Assessment to a Mass Shooting

Sept. 16, 2019

In the last two months, the United States has been the epicenter of gun violence once again. With mass shootings in Gilroy, Calif., El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, more than 30 people were murdered and nearly 70 others injured. In the aftermath, families grieve, law enforcement seeks motive, and right on cue, politicians offer thoughts and prayers – and little else.

However, there is one branch of the federal government that has assumed a proactive role in not only investigating the growing number of mass shootings in the country but also researching incidents in the hopes of understanding the root causes. That agency is the U.S. Secret Service. To support these investigative and preventative efforts, the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) was established in 1998 and is tasked with delivering research, training, consultation, and information sharing on threat assessment and the prevention of targeted violence, including targeted attacks directed at workplaces, houses of worship, schools, and other public spaces. Its mission is to “provide guidance on threat assessment both within the Secret Service and to its law enforcement and public safety partners.”

It is no coincidence that within the last month or so more than 24 suspects have been arrested across the country linked to implied or direct plans and threats to additional mass shootings. There was the Marriott employee in Long Beach, California that was fingered as a threat by a fellow worker. Police later discovered that he had an arsenal of weapons and ammunition in his home. Las Vegas police arrested a suspected neo-Nazi who was looking to attack a gay bar and synagogue, while another white nationalist in Youngstown, Ohio was arrested when anti-Semitic threats were found on his Instagram account and a stash of automatic weapons in his home. In all three incidents, law enforcement worked with federal agencies conducting threat assessments that paid off.

In the 1990s, the Secret Service pioneered the field of threat assessment by conducting research on the targeting of public officials and public figures. The agency’s Threat Assessment Model offered law enforcement and others with public safety responsibilities a systematic investigative approach to identify individuals who exhibit threatening or concerning behavior, gather information to assess whether they pose a risk of harm, and identify the appropriate interventions, resources, and supports to manage that risk.

As a result of its threat assessment profiling data bank, the Secret Service has begun to share its research on mass shootings starting in 2017 when the NTAC’s first Mass Attacks in Public Spaces – 2017 was released. With its latest report, Mass Attacks in Public Spaces – 2018, the Secret Service offers further analysis and operational considerations to its partners in public safety. Between January and December 2018, 27 incidents of mass attacks – in which three or more persons were harmed – were carried out in public spaces within the United States. In total, 91 people were killed and 107 more were injured in locations where people should feel safe, including workplaces, schools, and other public areas.

The 2018 report says that regardless of whether these attacks were acts of workplace violence, domestic violence, school-based violence, or inspired by ideology, similar themes were observed in the behaviors and circumstances of the perpetrators, including:

•  Most of the attackers utilized firearms, and half departed the site on their own or committed suicide.•  Half were motivated by a grievance related to a domestic situation, workplace, or other personal issues.•  Two-thirds had histories of mental health symptoms, including depressive, suicidal, and psychotic symptoms.•  Nearly all had at least one significant stressor within the last five years, and over half had indications of financial instabilityin that timeframe.•  Nearly all made threatening or concerning communications and more than three-quarters elicited concern from others prior to carrying out their attacks.

The NTAC stresses that “targeted violence has a profound and devastating impact on those directly involved and a far-reaching emotional impact to those beyond. Because these acts are usually planned over a period of time, and the attackers often elicit concern from the people around them, there exists an opportunity to stop these incidents before they occur. Threat assessment is one of the most effective practices for prevention. Many of the resources to support this process are already in place at the community level, but require leadership, collaboration, and information sharing to facilitate their effectiveness at preventing violence.”

It is often said that it takes a village to raise a child. In the case of gun violence and potential mass shooting threats, it takes a village to save one. Now more than ever, if you see something, say something.

About the Author

Steve Lasky | Editorial Director, Editor-in-Chief/Security Technology Executive

Steve Lasky is Editorial Director of Security Technology Executive, Security Dealer & Integrator magazines and