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Here's What's Behind US Mass Shootings

Attendees comfort each other at a candlelight vigil for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Feb. 15, 2018, in Parkland, Fla.
Attendees comfort each other at a candlelight vigil for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Feb. 15, 2018, in Parkland, Fla.

Two-thirds of all mass attacks in the United States in 2018 were carried out by someone who was experiencing mental health problems. And in more than one-third of the attacks, the perpetrator committed suicide at the scene of the attack or shortly after leaving.

The findings are part of a new report released Tuesday by the country’s National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC), part of the U.S. Secret Service, which looked at incidents in which three or more people were injured or killed.

The center found 27 such attacks across the U.S. in 2018, including incidents like the February 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead, and the October 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that killed 11 people.

In all, the attacks spanned 18 states, leaving 91 people dead and another 107 injured.

And it has left officials searching for better ways to cut down on the public violence.

“We don’t have a magic wand,” said NTAC Chief Lina Alathari. “There’s not a single solution to everything.”

What’s behind an attack?

Part of the difficulty is that while the report was able to identify some broad themes – 89% of the attacks involved firearms while 70% occurred at a place of business such as a bank or office building – researchers found the attackers did not fit any sort of profile that could help law enforcement identify them.

The youngest attacker was a 15-year-old high school student in Benton, Kentucky who killed two classmates and injured ten more. The oldest attacker was a 64-year-old man who walked into a restaurant in Hurtsboro, Alabama, where he allegedly shot and killed the owner and another customer.

The report found also little commonality when it came to the motivations behind the attacks. Instead, the motives often appeared to be personal, tied to grievances at work or at home in more than half of the incidents.

And despite concerns about the growth of extremist ideology, from Islamic jihadism to white supremacy, NTAC researchers pinned just two of the 27 attacks on ideology – ascribing the deadly shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue on anti-semitism and a February 18 truck attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in New Jersey, which injured three people, on the attacker’s anti-abortion beliefs.

Taking into account data from last year’s report on mass attacks, which looked at 28 incidents, also fails to provide much clarity.

"It’s difficult to draw too significant a comparison between such small populations of incidents from one year to the next,” said U.S. Secret Service researcher Steven Driscoll. “Over time, after five years or ten years, you can really start to identify trends.”

Looking for warning signs

For now, NTAC and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are encouraging communities to look for any indications that someone is in danger of becoming violent.

“We're encouraging people to understand, what are the warning signs, and what can they do about it,” said NTAC’s Alathari. “We want to identify individuals early to deter them off that path.”

To that end, NTAC and DHS have been reaching out to state and local officials, as well as to schools, businesses and mental health agencies, providing free training and advice. A large part of the goal is to make sure people feel comfortable coming forward.

“People should be encouraged to trust their instincts,” said DHS acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan. “Prevention of mass attacks is truly a community effort.”

Officials believe at least that part of the message is getting through. In more than 75% of the mass attacks in 2018, someone stepped up and shared concerns about the attacker in advance.

But they admit, it is not enough.

“If the community is sharing their concerns, then it’s really incumbent on the person in authority to act on those concerns, whether it’s law enforcement, a workplace manager, [or] a school administrator,” Alathari said.

Yet there are concerns that even with improved outreach and training, the government approach may still fall short, with some analysts expressing concern that officials are simply too heavily focused on mental health.

“With all these incidents, there's a common denominator of firearms and easy access to guns and ammunition,” Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center, said.

“We still can't predict human behavior,” he noted. “We can come up with all the great technologies in the world but if guns are still readily available this [mass shootings] is going to be the result.”