Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before the Tuesday shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, in which an 18-year-old allegedly shot and killed at least 19 children and two teachers.
On May 14, an 18-year-old radicalized by white supremacist ideologies drove from his home in Conklin, New York, to Buffalo, New York, where he shot 13 people; 10, all of whom were Black, died. As others have written, the racial ideology that fueled the alleged shooter is foundational to the nation. But ideology alone does not explain what makes someone act on their violent impulses or perceived grievances.
In the new book Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America, journalist Mark Follman traces decades of research into how mass shootings happen as well as successful strategies for preventing them. Specifically, he looks at the field of “threat assessment,” which Follman defines as a “community based violence prevention method that brings together collaborative expertise in mental health, law enforcement, and other areas.” The field aims to identify potential mass shooters and intervene constructively before they act on their worst impulses.
The accused Buffalo shooter was detained a year before the attack and received a psychiatric evaluation after writing an alarming comment during a school assignment. But officials never took advantage of the state’s red flag law, which would have banned him from purchasing a firearm, in part because he had not threatened anyone specifically and had no clinical history of mental illness.
Follman spoke with Slate about threat assessment’s potential to offer help to both individuals and the community, why interventions that are not punitive can be helpful, and what media narratives about mass shootings and mental health get wrong. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Roshan Abraham: There are often broad discussions about mental health after a mass shooting. But as you point out in the book, while mass shooters may be emotionally disturbed, they often are behaving quite rationally. What do you think about the media’s familiar scripts around mental illness and mass shootings?
Mark Follman: One of the biggest myths that we have about mass shootings is the idea that these attacks can be blamed entirely on mental illness. This goes hand in hand with discussion we often hear after these attacks about a perpetrator “snapping,” which suggests that this is an impulsive act, that a person just suddenly goes crazy and goes out and commits a mass shooting. It conveys the idea that these are people who are detached from reality, suggesting psychosis or schizophrenia, conditions like that. None of that is really true at all in most of these cases. In the vast majority of mass shootings, we’re talking about people who are developing violent plans over time. We’re seeing this again with the Buffalo case. There’s already a lot of alleged evidence of long-term planning and a process of escalation toward the attack at the supermarket over months. And so by blaming mental illness, by regarding the perpetrators of these attacks as crazy or insane, it’s really looking away from the reality of how these cases develop and build and take place.
By definition, no one who commits a mass shooting is mentally healthy. But the kinds of problems they’re having are not limited to mental health. In most cases, they’re circumstantial. And they’re making choices. They’re deciding to act this way, based on grievance, rage, despair. There are many cases in which perpetrators showed signs of suicidality. That’s a mental health issue. But that’s not the same as a person who may be suffering from schizophrenia or psychosis. And so by implying that that kind of clinically diagnosable disease is at the core of all these cases, not only is it unhelpful to understanding the problem, it’s also stigmatizing. Those conditions in people are rarely associated with violence; they’re not meaningfully predictive of violence; there’s a long body of research that shows there’s no connection between mental illness and violence in any predictive way. So it’s stigmatizing people who do suffer from mental health conditions as well.
Some people who hear about teenagers being assessed for threats may be concerned about overreaction or criminalization. But your book shows assessments can point teenagers who exhibit troubling behavior to interventions that are not punitive. What are they?
The field has learned over decades of research and work that punitive steps often can be ineffective and may actually worsen the situation. If you kick someone out of school, or you fire them from their job, you may actually be worsening their problems, worsening their sense of grievance or anger, worsening the conditions in which they are developing violent planning and then setting off that planning.
So particularly with younger people who are troubled or in crisis, there are a lot of other options apart from punitive ones. In some ways this work was developed as a reaction or a response to the much harsher policies of the 1990s and 2000s, with zero tolerance and putting more police in schools and exacerbating what was known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Those types of measures were creating a lot of contact with the criminal justice system for young people and were disproportionately harmful to people of color.
This, in a certain sense, is the opposite approach. It’s saying, rather than try to arrest kids who are behaving a certain way, or kick them out of school, we want to figure out what the problem is, what’s going on with them, what’s the true nature of their trouble, and try to help them. And there’s a range of tools that I saw threat assessment programs use to do that, primarily extending counseling support, doing individual education plans, figuring out what the individual student needs to do better. This is an approach that seeks to alleviate that by getting to the root of the problem and dealing with it constructively rather than trying to kick the problem out the door through suspension, or expulsion, or arrest. There are cases where that type of approach may be necessary, but it is not the ideal approach.
You suggest that bringing isolated people into a larger network is a successful way to improve someone’s well-being as well as a way of deterring shootings.
One of the stories I tell in the book is how after Columbine in 1999, leaders at the U.S. Secret Service connected with the Department of Education to work on this problem. One of the most important conclusions they reached was that one of the best ways to do this work, to identify and head off potential violence, was to create more connection in a broad sense with students in schools. Ideally, every single student in a school would have at least one authority figure that they had a connection with, the sense that they had someone they could talk to, or turn to for help. This is really quite a remarkable outcome. We’re talking about the top federal protective agency in the country, working together with leaders in the Department of Education. And the conclusion wasn’t really about law enforcement work at all–it was about creating a better climate of connection in schools throughout the country. Because, you know, in a lot of these cases, especially with school shootings, you’re talking about individuals who aren’t necessarily isolated, because they’re in a school system. And yet, they aren’t well-connected to people who are in the best position, theoretically, to notice when something is going wrong.
Shootings targeting marginalized groups seem to be increasing in the past eight to 10 years: the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016; the 2014 Isla Vista killings by an “incel” men’s rights activist; the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh; the 2015 Charleston massacre of nine Black churchgoers; the Buffalo shooting. Have you found that mass shootings driven by these types of ideological grievances are increasing? What role does identifying ideologies play in threat assessment ?
You have a whole range of problems with a person who goes and does this typically. That said, there are often entrenched grievances in perpetrators of this crime, and that can include ideological extremism. And that is a factor that I found has been growing in recent years. There are different versions of that. It can be political. There’s violent misogyny. There’s the so-called incel phenomenon. This is an area of growing concern for leaders in the field of threat assessment and a factor that they are looking at more actively with cases in recent years.
So why has that been a rising factor? I think that it’s hard to say because, again, this is a complex picture when you’re asking the questions of motive, why a person gets to such an extreme point where they’re willing to go out and commit mass murder. But I do think that there is a significant influence from digital media in the past decade. There’s an issue with media sensationalism, in covering this kind of violence that feeds into emulation behavior, known more commonly as the copycat problem.
One successful threat assessment intervention highlighted in your book is the case of an employee who was offered mental health support by his employer on advice of the FBI, after he had threatened a manager upon hearing of impending layoffs. He was eventually let go, but the company set up what the FBI called a “a soft landing,” meaning he got severance pay and his unemployment benefits were not contested. How likely are these types of interventions to gain traction with employers?
As threat assessment was developing in the 1990s, the focus was primarily around workplace violence. And one of the core insights of that era, both at the FBI and elsewhere, was that taking a really harsh approach to aberrant or disruptive employee behavior was not particularly effective and could be counterproductive. There are many cases over the years where concerning employees or threatening employees who were fired or kicked out came back later and committed violent attacks or went elsewhere and committed violence.
There isn’t a whole lot known in terms of how much [threat assessment intervention in the workplace] is being done, how widely adopted it is. It is growing as a policy in school systems. There are a handful of states that require it now, and that’s a development in the last few years. And there are corporate employers that use it too.
Many communities might have valid concerns about alerting law enforcement even when they have fears of someone with warning signs. Are there community-based versions of these threat assessment strategies, ones that don’t formally involve law?
It’s not that so much as bringing more community leaders into the process. And in this way, it has a lot in common with other community-based violence prevention models. You will have not only law enforcement and mental health leaders, but you will also have leaders of religious institutions or other cultural institutions in a community, in addition to education leaders, working together to do this work. And those other leaders who are not in law enforcement may be the first point of contact for concerned citizens to bring issues to. There are threat assessment leaders who are actively cultivating this idea. They’re saying, “Who else can we put on point with a threat assessment team that’s not a police officer, so that the public doesn’t feel like this is about turning someone in to be arrested?”
Your book doesn’t directly address laws that would hinder a potential shooter’s ability to get a gun. In New York, where gun laws are considered strict, the Buffalo shooter obtained a gun relatively easily, even after making previous threats. Where do gun regulations fit into threat assessment, assuming all previous interventions have broken down?
I really see it as an additional tool for dealing with the problem of gun violence and mass attacks. It’s not either/or.
I think this method is very pragmatic about the reality of guns and gun laws in our country. One top expert in the field that I spoke to in the book said, “We just assume everyone has a gun when we’re handling a threat case, because it’s safer to assume that than to not assume that.”
That being said, there are specific gun policies that are particularly relevant to threat assessment work. One of them would be a more recent policy that’s known as red flag laws or extreme risk protection orders. Nineteen states [plus the District of Columbia] now have a version of a red flag law, which is a mechanism whereby families and in some cases law enforcement can go to a court and seek to have firearms removed from an individual who is thought to be a danger to themselves or to others. This is a relatively new legal tool, and there isn’t a whole lot of research yet on its efficacy. But some initial research does show promise for how it could be used to manage threatening situations.
What else do you think the public should know about threat assessment and mass shootings?
We’re kind of stuck in this narrative about what mass shootings are and who does them. And part of that is this idea that they’re just going to keep happening no matter what. There’s a lot of kind of resignation about it. And I’ve come to think that that’s really unhelpful and in a way part of the problem itself. In a certain sense, it is actually validating this kind of violence. And for people who are thinking about doing this, the very relatively tiny number of people who are thinking about committing a mass shooting, many of them we know from case evidence are cognizant of this narrative, that they will get a lot of attention if they commit a mass shooting, that mass shootings keep happening, that they can easily get guns and go out and do it. And so I think that we could work toward changing that narrative, that we don’t have to accept that this is just going to keep happening, that there’s more we can do to solve this problem as a society.
Update, May 26, 2022: This article has been updated to reflect the most recent death count from the shooting.