Hi, I’m a journalist and author of the new book, Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America. Long ago, probably like most of you, I grew weary of “thoughts and prayers” and the dug-in political stalemate over guns. Why do we keep going in circles? Left, right, or center, surely there’s more we can do to solve this problem, right?

As I looked into dozens of shootings to understand them better, I learned something that transcended the contentious political debate: many are also being prevented. Behavioral threat assessment combines mental health and law enforcement expertise to intervene with people who are planning violence. The method raises fascinating questions about how to handle people who are turning dangerous, from building awareness of warning signs to the growing use of “red flag” gun laws. I got to know this field’s pioneers and even some mass shooting survivors involved, and I’m excited to share what I learned with you—going beyond the same old gun arguments.

Here's one question: Instead of arming teachers or freaking out school kids with so many active shooter drills, what if we did more active shooter prevention?

You can also find me on Twitter @markfollman and at Mother Jones. AMA!

UPDATE, 3pm ET: OK, well this was supposed to last an hour, but three have since melted away! I really enjoyed it and appreciated all the smart questions. That's all the time I have for now -- but I'll check back later and see if I can squeeze in a few more. Thanks for your interest and all the great conversation! -Mark

Comments: 707 • Responses: 29  • Date: 

beh14187 karma

What have you observed in terms of psychiatric patterns present in those individuals who have committed mass shootings?

mark_follman589 karma

One of the big myths continually repeated about mass shootings is that mental illness is the primary cause. That is not true in most cases. People who commit these attacks are not mentally healthy, of course -- they have serious personal and circumstantial problems, and some of those problems do clearly relate to mental health. There are many cases involving suicidality. But in many cases, mass shooters do not have clinically diagnosable disease.

What's driving them much more commonly is rage, paranoia, depression, desperation. They develop ideas about violence that they see as a valid solution to their problems. We tend to regard this as totally "crazy." But it involves a rational process of planning and preparing to go out and commit an attack. That process, marked by warning signs, represents the opportunity to intervene.

maybe_little_pinch200 karma

I think this is a super difficult concept for people to understand. It is really easy to say "mental illness made them do it" when the cases of people whose behaviors are controlled and not just influenced by their mental illness are extremely rare.

I don't think people can come to terms with the fact that someone can sit down and think shooting up a school is a good idea or a solution to them, because they would never themselves make that choice.

Whereas many people make poor or unhealthy decisions all the time and rationalize them away. Getting people to understand the same kind of decision making is going on here is extremely difficult to do.

mark_follman186 karma

Well said. I write about this early in the book: By regarding mass shooters as unfathomable lunatics, we distance ourselves from the problem in a way that is counterproductive, in my view. Though it's comforting in a certain sense to think that these are unimaginable or 'senseless' acts, they are rooted in a human capacity to act violently that most, if not all of us have inherently.

atthem7780 karma

But in many cases, mass shooters do not have clinically diagnosable disease.

What's driving them much more commonly is rage, paranoia, depression, desperation.

Are those not clinically diagnosable diseases, or at least symptoms of a clinically diagnosable disease?

But it involves a rational process of planning and preparing to go out and commit an attack.

The ability to prepare and plan for an attack isn't mutually exclusive to mental heath disease.

mark_follman113 karma

I appreciate your point. Part of the challenge we face with this, I think, is how we perceive and talk about mental illness in a lay sense. A popular narrative in America is that mental illness is the sole or primary cause of mass shootings, but that's simply not true, when you study the forensic case evidence.

When mass shooters are described as "insane" in the media and by the general public, the takeaway tends to be that these are people completely detached from reality, people who are hallucinating or hearing voices telling them to kill, etc. That's rarely the case with this problem. It does not mean that shooters don't have serious mental health problems that can, and in many cases should be addressed through counseling, therapy or other such measures.

atthem771 karma

A popular narrative in America is that mental illness is the sole or primary cause of mass shootings, but that's simply not true, when you study the forensic case evidence.

Do you have a source for some statistics on this? I find it very hard to believe that most mass shootings aren't carried out by someone with a mental illness (like depression).

When mass shooters are described as "insane" in the media and by the general public, the takeaway tends to be that these are people completely detached from reality, people who are hallucinating or hearing voices telling them to kill, etc. That's rarely the case with this problem.

In this specific thread, I'm not - and I believe others are also not - talking about "insane" people who hear voices and think their neighbor's dog is Satan telling them to kill people. We're talking about "mental health issues" like depression, suicidal tendencies, rage, etc. that can be diagnosed and treated by health professionals (therapists, counselors, and psychiatrists). It's a wide spectrum, and we're not asking if the majority of mass shooters are at the far "insane" end of that spectrum.

It does not mean that shooters don't have serious mental health problems that can, and in many cases should be addressed through counseling, therapy or other such measures.

This is exactly what we're saying. Shooters DO have serious mental health problems that can and should be addressed. When you say things like "in many cases, mass shooters do not have clinically diagnosable disease" or "A popular narrative in America is that mental illness is the sole or primary cause of mass shootings, but that's simply not true", it seems like you're denying that mental health issues play a major role in these mass shootings, but then you immediately say the opposite with things like "What's driving them much more commonly is rage, paranoia, depression, desperation." and "It does not mean that shooters don't have serious mental health problems". It makes it look like you're contradicting yourself.

mark_follman44 karma

Well that's not my intent, so my apologies if that was unclear or confusing. Again, I think we bump up against challenges with language in describing this. When people blame "mental illness" as the sole cause for mass shootings (remember "mental illness pulls the trigger"?), in my view that reinforces the notion that these are entirely irrational or inexplicable or "senseless" acts that can't be understood or solved. This goes hand in hand with the portrayal of mass shooters in sensationalized media coverage as "evil monsters."

An example of this that I detail in the book came after the Las Vegas Strip massacre, when late night host Jimmy Kimmel described the perpetrator as someone "with an insane voice in his head" whose act was impossible to understand. I'm not singling out Kimmel here -- this is a perspective shared and repeated by a great many people, in the media and well beyond. It misdirects away from the reality of the problem.

So I think we're in agreement here: that this relates to deep personal problems, including often serious issues of mental health. But my broader point is that by demystifying who mass shooters are, and the help they often desperately need, we can do more to understand what leads to these attacks and prevent them from happening. That's the core mission of behavioral threat assessment, the focus of the book.

You can also see more research about this particular aspect from a study of active shooters published by the FBI a few years ago, which I covered at Mother Jones:

Joe434139 karma

Any particular point of your research that didn’t make it to the book that you would like to share?

mark_follman244 karma

I learned about quite a few threat assessment cases involving troubled people who were setting up for some pretty scary situations. I had to pick and choose what to use in the book, and decided to focus primarily on school cases. What I can say further about that here (with little room for detail) is that lot of the same behavioral warning signs were present in those cases -- threatening communications, aberrant focus on violence (weapons, past attacks, etc), unhealthy narcissism, interest in extremist ideology, misogyny and domestic violence. It was illuminating to see these situations also being managed successfully in adult settings in a number of cases: workplaces, government agencies, etc. And in some ways that's harder than within a school setting, which is highly structured and offers a lot of opportunities for constructive interventions.

kevnmartin56 karma

Why do you think most school shooters are male?

mark_follman197 karma

It's a good question whose answer is probably pretty complex and points to larger cultural forces at play. I would defer to other experts on this, but I can say that from the perspective of this prevention method, it has no predictive value. (And there are indeed some cases involving female perpetrators, both with attacks and disrupted plots.)

One related data point here from my research that I do think is significant: what's come to be called "toxic masculinity" -- domestic violence, misogyny, incel ideology -- is a significant and rising factor among mass shootings.

Sprucehammer84 karma

Talking as a non American (Scottish) why do you think that school shootings are so prominent in America? Especially when other countries have more guns per capita?

mark_follman127 karma

This is a really good question. I think we have some broader cultural forces at work that tend to exacerbate school shootings. One that I focus on in Trigger Points is the role of digital media: the way we all talk about mass shootings and share information about them on social media -- including some big myths about mass shooters -- has an impact. And these are reinforced by lots of news media coverage of attacks, which tends to be sensationalized (although that has begun to change for the better in recent years). You may be aware of the so-called copycat effect? That's a big part of what I'm talking about here -- and it comes up in a lot of school shooting cases.

NorCalAthlete43 karma

I appreciate you acknowledging this viewpoint. I tend to be of the mindset that we have (through media, hype, fear, etc) made guns into this giant all powerful boogeyman type tool, to the point where it is now synonymous (in the minds of those thinking about violence, disenfranchisement, etc) with gaining or regaining control and power. I wonder - if we didn’t hype them so much, on both sides of the debate, would they be the go-to tool as much?

For context, I was in the military for many years. During that time I saw arguments and fistfights - with real anger and intent to harm - where both participants had firearms on their person leading up to the fight, and chose to set them aside instead of using them on each other. Part of this may have been peer pressure, discipline, being surrounded by others who might quickly put a stop to things, but it does beg the question. Especially when other times, soldiers DID use a gun to settle a beef - and subsequently went to jail for it. I don’t think any particular studies or research has been done in this aspect of the gun debate so I appreciate you trying to dig into it rather than just the usual “well it’s obvious, we must ban all guns” knee jerk reactions.

mark_follman22 karma

Thank you. That's some interesting further perspective on this and I appreciate you sharing it.

blazdersaurus59 karma

Aren't the vast majority of mass shootings in this country related to domestic disputes or gang-violence? Aren't they also for the most part spontaneous and unplanned? If that's the case, why are you seemingly not focused on the bigger issues?

mark_follman45 karma

Thanks for the question. In part this hinges on how we define a "mass shooting," about which there has been considerable debate in recent years. My focus has been on a more narrow, but very high-impact form of the problem. (Domestic disputes do figure in.) Other kinds of mass gun violence, related to gang fights or other situations that are more easily explained in terms of circumstances and motives, are also a big and important problem. But I think those raise some different questions about prevention and other policies.

Hartman1338 karma

Was there a specific shooting or event that caused you to conduct the research and investigation you have done?

mark_follman85 karma

Yes, I would say it was the events of 2012. After the massacre at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, I became really focused on trying to understand better what was going on with this problem of mass shootings. Several more soon took place, and then came Sandy Hook, that December. By then I was building out the first-ever public online database of mass shootings, at Mother Jones, and getting deeper into longer term research and reporting on all this. For me the operative question was, what more can we do to solve this problem? Understanding it better, of course, would be key.

NorCalAthlete55 karma

Regarding building out the database - have you seen this link from NPR on "The School Shootings That Weren't"?

It's a great read, but the gist of it is - there are wild discrepancies in numbers depending on whom you ask and specifically how you phrase the question, along with how you define the shooting.

Do you find it problematic - from a scientific perspective - that we cannot even seem to agree on a universal definition to begin tracking the data properly? Obviously depending on which side one falls on for a given issue, there are advantages and disadvantages to how you tweak the numbers and for what purpose.

mark_follman39 karma

Yes, defining the problem is big challenge, and one that I've written some pieces about in the past (both for MoJo and for the NY Times). Bottom line is, there is no such thing as a perfect definition for "mass shooting." In a way, part of why I ended up writing a book about threat assessment is that it seeks to understand the problem in some more pragmatic ways and moves beyond the politicization of statistics. But you're right that we also need good data to study and work to mitigate the problem, and it's a challenge here.

shalafi7136 karma

You answered a question about stricter gun laws. Exactly which laws did you find to be effective?

I can go one for quite a bit about stupid/useless laws but I'm interested in what seems to work.

mark_follman39 karma

The focus of my book is not on gun regulations, so I won't get too into that here. (I've also covered that subject, a very important one, a lot in my work for Mother Jones.) That said, I suggest taking a look at 'red flag' laws -- which do intersect with threat assessment work and are growing around the country. Early research on their efficacy looks promising for removing firearms from people who pose danger to themselves or others. But there needs to be more study of this policy.

Fuzzzy-Logic28 karma

Which would you consider most important, the "no notoriety" campaign or Media telling the truth instead of sensationalized headlines?

(Personally I believe the no notoriety clan to be more harmful than good. It only adds mystique and furthers the allure of copy-cats.

Media gets away with any old bullshit. 80% of what was reported about the Jokela shooting was untrue. If media had told the truth I believe more positive changes would happen. The Ministry of Justice Commission concluded "13 recommendations aiming to reduce the probability of school shootings and lessen the harm done by them". Many of these recommendations still have NOT been acted upon after 15 years.... Just maybe if the Media had told the truth then these recommendations would have been bought into the public eye and more would have been done to make certain these recommendations were carried out.

mark_follman41 karma

This is a great question, and I discuss this at length in Trigger Points. For me, it comes down to striking the right balance. It's very much in the public interest to report on mass shootings -- but all of us in the media have to rise to the challenge of doing so without sensationalizing the shooters, which is a form of attention that many of them seek and believe they can get.

But you are absolutely right that we also need to inform the public about these high-impact tragedies, and part of that is to combat misinformation, which is also a growing problem. We also need solid reporting to better understand this problem and demystify it (another focus of my book) so that people better understand the warning signs.

I use an approach that I call "strategic diminishment" -- reporting forensically and with deliberation about the perpetrators, and avoiding the myths and sensationalism that have been so common in years past. I do think there has been some improvement with this by the news media more recently, which is good. But we can do more in the media to improve, especially by not continuing to perpetuate the myths -- including the widespread idea that all mass shooters are mentally ill and "crazy" and suddenly just "snap," which is not how these attacks happen. Mass shooters plan, prepare, and decide.

thehillshaveI20 karma

do you have any stories of ones that have been prevented? how it worked out, follow up with the potential shooter etc?

mark_follman43 karma

Yes. In my new book, I chronicle several cases in detail showing how behavioral threat assessment teams intervened with troubled individuals who were taking steps toward planned attacks. They were able to help them and divert them away from violent thinking. I focus in particular on some high school cases like this, in Oregon and elsewhere. The process plays out over many months, and there are some interesting questions about how best to ensure that these individuals stay on better paths over the long term.

brilliant_beast19 karma

Do you see a role for the presence of responsible armed civilians in mitigating mass shootings, either by creating a general disincentive to perpetrate an attack on an otherwise vulnerable target (a known gun-free zone), or by responding to end an active threat before law enforcement arrives?

mark_follman19 karma

In short, no. This is something I've looked into in the past with my reporting for Mother Jones. To my knowledge, there exists no serious evidence to support the idea that armed civilians will deter mass shootings or effectively prevent or stop them. I have asked many leaders in law enforcement and threat assessment about this too, in the course of working on the book: Very few if any of them think that arming more civilians, or relying on a civilian response to this problem using firearms, is a good idea.

You can also read a little more about this in my book in the context of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre; I talk at length with experts as well as a survivor directly involved in that tragedy, including with regard to this question.

NorCalAthlete18 karma

This study of 15,000 active officers in the US would seem to disagree with you.

Edit : apologies, bad link. Try these:

PDF of survey results

4 analysis summaries from the PDF

11 key takeaways w/ graphs

Care to comment on the results of the study “straight from the horse’s mouth” so to speak? Because from that study:

”More than 91 percent of respondents support the concealed carry of firearms by civilians who have not been convicted of a felony and/or not been deemed psychologically/medically incapable.

”A full 86 percent feel that casualties would have been reduced or avoided in recent tragedies like Newtown and Aurora if a legally-armed citizen was present (casualties reduced: 80 percent; avoided altogether: 60 percent).”

mark_follman39 karma

I'm not familiar with that polling (nor its validity), but it appears to describe opinion. Officers may "feel" that way, but again, there is no scientific research that I am aware of to support the claim that casualties have been reduced or avoided, or would be, because an armed civilian was present.

aetarnis18 karma

Yet it seems that your argument is also based upon opinion.

I have asked many leaders in law enforcement and threat assessment about this too, in the course of working on the book: Very few if any of them think that arming more civilians, or relying on a civilian response to this problem using firearms, is a good idea.

Why are the opinions of the people you talk too more valid than those of the people in the survey /u/NorCalAthlete linked?

mark_follman3 karma

I shared that information as additional context to the primary point -- and moreover, those are the opinions of highly specialized experts who study this problem and directly investigate and handle cases. (As opposed to general opinion polling among law enforcement officers.) Again, the primary point here is that there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that arming civilians is an effective solution to the problem of mass shootings.

Headoutdaplane16 karma

He writes for mother Jones, your data doesn't fit his narrative.

NorCalAthlete25 karma

While I tend to have bones to pick with Mother Jones, that doesn't mean I just write off someone who is at least making something of an effort to engage with the community and society at large on the issue.

I also have bones to pick with the NRA and other gun groups that I think do more harm than good. Doesn't mean I ignore a chance to engage in discussion or debate if Colion Noir decides to do an AMA.

mark_follman6 karma

(I appreciated your engaging! We need more of this, IMO, especially right now.)

Lamorra177310 karma

What effect do stronger gun laws have on shootings in states and cities that have them enacted?

mark_follman10 karma

Thanks for your question. Research shows a clear correlation between stronger gun laws and a reduction of gun violence in some places. However, a big challenge we face as a country is that the regulation of firearms in the United States is so patchwork, and lax in many places. And we have a lot of guns -- an estimated 400 million of them.

cynicalyak9 karma

Does school design or location play a factor? (Urban vs Suburban vs rural?)

mark_follman19 karma

School design has become more of a focus in terms of security, but as a response to school shootings, it's not clear from a research perspective that it has much effect in terms of preventing attacks from happening.

LaserTurboShark699 karma

What are some of the biggest psychological/social impacts that frequent mass shootings presently have on students?

mark_follman49 karma

Important question. I think that as a society we have not done a very good job with this in terms of the now ubiquitous lockdown drills. Going back a few years, I think many school systems began doing these without really questioning what impact they might have on kids -- and we know more now, through research, that these can exacerbate anxiety in kids and create a skewed sense of schools being unsafe. School shootings remain statistically very rare events, and broadly speaking, America's schools are very safe places.

This is part of the reason why I found behavioral threat assessment compelling as a subject. Its emphasis is on prevention, rather than on reaction. These are not mutually exclusive, but my sense has been that we are overdoing it as a nation with lockdown drills and what security experts call "target hardening" measures.

TheGingerHybrid9 karma

Do you feel there is any correlation between the generational divide of the pre and post tech children, especially with the rise of social media?

And if so how do we move forward with the "here to stay" technology?

mark_follman22 karma

There is no doubt that the digital age and social media have exerted influence on the problem, and on school shootings in particular. But there is also a flip side here with some good news: behavior online has become increasingly useful to prevention experts when focusing on troubled individuals who come to their attention, most often when peers or others around the case subject speak up with concern and reach out for help. In many cases, content on social media helps threat assessment experts to evaluate warning signs and develop plans to intervene.

koavf5 karma

For what it's worth, I have an advance copy of the book and I can provide my perspective as a reader.

I was surprised to see how much of the book made it a point to not focus on gun control policy: Mark, to what extent did you have to fight that framing from your publisher and editor and to what extent to you have to dispel that this isn't just an advocacy book for gun control policies?

mark_follman9 karma

Thanks for asking and I'm glad you've had a chance to read it. To answer your question: I didn't have to fight that at all. I think my publisher loved and took on the book precisely because they understood its focus was not on guns or gun regulations, and that this is a different way to look at helping solve the problem of mass shootings. If there are folks who try to claim that the book is advocating for gun control policies (or against them, for that matter) then that's going to be coming from people who haven't actually read the book.

SilverCaterpillar1194 karma

What characteristics or common factors have you noticed between all the mass shooters that would help identify and prevent future shootings?

mark_follman6 karma

Thanks for your question. The method is not about identifying characteristics or demographics, or what we tend to know as "profiling" types of people. Instead, it's about studying the process that leads up to mass shootings, which is marked by patterns of behavior and circumstances, warning signs that are often detectable. That's what experts in this field rely on to evaluate potential danger and intervene, in each individual case.

Squirrelista1 karma

Just added your book to my Amazon cart so perhaps this will be answered in more detail after I read it.

As parents, what specific early indicators should we watch for in our children and our children’s friends that they may be trending toward violence?

mark_follman2 karma

Thanks so much for your interest! I'm running out of time to answer here -- but the book should go a long way toward answering your question. And if you have further ones after you've read it, feel free to email me, or ping me on Twitter if you're on there.

OvulatingScrotum1 karma

I’d imagine you’d like many people to read your book, not only for sales, but also because you think this is an important issue. However I’m guessing that people who are very protective of their guns won’t read your book, simply because they think any attempt to criticize gun ownership is not worth reading.

What are your thoughts on that? When you were writing this book, was there a specific group of people in your mind who you really hoped to read your book? What are you hoping to achieve with this work?

mark_follman6 karma

My book is not a criticism of gun ownership, and I make that clear in the very opening pages. The promise of this prevention method, in my view, is distinctly nonpartisan, and that's why I devoted so much time and energy to writing a book about it. It's a way forward that gets beyond the entrenched political debate. I think it should appeal to a very broad audience, regardless of one's political views on guns or otherwise. Nobody wants to keep seeing mass shooting after mass shooting in our country. For me, further effective use of the threat assessment model could help to reduce this problem, possibly to great effect, as I've seen the results of it through my reporting and research.

[deleted]1 karma


autotoad1 karma

What percentage of mass shooters were on antidepressants? Is there a correlation?

mark_follman6 karma

This question does come up -- I'm not aware of any evidence that there is a meaningful correlation with antidepressants.

One of the principles of the prevention work of threat assessment is that no single factor is causal. What the method does is look at a broad picture of behaviors and circumstances in any given case and evaluate what's going on with that person, to gauge the level of danger. As one FBI expert puts it to me in the book, they try to understand, through investigations and research, what happens with mass shooters "from the cradle to the grave." Meaning, by better understanding what is sometimes a very long pathway to violence, prevention experts can better see the warning signs and learn how to intervene effectively.