Before the Trigger is Pulled: 3 Things to Know About the FBI’s New Report on Pre-Attack Behavior

Handgun and rifle
9mm handgun with ar15 rifle and ammunition on dark background

By David Chipman, Giffords Senior Policy Advisor

In the United States of America, we have a responsibility problem when it comes to owning guns. For the loudest voices pushing gun lobby views, a perfect world means everyone is armed. That vision is neither practical nor acceptable. Imagine every first grade teacher walking through the classroom with a concealed weapon. I’m confident most Americans would agree with me that that’s not the kind of country we want to create for our children.

image1 (2) There is a better way. I’m a gun owner. I served as a Special Agent in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for 25 years. I see it as part of my patriotic responsibility to undergo a background check when I buy a weapon. I also know we need to do more to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. When a gunman opened fire at the Capital Gazette newsroom this week, we were reminded yet again of the deadly and devastating consequences when a dangerous person gets their hands on a gun.

That notion crossed my mind as I read a compelling study the FBI recently released: A Study of the Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States. The FBI’s study points out that when we look back at mass shootings, shooters demonstrate a number of common behaviors before they pull a trigger. We would all do well to consider these, not just to help inform our mission for safer gun laws, but also to make sure people get help before something deadly happens.

In case you don’t have time to read the FBI’s report cover-to-cover, I pulled out three key takeaways for you to consider:

1. Removing firearms from dangerous people will help save lives.

According to the report, in 41 percent of the cases, police received a prior warning about the shooter. In fact, each active shooter displayed four to five concerning behaviors over time. Nearly 1 in 3 made threats confronting people they later targeted. More than half revealed their intentions to inflict violence

Many law enforcement agencies do not have the proper authority to remove guns from these dangerous people. Their hands are tied and they aren’t able to take action to stop potential crimes from happening. That’s why efforts to pass laws called Extreme Risk Protection Orders, also sometimes referred to as “Red Flag laws”, are so important. These laws create a legal process to help police departments temporarily remove guns from people who are demonstrating clear warning signs that they may be at risk of harming themselves or others.

2. We need to keep reminding the public: If you see something, say something.

In 85 percent of the cases analyzed by the FBI, there was at least a single instance of concerning behavior witnessed. It’s important to speak out if you see a person act out of the ordinary in a way that raises suspicion for your safety and the safety of others.

And again, here is why efforts to pass Extreme Risk Protection Orders are so critical –  when enacted, these laws help keep guns out of the hands of those who are a danger to themselves or others by looking for signs of dangerous, violent, and risky behaviors.  The good news is that since the Parkland school shooting, a number of states have looked at passing Extreme Risk Protection Order laws. Giffords is actively working with community leaders and lawmakers in states across the country to pass these laws, including in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, Delaware, Michigan, and North Carolina.

3. Increased lethality of firearms puts more people at risk.

The FBI’s report found that a majority of mass shooters obtained their firearms legally. Many gun rights supporters believe that this proves nothing can be done to stop these killings, but if anything, this proves that access to extremely deadly guns only do more harm.

Restricting access to particularly lethal semi-automatic assault weapons and the high capacity magazines they commonly use can decrease the harm inflicted in mass casualty incidents.

Banning dangerous devices like bump stocks that can turn a semi-automatic assault rifle into a weapon that fires nearly as fast as a machine gun is simply common sense. The worst part is that right now bump stocks remain completely unregulated nearly 9 months after they were used in this nation’s deadliest mass shooting in Las Vegas. As you read this, anyone can still buy a bump stock while ATF is deciding if these deadly devices should be illegal. In fact, the gun lobby regularly manufactures extremely lethal firearms specifically designed to skirt federal firearms laws.

To solve our nation’s gun violence crisis we need strong laws.

We also need to understand what a shooter looks like, how they act and what they’re thinking to help law enforcement and legislators tackle the issue. It won’t happen overnight but here are some additional links to get that change happening.

Read the FBI’s Report: A Study of the Pre-attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States

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