Americans think there is nothing they can do about active shooters — they’re wrong

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Another week, another school shooting in America. And, sadly, for many, the shooting that killed two and wounded 14 in a Kentucky high school may only be a vague memory now. Three major news outlets devoted only a combined 16 minutes of coverage to the incident.

Each shooting brings disbelief followed by a declaration of outrage that something must be done. Then, the country collectively shrugs and predictably moves to the next news story. As a recent letter to the Editor in the St. Louis Post Dispatch declared: “What can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again? And the truth is today there is nothing we can do.”

But that is wrong.

What the public fails to realize is that, like Dorothy in Oz, they have had the power all along to make the shootings stop, or at least less frequent.

{mosads}This is a powerful revelation when one considers that we had about one shooting every two months when the 1999 Columbine High School killings occurred, but now we routinely see one every two weeks.


After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, which killed  20 children and seven adults, I was tasked by the FBI to work with Vice President Joe Biden’s office to look for solutions.

As an FBI special agent, I thought the solution lay primarily in helping law enforcement be better trained and equipped. We poured $30 million into aiding law enforcement to teach them how to get to the shooters faster to end the threat. We shared best practices from past incidents. We helped schools, churches, hospitals, airports and businesses better plan for emergencies by writing how-to guides.

Inside the FBI, my analytic team helped me author an FBI study that found nearly a quarter of 160 incidents occurred in educational environments (24.4 percent) and nearly half occurred in businesses (45.6 percent). We learned 40 percent of the shooters committed suicide, unarmed citizens stopped 13 percent of the incidents, and 69 percent of the incidents that could be timed ended in five minutes or less.

So, back to the conclusion drawn from the St. Louis letter to the editor — in truth, shootings do happen, but we can stop them even before they happen.

Mass shootings are a uniquely American phenomenon, and since the 9/11 terrorist attack, Americans have embraced a sense of responsibility to look for stray packages and call about concerning neighbors. But they have not embraced the same sense of responsibility for preventing neighbors from killing neighbors.

Consider that in one study, researchers found that in 81 percent of school shooting cases reviewed, the shooter told at least one person about the attack beforehand. In 59 percent of cases, at least two other individuals had some information about the event before it was carried out.

In retrospect, I think one of the most valuable things my team helped accomplish is a monograph entitled Making Prevention a Reality. It is a valuable tool to understand what counselors and behavioral experts look to in assessing a potential threat. In laymen’s terms, it explores how to look for shooters before a shooting occurs.

We know violent offenders plan and prepare often by purchasing weapons, ballistic vests, bulk ammunition and bomb components. When law enforcement traces their steps after a shooting, they find these individuals may have prepared by isolating themselves, increasing weapons practice, or displaying other atypical behaviors.

Every overt act is an opportunity for observers to reach out to law enforcement, teachers, counselors, human resources, pastors and parents. Though it is impossible to quantify how many shootings have been stopped, we hear about them all the time. Often, little is reported because tragedy attracts more viewers.

The message: see something, say something. You’ve heard it before regarding terrorism — why stop there?

Just days after the recent Kentucky shooting, another incident received even less media coverage. A classmate’s bravery in rural Pennsylvania resulted in the arrest of a 14-year-old planning to shoot four students at his high school with some of the items found in his room, including a semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun, two machetes, throwing knives, two lever-action rifle, a revolver, a crossbow with arrows, and bulk ammunition.

Heroes don’t always make the news.

Giving credit where credit is due, Fayette County District Attorney Richard Bower, said the classmate and his parents are the heroes.

We have the power to stop or slow the tide of mass shootings. But it will take peers, parents, teachers, neighbors, pastors, bosses and co-workers who believe they can make a difference.

Katherine Schweit is a retired FBI special agent and co-author of a study of 160 active shooting incidents in the United States.

Tags Active shooter Guns Joe Biden Katherine Schweit Mass shooting School shooting

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