If it seemed like 2012 was an especially bad year for mass public shootings, that’s because it was. Mass public shootings had been on the decline in the United States since the 1990s. The seven in 2012 were the most since 1999, which also had seven cases. More victims were killed and wounded in mass shootings in 2012 than in any previous year.
It’s unclear whether 2012 is the bellwether of a more ominous trend in mass murder. What is clear, however, is that there’s been little variation in our responses to high-profile mass public shootings over the last five decades. Although mass shootings have occasionally provoked debates over issues such as violent video games, hate crimes or bullying, the public discussion has, by and large, concentrated on guns. The main points raised in 1966 following the mass murder committed by Charles Whitman, which was the first one that ignited widespread debate over gun control, remain largely the same today. Due to the entrenched debate over gun control, though, neither side has been able to make much progress over the years. A good example of this tug-of-war is the passage of the federal “assault” weapons ban in 1994 and its expiration 10 years later.
The recent loss of young, innocent and precious lives in Newtown, Conn., may pack enough emotional power to engender enactment of new gun laws, including reinstatement of the assault weapons ban. Yet we should ask ourselves a critical question: When it comes to reducing the incidence or severity of mass public shootings in the United States, would tightening or loosening gun control legislation make a significant difference either way? Probably not. On the one hand, when the incidence of mass public shootings began to increase during the 1980s and 1990s, rates of gun ownership were relatively stable. On the other hand, peer-reviewed research has demonstrated that right to carry concealed firearms laws do not have a significant impact on mass shootings.
Our myopia over guns, however, may ultimately be counterproductive, because it diverts attention from areas where it might actually be possible to make a difference. Rather than the shooter erupting without warning or “snapping,” mass shootings are often preceded by a great deal of planning and deliberation in which there are multiple warning signs that provide an opportunity to intercede. For instance, as mass public shooters are contemplating their attack and brooding about those who have, in their eyes, wronged them, they frequently make verbal or written threats of violence. Of the more than 150 mass shootings in the United States over the last century, nearly one-third involved the shooter communicating violent threats before the attack.
We haven’t always done a good job of taking threats seriously. When Joe Wesbecker’s co-workers heard gunfire at the Standard-Gravure plant in Louisville, Ky., on the morning of Sept. 1, 1989, they knew that “Crazy Joe” had returned to make good on the violent threats he had been expressing for months. Before Clifton McCree killed five of his former co-workers in Florida in 1996, he had repeatedly threatened them by promising, “If you mess with my job, I will take you out.”
Since the 1990s, especially after Columbine, schools and workplaces have generally been more likely to take threats seriously, which may have contributed to the recent overall decline in mass shootings. Over the last decade, a number of school and workplace shooting plots were thwarted because threats were promptly reported to authorities, as evidenced most recently in Maryland following the Aurora, Col., shooting.
Notwithstanding the strides made in responding to threats, there’s still room for improvement. One area that warrants increased attention involves the connection we often see between mental illness and mass public shootings. More than half of the killers in mass shootings over the past century were beset by serious mental illness (most often severe depression or paranoid schizophrenia), a rate that’s at least five times higher than that estimated for the general population.
Of these mentally ill mass shooters, a little more than one-third sought or received mental health care prior to the attack, which suggests two things: First, we need to reduce the rate of untreated serious mental illness. The treatment gap among mass shooters is high, but it’s also consistent with research showing that the rate of untreated serious mental illness is greater for males (who have committed nearly all of the mass public shootings in this country), and is higher in the United States compared to most other Western countries.
Second, we can also do a better job of assessing risk among those who come to the attention of mental health care professionals. Accurately predicting who will commit a mass shooting is challenging, to say the least, because it is, fortunately, very rare (an average of nearly four per year in the United States since 1980). The emergence of machines that learn, along with advances in statistical modeling, has opened up new possibilities in the creation of prediction tools. Within the last five years, for example, we’ve seen the development of prediction instruments for first-time, low-frequency criminal events such as homicides among Philadelphia probationers and sexual offenses among released prisoners without a prior sex offense history.
To be clear, though, there are no easy solutions to this problem. Not all mass shooters demonstrate easily observable behavior that augurs the attack. Still, there are quite a few mentally ill, suicidal and socially isolated mass shooters who make violent threats, have suffered the loss of an important relationship or have recently experienced failure at work or school.
Passing new gun laws may hold symbolic importance. Yet if we truly want to reduce mass public shootings, we need to consider preventative strategies that tap into the roots of extreme violence. Striving to improve our assessment, identification and management of those at risk of committing this type of violence would be a good place to start.
Grant Duwe is director of research and evaluation at the Minnesota Department of Corrections. The views expressed are his own.