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Can Rage Hotlines Prevent Some Mass Shootings? Researchers Study The Idea

NOEL KING, HOST:

So far this year, more than 350 people have been killed in mass shootings in this country. Advocates of gun control say a few things could help - expanding background checks, red flag laws. But some social scientists offer another idea. They say we need to be aware of people who are experiencing extreme anger. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: There are hotlines to help prevent suicide, child abuse, elder abuse, substance abuse and more. So clinical psychologist Ephrem Fernandez wonders, why not an anger helpline to aid someone who's feeling enraged and violence-prone?

EPHREM FERNANDEZ: An individual in such a state is actually sending out signals of threat, but also sending out signals that he or she needs help.

WESTERVELT: Several studies show that suicide hotlines, when staffed and run well, do work to help stop people from acting on their suicidal ideation. So might something like a homicidal ideation hotline work as well? Fernandez and colleagues at the University of Texas San Antonio are looking at that right now. They're running an online anger regulation study. Researchers keep in touch with participants on a weekly basis by phone in between pre-recorded sessions on anger management. People can also reach back out to the psychologists if they need additional mental health services or resources. It's not a hotline yet. It's a study. But Fernandez and his team want to know if such a mechanism might help manage someone's anger before it reaches a point where the person explodes in inappropriate rage or even violence.

FERNANDEZ: I think that's the million-dollar question. And I think there's every good reason to learn from the favorable outcomes of suicide hotlines.

WESTERVELT: Fernandez has analyzed more than 130 mass shootings in the U.S. and found that the vast majority of them were not random. They almost all involve intense anger. Underlying the idea of an anger helpline is evidence that people whose rage is spiraling toward violence give off warning signals, what psychological profilers call pathway and warning behaviors.

REID MELOY: The paradox is that these attackers typically don't warn the specific target beforehand.

WESTERVELT: That's forensic psychologist Reid Meloy, who's done threat and violence risk assessment for the FBI and other agencies for years. Meloy says in the majority of mass shootings, the person likely communicated to someone, what psychologists call leakage, that they intend to strike. That might include more obvious pathway behaviors, such as amassing weapons, ammo and paraphernalia. Or it might be a person hinting or talking openly to a third party.

MELOY: And the third party could be a friend. It could be a neighbor. It could be a member of the family. And what we try to do is to urge people that if you are privy to leakage, that you contact law enforcement and you let somebody know this person made specific statements of intent to mount an attack.

WESTERVELT: One example of warning signs that were not adequately addressed is the recent mass killing at a light rail yard in San Jose, Calif., captured partly on audio dispatch logs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED EMERGENCY DISPATCHER: We have three Code 3 ambulances plus their duty, too (ph). This is an active shooter.

WESTERVELT: Ten people were killed, including the gunman. The shooter, who we're not naming, was investigated by supervisors for bad workplace behavior, including insubordination, at least five separate times in the years before the May 26 murder spree. But it appears the transit company did little to address the common thread in these complaints - that one of their employees had a serious anger management issue and, in the words of police, was highly disgruntled. After one workplace incident, a co-worker later reported that another employee said of the future shooter, quote, "he scares me. If someone was to go postal, it'd be him," end quote. But no complaints ever reached local law enforcement, which could have taken action under California's red flag laws.

Psychologist Fernandez knows there are big legal and social hurdles before any anger or homicidal ideation hotline can go from academic study to real-world tool.

FERNANDEZ: I mean, there could be legal consequences. That's a threat. That's a threat of bodily harm, perhaps, to someone else. So it's a dilemma.

WESTERVELT: The dilemma over the legal duty to call police and maybe the person's employer - what then happens to counselor-client confidentiality? And Fernandez believes the other big challenge - society in general, he says, doesn't really want to talk openly about the dimensions of anger.

FERNANDEZ: We are so afraid of anger because of its potential destructiveness - the fact that anger is often the harbinger of aggression, if not violence. And therefore, we have stigmatized it so much that people are scared to disclose how angry they really are.

WESTERVELT: But Fernandez believes those obstacles can be overcome because, he says, most people trapped by anger and rage want to get help before they explode.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK CLOUDS' "BARCELONA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.