How To Stop Mass Shooters? A Conversation with Mark Follman
With violent misogyny and political extremism on the rise as contributing factors, we need a new approach
I'm pleased to bring you this interview with Mark Follman, who is a longtime journalist and the national affairs editor at Mother Jones. He is the author of Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America (2022). Since 2012, when he created a first-of-its-kind public database of mass shootings, his investigations into gun violence have been honored with numerous awards. His writing and commentary have been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and on National Public Radio, among other media. Follow him on Twitter @markfollman. Our conversation, which took place on April 14, 2022, has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): I was so glad to hear you wrote this book, because there's a fossilized approach to mass shootings, partly because government research about them has been obstructed, largely for political reasons. I was struck by your production of the database and the idea of moving the battle against gun violence away from gun ownership and gun laws into the realm of behavior and threat assessment. Can you talk a little bit about some of the problems that you encountered trying to do this research?
Mark Follman (MF): Early on, looking into this problem of mass shootings, I realized there was a lack of good information. There was no data out there at all a decade ago when I started building this database with my colleagues at Mother Jones. We produced the first of its kind publicly available database on mass shootings to try to study the problem.
We're a country that has an estimated 400 million firearms. They're loosely regulated in a lot of places, tighter in other places, but there's no reason to think that this patchwork regulatory system will change broadly anytime soon. So, this prevention work, called behavioral threat assessment, had potential as additional tool.
RBG: Republicans and the NRA have a good way to stop all reform: the idea that Democrats are going to take away guns. It inflames people and stops all reasonable debate.
MF: In fact, the majority of the country does want change with gun regulations. Polling over the past three decades shows that a majority of Americans, including people who identify as conservative and as gun owners, want more effective gun laws, background checks, and, and other measures.
Blaming mental illness is another fundamentally misguided notion that is used politically in the debate over gun policy. One of the major myths we have about mass shooters is that they're disconnected from reality and that they just snap. But that's not what happens: these are situations of planned violence, where people develop ideas and prepare them over time, then decide to carry them out.
In the recent case in the New York City subway, this was not a guy who went crazy and just walked into the subway and started opening fire. He planned for weeks, or perhaps even months. He drove across the country to New York and he carried out this attack. So understanding the problem based on the forensic case evidence helps us think about how can we prevent it. That's where behavioral threat assessment comes in.
RBG: Do you think the idea of mental illness persists because it's too threatening for people to see mass shooters as coldblooded and logical?
MF: I think it's uncomfortable to think about mass shooters as people who have problems we might be familiar with: failure, grievance or a sense of injustice. Mass shooters take those to an extreme. To be clear, these are not mentally healthy people. They have deep problems and mental illness can figure in, but it doesn't cause mass shootings.
The field of threat assessment looks at it very differently. Rather than reacting or responding, for example with active shooter drills and "target hardening," as it is called in the security field, it focuses on identifying patterns of behavior and circumstances that lead up to these attacks. It brings together a team of people with expertise in mental health and law enforcement, HR and personnel specialists, and community leaders. They use a protocol to evaluate concerning cases, and then make a plan to intervene and manage an individual who may be posing a danger.
They look for warning behaviors, like expressions of violent intent, or threatening communications. We see a lot of cases, from school shootings to workplace violence and beyond, where an individual signals through words or social media posts or writing that they're having violent thoughts and maybe planning violence.
Then you use a protocol to get more information. Are they acquiring a weapon? You interview peers, work colleagues, family members, and the subject themselves, to say, Hey, what's going on with you, we're concerned about you. We want to help. The ideal of this work is to intervene constructively, because in many cases you're not talking about someone who has committed a crime. Contact with political extremism, and expressions of violent misogyny are other major factors.
RBG: There's a strong link between domestic violence and mass shootings, correct? As for political extremism, I see gun violence as a threat to democracy overall.
MF: Yes. What we now call toxic masculinity. There are also incels, and a subculture of sexually aggrieved men. Misogyny and extremism are converging more, in part due to the influence of social media. Leaders in the field threat assessment are seeing this as a rising problem. And they've in some ways adjusted evaluation priorities around it.
RBG: In your conclusion you talk about the progress that the Biden administration has made with red flag laws that treat gun violence as part of a public and community problem.
MF: Red flag laws, where you can petition a court to remove a firearm temporarily from a person who is appears to be dangerous to themself or others, are in keeping with the kind of work I discuss in the book. They are important because they contradict the myth that we can't have any progress on gun policies in this country.
They came out of the 2014 mass shooting in Santa Barbara by a young man. It turned out there were big mental health questions about him prior to the attack. And there was the realization there was no mechanism to intervene. California was among the first states to establish a red flag law and now they're in 19 states. They have great promise and they have a lot of bipartisan support.
Early research on red flag laws shows that they are effective in preventing violent outcomes. The synergy with threat assessment work is quite obvious. This is an area of growth and, and it's very counterintuitive to the fatalistic idea that nothing ever changes around guns. This is an area where we have made significant progress.