This data could help put an end to America’s deadly mass shootings

Jillian Peterson and James Densley have really crunched the numbers.

The academics have scrutinised data from 180 mass shootings within the United States and looked for pattens.

They found that in 80 per cent of cases, the gunman – it is almost invariably a young man – had suffered and displayed the signs of some sort of personal crisis prior to the incident, and that almost all intended to lose their lives. Many had already contemplated suicide.

One of the myths they debunked was that the shooters would be termed mentally ill by most definitions: psychosis, described as when people lost touch with reality, was a factor in less than 30 per cent of shootings.

One of the most striking findings of The Violence Project – and perhaps somewhat obvious with hindsight – is that the shooters were not outsiders, or “monsters”, before they carried out their shootings; rather they were part of the community they devastated – sons, nephews, classmates and friends.

“It’s instinct to cast aside mass shooters as monsters – their destruction is horrific and beyond comprehension,” Peterson and Densley write in The Violence Project: How to Stop A Mass Shooting Epidemic.

“And still we are losing. The monsters aren’t going away. In fact, there are more and more of them. And they are killing more and more people with each passing year.”

They add: “The monsters are not ‘them’, they are ‘us’ – boys and men we know. Our children. Our students. Our colleagues. Our community. They’re walking in and out of the same secure doors we are, past the same armed guards every day, like the rest of us.”

Critically, the two academics, who work from the Twin Cities of St Paul and Minneapolis, have not simply created a database. They argue that by analysing the commonalties among shooters, they can provide “off ramp” tools for teachers and parents, and school safety officers, to identify signs of crisis before they turn deadly, and intervene.

Some of their input into these techniques is coming from the US Secret Service, that has spent years following the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1987, to try and improve its entire approach to threat assessment.

The National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC), headed by Dr Lina Alathari, was established in 1998 and is made of social science researchers and regional managers “who support and empower our partners in law enforcement, schools, government, and other public and private sector organisations to combat the ever-evolving threat of targeted violence impacting communities across the United States”.

Less than a year after they published their book, the founders of The Violence Project are in conversation with several school districts in the Twin Cities to attempt some of their “off ramp” ideas.

The work of the two researchers comes at a critical time for the United States as it continues to struggle to address gun violence, either through firearm regulations or some sort of intervention.

As many as 45,000 people lost their lives to gun violence in 2020, the last year for which data is available, either as a result of murder or suicide.

A mass shooting, allegedly carried out by an 18-year-old with white supremacist ideology, left 10 Black people dead in Buffalo, New York, in May. Less than two weeks later, 19 elementary school students and two teachers were shot dead in Uvlade, Texas, by a local high school student.

James Densley said pair decided to speak out about findings rather than ‘bury’ it in academic journals

In Texas, the 18-year-old gunman, who was killed by police, had previously made online threats to girls, vowing to rape or kill them, but they had been ignored or laughed off because “kids joke around like that”.

In Buffalo, alleged gunman Payton Gendron, 18, who survived, said he wanted to “commit a murder-suicide”, when asked about his plans once he graduated.

Police were called, and the student said he was joking. He had a psychiatric evaluation in a hospital but was released within a couple of days, and when he graduated two weeks later, he fell off the radar of his teachers.

He has been charged with 10 counts of hate crime resulting in death.

Jillian Peterson spent several years working in New York City researching life histories of men facing death penalty

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