Itís the refrain by gun advocates in the wake of every mass shooting: The attacker was mentally ill. They obtained their gun illegally. The message is that gun violence isnít about guns but mental instability and gaps in law enforcement. But a recent FBI report suggests this is not the case: Most attacks are planned and carried out by people who legally own a weapon and have no mental health histories. The findings show more needs to be done in restricting access to weapons and in identifying and responding to warning signs.
The FBI study, provided last month to the Washington Post, found that while the attacks differed in locations and in their level of carnage, some common elements were apparent. The shooters were often motivated by grievances in their lives, the study found, and many planned their assaults methodically and used guns they legally owned. The study examined dozens of active shooters between 2000 and 2013, and in a first of its kind, relied almost entirely on law enforcement files rather than court records or media accounts. That focused study gave the FBI a perspective of the shooter through interviews with people who knew him, and through the attackerís personal writings and school or work record.
"Offenders donít snap," said Andre Simons, a special agent of the FBIís Behavioral Analysis Unit, and the studyís co-author. Rather, he said, the decision to attack is part of a long process. The study found that 77 percent of attackers spent at least a week planning their assault, which suggests forethought and design. Most shooters were driven by a grievance ó legitimate or not ó that gave the shooting a sense of purpose. Whether the spark was the loss of a job or a breakdown in a relationship, many shooters responded by launching attacks in places familiar to them and singling out people they held responsible.
The findings counter the assessments by gun rights advocates and some conservative politicians in the wake of mass shootings that the attackers must be mentally ill or must have taken advantage of weak enforcement of existing gun laws. While the study found that some shooters had experienced depression or anxiety, it noted many Americans exhibit the same symptoms and found only 25 percent of attackers had been diagnosed with mental illness. That is a cautionary note about making any link between shootings and mental health, and it is consistent with other recent research that attributed most violent behavior to other factors. And most used guns they bought legally, which authorities say was the case in the Las Vegas massacre that killed 58 people last year and in the shooting in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that killed 17 people.
The FBI study noted friends and family typically have observed a string of warning signs before a shooting. That underscores the need for more intervention to address a personís troubles at home, work or school from festering into a plan for violence. And the gun laws still make it too quick and easy for almost anyone to get their hands on a firearm. A ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines would reduce the level of carnage shooters have visited on schools, churches, movie theaters and other public places. But as the latest study confirms, it will take an all-the-above strategy to spot danger before shootings and to be proactive in restricting access to guns that have no legitimate civilian purpose.