Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room with Peter Bergen,” also on Apple and Spotify. Laura Tillman is a producer of the podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion at CNN.
After every large-scale mass shooting in the United States — including the one in Maine on Wednesday that left 18 victims dead and 13 others injured — there are the familiar and justified calls to limit or ban the sale of semi-automatic weapons or to pass more “red flag” laws in certain states so that guns don’t end up in the hands of those who may pose a threat to themselves or other people.
But as we have seen time and again, not much ends up happening when it comes to passing comprehensive gun control laws in the US. And that can lead to a feeling of powerlessness.
There are, however, promising efforts by US law enforcement and psychologists to better understand how a mass shooter goes down the “pathway to violence,” and how he — nearly all mass shooters are male — might be dissuaded or diverted from carrying out a violent act. Officials say the public can also play a critical role in this effort.
A perverse byproduct of the rise in mass shootings is that it’s given investigators more and more useful information with which to draw a portrait of the typical killer. This emerging field is known as “threat management.”
Ground zero for that effort is the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantico, Virginia, which we visited earlier this year for the Audible podcast, “In the Room with Peter Bergen.”
The Behavioral Analysis Unit’s files are full of cases, both of shootings that have already taken place and of potential shooters that the FBI has its eyes on.
We met with Karie Gibson, the chief of the unit and an FBI special agent who is also a psychologist. Gibson firmly believes some mass shootings can be prevented because mass shooters often follow a predictable pattern.
Gibson says the would-be-mass-killer often starts off with a “a specific grievance, along the lines of a slight or humiliation that has happened to them. And they can’t move past it, and it becomes very personal. These individuals start to think about how to resolve that grievance through violence.”
The next step on the pathway to violence is when would-be shooters start researching what weapons or tactics might be used for an attack, or gleaning techniques while researching what previous mass shooters have done.
Gibson explains, “And then it progresses to preparation.” The would-be shooter then carries out “a dry run or security probe to make sure they’re going to be successful.” And finally, the attack itself occurs.
So, how do you get someone off this “pathway to violence” before they attack?
The Behavioral Analysis Unit has analysts in all 56 of the FBI’s field offices in the US who work with local law enforcement officials. While these local officials often deal with criminals in the area, they are not always familiar with would-be shooters, many of whom do not have a documented history of violence.
Gibson says when she started at the Behavioral Analysis Unit eight years ago, they were getting about 150 referrals from local officials a year, while today they have more than 350 a year. In many of those cases, interventions by the FBI, working with local law enforcement or others in the community, have prevented potential acts of violence.
Understanding that the FBI’s work is confidential in such cases, we asked Gibson for an example of how the Behavioral Analysis Unit goes about getting someone off the pathway to violence.
Gibson told us about a case where a young man struggling with depression was also suicidal. His parents were working hard to keep a roof over the family’s head, and they weren’t in tune with their son’s emotional struggles.
The son began to fixate on school shooters and obsessively memorized the details of different shootings. The family was then in contact with the local sheriff, who began to mentor the young man and take him to mental health appointments. In the end, the young man was able to move on from his fixation and go to college, unaware that the FBI played any role in guiding him away from violence.
While most mass shooters do not suffer from serious psychiatric illness, they can be troubled or distressed in some way. Many are depressed and some have suffered a painful loss — of a loved one, a steady job, or a partner, which can leave potential shooters adrift without people around them to notice concerning behavior.
The FBI also researches the role of people close to potential shooters — those the Bureau calls “bystanders.” These are the peers or family members who are most likely to see worrisome social media posts or hear alarming comments from someone who is going down the pathway to violence.
Those bystanders are the ones who can provide the best early warnings. Gibson acknowledges that bystanders might not always get a straight answer when they check in — if the person is truly planning an attack, he or she might deflect the questions or lie. But it is important to alert the authorities anyway.
When a bystander becomes aware of key information about a potential shooter and does nothing, that individual is 16 times more likely to go on and commit an act of violence, according to a US government assessment. This is because a potential shooter might perceive that silence as permission, the assessment finds.
Gibson says people planning attacks are often crying out for attention. “In the conversations we’ve had with offenders, they felt like nobody was really paying attention to them,” she explained.
The most important piece of advice Gibson says she can offer to bystanders is to speak up and tell someone they trust about their concerns.
A former FBI special agent, Mary O’Toole, a pioneer in the field of threat management, urged family members who might have concerns about a loved one to do their best to limit his or her access to weapons.
Ultimately, what makes the US so exceptional when it comes to mass shootings is how pervasive guns are. There are more guns in the US than people. While stricter gun laws might not completely eradicate shootings, and other forms of violence may still persist, these laws could go a long way in saving lives.
Given the political reality in the United States that makes passing stricter gun laws extremely difficult, the next best thing might be to recognize who is on the pathway to violence — and figure how to effectively intervene before that person carries out the next mass shooting.
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