Mass shootings are preventable, an anti-gun violence group says in a video PSA — and it has released a guide on how to spot the warning signs.
The video, produced by a nonprofit formed by families of victims of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, starts out by focusing on a red-haired teenager who is bored at school. It follows the teen, Evan, as he exchanges messages engraved on a library desk with a mystery girl. Just as the two finally meet at the school gymnasium, another teen armed with a rifle appears in the doorway, sending students fleeing.
"While you were watching Evan, another student was showing signs of planning a shooting," text on the screen reads. "But no one noticed."
The video ends with the message that "Gun violence is preventable when you know the signs" and points viewers to a guide available on the Sandy Hook Promise website that lists possible red flags.
They include: having an obsession with firearms, displaying excessively aggressive behavior, being bullied and having unsupervised or easy access to firearms. The list is prefaced with the caveat that "one warning sign on its own does not mean that a person is planning an act of violence."
The video has garnered millions of views since it was released Friday.
Timothy Makris, a co-founder and executive director of Sandy Hook Promise, said the nonprofit group consulted more than a dozen peer-reviewed research sources as well as psychiatry and gun violence experts to identify behaviors that mass shooters have commonly exhibited in the past.
Experts agree that gun violence is often preventable — but some caution that the "troubled-kid" narrative of the video is too simplistic.
"Kids could be depressed, they could be bullied, they could be lonely. [But] 99.999% of them are not going to commit a school shooting — that in itself is not a warning sign," said Peter Langman, a clinical psychologist who runs the website SchoolShooters.info and has consulted for Sandy Hook Promise. But "if that's occurring along with other signs … each piece of the puzzle contributes to indicating that there's a potential danger here."
Langman pointed specifically to "leakage" — when a potentially violent individual "leaks" his intention to commit violence against himself or others in the form of a direct threat, a warning to friends to stay away, a social media post, a school assignment or some other form of expression.
"There's often such a long trail of warnings," Langman said. "Adult shooters tend not to engage so much in leakage, but when you're talking about adolescents, often they talk a lot and they write about it and they post about it, so whatever we can do to educate both students and school staff about the warning signs is really important."
Makris said his group does not seek to profile individuals. "We're simply going off observed behaviors and teaching people to understand what's behind the behavior and getting them some help," he said.
And while not every individual who exhibits these behaviors is necessarily going to commit violence, Makris said, they are signs that the person could be in a disturbed state. By drawing attention to these patterns, "we may be stopping somebody who may go down a wrong direction," such as engaging in substance abuse, he said.
"The goal," Makris said, "was to raise awareness that there are signs and signals that are given off ahead of someone who may want to hurt themselves or others."
If someone is displaying multiple warning signs or making a definitive threat, the group's "Know the Signs" guide says to alert law enforcement, school officials or mental health professionals.
Joel Dvoskin, another clinical psychologist and a reviewer of an American Psychological Assn. report on the prediction and prevention of gun violence, agreed that explicit signs of a threat — when somebody indicates an intention to harm himself or another person — warrant concern and action.
However, Dvoskin said, "warning signs that are about people's character are not useful. There's no profile, and people who seek to label people as a threat based on their characteristics will mislabel millions and millions of people." He added that mental illness is not a factor in most acts of violence toward others. There is some association between mental illness and suicide, according to experts and scientific literature.
Jeffrey Swanson, a psychiatry professor who studies gun violence from a public health and policy perspective at Duke University, said that he was "all for" teaching people to become alert to the signs of young people who are troubled and getting them help, but that focusing a video about the problem of gun violence writ large on the narrative of individuals who slip through social cracks "is maybe a little bit misdirected."
"We're having this national conversation about gun violence reflected through the lens of mass casualty shootings and the shooter," said Swanson. "As troubling as these events are … the mass shooter is really atypical of the larger problem of gun violence and actually rare."
According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control, close to 34,000 people were killed by guns in 2014, nearly two-thirds of them by suicide and nearly one-third by homicide. Relatively few deaths are the result of mass shootings; a New York Times analysis found that in 2015 a total of 358 mass shootings killed 462 people. That same analysis found that many mass shooting deaths were linked to domestic violence, a situation not addressed by the video.
Swanson said the Sandy Hook Promise video does a good job of explaining the "connect-the-dots" or "slipped-through-the-cracks" theory of gun violence, whereby an alienated or troubled young man goes under the radar of society's natural surveillance systems and ends up committing a random act of violence. But, he said, mass shooters are not typical of perpetrators of gun violence, nor are they typical of people with mental illness.
"This video is kind of focused on one thing — finding this person," said Swanson. "It's not a one thing problem."
Swanson said many other factors, such as demographics, family or community history of violence and substance abuse play into the broader trend of gun violence. Most notable, he said, is the ease of access to lethal weapons in the United States — a factor not explicitly addressed by the video but one that Swanson said is largely responsible for the fatality of assaults and attempted suicides in the country.
"We need to do all we can to reduce the psychopathology that might be involved in harmful acts toward others or oneself," said Swanson, "but then there is the gun thing. You need a dangerous person and a firearm — both of those things have to be addressed."
Makris said this video and others that will follow are meant to address broader problems of gun violence in the U.S., but the example of a mass shooting was used in this case because of its familiarity to the public.
"Knowing the signs can go across gang violence and any other type of violence that takes place," he said. "It all comes back to the human behind the gun and the behavior that they're exhibiting, and what are you doing to get in front of that."
4:10 p.m.: This article was updated to clarify a statement about the relationship of mental illness and gun violence.