FBI: Active shooters display common warning signs

Active shooters display common “concerning behaviors” in the two years prior to an attack, according to an FBI report released this week.

The agency spent four years analyzing investigative reports from 63 mass shootings between 2000 and 2013 in hopes of identifying patterns among perpetrators. Compiling a demographic active shooter profile capable of preventing future incidents, however, eluded researchers.

“The shooters examined in this study did not appear to be uniform in any way such that they could be readily identified prior to attacking based on demographics alone,” the report says, noting the age of suspects ranged from 12-years-old to 88-years-old and covered a wide spectrum of ethnicity and educational attainment.

Still, some behavioral patterns emerged from the sample, signaling an opportunity for law enforcement officials, mental health practitioners and threat assessment professionals to better recognize suspects “moving towards violence.”

The FBI said each shooter studied displayed an average of four to five similar “warning signs,” from mental health stressors to strained relationships to “leakage of violent intent.” Specific observable behaviors — such as drug abuse, criminal activity, financial stress and conflict with friends and family — went ignored in more than half of the studied cases, researchers said.

“These were not people who just snapped,” said Dr. Sarah Craun, an agent with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. “Rather, they had stressors in their lives.”

The report cautions against assigning mental illness as a motive, noting only 25 percent of shooters studied lived with an official diagnosis — such as depression, anxiety or paranoia. “In short, declarations that all active shooters must simply be mentally ill are misleading and unhelpful,” the report concludes.

Researchers uncovered a few other similarities among active shooters: nearly eight in 10 shooters spent a week or longer planning their attacks and nearly half spent a week or longer preparing — through weapons and body armor acquisition, for example. In about 64 percent of cases, shooters targeted at least one of the victims and half cited adverse interpersonal or employment actions as motives.

Andre Simmons, a supervisory special agent, said the report provides new insight into the minds of active shooters, offering opportunities to thwart future attacks.

“Anybody who is in a position to observe behaviors, to recognize that they are problematic, and to take action to prevent an active shooting from occurring, we think will benefit from reading this study,” he said.

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