Washington, DC – The Federal Bureau of Investigation has released a study on pre-attack behaviors of active shooters in an attempt to help “make these warning signs more visible and easily identifiable” to those who have contact with potential, future mass killers.
“The FBI’s objective here was to examine specific behaviors that may precede an attack and which might be useful in identifying, assessing, and managing those who may be on a pathway to deadly shooting,” the report read.
The analysis was the second phase of the agency’s original 2014 study, which examined 160 active-shooter incidents that had occurred between 2000 and 2013.
The initial study focused on what occurred during the mass shooting events.
On Wednesday, the FBI released the second phase of the study, which analyzed what occurred prior to 63 of the shooters’ rampages.
The study noted that most of the 63 cases involved a killer of Caucasian or Asian ethnicity, nearly all of whom were male. Most attacked schools or churches, and many situations ended with the shooter’s suicide.
Although the shooters varied in age from 12 to 88, the average was nearly 38 years old.
“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, engaging in planning and preparation, and frequently communicating threats or leaking indications of an intent to attack,” the study read.
“In the weeks and months before an attack, many active shooters engage in behaviors that may signal impending violence,” the report continued. “While some of these behaviors are intentionally concealed, others are observable and — if recognized and reported — may lead to a disruption prior to an attack.”
According to the findings, most mass shooters – 77 percent – spent at least a week preparing and planning their attacks. Some spent up to two years.
In the instances where the attacks were carried out by juveniles, each one of the shooters were students.
Seventy-six percent of active shooters who were adults had no history of military experience. Just over a third of the adult shooters had prior criminal convictions.
The vast majority obtained their weapons through legal means.
The FBI worked on identifying stressors, including “financial pressures, physical health concerns, interpersonal conflicts with family, friends, and colleagues [work or school], mental health issues, criminal and civil law issues, and substance abuse” that appeared to have a higher-than-average negative impact on the active shooter within the year prior to the mass attack.
They found that the assailants had generally experienced between three and four of the identified stressors in the year before the shooting. Most commonly, one of those stressors was related to mental health.
Only 25 percent of the active shooters in the study had ever been diagnosed with a mental illness, but the FBI pointed out that a lack of diagnosis did not mean that the shooter was not struggling with a mental health-related stressor preceding the attack.
“In short, declarations that all active shooters must simply be mentally ill are misleading and unhelpful,” the study read.
Most had specifically targeted at least one of their victims, and over half of those with targets had also previously threatened them - usually in person.
They tended to carry out the attacks in areas they knew well, the study found. If the location was unfamiliar, however, most shooters conducted surveillance of the area prior to the incident.
In cases where others observed the potential shooter displaying concerning behaviors, only 41 percent shared their observations with law enforcement.
Such behaviors included “potential symptoms of a mental health disorder, interpersonal interactions, quality of the shooter’s thinking or communication, recklessness, violent media usage, changes in hygiene or weight, impulsivity, firearm behavior, and physical aggression,” the reported noted.
The shooters tended to display four or five of the concerning behaviors prior to the commission of the attacks.
Contrary to common perception, the active shooters in the FBI study were not cut off from society. All of them either had “significant” interactions with someone either in-person or online, or they lived with at least one other person.
“Just because concerning behavior was recognized does not necessarily mean that it was reported,” the study noted. “In retrospect, certain facts may take on a heightened degree of significance that may not have been clear at the time.”
Over half of the mass shooters made some reference to another person that they intended to harm someone, and many appeared to have a pervasive, distorted belief that they needed to “make right” an instance where they were “wronged or treated unfairly,” the report read.
“The grievance itself may not have been reasonable or even grounded in reality, but it appeared to serve as the rationale for the eventual attack, giving a sense of purpose to the shooter,” according to the study.
A “triggering event” related to the grievance – such as a job loss, romantic rejection, or an adverse legal ruling – often occurred “close in time” to the actual attack, the report read.
The FBI report noted that the study findings were not intended to be a “’checklist’ in determining if a person will become violent or not,” but rather to create “awareness” and opportunities for intervention.
“A shared awareness of the common observable behaviors demonstrated by the active shooters in this study may help to prompt inquiries and focus assessments at every level of contact and every stage of intervention,” the study noted.
"The active-shooter threat is here to stay," FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich told the Associated Press. "I wish it wasn't. I wish it was a passing phase."
"We can't allow ourselves to become numb to it," FBI Intelligence Executive Assistant Joshua Skule added. "We just cannot think that this is an acceptable way to live our lives, and so however this topic stays at the forefront so that folks continue to talk about it ... is critical to mitigating the threat."