There have been six mass shootings in America’s lower-education schools in the 20 years since Columbine High School in Colorado, among them the tragedies at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida.
We have locked down a generation, armed teachers, and spent billions of dollars turning schools into fortresses because of these events. Yet in the same time frame, there have been nearly four times as many mass shootings, defined by the FBI as four or more victims killed with a gun, in an assailant’s place of employment.
Our response to workplace shootings has been far more muted.
The shooting Friday at Henry Pratt Co. in Aurora, Illinois, in which a gunman killed five and wounded six, is a timely reminder that gun violence in America takes many forms. And although workplace shootings have declined from their peak in the 1990s, when “going postal” was both a newspaper headline and late-night TV punchline, they are still very much a part of this country’s landscape.
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For two years, we have been studying the life histories of mass shooters for a project funded by the Justice Department. Our database of the 160 mass public shootings that have taken place in the United States since 1966 and interviews with perpetrators and survivors help put the recent Aurora shooting in context, and shed light on ways to avert these tragedies in the future.
There have been nearly 50 workplace massacres in the past 50 years that claimed the lives of six people on average (range four-14 victims). Our research, which is not yet published, shows that the perpetrators were almost exclusively men (94 percent) with an average age of 38 (the youngest was 19, the oldest was 66). More than three-quarters (77 percent) were blue-collar workers, and 53 percent had experienced a recent or traumatic change in work status before the shooting, like the Aurora shooter who was fired from his job and began shooting during his termination meeting.
Many workplace shooters show signs of crisis
Job loss is one of life’s most stressful experiences and can be traumatic. It is associated with grief, anger and depression. However, our research finds that a workplace grievance is only part of the story. That’s because 50 percent of mass workplace shooters were already showing signs of a crisis, and 51 percent were known to be suicidal before the shooting. The fact that 68 percent of mass workplace shooters in our study killed themselves or were killed on scene is important. Only people who are ready to die execute a mass shooting.
One of the people we interviewed for our study discovered that mass shooting prevention and suicide prevention were connected after his colleague committed suicide in the office parking lot the morning after he was laid off. He used one of 10 rounds of ammunition on himself and left his colleagues wondering whether the other nine rounds had been meant for them.
Following the shooting, all staff were trained in crisis intervention and de-escalation skills. And they were encouraged to take an active interest in the lives of their colleagues so that they could spot “yellow flags,” or early warning signs that someone was in distress, and refer them to management. The company wanted to mitigate disgruntled employees by checking in and offering support even for problems that originated outside of the workplace.
Prevent tragedy by acting on warning signs
This type of gentle vigilance is important. Compared with other types of mass public shooters, workplace killers are less likely to leak their plans in advance (only 28 percent do so), suggesting that these attacks are more impulsive and lack strategic planning. However, workplace shootings are most definitely targeted (87 percent knew their victims) and 88 percent of them involve a legally purchased firearm, typically a handgun (77 percent). Crisis intervention is key, but the window for intervention may be short.
For this reason, our research further supports “red flag laws,” also called gun violence restraining orders, or extreme risk protection orders, that allow family or law enforcement to seek a court order to seize a person’s firearms temporarily if he shows any “red flags” that he poses a threat to himself or others.
Workplace mass shootings are not inevitable. The data show that training in crisis intervention and de-escalation, communication systems for warning signs, and limiting access to guns for at-risk individuals can move us toward prevention.
James Densley is a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University. Jillian Peterson is a professor of criminal justice at Hamline University. Follow Jillian on Twitter: @jillkpeterson