Findings of the FBI’s Active Shooter Study
The FBI’s “A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013” comprises 160 such events, including the shootings at Virginia Tech; Sandy Hook Elementary School; the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; Fort Hood; the movie theater in Aurora, Colo.; the Sikh temple in Wisconsin; the Washington Navy Yard, and many others. Some of the findings aren’t so surprising, but the study does paint a dynamic picture of the active shooter phenomenon as it continues to unfold:
- Frequency of active shooter incidents is on the rise: The first seven years of the study yield an average of 6.4 incidents annually. The last seven years average 16.4 incidents each year.
- Not counting the shooters, these 160 incidents resulted in 1,043 casualties, including 486 deaths and 557 wounded.
- Out of the 160 incidents featured in the study, all but six shooters were male. And only two incidents involved more than one shooter.
- More than half of the episodes — 90 of the 160 — ended on the shooter’s initiative, whether by suicide or flight.
- In 21 cases, unarmed citizens managed to successfully subdue the shooter. In 21 incidents in which law enforcement engaged the shooter, nine officers were killed and 28 were wounded.
- In 73 of the 160 events included in the study (45.6 percent), the shooting took place in a commercial environment. The next-highest number of events — 39 (24.3 percent) — occurred in an educational setting. The remaining incidents took place at government properties, open spaces, houses of worship and other locations specified in the study.
Who Is the Shooter?
While it’s a common perception that the active shooter can be profiled as an angry, withdrawn individual who may affect a certain outward appearance, be it “goth” or another form of countercultural expression, the truth, according to the Bureau’s study of these situations, is rather less clear. People who have started down the “pathway to violence,” as the Bureau describes it, may not fit a convenient stereotype, but the good news is that there are some common attributes through which these troubled individuals may be successfully identified by those close to them.
It’s reasonable to expect that a potential shooter might have a history of mental illness and a possible criminal record. But these are highly fallible criteria: Not everybody who requires treatment for mental or emotional disorders is even diagnosed, let alone treated; and many potential shooters may not yet have any criminal record of note. According to Pettorelli, what the Bureau does tend to look for — and what it suggests that threat assessment teams look for, in turn — are exhibited patterns of behavior and personality suggesting that an attack is possible. The warning signs are plentiful: Typically, the potential shooter will be someone who has self-esteem issues, and who feels isolated or excluded from his or her peer group. He or she likely displays an extreme, disproportionate sense of anger and a heightened sense of paranoia, and also shows a fascination with acts of violence in film, television and/or video games.
It’s not uncommon for a potential shooter to voice thoughts relating to a possible attack well in advance — talk about revenge or of having a “hit list” is a major red flag that should not be ignored. At this junction in the pathway to violence, such talk may be interpreted as a plea for help on the part of the at-risk individual, a seeking out of a necessary intervention before the plan taking shape in that person’s mind has to be pursued.
Other signs to watch for include delusional perceptions or behavior, as well as any significant loss for the person of concern, be it a job, relationship, family member or certainty of the future — particularly if the person has no apparent mechanism for coping with the loss or any real emotional support. The combination of these factors can suggest an individual highly at risk of doing harm to himself or herself, or to others.
Another potent sign, of course, would be a sudden, contextually inappropriate acquisition of guns or other weapons. Context is extremely important here, because there are plenty of people who work in the security industry, for example, for whom acquiring guns and training with them is part of their working lives. While access to guns isn’t the single most important risk factor on its own, it has proved to be absolutely pivotal for the potential shooter. Easy availability of firearms makes the fantasy of power or potency all the more tangible, and consequently, visualizing the crime much more real and accessible.
Visualization and planning are a huge part of the ritual and run-up to a potential shooter’s attack. This is an important point: It belies the notion that any active shooter suddenly “snaps,” or “goes postal” — in virtually every case, the shooter has followed a similarly predictable pathway to violence. By definition, then, if there’s a predictable pattern of behavior involved, it is possible to detect and prevent a tragic outcome.