Gun Control, Threat Assessment, and Thwarted Attacks: A New Year’s Message

Stephen White, Ph.D. and Reid Meloy, Ph.D.

Winter 2013 Newsletter

WTS Associates may contribute their opinions and perspectives on timely social issues concerning violence and its prevention.  This feature may be shared with the public, especially those in positions to influence safety and prevention programs.

With each horrific tragedy such as the Washington Navy Yard, Sandy Hook, or Aurora, the public and political debate typically defaults to gun control.  Cries for tighter restrictions are countered with an increase in the purchase of firearms – by those wanting to protect themselves from a personal attack, or those fearing new ownership-restricting laws.  The debate bogs down and the cycle continues.  It is an illusion in any case to think our unique and complex American problem of gun violence is going to go away easily or soon.  But we are not helpless while broader public health and social solutions remain controversial or unrealized.   What can help now?

First, there are too few reminders in the media – and insufficient understanding by the public – of the practice of threat assessment, and how everyday awareness is vital to its success.  It starts with a simple notion: “See something, say something” – parallel to our counterterrorism mentality born in the aftermath of 911.  By nature you rarely hear of threat assessment and risk mitigation successes since they are tragedies that never happened.  Personal issues have not become public events; and frankly, the news media has less interest in stories without high drama, if not violence.  Those of us in the Bay Area, however, may remember the thwarted plan to attack DeAnza College in 2001.  A young photo lab clerk reported a student to the police whose photos he brought in to be developed showed him posing with his arsenal.  At the home of the disgruntled and despondent student police discovered and confiscated over 60 explosive devices, several rifles, and a plan to stage a Columbine-style attack at this community college – a name that missed being added to the list of infamous tragedies.  The act of one citizen with common sense initiated a coordinated preventive response.  Similar arsenals and evidence were discovered in Sandy Hook, Aurora and Tucson, but after the attacks and during the course of official law enforcement investigations.

Developed in the 1980s and 90s and commonly practiced in larger workplaces, colleges and universities, threat assessment teams are trained to analyze the warning signs and risk factors of what the US Secret Service refers to as “targeted violence”: the conscious intent and plan by an individual to kill or harm specific or symbolic targets – in a workplace, school, or public venue.  Threat assessment is widely practiced in various federal law enforcement agencies to prevent attacks on the President and other public officials.  Following the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre numerous state task forces and national associations recommended threat assessment programs for institutions of higher learning.  A recent in depth report on gun violence by the American Psychological Association tendered the same conclusion: Threat assessment protocols can save lives, and otherwise inject a rational process into identifying and responding to the many scenarios presented to violence prevention teams.

The goal of threat assessment is to determine whether an individual who is behaving or communicating in ways suggesting the contemplation of violent action is actually on a pathway to a planned, predatory act of homicide.   Threat assessment is not demographic “profiling,” since there are no characteristics which generally describe all individuals who commit targeted violence.  It is recognizing the presence of evidence-based behavioral and dynamic risk factors suggesting a “perfect storm” of ingredients in an individual case: a strongly felt sense of injustice or humiliation, desperation or despair, sometimes violent delusions and paranoia, and often fixation (obsession) with a target or issue.  The social context and outside triggering events – rejections, failures, and other acute losses experienced as unbearable – are additional contributors to the mix.

On rare occasions the constellation of these factors leads to the decision by the individual –who has possession or access to firearms or other weapons – to achieve “justice”, notoriety or revenge in a dramatic, violent and often suicidal conclusion to a life commonly marginalized or spinning downward.  True – these acts cannot be predicted per se, but they are, by and large, preventable, and thus interventions to stop them are possible.  Shooters more typically than not will tell someone—referred to as leakage—about their plans to harm others.  Friends, family, or onlookers may observe or stumble upon their preparations.  Most are “false alarms” – few individuals who make a threat actually pose a threat.  That’s why threat assessment teams entertain a host of options to objectively and fairly resolve the wide variety of cases they are presented with.  Proper and ongoing assessment also makes for the more efficient use of law enforcement resources.

Second, preventive options are indeed available to law enforcement when faced with individuals escalating toward serious violence.  Those with violent inclinations stemming from mental problems can be detained and assessed at a hospital as to whether they pose a danger to themselves or others, and held involuntarily for up to 72 hours, sometimes longer.  An individual so assessed is not allowed to legally possess a firearm for five years in California.  New law in California also allows for the confiscation of firearms for five years from a person who makes a serious threat of violence against a reasonably identifiable individual.  Those who engage in criminal behavior such as stalking or domestic assaults can be investigated and their firearms confiscated, either with their consent, or for probable cause.  In criminal inquiries investigators may conduct threat assessment interviews, seeking to determine who is most likely to pose a serious threat and thus how to best prevent deadly outcomes.  Individuals served with protective orders are also prohibited from legally possessing firearms.  Those revealing the evidence of a continuing and determined intent may be pressed hard by the criminal justice system.

Granted, none of these methods is foolproof.  The laws should be stronger for the involuntary treatment of the mentally ill at risk for violence, in our opinion, by extending the involuntary commitment time and giving more discretion to the treating mental health professionals. There should be consideration of mental health commitment of an individual “for the public welfare” as is law in the United Kingdom and has worked very well there in threat assessment cases.  In a number of states the official record keeping of those who are legally prohibited from possessing firearms is incomplete, lagging, or intentionally resisted—in Florida there is law which prevents a physician from discussing gun safety with any patient due to a newly enacted “firearms privacy law.”  Firearms confiscated from the at-risk mentally ill can be too easily repossessed.  Critical information may be confined within bureaucratic or organizational “silos”, and law enforcement resources are otherwise stretched thin in many jurisdictions.  Unfortunately those with motivation, intent, and capability are most dangerous if they believe they have nothing left to lose.  Prevention boils down to the collaborative and persistent work it takes, navigating through the various obstacles, to stay on top of serious cases where the lights are flashing yellow and may be turning red.

Model programs on the community and regional level include the collaborative effort of the L.A. School District, L.A. Community Health System, and the L.A.P.D. to intercept and divert potential school shooters.  A program in the cities of Salem and Keizer, Oregon includes officials from area law enforcement, schools, probation departments, and community mental health agencies.  The team members in these programs meet regularly to proactively review cases brought to their attention by a variety of sources.  Often the identified youths can be helped and assessed as not on a pathway to violence, or can be diverted from a destructive outcome.  The most serious cases can be adjudicated or at least monitored in ways that balance the need for public safety with individual privacy rights.  Following the Sandy Hook tragedy PBS television produced a series of documentaries, “After Newtown.”  One segment, “The Path to Violence” ( offers an excellent depiction and case studies of how threat assessment practices have resulted in dozens of potential school attacks being thwarted.  The key is awareness by administrators and staff, and students “in the know” speaking up to school officials about their troubled friends and classmates.  As one of our colleagues in law enforcement states, “We depend on people coming forward.  They should trust their gut: If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right, and they should report it.”

The gun debate will continue given the identification many people hold dearly that firearms are a symbol of freedom in America—but we should also not lose sight of the facts that both individual gun ownership is protected by our Constitution and gun control already exists—it is just a matter of how much, where, and when.  Regardless of where one may stand on this issue it is important for the public to recognize that we are not, in the meantime, entirely helpless in the face of senseless mass murders, school shootings, and workplace violence.  Preventive protocols exist but they require the commitment and persistence of officials and institutional leaders, and the assistance of an alert public who will not hesitate to report a behavioral danger when they see it.