When it comes to active shooter events, the absolute best answer is to prevent them rather than increase speed of response to them. Even in some of the best case scenarios of fast law enforcement response, with a kill / time ration of one victim for every eight seconds of time, even an awesome response time of just one or two minutes can result in 7-14 victims. Now don’t misunderstand, “victim” doesn’t mean killed just like “shot” doesn’t mean dead. However, our goal is not just to alleviate death but also injury and suffering. The fastest response is still from someone armed or courageous on the scene when the event starts. But even that response can’t compare to prevention. If no attack occurs because it was prevented, that is the ultimate preferred situation. Part of attempting to prevent attacks is to identify commonalities among the perpetrators. Wouldn’t it make prevention easier if all of the perpetrators met a relatively specific and easily identified set of characteristics?
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. In an attempt to characterize the “average” active shooter, we looked at two reports: one was the “Active Shooter Incidents in the U.S. in 2018” published by the U.S. Department of Justice, and the other was the “Mass Attacks in Public Spaces – 2018” report published by the U.S. Secret Service. Both reports contain information on the shooters by age and gender, as well as other information discovered during the post event investigations.
The reports disagree on the gender count but the difference isn’t statistically significant. The largest majority of attacks were committed by males. The DoJ report cites 23 males while the USSS report cites 25 males. The USSS report also cites one person who was “in the process of gender reassignment” but counts that person as neither male nor female. No explanation for the discrepancy in gender attribution between the two reports can be identified. Neither report provides information on race of the identified shooters/attackers.
The USSS report breaks down the ages of shooters/attackers in 2018 as:
· Five between the ages of 15-24.
· Nine between the ages of 25-34.
· Six between the ages of 35-44.
· Two between the ages of 45-54.
· Five age 55 or over.
Doing the simple math, that means that more than half of the shooters/attackers were between the ages of 25-44. 15 out of 27 fit into that age range, making up 56% of the shooters. If you add in the age group 15-24 you get to two-thirds of the shooters, but that only emphasizes the fact that there is no real narrowing of age group when examining shooter/attacker commonalities. There seems to be equal chance that the shooter will be 15-24 as there is he’ll be over 55.
Looking at the above information it’s easy to see that we can safely assume an active shooter / attacker to be male, but it’s not guaranteed. We can’t assess anything reasonable concerning their age or race. What does that mean? It means that when we arrive on the scene of an active shooter event, anyone could be the “bad guy.” It’s a safe bet that it’s a male, but beyond that? And with at least one documented case (per the USSS) that a shooter was going through gender reassignment, we have no way of knowing or safely assuming that the “male” is… or the “female” is.
We are, therefore, left with identifying potential threats without reference to age, gender or race. What does that leave?
Off the bat, let’s get rid of an assumption: Active Shooter events don’t just happen in schools… or even predominantly in schools anymore. 20 of the 27 attacks in 2018 occurred in Places of Business; commercial establishments or locations. Only three happened in schools.
As an interesting bit of information that doesn’t help us identify threat, most of the attacks happened on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Those two days account for approximately half (13 out of 27) of the attacks; seven on Wednesdays and six on Thursdays.
The USSS report indicates that approximately 1/5th of the attackers had previous substance abuse issues and that approximately half (48%) had a prior criminal history. The largest commonality was the prevalence of a history of mental health issues. 67% - fully two-thirds – of all the attackers had a history of mental health problems. 15 out of the 27 demonstrated psychotic symptoms (paranoia, delusions, hallucinations) prior to committing their attacks. Eight out of the 27 had been deemed potentially suicidal.
As to motivation, the USSS report indicates that 52% of the attackers had some type of grievance as potential motive for their attack. The grievances could include domestic, personal and workplace discord.
Hands down, the most ignored and most important indicator of a pending attack is WARNING GIVEN. According to the USSS report, 93% of the perpetrators provided or made threatening or concerning communications prior to their attack. In 78% of the cases, the concern created by the perpetrator pre-event was so great that it was communicated to someone of authority. That’s approximately 4/5ths of the events that could have been potentially prevented if the warnings or concerns had been, or could be, acted upon.
Consider all of the above and recognize this: If you know a person, usually male (90%+) but of either sex or gender-confused, who has a criminal history (48%), demonstrating some type of mental health issue (67%), and who expresses unhappiness / grievance with a given situation (52%), they are a potential candidate for committing a future attack. Within all appropriate criminal and human resources guidelines, it would be a good idea to communicate your observations and concerns to the local law enforcement officials.