IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Are mass shootings on the rise? What near misses like Rodolfo Montoya teach us after El Paso

Our law enforcement officials should be commended for taking the threat of mass shootings seriously, even if many of our elected officials don’t.
Image: Weapons, Rodolfo Montoya
This undated photo released Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019 by the Long Beach, Calif., police department shows weapons and ammunition seized from a cook at a Los Angeles-area hotel who allegedly threatened a mass shooting. Long Beach Police Department via AP

It’s been a little over three weeks since deadly back-to-back mass shootings took 31 lives in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. In that short time, at least two dozen people have been arrested in connection with planning or threatening more mass shootings. According to law enforcement, somehow, we’ve managed to narrowly avoid impending catastrophe two dozen times in less than a month.

For example, in Long Beach, California, an employee at a Marriott reported concerns about a disgruntled co-worker who was discovered to have amassed several high-powered weapons and hundreds of rounds of weapons. In Las Vegas, police arrested an alleged neo-Nazi who was making plans to attack a gay bar and synagogue. And in Youngstown, Ohio, a 20-year-old man who identified as a white nationalist was arrested after making anti-Semitic threats on Instagram.

If the airline industry experienced this many “near misses” in such a compressed time period, the flying public would demand that planes be grounded and inspected.

If the airline industry experienced this many “near misses” in such a compressed time period, the flying public would demand, and the Federal Aviation Administration would agree, that planes be grounded and inspected, pilots and air traffic controllers retrained, and a full investigation conducted as to what in the world was happening. Yet, our Congress remains on summer break as a waffling President Donald Trump allows the NRA to dictate gun policy.

But does a spike in mass shooting arrests mean that mass shootings are on the rise? The answer is not a simple “yes.” As with the tragedies in the California town of Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton, the past three weeks are worthy of study for commonalities that might help drive solutions to mitigate this growing threat. If we ignore what these takedowns of wannabe aspirants tell us, luck — and statistical probability — stand against us.

Law enforcement agencies, academic institutions and private sector groups will all engage in comprehensive analyses of the motivations behind the mass shooters. That kind of root cause study is not the aim of this writing. I’ve previously written on this platform, and in The New York Times, about the radicalization process I see playing out on the Internet, young men’s search to belong to a cause greater than themselves, the role our president can play in enabling or stemming further violence, and the likelihood that without intervention, more killing is on the way. But there is another piece of this puzzle.

In reviewing the recent arrests, I’m struck by two commonalities. First, law enforcement played a preventative role. In many of the cases, such as the arrests made — in Las Vegas and in Boardman, Ohio — the successes appear directly linked to law enforcement initiative.

As reported by CNN on Aug. 5, 2019, following the El Paso and Dayton killings, FBI Director Chris Wray immediately instructed all FBI field offices to conduct a new threat assessment in each of their regions. The term “threat assessment” has a specific legal meaning for the bureau: It is something less than an investigation but more than just passively receiving information.

The opening of an assessment allows for the collection and analysis of available intelligence on a topic and the sharing of findings with law enforcement partners.

It’s likely that this assessment included reaching out to police agencies and offering to help scrub their databases and files for any credible indication of a potential mass shooter. It’s also likely that the bureau scoured its own records for any intelligence that could even remotely point to a possible mass attacker. Additionally, it seems clear that state and federal prosecutors who, prior to the recent tragedies, might have asked for more evidence that a suspect had moved from aspiration to action, have been willing to move more aggressively.

On the other hand, the fact that the FBI had to awkwardly shoehorn its recent mass attacker initiative into the confines of a noninvestigative threat assessment demonstrates both an admirable effort and the absence of more powerful legal authorities. But the bureau needs help from Washington. Congress and the White House must support proposed legislation to address domestic terrorism and equip law enforcement with the tools they need to consistently prevent attacks, rather than merely waiting to clean up the carnage. I address one possible legislative approach here.

Second, the spike in arrests suggests that the public’s willingness to report concerns is increasing. In the arrests at Long Beach, Youngstown, and Norwalk, Conn., the public appear to have brought their observations directly to law enforcement. While our elected officials are on vacation, our fellow citizens have been taking it upon themselves to speak up when something seems wrong.

If we’re going to increasingly rely on the public to stop this expanding threat, we should all understand the warning signs that someone is headed toward violence. The presence of one of these red flags does not mean someone will act out violently. Rather, the cumulative impact of multiple indicators is often present in active shooters, including school, workplace and church shooters. In my experience, these indicators become especially significant when seen in combination with major life stressors such as a lost job, a lost relationship, or the death of a loved one. Further attention is needed when the warning signs are coupled with singular obsession with a person or group viewed as “the enemy” and with expressions of despondency and hopelessness.

Here are the warning signs developed by the team at following the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. There are many similar lists, but this one is simple and applies across the spectrum of mass shooters:

  1. A strong fascination or obsession with firearms can be a warning sign.
  2. Extreme feelings of isolation or social withdrawal can be a warning sign.
  3. Victims of long-term bullying may have feelings of being picked on or persecuted by others, a potential warning sign.
  4. Threats of violence or antisocial behavior can be a warning sign.
  5. Hinting about an upcoming attack or making threats of violence (overt or subtle) are serious warning signs that demand intervention.
  6. Victims of constant social rejection or marginalization can become socially isolated, a potential warning sign.

I’m sure those who ended up helping police investigations in places such as Long Beach, Youngstown and Norwalk never thought they would need to do such a thing. But sadly, we now live in a world where understanding the indicators and reporting our concerns may stop the next massacre. Our law enforcement officials should be commended for taking the threat of mass shootings seriously, even if many of our elected officials don’t. But remember, there are many heroes amongst us, and some of them never put on a uniform or a badge.