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2 professors, tracking patterns, try to predict who might carry out a mass shooting


It's something tragically familiar in this country. There's a mass shooting, people grieve. There are calls for action, debates about gun restrictions and mental health. And then it happens again. So James Densley and colleague Jillian Peterson spent years looking at what solutions can be found in the lives and motivations of the shooters. They created the Violence Project, a database of nearly 200 mass shooters that documents everything about these attackers from their childhood traumas to their access to firearms. James Densely, a professor at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota, joins me now. Welcome to the program.

JAMES DENSLEY: Thank you. Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So I want to start with the why. Why does it matter what drives these shooters?

DENSLEY: Well, I think it matters because we - after the terrible tragedies that we've seen, we're all searching for some sort of understanding...

FADEL: Yeah.

DENSLEY: ...So that we can prevent the next one. And that's really the purpose of the project is that we've tried to do this deep dive into the life histories of mass shooters in order to better understand who these people are so that we can prevent the next mass shooting. And that really is the overarching goal here. And we really, genuinely believe that based on the data, these mass shootings are not inevitable, they're preventable. And there's lots of things we can do to stop the next one.

FADEL: What are some of the common characteristics you found in the nearly 200 mass shooters that you studied? And what can you learn from the data to help prevent another attack?

DENSLEY: Well, one thing we see very often is that nobody who perpetrates a mass shooting is living a fulfilled life. They're not living their best self. And they all reach this sort of identifiable crisis in life. And it's a moment where they, really, no longer care if they live or die. And it's actually almost a suicidal crisis. So this tells you that a mass shooting is intended to be a final act. But it is also intended to be witnessed. It's a spectacle. And so there is an element of kind of radicalization that goes on where the people who perpetrate these crimes study other mass shooters, searching for meaning and searching for someone to identify with. And once they get to the point where they feel like a mass shooting is the solution to their problem, it's then just a question of, can they get access to a firearm in order to perpetrate the crime? So the pathway is this hatred of self turned outward to a hatred of others - an idea that this is going to be a statement piece - and then access to the firearm in order to perpetrate the crime.

FADEL: You mentioned that the shooters identify with each other. Do they inspire each other? Did the Buffalo shooter, for example, and all the coverage of that racist attack inspire this shooting?

DENSLEY: Potentially, yes. We do see in this sort of copycat phenomena in as much that not only are people identifying with the shooters, but they're also using maybe the same weapons that the shooters have used. They're leaving behind manifestos where they cite the other shooters. They clearly are inspired by one another. And that really puts the emphasis on us to stop this, to nip it in the bud...

FADEL: Yeah.

DENSLEY: ...Before other shootings occur. And again, these pathways give us opportunities for prevention. At every step along the way, we can identify solutions. And that's really the key thing here.

FADEL: So what are the solutions? I mean, is it just access to firearms? Is it mental health? What are the solutions here?

DENSLEY: So access to firearms is a big one because it's certainly where you can make a big impact quickly. But what we've tried to do in the book where we outline these findings, called "The Violence Project," we identify solutions at three levels, which is the individual level, the institutional level and the societal level. So at the individual level, that is the question that every parent and every community member is asking right now. What can I, right here, right now, do to stop a mass shooting? And it might be something as simple as safe storage of a firearm in the home. And then at the institutional level, the thing that school teachers and administrators and workplace professionals are asking, what can they do? Well, building crisis intervention teams that are more attuned to what's going on in people's lives so they can notice the warning signs that someone's on the pathway to violence. And then they can intervene and get them off of that pathway. And then finally, it's the societal piece. And that's where we often get stuck because we're waiting for an act of Congress where, really, it's just about an act of courage to solve these problems. But things like red flag laws, universal background checks, some of the commonsense gun measures that are out there. The science is very clear that these would have prevented some of these tragedies along the line.

FADEL: I have to ask you - you know, I think about this a lot in moments like this with mass shootings. And you just talked about the way shooters copy each other. Is the fact that we're even talking about the shooters and what happened part of the problem when you talk about socially contagious moments?

DENSLEY: It can be. But it comes down to how you talk about them. So you'll notice in this conversation I've never once mentioned the name of a shooter.

FADEL: Yeah.

DENSLEY: And in our book, we do the same. We adhere to a kind of no notoriety protocol. And, really, if we are solution-focused and we also uplift the survivors and the victims of these shootings, then this is how we do this in a way that is not going to be contributing to the contagion. Let's be solution-focused. Let's not be overly celebrity focused with these particular shooters.

FADEL: James Densley is a professor at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota. Thank you so much for your time.

DENSLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.