The most important thing community members can do is report any suspicious or concerning behavior or statements to law enforcement. Although many people are familiar with the Department of Homeland Security’s campaign “If You See Something, Say Something,” they often assume that it primarily applies to the behavior of strangers. In reality, you are far more likely to see warning signs among your family, friends, or acquaintances, because you spend so much more time with them, and they are more likely to let their guard down and reveal their thoughts or plans when they are with people they know.
What is the clearest sign that someone may be at-risk of committing a mass shooting?
Many people do not realize that public mass shooters often openly admit that they are interested in committing a mass shooting before they actually attack. In 2002, a joint study of school shooters by the United States Secret Service and the United States Department of Education (DOE) found that in 81% of cases, “at least one person had information that the attacker was thinking about or planning the school attack,” and, in 59% of cases, more than one person knew about the impending attack. In these cases, the person who knew was almost always a peer, friend, or family member. This should not be surprising, given that mass shooters are often suicidal, and previous research has similarly shown that approximately 80% of suicidal people tell someone what they are planning in advance. But it is extremely important not to dismiss these statements as “jokes” or solely attention-seeking behavior, because they may be our best chance to prevent a mass shooting.
Although the Secret Service/DOE study is now 16 years old, its findings are just as applicable today as they were in the past, and apply to all types of public mass shooters, not only those who attack at schools. The 2015 Charleston church shooting, 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, 2017 Sutherland Springs church shooting, and 2018 Parkland school shooting are just a few of many recent examples where offenders made explicit admissions that they were interested in committing an attack. This information may be revealed in face-to-face conversations, text messages, social media posts, or other forms of communication.
What other warning signs should people be looking for?
In a recent journal article, I identified three major warning signs: (1) suicidal motives or life indifference, (2) perceived victimization, and (3) desires for attention or fame. School shooters, workplace shooters, and other public mass shooters (including those who claim terrorist motives) often want or expect to die, feel like they have been profoundly mistreated or disrespected by others, and hope to gain fame or notoriety through their attacks. However, these factors are not always easy for observers to recognize in advance, so in the article I provide detailed checklists with specific things to look out for. If anyone would like a copy of the article, they can request one here.
If I report someone who seems dangerous, will that person be arrested or committed to a psychiatric facility?
There are many potential outcomes from reporting people who are at risk of harming themselves or others, and in most cases, they do not involve arrest or institutionalization. Depending on the laws where you live, it is possible that the person you report will be prohibited from possessing or purchasing firearms, which significantly reduces the risks to the community. And sometimes reporting someone actually leads to an improvement in that person’s life, through counseling or other positive interventions.
If I report someone to a teacher, administrator, boss, or law enforcement officer, does my responsibility end there?
Unfortunately, there have been many cases where members of the public have done their part by reporting suspicious or concerning behavior, but that information was not taken seriously enough to prevent the attack. The Parkland school shooting was just the most recent example of this disturbing trend. After you “see something” and “say something,” you should continue to pay attention to make sure that the authorities have responded appropriately. Ask follow-up questions about their response, if necessary.
If the potential threat has not been sufficiently addressed, you may be able to put pressure on the teacher, administrator, boss, or law enforcement officer by reminding them that you have documentation that you brought your concerns to them, and that if something tragic happens, they will be directly responsible for not doing their due diligence. If they still continue to dismiss your concerns, you can contact me directly for further advice or assistance.
Adam Lankford is Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at The University of Alabama. Prior to becoming a faculty member at The University of Alabama, Lankford helped coordinate Senior Executive Anti-Terrorism Forums for high-ranking foreign military and security personnel in conjunction with the U.S. State Department’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance program. He conducts research on many types of social deviance and criminal behavior, including mass murder, mass shootings, and terrorism. He is the author of two books, The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers (published in 2013) and Human Killing Machines: Systematic Indoctrination in Iran, Nazi Germany, Al Qaeda, and Abu Ghraib (first published in 2009), as well as numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals. In addition, Lankford has been interviewed many times by a variety of news outlets, including CNN, MSNBC, BBC World News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, NPR, and BBC Radio. He received his Ph.D. and M.S. in Justice, Law & Society from American University and his B.A. in English from Haverford College.