Today, once again, an active shooter has turned to violence as a means to an end. It is now 6:00 p.m. EDT and this act of targeted violence – or “active shooter incident” as the media prefers to call it – has continued to unfold throughout the day. CNN is now reporting that 13 people have died. At least two police officers have been wounded.

The U.S. Navy Yard has been ordered to shelter-in-place. The Naval Sea Systems Command Headquarters has been in lock-down all day. Reagan National airport has had a ground stop on all traffic. At least nine neighborhood schools were evacuated or under lock-down themselves. And given their proximity, the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon and the White House increased security as well. We still don’t know whether this was one or several active shooters. In the fog of a crisis, inaccurate information abounds. In the hours ahead, there’s a very good chance we’ll determine that these were the actions of a lone gunman. And while it will take days and even weeks to unwind his trajectory, we already know an enormous amount about individuals who are on a path toward an act of violence.[1]

1. The act is usually the end result of an understandable and often discernible process of thinking and behavior. In other words, they’re not random or sudden or impulsive.

2. The act is the product of interaction among three factors: (a) the individual who takes violent action; (b) the “stimulus” or triggering conditions that lead the subject to see violence as an option, a “way out” or a solution to their problems or life situation; and (c) a setting or environment that facilitates or permits the violence to unfold – or at least does not stop it from occurring.

3. There is a critical difference between making a threat and posing one. Threats of violence arise from a wide range of feelings or ideas. Sometimes a threat is backed by the will and capacity to do harm. At other times, a voiced threat may amount to nothing but emotional “venting.” It’s important to realize that those who make threats may not pose a threat and those who pose a threat may not make a threat. Another important corollary to this finding is that mental illness is not critical to determining “dangerousness.

4. There is no accurate or useful “profile” of individuals who engaged in targeted violence. In many cases, an attacker’s past records will show few arrests for violent crimes. And attackers rarely direct threats to the target or to law enforcement.

5.How do attackers select their targets? Based on two factors, according to study results, (1) their motives, and (2) accessibility. There are several key implications here worth noting. If there is likely to be a logical link – at least in the attacker’s mind – between target and motive, then the more we know about one, the more insight we’re likely to gain into the other. At the same time, if accessibility has been shown to dissuade an attack, then organizations need to redouble efforts to ensure that core traditional security precautions, technologies and practices continue to be engaged to prevent future events.

6. Attackers have a wide range of motives. For most, violence is a rational means to a goal or a way of solving a problem. Some subjects also see violence as a way to end their personal suffering and pain through suicide. Others may want to achieve fame or notoriety, bring national attention to a perceived problem, or avenge a perceived wrong.

7. Many attackers plan their attack for weeks, months or even years in advance. They approach or visit potential attack locations. They approach or visit the site with a weapon. They attempt to penetrate security. And many consider several targets.

8. Most attackers engage in some behavior prior to the incident that causes others concern or indicates a need for help. And many have a history of harassing or stalking others. The signs may not be obvious. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t perceivable by someone or anyone. In fact, many attackers feel bullied, persecuted or injured by others prior to the attack or have difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures.

9. Many attackers have access to and have used weapons prior to the attack.

10. Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most attacks are stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention and most are brief in duration.

Because of the immediate and heroic police and law enforcement response, we now know that at least one gunman was killed in a shootout with first responders. My entire career – and that of many of my colleagues at Hillard Heintze – has been dedicated to applying critical research-based insights to protecting lives. It’s hard to watch these events when they spill across the headlines, because we know that many of them can actually be prevented. Tomorrow we’ll get back to doing that, but right now – today – our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.

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[1] Fein, R.A. & Vossekuil, B. Preventing Assassination: A Literature Review. A report from the Secret Service Exceptional Case Study Project, prepared under NIJ Grant #92-IJ-CX-0013. Submitted in May 1997, to the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, Washington, D.C.
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