In this podcast (episode #371) and blog, I talk to award-winning journalist Mark Follman about his new book Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America, understanding the reasons why mass shooting events and gun violence are so common, the problem with media sensationalism and violent entertainment, how to prevent terrible events like mass shootings, why there is still hope, and so much more.
When Mark first started researching mass shooting events, there wasn’t a lot of good data. Now, these violent events are researched more and more. That is the basis of his new book, Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America, which explores the field of behavioral threat assessment.
This area of research combines mental health and law and order expertise, specifically focusing on how to intervene with people who exhibit potentially threatening signs. It is NOT predictive—there is no sure way to predict when these events happen, even though people have been looking for this for years. As Mark points out, there is no one type of person who commits these acts of violence; these situations are unique, so no predictive profile can be made. If we just try to describe the characteristics of someone who may commit an act of mass violence, if someone doesn’t fit the profile, we can miss potential catastrophes.
The field of behavioral threat assessment is preventative based on behavioral and circumstantial evidence. It requires behavioral pattern analysis plus effective interventions, which involves trying to understand the behavior that leads to these attacks and stepping in constructively before it is too late.
As Mark points out, this area of research is very promising and can give us hope to deal with this problem as a society. Mass shooting tragedies are not just “senseless attacks”. They can and do make sense if you study them to help prevent them in the future, which is what behavioral threat assessment attempts to do.
Reactive measures like responding to active shooters in schools and lockdown drills tend to be the main response to mass shooting events. However, there is not much evidence that these measures actually make things better apart from perhaps making us feel safer in the moment. Yet they also have the potential to affect children and young people mentally, including raised anxiety levels that can impact their health and performance.
Prevention, on the other hand, focuses on what we can do beforehand. Indeed, the field of behavioral threat assessment has already prevented hundreds of mass shooting events. It is an effective, evidence-based method we need to talk more about!
So why don’t we hear more about this research? As Mark notes in his book, it is tricky to prove a negative outcome (the absence of violence). Moreover, an event is not generally considered newsworthy if nothing actually happens (i.e. the prevention of a mass shooting event), so we don’t hear about it often.
Behavioral threat assessment begins with the understanding that each case is unique, yet revolves around the core idea that a mass shooting event is a behavioral problem leading to a planned attack. Because it is planned, there is a window of opportunity to intervene and prevent this violence.
This process often starts when someone in the community raises a concern. Then the team in place starts gathering information and data. The key is to establish this community awareness within existing structures and use resources that are already available, such as counselors, school psychologists, resource officers and other professionals that are already within the school, college or community. Once this team is in place, they can come together, discuss potential issues as they come up, and access a specific set of questions and protocols to guide their assessment of a potential situation and what they can do to manage it.
Yet this is not just about what we do in schools and colleges. We also need to understand and talk about the issue of mass shooting events better, especially in the media, and especially in the way we talk about mental health. Mass shooting events are a predatory form of violence. The terrible acts are hard to comprehend, yes, but the person committing the violence often has a clear justification or rationale behind their actions.
We need to talk more about how this person got to this point, and how mental health fits into this as one part of the pattern. We should don’t just stigmatize people with mental health challenges or think that they are more prone to violence. People with mental health issues are more often victims of violence—the mass majority of people who struggle mentally are not violent, so we shouldn’t say “mental health pulls the trigger”. Statements like this can cause prejudice and harm, and overlook the true complexity of these events and what we can do as a society to try to prevent them.
It is far better to discuss behavioral health when talking about mass shooting events. What were the circumstances leading up to the attack? This often includes mental health issues like depression and anxiety, but these aspects are not necessarily the main WHY someone commits violence. When it comes to understanding and managing these events, we need to focus on the process: the HOW helps us better get to the WHY.
For more on understanding and preventing mass shooting events, listen to my podcast with Mark (episode #371), and check out his incredible new book. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
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2:00 Why Mark wrote his new book
3:40, 14:50, 17:15 What behavioral threat assessment is & why it is important
6:00 Why understanding the threat of gun violence & mass shooting events is so important
7:55 The difference between reactive & proactive responses to mass shooting events
12:18 How hundreds of mass shootings have already been prevented
22:00 The importance of community awareness & using the resources that are already available
31:10 Why we need to talk about mass shooting events & gun violence differently
39:00 Why we cannot just predict mass shooting events & attacks
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