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'Mother Jones' Report Examines Copy Cat Effect In Mass Shootings


Threat assessment is a tool being used more and more to counter mass shootings. It involves cooperation by institutions as varied as schools, businesses and the FBI. Mark Follman writes about it in a new report in Mother Jones. He's the national affairs editors for the magazine, and I asked him how threat assessment works.

MARK FOLLMAN: Most of the cases begin with some sort of tip where an ordinary citizen gets uncomfortable about something they see in another person and mentions it to a school administrator or to a boss at work. And if the tip makes its way to a threat assessment team, which is a collaborative group of professionals in law enforcement and mental health, those people quickly try to analyze the situation. They gather as much information as possible about the person and then come up with a plan to intervene, which is the third step.

SIEGEL: You mention at one point in your stories that a really inapt phrase is, boy, I wonder why he snapped; I wonder why he finally broke down. It's almost always a he, by the way. Are there any female - are there many female mass shooters?

FOLLMAN: There've been a couple over the last three or four decades but very few. It's overwhelmingly men.

SIEGEL: And then these men are often planning, you say, for months, weeks, months before they actually commit a shooting.

FOLLMAN: Yes. Mass shooters don't snap. Mass shooters and mass murderers are committing a predatory crime. It's not an impulsive crime. In, you know - the forensic investigations of these crimes show that almost always, they've been planned over a period of weeks or months or even years.

SIEGEL: It's a very important theme both of your story in Mother Jones and also in the work of the people whom you write about that something can be done about this. Steps can be taken to prevent mass shootings. And yet, you describe very vividly the story of one young man. Useful steps are taken when he's in his hometown. When he moves to another town, it's a brand-new ball game, and he ultimately pulls off an attack.

FOLLMAN: Yes. It's really, I think, an extraordinary example of both what's seen as the promise of this strategy and also its daunting challenges or its limitations because really, the question at the heart of it is, when do you know if a case is really over? How do you manage someone over the long term who may be vulnerable to acting violently like this?

So in the case of Erik Ayala in Portland, he was managed by a threat assessment team for years in another town in Oregon and when he moved away, years later, went on to commit a mass shooting that, you know, seemed to be motivated by the very thing that he had been expressing when he was in high school.

Now, is that evidence that he was stopped from committing a mass shooting in high school? No one can really say. But clearly the process of ultimately constructive mental health and social intervention that was done with him worked at least through the period where he was under the care and watch of a threat assessment team. Once he was gone, it was a different story.

SIEGEL: Is a threat assessment team, at this stage, a pilot project in one place that might not exist in another, or are they more commonly found around the United States? What would you say?

FOLLMAN: Leaders in this industry don't actually really know how many teams there are operating in the United States. It's a very decentralized model. But there've been three waves of interest in threat assessment. It began with Columbine. There was another big wave of growth after Virginia Tech in 2007. And since Sandy Hook, there've been a lot more teams evolving.

You know, in all the reporting I've done on this, I came to realize that in a sense, this is the only really serious major effort going on in our country to deal with mass shootings. You know, everyone is familiar with the political debate, and everyone is familiar with sense that our political leaders don't act after these happen. So in a certain sense, threat assessment has kind of filled that void. It's really kind of an interesting improvisational solution or a solution of last resort to try to deal with this problem that keeps happening over and over.

SIEGEL: Mark Follman, nation affairs editor at Mother Jones, thanks for talking with us.

FOLLMAN: Thanks so much for having me, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.