Over the past 20 years, tragic active shooter incidents seem ever-more present in our public consciousness. In the United States, there have been on average 15 active shooter incidents annually since 2000, with the largest number happening in 2017, when 30 incidents occurred. With the potential of an active shooter affecting us, the first question we typically ask is: What should I do if I find myself in an active shooter situation? However, there is a more important question to ask, that may save more lives. That paramount question is - What can I do to help prevent an active shooter incident? To answer this question, we need to understand what may lead to someone becoming an active shooter.
Let’s imagine for a moment that our lives are a complex road network, filled with many different pathways for us to navigate. Our decisions lead us down different pathways, and each of these pathways leads us to different outcomes. As we navigate this complex road network that is our lives, we experience many stressful life events. These include things like financial strain, workplace bullies, and mental health challenges, including depression and anxiety. Sometimes, we encounter a number of stressors in a short period of time. For most people, these times can be some of the toughest of their lives. Many people seek out and receive support from friends, family, and mental health professionals to manage these difficult situations. However, for a very small number of people, the stressors aren’t dealt with or become overwhelming or compounded. Coupled with a perceived wrong, known as a grievance, they can lead a person onto what is known as a Pathway to Violence.
The Pathway to Violence is comprised of six-steps that active shooters often go through leading up to their attack. The first step, which serves as the on-ramp to the pathway, is a grievance. A grievance is a feeling of resentment over something believed to be wrong or unfair. Grievances may be real or perceived, justified or unjustified. According to an FBI study on pre-attack behaviors, nearly 80%, or 4 out of 5 active shooters, had a grievance prior to their attack, and for 35%, a grievance was identified as the triggering event prior to the shooting.
Grievances very rarely lead to violence. However, when someone becomes fixated on a grievance, they may shift to violent ideation. A violent ideation is a thought or fantasy of hurting or even killing someone. Violent ideations resulting from a grievance are usually focused towards that very same person or group of persons associated with the grievance. Sometimes, violent ideations begin with thoughts like, “someone should kill them,” and later progresses to “I should kill them.” It is not unusual for a potential attacker to share these thoughts with friends, colleagues, or in online forums, intentionally or unintentionally.
Once a person has decided that violence is the answer to resolve their grievance, they will likely begin research and planning, considering how they are going to carry out their violent intent. This may include things like timing, location, targets, and methods.
Even on the Pathway to Violence, individuals are likely to still experience stressors which may keep the attacker focused on the path.
Once the plan is developed, they will often prepare by acquiring the necessary tools, materials, and skills.
While most attackers have some connection to their attack site, in many cases having worked there, they still often probe and breach the site to finalize their plan of attack. This may include determining how they will access secure areas and conducting some form of final surveillance.
The final step in the Pathway to Violence is the attack itself.
Let’s pause. Now that we understand what may lead to someone becoming an active shooter, the question is, what can we do to help prevent an active shooter incident? Well, the first step is knowing the indicators that may be visible when someone is headed towards or already on the Pathway to Violence. Potential attackers demonstrate indicators all along the pathway and experience a numerous stressors prior to their attack. Let’s rewind.
There are often visible concerning behaviors when someone is on the Pathway to Violence. These include things like concerning communications, which includes making threats or leaking their violent intent others. It also includes things like lower work performance, reduced quality of thinking or communication, and an unusual increase in conflicts with friends and family. In fact, 95% of active shooters included in an FBI study displayed at least two concerning behaviors prior to their attack, with the average being 4.7.
It is important to understand these potential concerning behaviors so we can recognize them and take appropriate action to address them when seen. We can deescalate the situation and divert potential attackers off the Pathway to Violence, either through personal intervention or by directing services or law enforcement.
However, we don’t have to wait for someone to be on the Pathway to Violence, demonstrating these concerning behaviors, to take action and stop an attack. We need to support people early to help them better manage their stressors, well before they even consider getting on the Pathway to Violence. We can do this by ensuring our organization’s culture fosters a connected, respectful, and supportive work environment. This starts by listening to those around us and providing support when people begin to show they are experiencing significant stressors. In fact, there is a likelihood that someone in your life, right now, is dealing with one or more of these stressors and could benefit from your support.
Click the right arrow to learn more about the indicators and how you can intervene to reduce the likelihood of an attack.