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How behavioral threat assessment can stop mass shootings before they occur

How do we prevent the next mass shooting before it happens? That's the question Mother Jones national affairs editor Mark Follman has been researching since 2012, when a gunman killed 12 people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.

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Other segments from the episode on May 2, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 2, 2022: Interview with Mark Follman; Review of Bonnie Raitt album.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross.

There are a few events in the news that are so emotionally powerful that years later you can still remember where you were when you first heard about them. For most of us, the Sandy Hook school shooting is on that list. Our guest, journalist Mark Follman, has been studying mass shootings for much of the past decade, and he's led a team that assembled a database of more than 120 of them that have occurred over the past 40 years. His new book is about efforts underway to stop such tragedies before they occur by studying the psychology and behavior of mass shooters, looking for those patterns at schools and workplaces and intervening to get troubled people help before they turn to violence. It's an emerging field called behavioral threat assessment, and it's now mandated for schools in some states.

Mark Follman is a longtime journalist and national affairs editor for Mother Jones. His writing and commentary have appeared in The New York Times and The Atlantic. His new book is "Trigger Points: Inside The Mission To Stop Mass Shootings In America." Well, Mark Follman welcome to FRESH AIR.

MARK FOLLMAN: Thanks so much, Dave. It's great to be here.

DAVIES: You know, when you talk about mass shootings and doing something about it, the first thing people usually think of is gun regulation and background checks. That's not your focus here. Why?

FOLLMAN: Well, that's a debate and a battle we've had for a long time in our country. And I think that most people understand that making progress in that terrain has been really difficult. We have this kind of patchwork regulatory system throughout the country. In some places, it's tighter. In other places, gun regulations are much looser. And we have an enormous amount of guns. So when I began digging into the problem of mass shootings almost a decade ago now, I quickly began to wonder about other ways to think about the problem. That, for me, became an imperative because the gun debate just seems so stuck. And I just felt that there had to be more that we could do to address this issue of mass shootings.

DAVIES: You know, all of us remember some of the mass shootings - you know, Columbine, Sandy Hook and others. But it struck me when I read your book how many mass shootings there had been in the United States that I had no memory of that - you know, places in mid-sized cities and towns across the country where someone at a school or workplace killed five people and wounded a dozen others. I mean, you began developing a database on mass shootings. Why did you undertake that project?

FOLLMAN: Well, a decade ago, after the massacre in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., I went looking for more information about the problem. I felt that there had to be some data on it. I wondered, like I think many people have over the years, how often does this happen? Is it happening more often? And I was really startled to find that there was almost nothing publicly available. And that really prompted the project of beginning to collect data on this issue and trying to study it. And there were some real challenges with that.

It's hard to define a mass shooting. There's considerable debate about what that is. And it's a complex problem. So there was really an interesting opportunity there to begin to understand the problem better. And I quickly discovered that there were a lot of things that we were misunderstanding about the problem as well.

DAVIES: So you write in the book about how different experts over time - over the past few decades - have developed this notion of assessing behavior of mass shootings and trying to figure out what might be predicted and what you can do about it. And it's interesting that you write - one thing that they discovered as their research deepened was that there are a lot of popular myths about people who engage in mass shootings, things that come out in media accounts that just aren't true. What are some of them?

FOLLMAN: One of them is the idea that these attacks come out of nowhere, that no one can see them coming, that they kind of just burst forth. That's just wrong. There is in every one of these cases always a trail of warning signs, of behavioral warning signs and circumstances that the field was studying over the years. And that's because this is planned violence.

So we often hear this theme, too, of the idea that shooters - mass shooters are people who just snap. That's a question that's asked in the aftermath of these attacks - what made the guy snap? - as if this was an impulsive act. But that's not the case. These are crimes that are planned out over time and developed through a process of thinking. This relates also to another myth that we have about the problem, which is that it's all a problem of mental illness.

The role of mental health in mass shootings is widely misunderstood. I think that the general public views mass shooters as people who are totally crazy, insane. It fits with the idea of snapping, as if these people are totally detached from reality. But there is actually a very rational thought process in a lot of these cases that goes into developing the idea of planning violence and preparing for it and then carrying it out.

DAVIES: Right, which is not to say that people who do this don't have mental health issues. But they may be depressed or anxious as opposed to psychotic, right?

FOLLMAN: Exactly. No one who commits a mass shooting is mentally healthy. These are people with deep problems and often with mental health problems and, in some cases, mental illness. But even in the cases where there is clinically diagnosable mental illness, that's rarely a primary cause. That's not what's causing a person to go commit an attack. And what the field of behavioral threat assessment does is look much more broadly at a person's circumstances and behaviors. It's a process that leads up to an attack. Those are the patterns that the field has studied over decades to identify patterns of warning signs which provide an opportunity to intervene.

DAVIES: So you want to kind of just give us the basics of threat assessment and how it leads to an intervention?

FOLLMAN: So most cases begin with an ordinary person sounding the alarm. It's effectively a tip to people who are in a position to do something about it on a threat assessment team. A co-worker in a workplace setting or a peer, a classmate or a teacher in a school setting noticing things in a person that are disturbing or worrisome and maybe not understanding what it is, but having a feeling that something is wrong and speaking up about it, reaching out. That's how most threat cases in this field begin. And what a threat assessment team will do at that point is begin to look into the person's situation and gather information, primarily by talking to people around that person, conducting interviews, looking at other information about them in terms of records that are lawfully available, if there's any kind of history of problems there in a school setting or a work setting or otherwise.

DAVIES: Social media, I'm guessing.

FOLLMAN: Social media certainly figures in, and more and more so, I think, for obvious reasons. Teams will often look at a social media trail or activity of a person as part of getting a holistic picture of what's going on with that person. And that allows them to do two things - first, to evaluate what the level of danger may be. Is this a person who is thinking about violence, who's focused on violence, who is perhaps planning and taking steps to prepare for it? Does this person have access to a weapon? These are all questions that they'll ask to evaluate.

And then also, looking at this set of information for thinking about what is the best way to intervene, to step in and try to help this person. And that's a key principle of this work as well. The intervention is ideally intended to be constructive. You're trying to get in the way of the problem before it occurs, right? It's prevention. So the field has also learned that that's, in many cases, the most effective way to deal with somebody who is perhaps going down what the field refers to as the pathway to violence.

DAVIES: Right. Yeah. So give us a little more of that - a sense of what kind of intervention is helpful. I gather it's not typically an arrest or a stern talking-to by an armed policeman.

FOLLMAN: That's right. Instead of responding in a punitive way, you know, kicking someone out of school or firing them from their job or arresting them if there's some kind of criminal behavior - if that's the case, that may be the appropriate action, and that does happen. But often you're talking about situations where the person of concern has not committed any crime. They maybe haven't even broken any kind of policy. And yet they're stirring anxiety or fear in people around them. And so what this method seeks to do is to step in and, one, try to get a better handle on what the problem is going on with the person, what's the root concern or grievance. Often these are people who have deep grievances that they are having trouble letting go of, and they're seeking a way out of a problem that they feel stuck in. The constructive interventions may be counseling, support for education in a school setting, employment support, social services - these kinds of measures that are really intended to help a person improve their situation and thereby steer them away from thinking about potential violence.

DAVIES: Right. Obviously, if someone is coming to school armed and ready, it's a different kind of response. But the idea is - catch it early and help that person turn a corner.

FOLLMAN: That's right.

DAVIES: What can the wrong kind of intervention do? How can it backfire?

FOLLMAN: So the case research in this field shows over many years now that often a punitive response to somebody who is raising concern can be ineffective and even counterproductive. It can actually exacerbate the danger. So there are many cases of mass shootings where the subject was given a restraining order or fired from a job or expelled from school, and again, that may be a necessary step in some cases, but if that's the only step, what the field has learned over the years is that it's not enough, that these people will come back, or they may go somewhere else and think about planning an act of violence and then carry it out. So by intervening constructively, there's often more hope to be effective with the work.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Mark Follman. He is national affairs editor for Mother Jones. His new book is "Trigger Points: Inside The Mission To Stop Mass Shootings In America." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS SCLAVIS' "FETE FORAINE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Mother Jones national affairs editor Mark Follman, who's studied mass shootings in America. His new book is about efforts to identify people who are at risk of becoming mass killers and intervene to help them before they turn to violence. His book is called "Trigger Points."

You know, you've spent a lot of time talking to experts in this field, people in the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals, which is a big organization. What do they say when you ask, how do we know this works? How do we know that you may have prevented a mass shooting?

FOLLMAN: Really, what you're talking about is proving a negative or a counterfactual outcome. With threat assessment, the absence of a violent outcome is evidence of success. That is how leaders in the field will describe the results of the work. So it's tricky to show results. There's a really good analogy that one threat assessment expert uses, a forensic psychologist, Reid Meloy, who's a research expert in the field, as well as a practitioner. He likes to compare it to cardiology, the practice of preventing heart disease. Doctors can do a lot to lower the risk. That's the goal of this work as well - to steer people to a healthier place, on to a better path, to move away from violent thinking. And, you know, looking at these cases, there are quite a few of them where it's very compelling that if there had not been an intervention of this kind, there's the sense that there almost certainly would have been some kind of violent outcome. So it is very persuasive that many attacks of this nature have been stopped. I came to see it as, I think conservatively, dozens of potential mass shootings have been stopped using this approach, perhaps even hundreds of them.

DAVIES: You know, one of the ways that experts in the field gathered material for their research was by visiting convicted mass murderers in prison, including many who had been involved in school shootings. Can you give us a sense of that work and what it has revealed?

FOLLMAN: Yeah, it was really interesting to learn how this work was developed. And as you note, this was a prime way that they went about doing it. Going all the way back to the early 1980s, some mental health experts in forensic psychology began to collaborate with law enforcement agents in this case and - at the U.S. Secret Service. They were focused on trying to do a better job of preventing assassination attempts. And one of the key ways they went about doing this was after realizing that they needed to speak directly with people who had tried to do this or who had done it and were then incarcerated or institutionalized.

And so a forensic psychologist by the name of Robert Fein, whose story I tell early in the book, starts working with a Secret Service agent, Bryan Vossekuil, to go out to prisons around the country and talk to these offenders and try to learn more about the mindsets and behaviors and life circumstances they were dealing with as they were planning their attacks. They conceptualized this idea of pre-attack behaviors and looking more at what that was to try to identify patterns that could be useful to predicting, perhaps, who might do this. What they discovered was, really, this was more an issue of prevention. I mean, it sort of laid the groundwork for this model in the sense that they realized early on there is no way to predict who will do this. There's no character profile of a person who becomes an assassin. And later, the same principle applied to studying school shooters and mass shooters. Instead, what they were profiling was a behavioral process, that process itself to find patterns that could be useful for forecasting potential violence and working to head it off.

DAVIES: So tell us about one of these killers. I mean, were they willing to talk about what they'd done? Did they say things that were revealing and helpful?

FOLLMAN: Yes, they did. Part of this was connected with a pathological issue that they were finding in a lot of these perpetrators - an aberrant form of narcissism. These are people who wanted attention and wanted to be important in some way. A lot of these people were - they were having a lot of problems in their life. And they felt like nobodies. But they wanted to be somebody.

One of the assassins that they went and interviewed was a man by the name of Robert Bardo, who committed an infamous murder in 1989 - killed a young, rising Hollywood star named Rebecca Schaeffer. This was a very traumatic event that really shocked Hollywood and the country, in part because after the murder, it quickly became clear through news reporting that there was this long trail of warning signs, that this person had been stalking her for years. And they went to him, like others, and said, hey - they just appealed to him directly and said, you know, we'd like to understand better what you were thinking about. You're an expert in assassination. And by understanding better your perspective, we can try to prevent future attacks.

And they found that kind of appeal to be successful in a lot of cases, I think in part because they were leveraging the narcissism of some of these offenders, but also discovering that some of them, you know, had normal, rational thought processes, too. They weren't totally insane people. They were people who had remorse or expressed remorse. This came up again with school shooters, too. They went and met with 10 school shooters. They had studied a set of 37 of them after Columbine and met with 10 of them in person and found a lot of remorse among them. And this was a really important finding in the study of these perpetrators because it suggested that these were young individuals who were very conflicted about what they did and that they may have been open to constructive intervention.

DAVIES: Did any of them say, you know, if I'd had a teacher, if someone had come to me and - that it could have made a difference?

FOLLMAN: They did. One of the early school shooting cases that they dove deep into was a case that took place in Alaska in 1997 - a young perpetrator by the name of Evan Ramsey, who had gone into his school with a shotgun and killed a peer and the school principal. And he had intended to commit suicide and was unable to do so. That's often the case with school shootings, where - and mass shootings in general - where the perpetrator is suicidal. These are murder-suicides.

He was highly ambivalent about what he was doing. And they found that in interviewing him that he described how he had had some experience with bullying. And there was a lot of other profound trauma in his home life. He had a very rough domestic situation as well. And he described not having anyone to really tell his problems to or to get the kind of response that he really needed.

And this was a pattern that the experts found in a lot of school shooting cases, that these were highly distressed kids suffering from despair and rage, who - you know, they needed help. I mean, this is not a justification of what they did. They committed horrible crimes. And they were institutionalized or incarcerated for them. But the point here in the research was that they could see that there was a set of circumstances leading up to these attacks where there was opportunity to intervene because these were people who were desperate for help.

DAVIES: You know, in terms of what people who are engaged in behavioral threat assessment do, one of the things that you look for is evidence that they're communicating threats to others. And it was striking, if I have this right, in the Secret Service review of 37 school shootings, they found that in every case, the shooter had told other students - at least one at the school - about what they were planning. Do I have this right?

FOLLMAN: Yes. This was an astonishing finding, I think, for them and then for me and digging into it with my own reporting, that there are so many school shootings historically where multiple people around the offender had a sense of what was coming. And that Alaska case is actually a very stark example of it. That perpetrator had told several friends what he intended to do. Some had kind of egged him on and helped him develop a hit list for people he wanted to kill. And the word sort of quickly spread to other students to the point where the morning that he entered the school to commit the attack, a whole bunch of kids had gathered to watch from a mezzanine. He had told some kids to go up there to watch what he was going to do. And not a single student had spoken out to a person in a position of authority - just an astonishing situation.

And that's played out many times since then. The recent case that we just saw - Oxford High School in Michigan - that's a case where we're still learning about what led to it. But there is already evidence that there were peers around that perpetrator who had a strong sense that something was going to happen. There were kids who stayed away from the school. There were kids who commented about what he was doing as it was unfolding.

So this is a really remarkable problem - you know, points directly to the question, why aren't people speaking up in that situation? And the answer is complicated. Often there's the sense that the peers may not really take it seriously. They may think that the perpetrator, would-be attacker is joking. Or they may be afraid to speak out or not know where to turn.

DAVIES: Let's take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Mark Follman. He's a national affairs editor for Mother Jones. His new book is "Trigger Points: Inside The Mission To Stop Mass Shootings In America." He'll be back to talk more after a short break. Later on, Ken Tucker reviews Bonnie Raitt's new album, her first in six years. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE HOLLAND AND KENNY BARRON'S "DR. DO RIGHT")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Mother Jones national affairs editor Mark Follman, who's been studying mass shootings in the United States for much of the past 10 years. His new book is about educators, law enforcement leaders and mental health professionals who are working to prevent such tragedies by identifying patterns of behavior among past mass shooters and intervening to help people in trouble before they turn to violence. His new book is "Trigger Points: Inside The Mission To Stop Mass Shootings In America."

Well, Mark Follman, if there's an example of an effort to undertake behavioral threat assessment in a serious way, particularly on the area of school shootings, it's the team in the Salem-Keizer school system in Oregon. Do I have the name right? They have a student threat assessment team. Tell us about it.

FOLLMAN: As part of the work for the book, I was able to go and spend significant time in Salem with the student threat assessment team there. And I was able to spend a considerable amount of time watching them work cases. There were several that were quite, I think, vivid illustrations of how the process work. One was the case of a high school junior who I call Brandon in the book - not his real name - who raised serious concern in 2019, had made some comments at a bus stop to a peer that he was going to come to the school on Friday with his dad's gun and shoot up the school. And this was reported by a student who overheard it. And the team started to look into it. And it turned out that Brandon had a history already with the threat assessment team of some similar comments the prior year about school shootings. The students who had overheard that weren't sure if he was joking. But the team also found some other troubling factors.

Now, they noted that he had started to fail out of some classes. He'd quit a club that he was participating in. This kind of personal deterioration, that is another area of warning behaviors, warning signs. One counselor on the team became concerned that he was suicidal because he was expressing some things that indicated very low self-esteem. So there was a variety of problems going on in this case. And they moved quickly to intervene. They sent a school resource officer out to his home to interview Brandon and his mom to determine right away whether or not he had access to a firearm. The answer, fortunately, was no. Even though he had said to another kid that he had the code to his father's gun safe, that turned out not to be the situation.

But then the question was, how is the team going to manage this kid going forward? And so they used what they call their wraparound strategy, offering him counseling support, some individual educational support, guiding him to some extracurricular activities that spoke to his interests. And I was able to track this case over many months and to see the effect and the way that his behavior began to change, becoming less concerning. And over time, he did fairly well. He went on to a senior year. He graduated and left the school. And, from the perspective of the threat assessment team, was doing fine at that point. So it was one example of several cases I looked at there where you could see in pretty compelling terms, here was a kid who was in serious crisis, who was - appeared to be planning violence, who was steered away from that through this process.

DAVIES: You know, there's one case where it seems red flags were ignored or at least not acted on. It's the case of the Virginia Tech shooter in 2007, a horrific shooting. You made contact with a survivor of that shooting who had become an activist. And the two of you got access to some documents which detailed what preceded the killing. What did you learn?

FOLLMAN: Yes. So as part of my research into the Virginia Tech case, which was really a watershed case both from the perspective of mass shootings in the country historically and also in the development of the field of threat assessment, I met and got to know Kristina Anderson, a young woman who was a survivor of that horrific attack - was in a classroom where 11 classmates and their teacher died. She was severely wounded and survived and became focused on the field of prevention work and response and recovery and made that her work. And she and I went and dug into an archive of documents that had been unsealed a decade after the attack in the Library of Virginia to look more into the case because from her personal experience and from my knowledge of digging into the case, we had the sense that there was more to the story.

The state had mandated a deep investigation of that attack and had concluded that a lot of warning signs were missed. But it was even more extensive and glaring than was publicly known. I mean, there were so many red flags with the perpetrator of that attack. And there were a lot of people within the Virginia Tech community, faculty and local police, who were very concerned about the perpetrator of the attack prior to it happening. But there was a catastrophic lack of information-sharing in that case. And Kristina and I looked at documents showing even further evidence of his behaviors around the university.

There were teachers who were saying that they wouldn't continue their classes if he was allowed to remain. He was engaged in all kinds of harassment behavior and creation of violent writing and content that was really alarming people in the dorm where he lived. And so there were these kind of silos of information of just deep concern about what he was doing that were not shared in any kind of centralized way. And that's what the work of threat assessment is. That's what these teams do, is to gather all that information together in one place and evaluate it and then take steps to intervene. And the tragedy there was even more stark, in our view, after digging into these documents just to see what had been missed there.

DAVIES: Let's take another break here. And let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Mark Follman. He is national affairs editor for Mother Jones. His new book is "Trigger Points: Inside The Mission To Stop Mass Shootings In America." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE SONG, "WEARY")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Mother Jones national affairs editor Mark Follman, who studied mass shootings in America. His new book is about efforts to identify people who are at risk of becoming mass killers and intervene to help them before they turn to violence. His new book is called "Trigger Points."

You know, we talked about this program in the Salem-Keizer school system in Oregon, which has a student threat assessment team, which has been pretty effective. There are some times though that - there are limits to - there's one student who they had worked with. But once he graduated, things took a different turn. Tell us - share that with us.

FOLLMAN: Yeah. Well, one of the ways that they've really built out the program over the past two decades is by learning from their own case history. And there is one very traumatic case from early on in the program, in the early 2000s - a high schooler who was in serious crisis, who was - had tried to commit suicide and was threatening to bring a gun to the school. And he was hospitalized and given therapeutic help and eventually returned to the school. And so the team had to manage a case that was very concerning in terms of what might happen next. And they, again, used very intensive interventions and constructive help to help this high school student do better, and he did. He was able to graduate successfully a year later and then lived in the local community.

And another innovation of their program there is they work with a local team in the adult community - what they call a threat advisory team - to give them greater coverage so that when someone leaves the school system, there's still an ability to be in touch with that person and manage them and continue to be successful in this case. But then he moved away a few years later to Portland, and his mental health issues caught up with him. He was not doing well. He was no longer in touch with the teams in Salem. And he, in fact, went on to commit a mass shooting in Portland years later. So it's a really remarkable story in the way that it shows both the promise of this work and the limitations of it. Because I think you can say with this case, more than any other perhaps in the annals of this field, that if you look at his circumstances and behaviors, they were able to manage him in high school and prevent him from doing the kind of attack that he then went on to do years later.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, I guess the obvious lesson here is that in a school setting, kids are in one place. They're there over a long period of time. Adults have some authority over them. You know, out in the world - I don't know - how do you replicate this kind of effort where people, you know, are just all over the place in jobs or without jobs. How does that work?

FOLLMAN: Yeah. I think that's one of the biggest challenges for this method for the - for this field of work - the question of, how do you scale it more broadly in the country and across communities? The more that this exists, there is the opportunity to have partnership. That's one of the ways that leaders in the field think about this. They can reach out to counterparts in another community if a person of concern is leaving and going away. And that is something that teams have done historically, from the FBI to local teams like the one in Salem-Keizer.

There are some national efforts to do this work, too, at the FBI and at the Secret Service and to assist communities throughout the country with it. But it does become much more difficult when you're talking about case subjects who are no longer within the constraints or within the system of a school or a workplace or even a local community.

DAVIES: You know, we talked earlier about some misconceptions about mass killers before - that they're all insane, they all - you know, it's an impulsive act, that they all snapped. And I'm wondering, as, you know, this research leads us to a more sophisticated understanding of the kinds of psychology and behavior of mass shooters, has that affected media coverage or, you know, police investigators' attitudes towards this problem?

FOLLMAN: I think it has some. And there has been some good progress with this primarily around the issue of sensationalism. If you think back just a few years ago - maybe a decade ago - mass shooters' images would be all over the place - all over news coverage, on cable television. There would be quick and widespread sharing of their so-called manifestos - these documents and screeds that they would post online before committing an attack. A lot of that has gone away because I think there has been a growing understanding that that kind of sensationalism is damaging, has some bad effects. It feeds into the desire of many perpetrators to get sensational media attention, to have notoriety - what's also known as the copycat problem. So there has been improvement with that.

I think now there's a different area where we really need to make progress in terms of our kind of broader cultural framing of this problem and the way that we talk about it in the media and the way that public officials address it. The idea that we're so stuck with this problem, that nothing ever really changes or that there's nothing we can really do about it - there's a kind of cultural resignation we have about it that I think is unhelpful. It's almost like, you know, the - you probably know of the satirical headline from The Onion that we see after these attacks - the No Way to Prevent This, Says the Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens. It's almost as if we've come to accept that. But I don't think that that's the case. I think there's potentially a lot more we can do about this problem with additional tools, including this kind of prevention work with threat assessment.

And that's really the hopeful frame of the book. And I think that moving away from this idea that we can't do more as a country to deal with this, that these kinds of attacks are inevitable and will just keep happening - in a certain way, that's validating the violence. And people who are thinking about doing attacks like this, I think, are aware of that. You can see it in the case research and the way that they can expect to get media attention and in the way that they can justify what they're doing, in the things that they say and write and in the things that they do. So that's another way in which I think we can really move forward and make real progress on this issue, that goes beyond the gun debate.

DAVIES: You know, just within the past month, there have been, you know, some mass shootings. There was the subway shooting in New York; another one in Washington, D.C., where a 23-year-old set up what police called a sniper's nest. I think - none of his victims died. Do these...

FOLLMAN: That's right. There were four people wounded.

DAVIES: Yeah. Do these shootings tell us anything?

FOLLMAN: They do in the sense that, you know, as we've seen this recent spate of mass shootings around the country, there are different forms of mass gun violence, but those are cases where, again, these are - these were planned attacks. There is already evidence of an extensive trail of planning and potentially noticeable warning signs in those cases. The accused subway shooter had posted some really disturbing content on YouTube, some videos where he expressed grievances and justifications for violence - drove across the country, went into the subway with gear outfitted for an attack, used smoke grenades. This is a planned attack where there is the potential for people around that person to notice something's wrong.

With the D.C. shooter case, you know, that's a fresh case we know less about, but we do know, based on what he had in the apartment where he opened fire, that there - a lot of planning and preparation went into that attack. So we know at the very least that these were not spontaneous or impulsive acts of violence, that there was a period of time prior to them where warning signs potentially could have been detected, and there was opportunity to intervene before these attacks happened.

DAVIES: You've been studying this problem for a decade or more. How optimistic or pessimistic are you about this?

FOLLMAN: I think a sense of optimism led me to write this book. And learning more about this work, this prevention work, really made me realize that we can make more sense out of this problem. We tend to dismiss these attacks as senseless and inexplicable in terms of the sort of cultural and political framing that we put around them, but that's really not the case, I think, as is evident from this prevention work, that if we study these cases and understand better what leads to them, the human behavior and the people who are doing them, that gives us more knowledge to work with to prevent them. And so I came to see the work of behavioral threat assessment as a potentially very powerful additional tool to help us reduce this problem.

You know, a lot of people feel very frustrated and resigned about the political debate we have over firearms in our country, and I have felt that, too, in my reporting work on this subject for a decade. But for me, the question really became, what more can we do to solve this problem? This can't be the only way at it. And I do think that there is potential to do a lot more work of this kind to help reduce this problem.

DAVIES: Well, Mark Follman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FOLLMAN: It was a real pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

DAVIES: Mark Follman is national affairs editor for Mother Jones. His new book is "Trigger Points: Inside The Mission To Stop Mass Shootings In America."

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Bonnie Raitt's new album, which has elements of blues, reggae, rock and funk. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "BEAUTIFUL BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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