FBI on mass shootings: See something, say something

“See something, say something” isn’t just a slogan for the law enforcement officials working to stop mass shootings; it’s their top message for the public.

The question of what turns an ordinary person with a grudge into a mass shooter is a frequent one, and has been at the forefront after the Congressional baseball practice shooting Wednesday. The shooter, James T. Hodgkinson of Belleville, died of the injuries he received in a gunfight with Capitol Police after he shot four people at the Republican baseball team’s practice that morning.

A study of mass shooter events from 2000 to 2013 published by the FBI found that active-shooter incidents were occurring on the average of 11.4 per year, but the rate has been increasing. For the first half of the study, there were about six incidents per year; for the second half, the average was closer to 16. Since the study was completed, the rate has continued to rise. In 2014 and 2015 there were 20 incidents; in 2016 it was up to 26.

But that number pales in comparison to the number of potential incidents that have been stopped with preemptive reporting. In 2014, the Associated Press reported that threat assessment teams had foiled nearly 150 mass-shooting plots that year.

Often family or friends see signs, but may not know how to interpret them or who to inform.

Threat assessment

According to FBI studies, many “person of concern” cases will involve people demonstrating warning behaviors or risk factors, but nothing illegal has taken place yet. Therefore, it’s important that the threat assessment team has a broad-based community support beyond law enforcement, engaging mental health services, social services and other organizations to help address and defuse the concerns.

Some of those signs might include: suicidal behavior; research and preparation that are inappropriate areas of concern in everyday life; recent acquisition of weapons, explosive materials or ammunition that is out of character; intense interest in or fascination with shooting incidents, including identification with the perpetrators, fictional or nonfictional; drastic changes in appearance, life patterns or weight gain or loss; stopping medications or undertaking reckless behavior as though unconcerned with consequences; farewell notes or manifestos; sudden changes in social media behavior, or a “trigger event” such as the loss of a job or breakup of a marriage.

However, experts caution that is not as simple as a checklist of warning signs that equal a dangerous situation. Some potential shooters may only exhibit one or two signs, while others exhibit several. It often begins with a real or perceived threat, with several steps to plan or prepare in advance.

A 2017 study titled “Making Prevention a Reality” developed by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit stated that targeted mass attacks involve forethought and planning. “Targeted mass attacks are just that — ‘targeted,’” the study read. “Forethought and planning go into the attack. These are not spontaneous, emotion-driven, impulsive crimes emanating from a person’s immediate anger and fear. In fact, there is no evidence in the research to date that ‘snap’ mass murders occur at all.”

There’s obviously no age pattern, either: shooters range from junior high to senior citizens. Hodgkinson was 66, while school shooters have been as young as 12. The shooter at the Holocaust Memorial in 2009 was an 89-year-old white supremacist from St. Louis named James von Brunn. There were practically no commonalities in socioeconomic status, rural or urban locations, educational level or employment. “There are no ‘usual suspects,’” according to the studies.

They also cannot simply be dismissed as mentally ill, according to the research. “There is a small but significant relationship between serious mental illness, such as psychosis, and risk of violence toward others,” read one study. “However, misinformation and/or lack of knowledge or exposure to the mentally ill may grossly exaggerate this fact.”

While serious mental illness is often present in mass shootings, it is not necessarily the driving force behind the decision to offend, according to the studies. “Assessing violence potential is more complex than simply determining whether or not someone has a mental disorder,” it read.

Instead, threat assessment looks for “contextually inappropriate behavior.” For example, having a large number of guns isn’t an indicator, but the person who has changed his behavior in regards to guns is potentially relevant.

Hodgkinson sold off most of his personal belongings before heading to the Washington D.C. area, where he was living out of his van, according to his wife Suzanne Hodgkinson.


Many have speculated that Hodgkinson’s motivations might have been political, as his social media pages were strongly opposed to President Trump and Republican politics.

His letters to the News-Democrat were frequent up until the 2012 election, but were focused on income inequality as a cause of the Great Depression and his belief that the economy could be rescued by returning to pre-Depression taxation rates. Most of his letters centered on a call for more graduated tax brackets with higher tax rates for the wealthiest citizens.

“My motto is: Tax ‘em like 1938,” he wrote.

But even when Hodgkinson got into letter-writing debates with other writers, his comments were focused on economics and the tax code, with no words of violence.

What changed between 2012 and Wednesday morning?

Neighbors had called the police after Hodgkinson was seen firing a hunting rifle around his property, but as it was in unincorporated St. Clair County, no laws had been broken, according to Sheriff Rick Watson. The rifle he used in that incident was not the same gun used in the baseball shooting, Watson said; indeed, the FBI has released that the handgun and rifle used that day were purchased legally in the Virginia area.

Hodgkinson’s contacts with local congressmen likewise did not cause any concerns. He had contacted U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, on 10 occasions by phone or email, but Bost said there were “no red flags.”

“We have, on occasion, over the years, had people cross the line, and we contact the Capitol Police like we are advised to do,” Bost said. “But he never reached that point.”

Other area congressman, including U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, and former U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, said they had never heard from him. He also had never contacted U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, who was up at bat on the baseball field when the shooting began, according to news reports.

However, Hodgkinson had been banned from St. Clair County offices for “unacceptable behavior.” He was found rummaging through a desk in the county office for a check when he was working as an independent contractor, which he said was overdue. After that incident, he was banned from doing work for the county’s grants program; he had earned more than $140,000 in three years doing contract work for the county. In 2012, he inquired about restoring his contract registration, but never completed the paperwork, according to county officials.

He did attempt to contact U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, via the senator’s website contact page to voice his opinions, though the nature of those communications has not been made public.

Official statements about Hodgkinson’s potential motive have not been made public.

Other mass shootings have been motivated by politics or religion, or sometimes by a disgruntled employee or grow out of a domestic issue.

“There is no demographic profile of a targeted violence offender,” according to the behavioral analysis study. “Any individual, no matter what age, sex, race, religion, education or income level, marital status, or occupation, has the potential to engage in targeted violence... No single behavior is predictive of targeted violence; rather, a ‘perfect storm’ sometimes develops based on a multitude of factors and conditions.”

In some cases the shooter had a previous connection with a person at the scene or with the location itself, including a shooter who returned to a college where he had been very successful and popular. In other cases, there is no connection whatsoever; and the reason for the location choice remains a mystery. In several cases, the shooter may have committed a pre-attack murder of a family member or loved one before proceeding with a mass shooting.

A danger for law enforcement

The behavioral analysis research showed that of the 160 incidents, law enforcement officers had to engage the shooter to end the threat 45 times. Why so few? Most shootings were over within 5 minutes; barely time for police to arrive, and leaving most response to the civilians on scene.

In 21 of the 45 incidents where police engaged the shooter, a law enforcement officer was shot. That’s almost one in two officers.

That’s one reason why the FBI has spent $30 million on a training program for local law enforcement, training more than 50,000 officers nationwide in the best ways to resolve active shooter situations. It’s offered for free to law enforcement in the local jurisdiction.

According to the studies, almost half of mass shootings are in areas of commerce, like a shopping center or a business. Another 24 percent are in educational environments. Only 9.4 percent take place in open spaces like the Alexandria baseball field, but what begins inside usually spills outside into parking lots and adjacent areas.

According to an FBI law enforcement bulletin in 2013, active shooter incidents are more common in small- and medium-sized communities where police departments may have limited resources. The average incident lasts about 12 minutes, and in 98 percent of cases, the shooter is a male acting alone.

The power of the bystanders

While the idea of a mass shooter living in plain sight may be daunting, law enforcement says the general public has more power than they realize. But that means going back to the motto: see something, say something. Families and friends have to be willing to call law enforcement or other threat assessment teams to intervene.

The other power civilians have: to avoid being a victim. The city of Houston developed a six-minute training video that has been adopted by the federal government titled “Run. Hide. Fight.” It’s set in a business in the context of a workplace shooting, but the video and similar training videos have been adopted in many different jurisdictions.

Does that mean “active shooter” drills? In some places, those drills are already taking place in schools and some workplaces. According to the training video, civilians are now taught: if you can escape, do so, and encourage others to come with you. If you cannot escape, hide and remain as quiet as possible until first responders arrive. If it becomes absolutely necessary, fight back hard.

“I know many Americans feel that no place is safe — schools, places of worship, worksites, or public gatherings,” wrote then-director James Comey at the beginning of the major FBI study of mass shootings. “Fear like that can become disabling, and that is no way to live... The best way to counter any threat is to combine knowledge, experience, and cooperation with our partners. We must all work as a team.”

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

At a glance

This is what the FBI knows about mass shootings:

  • 160 active shooter incidents occurred between 2000 and 2013.
  • 1,043 people were injured, not including the shooters; 486 were killed.
  • Forty percent or 64 would fall under the new definition of mass killing: 3 or more killed.
  • Highest casualties were the Aurora, Colo. theater in 2012 with 70 wounded or killed; Virginia Tech in 2007 with 49 casualties; Fort Hood, Texas in 2009 with 45; and Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 with 29. The study was published in 2013; later years would have included the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando last year: 107 casualties of which 49 died, not including the shooter.
  • All but two active shooter incidents in the study involved a single shooter, usually male; only six of the 160 involved a female shooter.
  • At least five shooters from four incidents remained at large as of 2013.
  • In 63 incidents where the time period could be determined, 70 percent were over in 5 minutes or less. Even when law enforcement was present or able to respond while the incident was ongoing, civilians often had to make life and death decisions. In 13 percent of incidents, unarmed citizens successfully restrained the shooter; about half of those were school staffers.
  • Armed individuals who were not law enforcement returned fire in five incidents or 3 percent of cases, most of whom were private armed security guards.
  • Nearly half of all active shooter incidents took place in businesses, malls or other areas of commerce. Schools and colleges were another 24 percent, with 10 percent military or government properties. Residents, health care facilities and houses of worship were less than 5 percent each. About 9 percent, or 15 incidents, took place in open spaces like the baseball field where Wednesday’s shooting occurred. Seven incidents took place in private residences.

Source: “A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013,” published by the FBI