Risk Assessment of Mass Shootings

Risk Assessment of Mass Shootings

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3916-3.ch006
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This chapter turns its focus to ways to assess the risk of mass shootings. Risk assessment is used for the prevention and initial identification of violence. The usefulness of risk assessment instruments in this process is debated. Also discussed is the viability of criminal profiling, looking at characteristics associated with a particular type of offender. To add to the discussion, the motives of previous mass shooters selected as case studies are detailed. This goes some way to showing that the varied motivations of perpetrators make it difficult to adequately assess the risk posed. The next chapter will illustrate that threat assessment is a more useful approach to determine whether an individual intends to perpetrate a mass shooting.
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This chapter explores ways to assess the risk of mass shootings through the techniques of risk assessment instruments and profiling. Also detailed are the motives and pathways to violence of a selection of mass shooters, highlighting that these are varied in nature. The conclusion is reached that whilst there is value in applying risk assessment instruments to some degree, criminal profiling should be avoided for assessing the risk of mass shootings.

The use of instruments that identify relevant risk factors for a particular type of offending is a way to conduct risk assessment. These can be used for a variety of purposes: predicting reoffending risk; decision making about treatment, sentencing and post-sentencing detention; case management within institutional settings (Douglas, Pugh, Singh & Savulescu, 2017; Fazel & Wolf, 2018). There are a number of risk assessment instruments designed to assess targeted violence, including the Terrorist Radicalization Assessment Protocol (TRAP-18) (Meloy, 2016), Violent Extremism Risk Assessment, version 2-revised (VERA-2R) (Pressman, Rinne, Duits & Flockton, 2016) and Workplace Assessment of Violence Risk (WAVR-21) (White & Meloy, 2007). Critiqued here will be the usefulness of risk assessment tools in general, as well as in relation to assessing the risk of a mass shooting occurring.

Also examined will be criminal profiling, which focuses on identifying likely perpetrators through a set of characteristics hypothesized to represent this type of offender (Cornell, 2009). The theory is predicated on the notion that offenders will display similar behaviors in their crimes and other aspects of their lives (Snook, Cullen, Bennell, Taylor & Gendreau, 2008, p. 1260). Although there are commonalities between mass shootings, there does not appear to be a clear “profile” of this type of attacker (see O’Toole, 2000; National Threat Assessment Center, 2019b; Silver, Horgan & Gill, 2018). Other potential pitfalls with using profiling will also be detailed.

Participants who are experienced in risk assessment were interviewed: Heilit Biehl, a threat assessment coordinator at Adams 12 County School District; John-Nicolletti, a founders of a threat assessment and emergency management consultancy firm; Stephen Brock, one of the lead authors of the Prevent, Reaffirm, Evaluate, Provide and Respond, Examine (PREPaRE) School Crisis Prevention and Intervention Curriculum; Melissa Reeves, who is another lead author of the PREPaRE guidance and Senior Consultant with SIGMA Threat Management Associates (SIGMATMA). Interviews centered on their experiences of using risk assessment instruments and criminal profiling.

Also included were analyses of the eleven mass shooting case studies cited in the previous chapter. These were taken from the list of the worst mass shootings (in terms of death toll) prepared by CNN (2020). Although the original intention was to include the top ten, one of those case studies (the 1966 University of Texas shooting) was excluded due to concerns about the perpetrator’s mental capacity and a lack of information available about it. Additionally, two of the incidents were joint eleventh on the list in terms of their death tolls (the 2015 San Bernardino and 1986 Edmond Post Office attacks), so both of those were included in the final collection of case studies. To add a final layer to the analysis, the motivations for the eleven case studies are then examined. The categories used in the National Threat Assessment Center’s (2019a) study were utilized: mental health symptoms, grievances, ideological beliefs, fame/notoriety and unknown reasons. Also examined are the pathways to violence types (Cornell, 2009): conflict, antisocial and psychotic.

This chapter firstly outlines the purpose of risk assessment tools. Those that can be used for targeted violence acts will be outlined. Next, the discussion will center on profiling, with the results from interviewees and the literature all indicating that this is not an appropriate response. The motives for mass shootings, including the eleven case studies, are then discussed. It is shown that the most common motivation category for the case studies is grievances, with six of the incidents seemingly provoked by them.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Dynamic Risk Factors: Those which are situational and tend to change quite rapidly (e.g., possession of a weapon).

Motivations: This may be defined as the reason(s) why an attacker would carry out a mass shooting attack.

Actuarial Instruments: Risk assessment tools based on static risk factors that result in a quantified score.

Risk Assessment Instruments: Tools that identify relevant risk factors for a particular type of offending that may be used to make decisions about treatment, manage cases and predict recidivism.

Stressors: These are situations that can make them more susceptible to committing harm against themselves or others (e.g., the breakdown of a relationship, failing at school, etc.).

Static Risk Factors: Those which are historical and fixed and cannot be changed through interventions (e.g., having a history of criminal behavior).

Risk Assessment: This refers to the assessment of an individual’s potential for violence looking at relevant risk factors.

Structured Professional Judgment Instruments: Risk assessment tools including static and dynamic risk factors and which rely on the judgment of assessors to make the final decision about risk levels.

Profiling: This technique focuses on identifying the likelihood of someone being a perpetrator of a criminal act by comparing them against a list of characteristics.

Pathways to Violence: The journey of an individual that leads to them committing a violent act, particularly in the case of targeted violence which is planned in advance.

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