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Illustration by Michael Waraksa​​

Portrait of a Shooter

​Do active shooters display any detectable warning behaviors at some point before an attack? The FBI has found that they do.

In the new report A Study of Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the U.S. between 2000 and 2013, authors and researchers from the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit looked at a scientific sample of 63 active shooters who were involved in the 160 active shootings that occurred in the 2000-2013 time period. The FBI found that most of these 63 shooters exhibited four warning behaviors before they attacked. 

These four warning signs, which the report calls “concerning behaviors,” were noticed around the shooter’s mental health (62 percent), interpersonal interactions (57 percent), leakage of violent intentions (56 percent), and quality of thinking or communications (54 percent).

“What emerges is a complex and troubling picture of individuals who fail to successfully navigate multiple stressors in their lives while concurrently displaying four to five observable, concerning behaviors,” is how the report describes the 63 active shooters. The FBI defines active shooter as someone actively killing (or attempting to kill) people in a populated area. Not all active shootings are classified as mass shootings, which is a broader category of shootings in which three or more people are killed. 

Other shooter characteristics emerge from the FBI’s data portrait. A large majority (77 percent) spent a week or more planning the attack. Very few (8 percent) obtained their firearms illegally. And, contrary to the stereotype of a shooter as isolated and cut off from society, the study found that 68 percent of shooters lived with someone else, and 86 percent had significant in-person social interactions with at least one other person in the year of the attack.  

In addition, almost all of the shooters were under a significant amount of stress. On average, the shooters were experiencing 3.6 separate stressors in their lives in the year before they attacked, the report finds. The most common stressors were mental health (experienced by 62 percent of shooters), financial strain (49 percent), and job stress (35 percent). 

However, the FBI cautions that the mental health stressor is not synonymous with a diagnosis of mental illness. “The Stressor ‘mental health’ indicates that the active shooter appeared to be struggling with (most commonly) depression, anxiety, paranoia, etc., in their daily life in the year before the attack,” the authors write. So, while 62 percent of the shooters were experiencing a mental health stressor, in only 25 percent of the cases was the FBI able to verify that the shooter received an actual mental illness diagnosis. In 37 percent of cases, the FBI could not determine if a diagnosis had been received or not.

Demographically, there are two characteristics that were common among the shooters. The overwhelming majority (94 percent) were male, and a solid majority (63 percent) were white. However, a range of different races were represented. Shooters have been Asian, black, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and Native American. 

As for the troubling behaviors, the report emphasizes that these behaviors were “objectively knowable” to others. This, then, addresses a particular issue, according to the FBI: “the possibility of identifying active shooters before they attack by being alert for observable, concerning behaviors.” However, one fact that works against this possibility is that troubling behaviors are not always reported. In fact, the study found that the most common response to an observed concerning behavior was to communicate directly to the shooter (83 percent) or do nothing (54 percent). The behavior was reported to law enforcement in 41 percent of cases. 

Brad Spicer, a member of the ASIS School Safety and Security Council and president and CEO of SafePlans, says that the FBI’s study is of significant value for those looking to detect and prevent school shootings. “If an incident occurs at X time on a time line, then everything before X is an opportunity to prevent the incident,” Spicer says. The study is also a good supplement to another valuable resource for school shootings, the FBI’s four-pronged assessment model, Spicer adds. That model was released in a previous FBI report, The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective

Under the four-pronged assessment model, a student who has made a threat is evaluated based on circumstances and behaviors in four areas: personality of the student, family dynamics, school dynamics, and social dynamics. “It continues to be refined. It’s a great resource,” Spicer says. 

In the school setting, early detection of troubling behaviors is not only a good way to help prevent future violence, but it also has value as a tool for identifying students who may need support and help, Spicer says. Once identified, remedial assistance can then be given, the level of which will be appropriate to the case at hand. “This is not a situation where we are going to be engaging the SWAT team and dragging the child into the hallway,” he explains. 

In the workplace, information generated by the FBI’s study can be used as part of a threat assessment program that educates employees about what to look for in terms of possible concerning behaviors, Spicer explains. A team can then review possible threats, to make sure they are legitimate. “You never want to ignore a problem,” he says. 

However, Spicer also explained that he was not surprised by the FBI’s assertion that troubling behaviors often go unreported, such as the report’s finding that nothing is done in 54 percent of cases. This is especially true where the person observing the behavior has an intimate relationship with the suspect, such as a family member or spouse, Spicer explains. 

“While that reluctance is understandable, no one should ignore their own built-in danger detector: their intuition,” says Spicer, who adds that intuition is helpful and correct in two ways—it is always acting in the subject’s best interest, and it is always based on something. So, a spouse or family member whose intuition is telling them that the troubling behavior they are witnessing could be signaling something serious should report this, perhaps to a threat assessment professional in the workplace, or a mental health professional. 

“There’s no easy button for preparedness,” Spicer says. “People have to take some accountability and use the resources that are out there.” 

Those resources now also include a new guide by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, K-12 School Security: A Guide for Preventing and Protecting Against Gun Violence

The guide includes information on developing a school security process called Connect, Plan, Train, Report (CPTR). It also includes sections on threat assessment teams, mental health and school climate issues, and the importance of looking for behavioral warning signs. 

“The importance of detecting and addressing concerning behavior, thoughts, or statements cannot be overstated,” the guide’s authors write. “In fact, preventing violence by detecting and addressing these red flags is more effective than any physical security measure.” ​