Aug 11, 2019

What mass shootings and terrorist acts have in common

We have witnessed in recent weeks a depressingly long list of mass shootings in the US. El Paso, Texas. Dayton, Ohio. Gilroy, California (at a garlic festival). Events of this nature are occurring, or so it seems, with alarming frequency. It is best not to extrapolate from single or even multiple events to posit a trend, although one statistic does show that the US has seen, on average, one mass shooting per day in 2019 (where a mass shooting is defined as three or more people shot, not including the shooter). Not surprisingly, in a country where gun rights are heatedly debated, there is a lot of disagreement on what constitutes a mass shooting. In any event, a lot of people have been killed or wounded by gunfire in the US regardless of whether you qualify the incident as a mass shooting or not.

Equally unsurprisingly, there is a lot of debate over what to do about it. I will leave the gun control side out of this piece as I am not at all a gun expert – or a US constitutional one for that matter. What I want to focus on here is the effort at identifying mass shooters BEFORE they open fire, a truly noble attempt as prevention is better than post-incident prosecution (not to mention the lives spared).

I came across this very short piece on the Science News Web site (www.sciencenews.org) entitled ‘Are researchers asking the right questions to prevent mass shootings?‘ It turns out that some progress has been made in determining the characteristics of mass shooters, which include: childhood violence or trauma, linked to later mental ailments such as depression and anxiety; a work crisis or grievance shortly before the shooting, accompanied by abrupt behavior changes; modeling an attack on what previous shooters had done; and ready access to public shooting sites and guns, often obtaining firearms from family members. Apparently in a study of more than 150 mass shootings in the US from 1966 to 2018 these four stood out.

I think you will agree that these make intuitive sense. We tend to see them whenever we read post-attack accounts of horrific mass shootings. The next part is of course whether we can use these to pre-empt these actions and either get the potential shooters help or prosecute them. If we could lives would not be lost and families would not be shattered.

Alas there is a downside to this excellent work. As the article goes on to say “Most people with histories of childhood trauma, depression and anxiety, personal grievances and gun access don’t commit crimes, much less mass public shootings.” One researcher added “Even though the problem of mass shootings is enormous, the number of people who commit such acts is so small — a fraction of the population — that untangling a developmental pathway is likely beyond our reach at this time… We know a lot about violent behavior in general, but not about mass shootings.”

Why am I going on at length about this? Because it all bears an uncanny resemblance to what happens in terrorism research (not to mention that many mass shootings are also acts of terrorism: think Orlando, Paris, San Bernardino, etc.). We have been trying to ‘profile’ terrorists for decades, trying to come up with underlying commonalities that can help us prevent acts from occurring or figuring out what actually happens during the radicalisation to violence journey so we can develop programmes to address it. The list of ‘factors’ are legion: economic deprivation, mental illness, grievance, lack of personal success, and so on. And yet the same problem arises here: tonnes of people are poor and few become terrorists, etc. In other words, the identifiers are not adequate: we still get lots of false positives (i.e. poor people who do not commit acts of terrorism) and false negatives (i.e. rich people who do). If you are interested in learning more I go over this in much detail in my first book The Threat from Within.

The bottom line is that we CANNOT and probably never will be able to predict who ends up a mass shooter or a terrorist. This is not to say we should not keep trying. I just wish those who publish their work were a little more modest in the claims we made (as I wrote recently on the dangers of sounding definitive about anything).

So please keep working on this issue and providing us with the fruits of your intellectual labour. We need to understand these phenomena better for the reasons already cited. Just don’t promise us the moon.