass shooting at a Las Vegas, Nev., music festival (58 killed, 546 wounded) was largely responsible for the higher toll. But other headline incidents included the June 14 shooting at a Republican congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va. (five wounded); and the Aug 12 incident at a rally in Charlottesville, Va., where a supporter of white supremacy drove his car into a crowd, killing one woman and injuring 19 others.

In 63 percent of the incidents, the attacks lasted five minutes or less.

With some notable exceptions, ideology was less of a motivating factor than personal or domestic grievances. But the report also noted that 30 percent of the attackers “appeared to have subscribed to a belief system that has previously been associated with violence.”


Locations of mass shootings in the US, 2018. Map courtesy NTAC



Comparison of motives of perpetrators in 2017 and 2018 mass attacks. Table courtesy NTAC


The report listed multiple facets of such beliefs, ranging from white supremacy to anti-semitism, animal rights and the so-called “Incel” movement, shorthand for involuntary celibates, a subculture of heterosexual males who resent the fact that they are unable to establish relationships with females.

Other defining characteristics noted in the report included:

      • The average age of the attackers was 37, and men made up a whopping 93 percent of the group.
      • Almost a quarter had histories of illicit drug use of substance abuse.
      • Just under half had “histories of criminal charges beyond minor traffic violations.”
      • Two-thirds experienced mental health symptoms prior to their attacks, and two-fifths of had fixations, which included intense or obsessive focuses on people, on significant others, perceived injustices, delusions, sociopolitical ideologies, and even video games.

But perhaps most importantly, “all but four attackers…made some type of communication that did not constitute a direct threat, but should have elicited concern,” and in 41 percent of the cases, attackers “appeared to have pre-selected targets in mind.”

This fact led the researchers to conclude that in most cases, friends, families or co-workers would have seen signals of stress or heard outright threats that suggested they were likely to commit a violent act.

If You See Something, Say Something

Borrowing a notion from the “If you see something, say something” anti-terrorism campaign adopted in the New York City metropolitan transit system, the researchers said it was crucial to inform authorities or managers about behavior that might prove threatening—and for the authorities to take such warnings seriously.

For example, for at least a year before the February 14, 2018 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, killing 14 students and three staff, and wounding an additional 17, the attacker, a former student, exhibited behavioral problems that were alarming to some of his fellow students.

He had make racist and anti-Semitic comments, and spoke openly about his guns. Someone who knew the shooter contacted local law enforcement to report that he had posted on Instagram a photo of himself holding a gun and a written threat that he would “shoot up the school.”

“A proactive approach to violence prevention” in schools or workplaces would help identify early signs of trouble and communicate concerns to people who could investigate further, the study said.

But similar recommendations in other studies have aroused skepticism, with critics noting that students are often reluctant to “snitch” on friends, and co-workers or family members reticent about communicating for fear they will not be taken seriously by law enforcement or other authorities.

To get around these barriers, researchers noted that some schools now have “reporting infrastructures,” in which students or others can use a smartphone app to submit anonymous tips to a call center with law enforcement.

The federal STOP School Violence Act, passed in 2018, provides funding to state and local governments to create reporting apps and anonymous tip lines.


In one early response to the NTAC report, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) called for passage of a bill he introduced last year, aimed at developing an “enhanced” threat assessment infrastructure that would, among other things, offer training to “agencies with protective or public safety responsibilities and other public or private entities.”

The so-called EAGLES Act, named for the school mascot at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, would specifically target violence prevention in schools , and provide up to $10 million annually between 2020-2023 for developing better infrastructure and more research.

The bill specifically ruled out providing funds to train schoolteachers or anyone else in the use of a firearm.

The Secret Service threw its support behind increasing research and education, as well as training for local law enforcement.

“The faster all of us with a concern for public safety can educate ourselves and others as to the warning signs and the options that exist for taking action, the better we will be able to prevent and deter acts of targeted violence,” Secret Service chief Murray said at a press conference following release of the report.

Nevertheless, several of the concerns raised by mass attacks in America were barely touched on in the report, including the role of copycat behavior and the use of the Internet to spread and incite acts of violence.

And doubts about the effectiveness of many of the remedies advanced by “experts” continue to prevail.

At a conference this spring at George Mason University, marking the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting, experts from academia and law enforcement conceded that it was difficult to single out effective policy responses.

The White House has so far not issued any official response to the NTAC study.

Meanwhile, the attacks are continuing. A little over a month before the report was released, 12 people were shot and killed at a Virginia Beach, Va., municipal government complex by an employee who was said to be “disgruntled.”

Read the complete NTAC report here.

Additional Reading: Experts Advise Firms on Avoiding Mass Shootings

TCR news intern Brian Demo contributed to this summary.

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