- Authorities across the country have been arresting dozens of people on allegations that they threatened to commit mass shootings or other violent crimes.
- But the experts cautioned that there’s no evidence these arrests will deter other potential mass shooters – particularly when they’re not just homicidal, but suicidal, and feel they have nothing to lose.
- They also warn it’s important not to discourage people from reporting their peers for making violent threats. Experts said such threats are actually a positive sign, because it’s the best opportunity for intervention.
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A grandmother turned in her 19-year-old grandson after he said he wanted to “shoot up” a hotel. A Hawaiian teen was arrested after tweeting, “Feelin horny might shoot up a school idk yet.” An alleged threat from a 13-year-old boy forced a Walmart to be evacuated.
Dozens of similarly troubling incidents have occurred across the country in the days and weeks after mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton killed 31 people.
On high alert for signs of another deadly massacre, authorities have moved swiftly to intervene after receiving tips about mass shooting threats, quickly filing charges, arresting suspects, and seizing weapons before the threats turn deadly.
They’ve also made the arrests highly public, posting announcements and videos of the arrests on social media, discussing the cases with national news outlets, and praising those who tipped off the FBI or local authorities.
Experts say this spate of arrests is partly a promising development – it means people are taking to heart the ubiquitous “see something, say something” warning and feel empowered to flag their peers, friends, and even relatives to authorities when they notice something amiss.
Shooting threats are actually a positive sign – it’s an opportunity for intervention
- Joel Angel Juarez/AFP/Getty Images
But the experts cautioned that treating these suspects like criminals – often before determining whether a threat is genuine – could eventually backfire.
“Law enforcement are saying, ‘You need to teach people that these threats are serious and you can’t make these threats.’ The reality is that we actually want people to make these threats,” said Jillian Peterson, an assistant professor at Hamline University and co-founder of The Violence Project. “We don’t want to make it so they don’t make the threat and just go straight to doing it – the threat is actually our key moment of intervention and we want them to say that.”
Peterson added that an intervention strategy beyond just a simple arrest is crucial – otherwise, the offenders will likely just grow more angry and aggrieved.
“If a threat is just met with punishment, we know that just makes it worse and it increases the likelihood of violence, rather than the threat being met with, ‘Okay, it seems like you’re not doing well, you seem suicidal, how do we get you back on track,'” Peterson said.
Threats should be taken ‘incredibly seriously,’ but police may not be the ones equipped to do it
Peterson noted one August 16 case in particular, when Florida authorities arrested a 15-year-old boy and accused him of vowing on a video game chatroom to bring a gun to school and kill seven people “at a minimum.”
In a video of the arrest posted on the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page, the boy’s visibly distraught mother can be heard arguing with the deputies after being told her son is facing felony charges.
“He’s just a little boy. he didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “He’s not one of those crazy people out there doing stuff. He shouldn’t be treated as though he’s a terrorist or something because he made a silly statement on a stupid video game.”
“This is the world we live in,” one deputy responded.
Peterson didn’t fault the deputies for the way they handled the situation, and she said such threats need to be taken “incredibly seriously.” But she stressed that the moment was an opportunity to find out why the boy was saying such things and how to get him back on track – something law-enforcement officers are not equipped to do.
If anything, she said, the boy may be angrier than ever after the humiliation of the arrest.
“Whether he was kidding or serious or somewhere in between, when he posted that online, that’s him saying, ‘I’m not doing well,'” she said. “If anything, we know that people get to this point when they’re in crisis, when they’re feeling suicidal, and they have this grievance. And that probably is intensifying his grievance and his anger. That doesn’t make it go away. It actually makes it worse.”
There’s no evidence these arrests will deter other potential mass shooters
The arrest of the 15-year-old in Florida follows a long American tradition of resolving complex social issues with arrests and prosecution, and trying to deter others from committing similar crimes.
But James Garbarino, a psychology professor at Loyola University Chicago who has studied violence among children, said there’s no evidence deterrence strategies will work on potential mass killers – particularly when they’re not just homicidal, but suicidal.
“A lot of these events are intended to end with the death of the perpetrator. In many cases, that’s part of the glory of it – to go out in a blaze of glory,” Garbarino told Insider. “You can’t deter someone, you just make them think ‘I’d better be more clever about it.'” Garbarino told Insider. “It’s very naive because kids in this state are not responding to those kinds of [deterrence] messages. They’re more likely responding to, ‘Wow look at this kid, he’s on TV.'”
Garbarino said there are a number of factors that tend to coalesce when a teenager becomes a mass shooter – many of them are societal or political issues such as the availability of guns, an increasingly combative political climate, or the fueling of racist or sexist views.
For instance, the El Paso shooting suspect has been linked with a racist and anti-immigrant manifesto, and told authorities he wanted to kill “Mexicans.”
But even though he was later arrested, any sentence he receives likely won’t deter anyone who wants to follow in his footsteps, Garbarino said.
He added that people – and particularly teenagers – certainly need intervention when they threaten violence, but trying to send them a stern message by arresting them may not work as intended.
“It takes a school shooter out of circulation but it doesn’t deter others,” he said. “Simply locking them up is probably not much of a deterrent, because these guys tend to think of themselves as heroic figures who are striking a blow against oppression, and it’s pretty hard to deter people who have that view of the world from doing that.”