Active Shooter Situations: Preventing an Active Shooter Situation
No profile exists for an active shooter; however, research indicates there
may be signs or indicators. Schools should learn the signs of a potentially volatile
situation that may develop into an active shooter situation and proactively
seek ways to prevent an incident with internal resources, or additional external
In 2002, the Safe School Initiative (SSI) was completed by the U.S. Department of
Education and the U.S. Secret Service, examining 41 K–12 student attackers involving
37 incidents in the United States from 1973 through May 2000.14 The research
results, though focused on targeted school violence and not on active shooter situations,
remain highly useful as a guide for law enforcement officials, educators, and mental
The study identified 10 key findings for the development of strategies to address
targeted school violence:
- There is no accurate or useful profile of students who have engaged in targeted
- Incidents of targeted violence at school are rarely sudden, impulsive acts.
- Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or the
plan to attack.
- Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack.
- Most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others
concern or indicated a need for help.
- Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant loss or personal failures.
Moreover, many had considered or attempted suicide.
- Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack.
- Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack.
- In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity.
- Despite prompt law enforcement officer responses, most shooting incidents were stopped
by means other than law enforcement intervention.15
By highlighting common pre-attack behaviors displayed by past offenders, federal
researchers have sought to enhance the detection and prevention of tragic attacks
of violence, including active shooting incidents. Several agencies within the federal
government continue to explore incidents of targeted violence in the effort to identify
these potential “warning signs.” In 2002, the FBI published a monograph on workplace
violence, including problematic behaviors of concern that may telegraph violent
ideations and plans.16 In 2007, the U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Department
of Education, and the FBI collaborated to produce the report Campus Attacks, Targeted
Violence Affecting Institutions of Higher Learning, which examined lethal
or attempted lethal attacks at U.S. universities and colleges from 1900 to 2008.
The report was published in 2010, and featured several key observations related
to pre-attack behaviors, including the following:
- In only 13 percent of the cases did subjects make verbal and/or written threats
to cause harm to the target. These threats were both veiled and direct, and were
conveyed to the target or to a third party about the target.
- In 19 percent of the cases, stalking or harassing behavior was reported prior to
the attack. These behaviors occurred within the context of a current or former romantic
relationship, or in academic and other non-romantic settings. They took on various
forms, including written communications (conventional and electronic), telephonic
contact, and harassment of the target and/or the target’s friends and/or family.
Subjects also followed, visited, or damaged property belonging to target(s) or their
families prior to the attack.
- In only 10 percent of the cases did the subject engage in physically aggressive
acts toward the targets. These behaviors took the form of physical assaults, menacing
actions with weapons, or repeated physical violence to intimate partners.
- Concerning behaviors were observed by friends, family, associates, professors, or
law enforcement officers in 31 percent of the cases. These behaviors included, but
were not limited to paranoid ideas, delusional statements, changes in personality
or performance, disciplinary problems on campus, depressed mood, suicidal ideation,
non-specific threats of violence, increased isolation, “odd” or “bizarre” behavior,
and interest in or acquisition of weapons.
Specialized units in the federal government (such as the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis
Unit) continue to support behaviorally based operational assessments of persons
of concern in a variety of settings (e.g., schools, workplaces, places of worship)
who appear be on a trajectory toward a violent act. A review of current research,
threat assessment literature, and active shooting incidents, combined with the extensive
case experience of the Behavioral Analysis Unit, suggest that there are observable
pre-attack behaviors which, if recognized, could lead to the disruption of a planned
attack.17 While checklists of various warning signs are often of limited
use in isolation, there are some behavioral indicators that should prompt further
exploration and attention from law enforcement officers and/or school safety stakeholders.
These behaviors often include
- Development of a personal grievance;
- Contextually inappropriate and recent acquisitions of multiple weapons;
- Contextually inappropriate and recent escalation in target practice and weapons
- Contextually inappropriate and recent interest in explosives;
- ontextually inappropriate and intense interest or fascination with previous shootings
or mass attacks; and
- Experience of a significant real or perceived personal loss in the weeks and/or
months leading up to the attack, such as a death, breakup, divorce or loss of a
- Few offenders had previous arrests for violent crimes.