How to Spot Warning Signs of Potential Mass Shooters, After Spate of Arrests for Threats

The FBI, Department of Justice, and several advocacy groups share red flags to look for to predict violence before it happens

Dayton shooting
Photo: John Minchillo/AP/Shutterstock

The recent shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio were the latest in a long line of mass shootings that have plagued the United States in recent years.

Since those high-profile shootings earlier this month in which a combined 31 people were killed, police have made at least 27 arrests over threats to commit mass shootings, reports CNN. While many of them may have been hoaxes and jokes, NBC News reports that police in at least four cities have thwarted credible potential attacks.

As the gun debate rages on, several organizations and foundations have developed warning signs to identify possible mass shooters.

Sandy Hook Promise, the national nonprofit founded by parents of victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newton, Connecticut, put out a public service announcement in 2016 to teach people how to spot the crucial warning signs of potential school shooters.

Last year, the FBI published “A Study of the Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States.” The study, which examined 63 active shootings since 2000, aims to help identify “those who may be on a pathway to deadly violence.”

So what are some of the warning signs? While most shooters do not meet all the criteria, these are some of the possible red flags.

1) A Fascination with Guns and Firearms

According to Sandy Hook Promise, many school shooters typically exhibit a strong fascination or obsession with firearms. The FBI agrees, noting that most mass shooters obtain the firearms they use legally. About 40 percent buy them specifically for the attack, while another 35 percent already possess the weapon(s).

2) A History of Disturbing and/or Abusive Behavior

According to the FBI, 62 percent of active shooters had a history of behaving in an “abusive, harassing, and oppressive way.” This includes incidents of “excessive bullying and workplace harassment.”

Additionally, 35 percent of shooters — more than a third — had previous criminal convictions.

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The scene outside Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012. Shannon Hicks/Newtown Bee/ZUM

3. Domestic Violence Histories

The FBI report says 16 percent of shooters had a history of domestic violence, while 11 percent had been arrested for stalking an intimate partner. The gun violence prevention group Everytown for Gun Safety analyzed more than 150 mass shootings in seven years, and found that the shooter’s family members or intimate partners were victims in 54 percent of mass shootings.

From left, Samuel Lerma, Arzetta Hodges and Desiree Quintanar attend a vigil for victims of the deadly shooting that occurred earlier in the day at a shopping center, in El Paso, Texas Texas Mall Shooting, El Paso, USA
John Locher/AP/Shutterstock

4. A History of Being Bullied or Downtrodden

The Sandy Hook Promise PSA claimed that perpetrators of self-harm or violence towards others may have been victims of prolonged bullying. They may also have real or perceived feelings of being picked on or persecuted by others.

In a June 2018 report, the US Department of Justice found that homegrown US terrorists, including mass shooters, “frequently combined personal grievances (ie. perceptions that they had been personally wronged) with political grievances (i.e., perceptions that a government entity or other political actor had committed an injustice).”

5. Demographic Factors

The FBI, the Department of Justice, and multiple advocacy groups warn that demographic factors alone — sex, race, marital status or political party — are not enough to cast suspicion on potential shooters.

Still, FBI statistics show that approximately 94% of mass shooters are men. At the time of the incidents, about 79% of the shooters were single: 57% were never married, while 22% were divorced or separated.

According to the FBI report, the racial makeup of the shooters actually closely reflect demographics of the United States. While 63 percent of the shooters were white, that seems to reflect the fact that 60% of the general population identify as white.

6. Verbal Warnings

According to The Atlantic, school shooters often tell someone what they’re planning to do. These warnings, called “leakage,” often aren’t conveyed to authorities until after the shootings.

Sandy Hook Promise launched a “say something” campaign to encourage middle- and high-school students to tell trusted adults if they see or hear anything troublesome.

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