An FBI study found that active shooters on average exhibit four to five warning behaviors to people they know before an attack, and some experts say perpetrators often engage in a concerning pattern of activity that might be noticeable to friends, family members and other people in their lives.
“These were not people who just snapped,” Dr. Sarah Craun, co-author of the study with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, said in an interview with the bureau’s public affairs office. “Rather, they had stressors in their lives.”
Mass shooters typically are in crisis in the days, weeks and months before their violent acts, and crisis overwhelms people’s usual coping mechanisms, which can show up as a marked change in behavior, said James Densley, professor and department chair of criminal justice with Metropolitan State University’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Education Center.
“The Dayton shooter tweeted — a lot,” said Densley, co-founder of the Violence Project, a mass shooter research project. “We analyzed about 3,000 of his tweets and found most were retweets in which he tagged over 1,600 different users.”
He added, “Someone clearly feels they have a point to prove or is screaming into the void if they’re tagging that many people on social media. However, we don’t know very much about his life outside of social media.”
The Oregon District shooting was one of 28 active shooter incidents that occurred across the nation in 2019, according to the FBI.
The FBI’s investigation into the Oregon District mass shooting concluded that Betts had an “enduring fascination” with mass violence and struggled to cope with personal factors, including mental health stressors and the loss of “stabilizing anchors.”
Betts was kicked out of his band and broke up with a girlfriend before the shooting, Lindgren said. Betts’ friends have said he was using hard drugs, and had a history of threatening violence and suicide.
He once was questioned by police after making a list of people he wanted to kill while he was a freshman in high school, and an ex-girlfriend said Betts hated himself and told her he put a gun in his mouth, contemplating suicide.
Lindgren said Betts had mental health issues, as well as drug abuse problems.
Many active shooters display behaviors that might signal impending violence in the weeks and months leading up to an attack, which could include mental health struggles, problematic interpersonal interactions and “leakage” of their violent intent, according to an FBI study of pre-attack behaviors of 63 active shooters in the United States between 2000 and 2013.
Most people who observed concerning behaviors communicated directly with the perpetrators about them, and some reported the behaviors to law enforcement, the study found.
But people who observed concerning behaviors did nothing in more than half of the cases studied. The study also found that more than three-fourths of shooters spent more than a week planning their attacks.
Potential signs of trouble include feelings of hopelessness — the belief that things are bad and they won’t get any better, said Barry Spodak, a strategic adviser with Control Risks, a risk consultancy firm that employs a variety of former FBI agents and threat-assessment specialists.
Many shooters feel like they have failed in life and they want to leave their mark on the world, and sadly mass murder to some extent provides attention and recognition, Spodak said.
Repeat exposure to threats
Other potential indicators can include people talking in the past tense and having no plans for the future, and some perpetrators give away things they once valued, he said. People should be concerned if someone they know goes from making general threats of violence to specific ones, he said.
Spodak said generally no single behavior is predictive of future violence — but people should watch for patterns of worrisome behaviors.
“We don’t think of these kinds of acts of targeted violence as an act at all — we see it as a process,” Spodak said. “It’s a process that goes from grievance to ideation to planning and research to preparation and to an attack.”
“Sometimes that path to violence can take years,” he said.
Friends and family members don’t want to think that someone they know or love is capable of carrying out horrific violence, experts said, and people can become accustomed or desensitized to troubling and violent statements if they happen over an extended timeframe without resulting in any action.
But just because threats haven’t led to violence in the past does not mean they won’t in the future.
In reality, local police agencies can investigate tips and complaints, but they have limited resources and can’t easily monitor possible threats for extended periods of time, Spodak said, and limited long-term treatment options exist for unstable people who display troubling behaviors.
The Violence Project found that nearly half of the 170 mass shooters researchers studied leaked their plans in advance, said Densley, co-author of the project and professor with Minnesota-based Metropolitan State University.
About 55% of the mass shooters who leaked their plans discussed general violence, Densley said, while the rest leaked specific plans about a mass killing.
Mass shooters may show a marked change in behavior, such as increased agitation, abusive behavior, losing touch with reality, mood swings, paranoia and an inability to perform daily tasks, said Densley, co-author of “The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic.”
“In our study, there was an association between leaking plans and suicidality and prior counseling, suggesting that threats of violence may best be characterized as a cry for help,” Densley said. “Any threat is a critical moment for intervention. So we need to people to be attuned to behavioral change.”
Many people see or hear things indicative of violent intent before a mass shooting, but some are reluctant to report concerns to law enforcement because they don’t want to be a “snitch,” Densley said, and people also need confidence that authorities will handle the situations well if they report loved ones, peers and colleagues.
Helen Jones-Kelley, executive director of Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services, said she hopes the Oregon District mass shooting and its investigation does not lead to further stigmatization of people with mental illness.
Studies have found that people with mental illness are more likely to be a victim of violent crime than the perpetrator.
“We must stop casting people with mental illness in a criminal frame, as if they all have potential for this kind of crime. They do not,” Jones-Kelley said. “ People, who are mentally ill, and who go untreated, are more likely to harm themselves than others, which is why timely and high-quality services, especially early intervention and crisis services are so critical for recovery.”