In the summer of 2013, I led a briefing with Attorney General Eric Holder on the F.B.I.’s research on active-shooter incidents in the United States. Our meeting took place just months after a gunman massacred six adults and 20 children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School
in Newtown, Conn.
“If these were deaths from terrorist acts, the American public would be outraged,” Mr. Holder said. I couldn’t disagree.
Four years later, his observation still haunts me. Last month, 59 people were mowed down in Las Vegas at a country music concert. This week, we are facing the gut-wrenching news that an 18-month-old child is among the 26 dead in a Texas church. Yet we are still asking the same question we did after Sandy Hook: “How can we stop this carnage?”
The answer, in part, requires us
to look at our own role.
In the weeks and months after Sept. 11, 2001, Americans were laser-focused on their surroundings, galvanized and determined to prevent another attack. We were more afraid. I know I was.
Fear is not comfortable, but it does make us
more aware. After Sept. 11, Americans called F.B.I. offices and police departments when they saw something suspicious. They stopped beat officers on patrol if they saw a package unattended. “See something, say something,” may not be a rousing battle cry, but it works: Many of these tips resulted in terrorist plots foiled, including several in New York City.
Yet Americans have not responded similarly to the uniquely American event of mass shootings. For five years, I led the F.B.I.’s studies of how to prevent, respond and recover from these incidents. Emergency medical workers are now far better prepared to take action and help survivors. It is prevention that remains the challenge.
We see and know more about one another’s day-to-day lives than ever before. Yet our research shows that 15 years ago an active-shooter incident occurred every two months. These days, we are seeing one every two weeks. The nation’s 800,000 law enforcement officers cannot stem this tide of destruction without the engagement of the country’s 300 million citizens. Unless public engagement replaces our collective passivity, mass shootings will continue.
Targeted violence falls into two major categories: impulsive and planned. The former comes with little or no warning and is often set off by a workplace or family trauma. This kind of attack may result in fewer casualties, but it is extremely difficult to do anything to prevent it. The same is not true of planned attacks, which provide opportunities for intervention.
Law enforcement routinely derails brittle individuals on the pathway to violence thanks to brave and concerned family members, friends, neighbors, teachers and co-workers who sounded the alarm. But sometimes, the call is not made. I didn’t want to get someone in trouble, we hear. I didn’t want to be embarrassed. I didn’t want to seem hysterical.
These excuses don’t fly in an era of regular mass shootings. No one has a right to bystander apathy.
Perhaps people don’t want to call the police about someone they love or know. But would they call to save a loved one, a friend or a neighbor? Our research shows that 10 percent of these gunmen also killed a family member. An additional 10 percent of the incidents involved troubled romantic relationships. The Texas gunman, Devin Kelley, checked those boxes. His threatening text messages to his mother-in-law preceded what the authorities report was a “domestic” situation that spilled over to the church. He also was court-martialed by the Air Force in 2012 for assaulting his wife and their child.
Trust your hunches. Do you notice someone isolating himself, giving away belongings, refusing to take regular medications, or stockpiling weapons? Atypical aggression may be a way of testing out newfound bravery. A fixation on a person or a cause or an activity may also be a sign. Mr. Kelley’s neighbor said there were sounds of gunfire from his property every morning the week before the church shooting.
We know those closest to a person of concern are the most likely to see behavioral changes. One acquaintance told the authorities that the Sandy Hook gunman, who methodically planned the attack for 18 months, was fascinated by past shootings. Courtney Kleiber, who was a friend of Mr. Kelley in middle school and high school, wrote on Facebook that he used to be “normal, your average kid” but that “over the years we all saw him change into something that he wasn’t.”
If there is any hesitation, err on the side of over-reporting. Law enforcement will sort it out. If you don’t want to call the police, call a school counselor, a clergy member, your human resources department or the place where the person works. An anonymous call can save lives.
If you run a business, a school, a church or an organization, make sure everyone involved knows how and where to report information. If you don’t have a reporting and threat-assessment strategy, get one.
Prevention is more about attitude than tactics. Changes in laws and policies are important, but without an urgent increase in citizen awareness and reporting, innocent people will continue to die. To prevent these shootings, Americans need to be as motivated as they were after the morning of Sept. 11, when no one knew who would be the next victim.
©2017 The New York Times News Service