Trying to predict mass shootings is wrong approach, experts say

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A vigil held at Fort Hood in 2009 for victims of a shooting tragedy in which 13 people were killed.

Credit: Flickr/U.S. Army/Tony Lindback

There is no effective formula for predicting when a mass shooter will strike, concludes a recent study [PDF] commissioned by the Department of Defense in the wake of the 2009 Fort Hood attack that left 13 people dead.

The physiological and neurological sciences are not currently sophisticated enough to know whether someone may be prone to carrying out an extremely violent event. But military officials can improve prevention by more promptly reporting warning signs, such as withdrawal from others at work or financial stress.

"An individual's coworkers are likely to be the most sensitive sensors of aberrant or troubling behavior," the Defense Science Board report says. "Training and the establishment of a trusted and transparent system for reporting such observations are essential enablers."

The board was created in 1956 to provide the defense community with scientific insight into new weapons and methods. Its report on violent behavior says despite the board being asked to identify ways to predict mass shootings, prevention is a more viable solution. That can be done in part by turning to the U.S. Postal Service, the Intel Corp. and universities like Virginia Tech [PDF] that have either endured high-profile acts of violence or implemented threat management practices where the Defense Department has not.

Although the Defense Department has an infrastructure for screening individuals, “there is no framework in place to respond to red flags,” the report says. Perpetrators often leave clues before they attack, such as expressing a sense that they are not valued or are being unfairly singled out for scrutiny.

“There are a lot of ways we can look at past behavior and even use some scientific approach of evaluating risk,” said Ron Brooks, director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center and a 40-year veteran of law enforcement. “We certainly do that in the area of terrorism. The DOD is looking at those kinds of things in suicide prevention. We certainly do it in law enforcement. We’re watching our officers all the time for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Although the psychic blow of mass shootings and events like Sept. 11, 2001, is significant, they are still relatively rare, and the report says an overzealous hunt for behavioral indicators could have the adverse effect of creating false-positives, stigmatizing people, fostering a lack of trust or discouraging people from reporting potential threats.

Meanwhile, officials aren’t always sure what sensitive private information they’re permitted to share that may signal a significant red flag.

“There is a lack of clarity among commanders/supervisors and healthcare providers regarding access to and release of information that may be relevant to preventing incidents of targeted violence or documenting concerning behaviors; access is often authorized but policy is unclear to users,” the report says.

Major Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, is accused of going on a shooting spree [PDF] on Nov. 5, 2009, at Fort Hood, a military base in Killeen, Texas, that killed 13 people and injured 29 others. He survived getting shot during the mayhem and is now standing trial. He was reportedly frustrated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and past colleagues were troubled by his behavior and radical Islamic views. FBI agents learned prior to the attack that he had exchanged emails with the notorious Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a drone strike last year.

A string of additional mass shootings in recent years has unnerved the country. In July, a gunman in the Colorado community of Aurora shot dozens of people, killing 12 of them, at a movie theater. Another soldier last year allegedly planned to attack a restaurant near Fort Hood with an explosive device, but an alert gun-store clerk notified authorities about suspicious purchases made by the man. 

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