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Empowering the Public: A Call to Action in Preventing Future Mass Shootings


Insights into Prevention: A Collaborative Approach to Curtailing Mass Shootings

Editor's Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, and the host of the Audible podcast "In the Room with Peter Bergen," alongside Laura Tillman, producer of the podcast, share their perspectives on the critical role the public can play in preventing future mass shootings. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.

In the wake of yet another tragic mass shooting, this time in Maine, where 18 lives were lost and 13 others injured, the familiar echoes of calls for gun control reverberate. While debates about limiting the sale of semi-automatic weapons and implementing "red flag" laws persist, the recurring narrative is the challenge in translating these calls into comprehensive legislative action. The result is often a sense of powerlessness among the public.

Amidst this impasse, promising initiatives by US law enforcement and psychologists offer an alternative approach: understanding the "pathway to violence" taken by potential mass shooters, predominantly male. Notably, officials assert that the public can play a pivotal role in this effort, transforming the collective feeling of helplessness into proactive engagement.

An emerging field known as "threat management" is at the forefront of these efforts, with the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantico, Virginia, serving as ground zero. The unit, explored in the Audible podcast "In the Room with Peter Bergen," meticulously analyzes cases of past shootings and individuals identified as potential threats. Karie Gibson, chief of the unit and an FBI special agent who is also a psychologist, emphasizes the predictability of mass shooters' behavior.

According to Gibson, the journey toward becoming a mass shooter often begins with a "specific grievance," a personal affront or humiliation that festers in the individual's mind. The inability to move past this grievance prompts contemplation of violent resolutions. Gibson's insight underscores the potential for intervention and prevention, disrupting the pattern before it escalates into tragedy.

As discussions around gun control continue, this approach offers a glimmer of hope by shifting the focus from legislative gridlock to proactive identification and intervention. Empowering the public with the knowledge of these patterns could be a decisive factor in preventing future acts of mass violence. In the ongoing fight against such tragedies, collaborative efforts between law enforcement, psychologists, and an informed public may prove instrumental in breaking the cycle of violence.

Navigating the Pathway to Violence: A Crucial Phase in Prevention

As potential threats progress along the "pathway to violence," the next critical juncture is marked by their research into weapons and tactics for an attack. Often, this involves delving into the actions of previous mass shooters, gleaning techniques, and contemplating the chilling possibility of carrying out an act of violence. According to insights from the Behavioral Analysis Unit at the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantico, Virginia, this phase eventually advances to preparation, including dry runs or security probes to ensure the success of an impending attack.

The challenge then becomes clear: how to divert individuals from this ominous trajectory before they carry out their violent intentions. The Behavioral Analysis Unit, with analysts strategically placed in all 56 FBI field offices across the US, collaborates closely with local law enforcement officials. While these officials regularly encounter criminals in their areas, potential shooters often lack a documented history of violence, making identification a complex task.

Over the years, the Behavioral Analysis Unit has witnessed a significant increase in referrals from local officials, indicating a growing awareness and collaboration in addressing potential threats. In many cases, these interventions, conducted confidentially, have successfully averted acts of violence. One such example shared by Karie Gibson, chief of the unit, involves a young man grappling with depression and suicidal thoughts. Fixating on school shooters, he meticulously memorized details of various shootings. Fortunately, through collaboration with local law enforcement, the young man received mentorship and mental health support, eventually transitioning to college, unaware of the FBI's role in guiding him away from violence.

While it's recognized that most mass shooters do not suffer from severe psychiatric illness, they often grapple with emotional distress. Depression, coupled with significant life losses, can render potential shooters adrift without a support system to notice concerning behaviors. The emphasis on community involvement, mental health support, and mentorship underscores the multifaceted approach needed to disrupt the pathway to violence and prevent tragic outcomes.

Empowering Bystanders: A Crucial Role in Preventing Mass Shootings

The FBI's proactive approach to thwarting potential mass shooters extends beyond profiling individuals to researching the pivotal role of those closest to them — the "bystanders." These individuals, often friends or family members, are in a unique position to observe concerning social media posts or hear alarming comments that signal someone's progression down the pathway to violence.

Recognizing the significance of these bystanders, Karie Gibson, chief of the Behavioral Analysis Unit at the FBI, emphasizes their role as the primary source of early warnings. While acknowledging the challenges bystanders might face in obtaining truthful answers, especially if the individual in question is actively planning an attack, Gibson underscores the critical importance of alerting authorities regardless. Research indicates that when bystanders possess key information and choose not to act, the likelihood of the potential shooter committing an act of violence increases sixteenfold. Silence, in some cases, may be misinterpreted by the potential shooter as tacit permission.

Gibson sheds light on a common thread in the profiles of individuals planning attacks — a desperate cry for attention. In conversations with offenders, it often emerges that they felt ignored or overlooked. The advice she offers to bystanders is clear: speak up and confide in someone trustworthy about their concerns.

Drawing on the insights of Mary O'Toole, a former FBI special agent and a pioneer in threat management, family members are urged to take proactive steps if they harbor concerns about a loved one. Limiting access to weapons becomes a crucial measure in preventing potential acts of violence.

However, the unique challenge in the United States lies in the pervasive presence of guns — a reality that sets the country apart when it comes to mass shootings. While acknowledging the political difficulties in passing stricter gun laws, the suggestion is made that recognizing individuals on the pathway to violence and implementing effective interventions could be a pragmatic approach. In a nation where the number of guns exceeds the population, strategic measures that empower those closest to potential shooters may offer a realistic and impactful means of preventing the next tragic mass shooting.

Collaborative Vigilance for Safer Communities

In navigating the complex landscape of potential mass shootings, the call to action extends beyond legislative debates. The FBI's emphasis on the crucial role of "bystanders" — those closest to potential shooters — underscores the power of community vigilance in preventing tragedy. These individuals, often friends or family members, serve as the frontline in detecting early warning signs, even in the face of potential deception.

Karie Gibson's insight into the mindset of individuals on the pathway to violence highlights a poignant truth — the desperate need for attention. By encouraging bystanders to speak up and share concerns, we empower a collective force that can disrupt the trajectory toward violence.

Mary O'Toole's practical advice to limit access to weapons for those with concerns further reinforces the notion that preventative action is within our grasp, even in a nation where the prevalence of guns is unparalleled. While recognizing the challenges of implementing stricter gun laws, the focus shifts to recognizing potential threats and intervening effectively before tragedy strikes.

In the intricate tapestry of mass shooting prevention, the thread of community involvement, familial concern, and timely intervention emerges as a tangible lifeline. As we grapple with the sobering reality of pervasive gun ownership, collaborative efforts to empower those closest to potential shooters become paramount. In this shared responsibility, there lies the potential to reshape the narrative — one where communities actively contribute to a safer, more vigilant society.