Stopping America’s Mass Shootings

This data could help put an end to America’s deadly mass shootings

Co-founder of The Violence Project tells Andrew Buncombe how crunching numbers could help prevent more tragedies

<p>Nineteen students and two teachers died in a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas</p>

Nineteen students and two teachers died in a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas

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Jillian Peterson and James Densley have really crunched the numbers.

The academics have scrutinised data from 180 mass shootings within the United States and looked for pattens.

They found that in 80 per cent of cases, the gunman – it is almost invariably a young man – had suffered and displayed the signs of some sort of personal crisis prior to the incident, and that almost all intended to lose their lives. Many had already contemplated suicide.

One of the myths they debunked was that the shooters would be termed mentally ill by most definitions: psychosis, described as when people lost touch with reality, was a factor in less than 30 per cent of shootings.

One of the most striking findings of The Violence Project – and perhaps somewhat obvious with hindsight – is that the shooters were not outsiders, or “monsters”, before they carried out their shootings; rather they were part of the community they devastated – sons, nephews, classmates and friends.

“It’s instinct to cast aside mass shooters as monsters – their destruction is horrific and beyond comprehension,” Peterson and Densley write in The Violence Project: How to Stop A Mass Shooting Epidemic.

“And still we are losing. The monsters aren’t going away. In fact, there are more and more of them. And they are killing more and more people with each passing year.”

They add: “The monsters are not ‘them’, they are ‘us’ – boys and men we know. Our children. Our students. Our colleagues. Our community. They’re walking in and out of the same secure doors we are, past the same armed guards every day, like the rest of us.”

Critically, the two academics, who work from the twin cities of St Paul and Minneapolis, have not simply created a database. They argue that by analysing the commonalities among shooters, they can provide “off-ramp” tools for teachers and parents, and school safety officers, to identify signs of crisis before they turn deadly, and intervene.

Some of their input into these techniques is coming from the US Secret Service, which has spent years following the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1987 trying to improve its entire approach to threat assessment.

The National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC), headed by Dr Lina Alathari, was established in 1998 and is made of social science researchers and regional managers “who support and empower our partners in law enforcement, schools, government, and other public and private sector organisations to combat the ever-evolving threat of targeted violence impacting communities across the United States”.

Researcher talks about identifying people who might commit mass shootings

Less than a year after they published their book, the founders of The Violence Project are in conversation with several school districts in the twin cities to attempt some of their “off-ramp” ideas.

The work of the two researchers comes at a critical time for the United States as it continues to struggle to address gun violence, either through firearm regulations or some sort of intervention.

As many as 45,000 people lost their lives to gun violence in 2020, the last year for which data is available, either as a result of murder or suicide.

A mass shooting, allegedly carried out by an 18-year-old with white supremacist ideology, left 10 Black people dead in Buffalo, New York, in May. Less than two weeks later, 19 elementary school students and two teachers were shot dead in Uvalde, Texas, by a local high school student.

In Texas, the 18-year-old gunman, who was killed by police, had previously made online threats to girls, vowing to rape or kill them, but they had been ignored or laughed off because “kids joke around like that”.

In Buffalo, alleged gunman Payton Gendron, 18, who survived, said he wanted to “commit a murder-suicide”, when asked about his plans once he graduated.

Police were called, and the student said he was joking. He had a psychiatric evaluation in a hospital but was released within a couple of days, and when he graduated two weeks later, he fell off the radar of his teachers.

He has been charged with 10 counts of a hate crime resulting in death.

Perhaps most strikingly, Ethan Crumbley, the teenager charged with attacking his own high school in the suburbs of Detroit in December 2021, is said to have texted his mother about seeing demons and ghosts in the family home, filmed himself torturing animals, and obsessed over firearms and Nazi propaganda in the weeks before the shooting that ended with four dead.

Mourners light candles at a makeshift memorial outside of Tops market in Buffalo where 10 Black people were shot dead

Densley, 40, originally from Britain and professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in St Paul, tells The Independent the project’s work has been somewhat controversial, and both he and Petersen have received death threats. He believes most of those who make threats do not actually take the time to look at their work.

“In some ways, we are doing things a little bit outside of the conventional academic space. There’s inherent risks doing that,” he says.

“But I think we were very intentional when we were doing this project, which was to say, this is an issue that needs public attention. And there have to be practice and policy implications.”

He adds: “So we can’t just bury this in some peer-reviewed journal article that nobody will read. We have to be willing to be a bit more outspoken about the findings from the research, and absorb some of the risks that come with that.”

Peterson, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University in St Paul, spent several years working in New York City, researching the life histories of men facing the death penalty, and ensuring they received adequate legal counsel as part of New York’s Capital Defender Office.

Densley says he was working as a teacher in New York at the same time, trying to help youngsters who were often coming from difficult backgrounds, and wanting to do more.

At the start of their book, the pair detail the interrogation video of 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who in February 2018 shot and killed 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

His younger brother asks what their mother, who died of pneumonia three months ago, would think.

“People think you’re a monster now,” the brother says.

“A monster?” the shooter starts to shake, they write.

Jillian Peterson spent several years researching life histories of men facing the death penalty

In an interview with PBS News, Peterson said the examination of the data threw up many striking patterns.

“We studied the life histories of 180 perpetrators who killed four or more people in a public setting,” she said.

“And we identified this common pathway to violence that we saw over and over again. It often started with kind of serious violence in childhood, abuse, neglect. Different forms of trauma kind of laid the foundation. Then you see, over time, a build where they become isolated, depressed, hopeless.”

She adds: “Oftentimes… they’re actively suicidal or have attempted suicide previously. Then that self-hate kind of turned outward, and you see perpetrators finding who it is that they blame for how awful they feel.”

Densley says their work has been helped by input from the US Secret Service, one of America’s oldest federal investigative law enforcement agencies.

Tasked primarily with the protection of the president and vice president, the agency has devoted much effort and resources to the issue of threat assessment, particularly after the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, which only narrowly failed.

“Threat assessment, this idea of can we spot the warning signs of violence and intervene early, has its lineage out of the 1980s, and the federal work done around trying to prevent assassinations of politicians,” Densley says.

“The Secret Service is the one that started to put together some of the early protocols around threat assessment. And the Secret Service has continued to do that work, including in the school space.”

If you google the words “Secret Service Threat Assessment schools”, he says, you’ll find a number of protocols on there and best practices.

James Densley said they decided to speak out about findings rather than ‘bury’ it in academic journals

The Secret Service did not immediately respond to inquiries from The Independent.

However, its website says the National Threat Assessment Center was established as a component of the Secret Service in 1998 “to provide research and guidance in direct support of the Secret Service protective mission, and to others with public safety responsibilities”.

The agency frequently publishes reports assessing school safety in the era of “targeted attacks”.

“While communities can advance many school safety measures on their own, our experience tells us that keeping schools safe requires a team effort and the combined resources of the federal, state, and local governments, school boards, law enforcement, and the public,” Secret Service director James Murray wrote in 2019.

The team is also collaborating with schools in the area around Minneapolis, and has been speaking to principals and district administrators, whose students have grown up in an era of active shooter lockdown drills to try and advance prevention.

One of those schools working with The Violence Project to trial a series of new protocols is Roseville Area Schools, located less than 10 miles northeast from downtown Minneapolis. It has around 75,000 in its district, and Melissa Sonnek is the assistant superintendent.

She and her colleagues listened to Densley speak to them, and agreed to incorporate some of the project’s ideas in their plans to create a safer environment.

One fundamental idea is to give all teachers training in basic mental health awareness, another is an anonymous tip line where students or parents can forward any concerns or worries they may have.

Sonnek says they are also trialling a new app for students’ phones – the “Stop It” app.

“This will be an app that students in some of our secondary schools have access to where there’s a two-hour crisis response,” she says, speaking from Roseville. “And somebody responds, each time a student hits the app.”

Sonnek says she and her colleagues were struck by the hard data that Densley and Peterson presented. They also liked the idea of acting ahead of a crisis to try and avoid tragedies such as Uvalde and Buffalo.

“I would say it takes a more like, it takes a more human approach that humanises people as well, like our shared humanity and how we’re connected to one another,” she says. “I think that everybody would much rather prevent a shooting from happening or prevent an act of violence, rather than we’re going to be really equipped if it does happen.”

She says there is a part in the pair’s book, the last chapter, that talks about “hope”.

She adds: “And I think this is the path to how we get there.”

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