What We Can Do About Mass Shootings

By Dr. Adam Lankford

Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice

University of Alabama

Photo Adam Lankford.jpg

As many Americans recognize, our country's public mass shooting problem has been getting worse. The five deadliest mass shooting incidents in national history have all occurred since 2007. And in the past decade, the average number of victims killed per attack has increased by more than 40%, compared to the previous half-century.

The best way to fight back against these disturbing trends is for everyone to do their part. It's not enough to blame politicians, the firearms industry, or the media corporations, and then stop there. Yes, we would be safer if red flag laws were passed in all 50 states, if dangerous and disturbed people had less access to powerful weapons, and if mass shooters were not incentivized to kill large numbers of victims for fame and attention. And yes, demanding progress from policymakers and decisionmakers is an important public response to this growing threat.

But parents, teachers, and students can also help reduce the risks of a mass shooting in their community by paying attention to potential warning signs. According to research conducted by the FBI (https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/pre-attack-behaviors-of-active-shooters-in-us-2000-2013.pdf/view) and scholars such as myself (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332175890_Are_the_Deadliest_Mass_Shootings_Preventable_An_Assessment_of_Leakage_Information_Reported_to_Law_Enforcement_and_Firearms_Acquisition_Prior_to_Attacks_in_the_United_States?), mass shooters often exhibit many concerning behaviors that are witnessed by their friends, family, teachers, and coworkers—including openly admitting that they are excited by the idea of committing a mass shooting.

The key is to report this information to law enforcement. Regular citizens outnumber police officers in the United States by a ratio of more than 300:1, which means they observe and hear warning signs that a police officer may never witness. In most cases, if you report this information, no one will be arrested or get into any serious trouble. Law enforcement simply takes over the burden of determining the presence or absence of danger—and is able to "connect the dots" if other members of your community have also reported concerns. In fact, sometimes reporting someone's threats actually leads to an improvement in that person’s life, through counseling or other positive interventions.

As decades of research on suicide prevention have shown, sometimes the best way to save someone's life is to take their actions and statements seriously. Don't dismiss comments about self-harm or harming others as jokes or attention-seeking behavior. Sometimes these statements really are a 'cry for help,' and you have an important opportunity to make a difference.