Their findings, also published in the 2021 book, The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting?, reveal striking similarities between the perpetrators of mass shootings and suggest that a data-driven, mental health-based approach could identify and tackle the next mass shooter before pulling the trigger – if only politicians are willing to find and act on targeted solutions. finance . POLITICO spoke to Peterson and Densely from their offices in St. Paul, Minnesota, about how our national understanding of mass shooters needs to evolve, why using terms like “monster” is counterproductive, and why political discussion points about mental health should be followed by concrete action .
POLITICS: Since you both spend a lot of time studying mass shootings, I wonder if you had the same stunned and shocked reaction as the rest of us to the Uvalde primary school shooting. Or did you somehow expect this?
Jillian Peterson: On some level, we were waiting because mass shootings are socially contagious and when a really big one happens and gets a lot of media attention, we tend to see others follow. But this one was particularly grueling. I have three primary school children, one of whom is in the 4th grade.
James Densley: I am also a parent of two boys, a 5 year old and a 12 year old. My 12 year old knows what I do for a living and he looks to me for reassurance and I had no words for him. How do I say, “This happened in a school, but now it’s okay that you go to your school and live your life.” It’s heartbreaking.
POLITICS: Are you saying there’s a connection between the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings?
peterson: We don’t know for sure at this point, but our research would say it probably is. You had an 18-year-old commit a horrific shooting. His name is everywhere and we all talk about “replacement theory” for days. That shooter was able to get our attention. So if you have another 18-year-old who is on the brink and keeping an eye on everything, that may be enough to encourage him to follow suit. We’ve seen this happen before.
Densley: Mass shooters study other mass shooters. They often find a way to deal with them, such as, “There are other people who are like me.”
POLITICS: Can you walk us through the profile of mass shooters that emerged from your research?
peterson: There is a really consistent path. Early childhood trauma seems to be at the root, be it domestic violence, sexual assault, parental suicide or extreme bullying. Then you see the build-up to hopelessness, despair, isolation, self-loathing, often rejection by peers. That turns into a really recognizable crisis point where they act differently. Sometimes they have previous suicide attempts.
What is different from traditional suicide is that the self-loathing turns against a group. They begin to wonder, “Whose fault is this?” Is it a racial group or women or a religious group, or is it my classmates? The hatred turns outward. There is also a quest for fame and fame.
POLITICS: You have written that mass shootings are always violent suicide. Do people realize that this is what happens in mass shootings?
peterson: I don’t think most people realize that these are suicides, besides murders. Mass shooters design this as their last act. When you realize this, the idea is completely turned around that someone with a gun on the spot is going to scare this off. That is at least an incentive for these individuals. They go in to be killed.
It’s hard to focus on the suicide because these are horrific murders. But it’s a crucial piece because we know so much from the world of suicide prevention that can be translated here.
POLITICS: I’ve heard a lot of references to “monsters” and “pure evil” over the past few weeks. You’ve said that this kind of language makes things worse. Why?
Densley: If we explain this problem as pure evil or other labels like terrorist attack or hate crime, we feel better because it seems we have found the motive and solved the puzzle. But we haven’t solved anything. We just explained the problem away. What this really problematic terminology does is we fail to recognize that we are mass shooters. This is hard for people to deal with because these individuals have done horrific, monstrous things. But three days earlier, that school shooter was someone’s son, grandson, neighbor, co-worker, or classmate. Rather, we must recognize them as the troubled human if we want to intervene before they become the monster.
peterson: The Buffalo gunman told his teacher he would commit a murder-suicide after he graduated. People aren’t used to thinking that stuff like this can be real because the people who do mass shootings are evil, psychopathic monsters and this is a kid in my class. There is a lost connection.
POLITICS: Are you criticized for being too sympathetic to mass shooters?
peterson: We don’t try to make excuses or say they shouldn’t be held accountable. This is really about, what is the road to violence for these people, where is this coming from? Only then can we start building data-driven solutions that work. If we don’t want to understand the path, we’re never going to fix it.
POLITICS: So, what are the solutions?
Densley: There are things we can do now as individuals, such as keeping firearms safe or something as simple as checking in with your child.
peterson: Then we really need resources at institutions such as schools. We need to build teams to investigate when children are in crisis and then connect those children to mental health services. The problem is, those services aren’t there in many places. There is no mental health in the community and no mental health in school. Schools are the ideal setting because it doesn’t require a parent to take you there. Many offenders come from families where the parents are not particularly proactive about mental health appointments.
POLITICS: In your book, you say that in an ideal world, 500,000 psychologists would work in schools across the country. If you assume a modest salary of $70,000 a year, that equates to over $3 trillion in funding. Do you see any political momentum at the national or state level for even an ounce of these types of mental health resources?
Densley: Every time these tragedies happen, you always ask yourself, “Is this the one that’s finally going to move the needle?” The Republican story is that we’re not going to touch guns because this is all about mental health. Well, we have to ask the follow-up question what the plan is to solve that mental health problem. No one is saying, “Let’s fund this, let’s do it, we’ll get the votes.” That is the political piece that is missing here.
POLITICS: Do Democrats Talk About Mental Health?
Densley: In politics it all too often becomes an either-or proposition. Gun control or mental health. Our research shows that none of these solutions are perfect on their own. We have to do several things at the same time and combine them into a total package. People need to be comfortable with complexity and that is not always easy.
peterson: After Columbine, there was a real focus on hardening schools – metal detectors, armed officers, teaching our kids to run and hide. The shift I’m starting to see, at least here in Minnesota, is that people are realizing that hardening doesn’t work. More than 90 percent of the time, school shooters target their own school. These are insiders, not outsiders. We just had a bill in Minnesota that recognized public safety as educating people in suicide prevention and funding counselors. I hope we keep going that way.
Densley: In Uvalde, an army of good guys with guns stood in the parking lot. The hard approach doesn’t seem to get the job done.
POLITICS: Do you support red flag laws?
peterson: Our research certainly supports them, because so many perpetrators are actively showing warning signs. They talk about doing this and telling people they are suicidal. But what Buffalo showed us is that just because you have a red flag law on the books doesn’t mean people are trained in how it works and how they should implement it.
POLITICS: What needs to change to make the laws more effective?
Densley: There are two pieces. One of these is training and awareness. People need to know that the law exists, how it works and who has a duty to report. The second piece is the practical component of law enforcement. What is the mechanism to safely dispose of those firearms? Especially if you have a small law enforcement officer, maybe one or two cops, and you ask them to enter someone’s home in the countryside and take care of their entire arsenal of weapons.
POLITICS: Since New York State has a red flag law, what should have happened in Buffalo?
peterson: As far as we know, it sounds like there should have been more education in the police, mental health and school. If any of those three had started the red flag process, it should have prevented the shooter from making the purchase.
It really shows the limitations of our current systems. Police were investigating, but the gunman had no weapons at the time, so there was no immediate threat. The GGZ came to the conclusion that it was not an acute crisis, so he goes back to school. If it’s not a scalding hot situation at the time, there’s nothing anyone can do. It was not the job of these people to make sure he got in touch with someone in the community who could help him in the long run.
Densley: Something also happens that puts people on the radar. Even if they’re not the next shooter, something isn’t right. How can we help these individuals reintegrate in a way that will change their lives? That is lost if we only fixate on the word ‘threat’.
POLITICS: I was struck by a detail in your book about one of the perpetrators you investigated. Minutes before he opened fire, you reported that he called a behavioral health center. Is there always some form of contact or communication of intention before it happens?
peterson: You don’t see it very often with older shooters who often go into their workplace. But for young shooters, it’s almost every case. We should see this “leakage” as a cry for help. When you say, “I want to shoot at the school tomorrow,” you’re also saying, “I don’t care if I live or die.” You also say, “I’m utterly hopeless,” and you put it up for people to see because part of you wants to be stopped.
We must listen, because pushing people away intensifies their complaints and makes them angrier. The Parkland shooter had just been expelled from school and then came back. This is not a problem we can punish ourselves for.