A Toolkit for Avoiding Mass Shootings


Jul 14, 2022

Painted stones are placed at a memorial outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, July 13, 2022, photo by Kaylee Greenlee Beal/Reuters

Painted stones are placed at a memorial outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, July 13, 2022

Photo by Kaylee Greenlee Beal/Reuters

Independence Day celebrations come to a tragic ending; a simple trip to the grocery store and a day at school turn deadly.

These recent events in Highland Park, Illinois, Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, have once again brought the issue of mass shootings to the forefront of the national conversation. Policymakers took some steps aimed at helping reduce gun violence with the recent passage of a bipartisan law, but there are some additional clear, concrete steps communities, policymakers and law enforcement could take today to help protect society from mass attacks.

For the last two years, our team analyzed over 600 cases related to mass attacks, including over 300 that were stopped in advance. We reviewed reports and resources related to these events, and interviewed dozens of subject matter experts to learn more about effective (and ineffective) prevention and response strategies.

From all of this, we developed an online educational toolkit, funded by the National Institute of Justice, to provide practical strategies and guidance on deterring, mitigating, and responding to mass attacks. Our research highlights three top ways we can mitigate and/or respond to mass attacks right now: through proactive prevention, relentless follow-up, and diligent preparation and training.

Proactive Prevention

Of the cases we examined, more than half were foiled in advance of a mass attack. Almost two-thirds of the clues leading to foiling mass attacks came from the public, with the most important warning signs being serious intentions and preparations to carry out attacks. Examples of intentions to kill include describing (often online) how they are inspired by past attacks or an extremist cause to kill, or describing how they feel they have no choice or are compelled to kill.

Clues related to planning attacks include showing off weapons they want to use, studying how to kill, compiling arsenals of weapons without a benign explanation, and site probing. Just recently, a tip reporting overhearing a plot led to stopping a mass shooting at a Fourth of July celebration in Richmond, Virginia.

Awareness and the simple reporting of alarming behavior is the first step in preventing a mass attack.

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Awareness and the simple reporting of alarming behavior is the first step in preventing a mass attack. There is a need for more-detailed public education on reporting that provides more information on what the most concerning signs are, how to report them, and why members of the public should report.

Without engaging community members, the first link necessary to preventing mass attacks can be broken. Prevention needs to be linked in and across communities, tying together resources from schools, to the private sector and to law enforcement, among others. Mental health support systems are vital—as is trust in law enforcement to assist citizens. The latter is especially challenged in today's environment; it is incumbent on police agencies to foster trust and be accountable for their actions.

Relentless Follow-Up

Once warning signs have been reported, follow-up is critical across community networks. Communities must build prevention teams to tie together information and resources ahead of time, and not wait for an attack to happen.

Warning signs, tips, and threats should be assessed by community-based teams and shared with other communities, as well as state- and federal-level partners as necessary. Within teams, each case needs to be led by a single point of contact to lead the assessment and follow-up, ensuring that agreed-to actions are completed. Information simply cannot be left in the field and balls cannot be dropped.

Diligent Training, Preparation

People and communities need to be trained and educated on what they can do to respond to attacks. This includes, but goes well beyond, the “run, hide, fight” we—and our children—have become accustomed to. Advance planning and training are required of all agencies and partners who will jointly respond to mass attacks. This is not just for law enforcement—it is also for fire, EMS, emergency management, and for owners and security managers responsible for protecting public locations.

Diligent training isn't limited to responding to an event in the minutes it unfolds. Being prepared and having resources to support the community after a mass attack (or other tragedy) is key. This includes being prepared to offer mental health and emotional support for first responders, victims, and survivors and the critical need for effective communications skills.

Supporting Mass Attack Defenses

More support, best practices development, and education for both the multi-agency threat assessment and response teams may help avoid new tragedies.

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In order to foster the prevention and mitigation efforts, there needs to be institutional support. Even though mass attacks are rare, communities can't wait to put these elements together. Federal resources are available. Individual agencies or municipalities can work together to increase their ability to fund and staff efforts, and can leverage existing threat assessment and emergency response–planning efforts

Policymakers could provide key support, as well. First, there could be a need to build on “See Something, Say Something” to provide the public more details on what is most important to look for and how to report it. Second, education and support on detecting, reporting, and assessing suspicious gun acquisition attempts could help, as trying to build up arsenals is a key detectable part of mass shootings plots. Third, law enforcement officers may need guidance on how to conduct the wellness checks that provide the initial contact, evaluation, and support for a person reported to be at risk.

Finally, more support, best practices development, and education for both the multi-agency threat assessment and response teams may also help avoid new tragedies. Providing this support, and resourcing the needed preparation, could help to realize the wisdom of one of our interviewed experts: “Heroes are made because they prepare for an incident.”

Richard H. Donohue is a policy researcher and John S. Hollywood is a senior operations researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

This commentary originally appeared on United Press International on July 14, 2022. Outside View — 2022 United Press International.