Suicide prevention could prevent mass shootings

The following is an updated version of This articlepublished in 2019.

Imagine a doctor who wanted to treat a broken leg with chemotherapy. Or treat the cancer with a cast.

Just because cancer and broken legs are things that happen to the body doesn’t mean they need the same treatment. These are the kinds of problems that decision makers face every day. Take gun violence. It sounds like a big problem, but it’s actually a bunch of different problems that don’t necessarily have a single cause. But it’s also easy to focus so much on the differences between types of gun violence that we miss the unexpected connections. Just as brittle, cracked bone could be a symptom of certain types of cancers, researchers are finding evidence that suicides and mass shootings can often be different expressions of the same problem.

I first reported this link in 2019, as part of an attempt to explain why a suicide prevention tool – “red flag laws” that allow family members and law enforcement order to determine that a person is a threat to themselves or others and to temporarily remove firearms from their homes – was proposed as a way to prevent mass shootings.

Today, 19 states have passed red flag laws and they have had mixed results in preventing violence. But the links between suicidality and mass shootings just got stronger. “A lot of these mass shootings are angry suicides,” James Densley, a criminal justice professor at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota, told me four years ago. And now there’s even more evidence to suggest that’s true.

It’s not news that many mass shooters suffer from suicidal thoughts, said James Lankford, a criminology professor at the University of Alabama. But it wasn’t until he published a 2021 study comparing mass shooters to other demographics that he really realized how After mass shooters had in common with people who die by suicide than with other types of homicide perpetrators.

“Homicides are rarely premeditated, but public shootings almost always are,” Lankford said. So are suicides. While mass shootings were 3.8 times more likely to be premeditated than standard homicides, they were only 1.2 times more likely to be premeditated than suicides. Mass shooters were more likely than other homicide perpetrators to act alone. They were more likely to be killed by law enforcement. And while standard homicide perpetrators aren’t particularly likely to have suicidal tendencies, in Lankford’s study anyway, mass shooters were somewhat more likely to have a history of suicidal ideation. than even people who died by suicide.

Lankford is not the first person to find links between suicide and mass shootings. In a database of more than 150 mass shootings that took place between 1966 and 2018, Densley found that about half of the attackers in his sample showed signs of suicide before harming others. Another group of researchers who analyzed 41 school shooters for the Secret Service and the Department of Education found that 78% had a history of thoughts or attempts of suicide.

“We even spoke to a few people who tried to kill themselves but failed and then launched an attack because they hoped the police would kill them,” said Marisa Randazzo, a former Secret Service chief psychologist who now consults. on assets. threat assessment with schools and other organizations, I was told.

A third group of researchers, which compiled the details of 119 lone terrorists, did not specifically track whether people in their dataset had thought about or attempted suicide, but the researchers told me they also found significant overlap between mass fire and picks. which suggested suicidal tendencies. “A fairly large subset only planned for this to be a one-time event” – that is, something they did not come back from – said Paul Gill, professor of security and crime sciences at University College London and researcher in charge of this database. “They were preparing to maximize the chances of death by the cop or by their own hands.”

In other words, acts of mass violence function as a method of suicide. “These are individuals who plan ahead to commit a crime for which there is almost no chance that they will avoid life in prison or death as a direct result of the crime,” Lankford said. “It’s very reasonable to say that they are not very invested in their current life, nor in their future life.”

This fact has implications for policy and prevention.

A suicide link means armed guards are unlikely to be a deterrent to mass shooters, Densley said. In 2021, he published an article analyzing 133 school shooting cases between 1980 and 2018 and found that those with armed guards present had a 2.8 times higher death rate than those without armed guards on the scene. . Densley thinks this could be partly because in the eyes of a shooter exhibiting suicidal ideation, good guys with guns are a feature, not a bug. They may see a higher risk of death to themselves, and they may enter more heavily armed – and more innocent people could be caught in the ensuing firefights. And even if it doesn’t, Lankford said, a shooter with armed guards to fight creates a story that increases the killer’s chances of achieving notoriety and fame.

The suicide link also means would-be mass shooters can easily slip under the radar of law enforcement, which is trained to deal with crime, not crisis, Lankford said. It’s not uncommon for would-be mass shooters to come to the attention of law enforcement before their major attack, but those interactions often go nowhere because that person has no connection to violent crimes or crimes. gangs and that she has no criminal record. “These questions are not helpful in assessing the threat of a mass shooter,” he told me.

And this kind of shooters remains difficult to profile. Even knowing the connection to suicidality doesn’t particularly help because most suicidal people aren’t a danger to others, just themselves.

But there is good news here. Mass shootings are very often preceded by what experts describe as cries for help – shooters tell other people about their plans, they make threats, they describe their desire to kill and be killed . In a 2021 study of 170 mass shooting perpetrators, researchers found that 44% had previously disclosed specific details about their own plans. Several studies have shown that the family and friends of a mass shooter are often aware that something is wrong before the violence occurs. This happened a third of the time in Densley’s database, 64% in Gill’s and 81% in the cases recorded by Randazzo.

And that’s why many experts who study the epidemiology of mass shooters like the idea of ​​red flag laws as a preventive measure. Even once you identify certain details that many attackers have in common, such a large portion of the population shares those traits that the “profile” is pretty useless for prevention. Red flag laws circumvent this problem by focusing less on one type of person and more on one type of emotional and situational crisis – where the people involved are not necessarily “bad guys” but people in trouble who need help. . Gill sees it as a public health approach, analogous to how we deal with hard-to-profile physical health issues.

“We know that increased cholesterol leads to heart problems. We don’t have the ability to predict who in the general population, who already have high cholesterol, will have a heart attack. So we have prevention policies in place to try to lower cholesterol in the whole “at-risk” community, he said.

For researchers who study mass violence, what’s appealing about red flag laws is that these rules have the potential to shift the focus from a simple checklist of dangerous traits to a more nuanced system. which takes into account the overall emotional situation of a person. State.

Right now, experts say, even when friends, family and teachers know something is wrong with a potential shooter, they may not be able to do much about it. Sometimes people don’t know who to tell. Sometimes they choose not to tell in order to avoid sending a loved one to prison for crimes they have not yet committed. Sometimes the authorities can’t do anything because the nature of the threat does not include illegal behavior.

All of these researchers supported red flag laws because they could create a clear course of action for friends and family concerned about the combination of emotional crisis and violent threats from a loved one. It creates a place to consider concerns, a system to assess those concerns, and a way to mitigate them. This is especially true, the researchers say, if national red flag laws are put in place in a way that the system is not punitive. Ideally, the process would focus on helping a person get through an emotional crisis rather than putting them in jail. It’s also important, the researchers say, to ensure that laws focus on professional assessments of overall behavior, not checklists.

And there is evidence that it could work. An analysis of records from California, where one of the first red flag laws was enacted in 2016, found at least 21 instances where the laws were used specifically because people around a person were concerned of their potential to commit a mass shooting. In 2019, none of these people had exploited this potential. It is impossible to know, however, how these risks would have unfolded if the red flag had not been there.

But if these parts work together as they should, then red flag laws could really be a useful tool to combat the segment of mass shootings that function as very public violent suicides. “There’s an important element when we interviewed school shooters and active threat cases,” Randazzo said. “They are very attached to two things: they have to commit acts of violence, they no longer have a choice, but they also do not want to do it and hope that someone will stop them.”