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Media and Crisis Management

Mass Shootings – Think prevention as well as response

Posted on: September 22nd, 2012

(Written before the 12/14/2012 Newtown shooting)

As a leader, you worry that your employees can respond to a disaster, especially a mass shooting. Active shooter responses such as, in priority order, RUN – HIDE – FIGHT can save lives. But you may overlook something terribly important when it comes to planning for these rare, but awful, events: prevention – a fact made frighteningly clear in a seminar led by August Vernon, operations officer for the Forsyth County Office of Emergency Management.

Get this. According to the FBI, 81% of the time before a mass shooting the shooter gives clues to others of what he is planning. Vernon says there is NOT a single profile that fits the shooters, but there IS one thing they have in common: similar behaviors. If your organization knows this pre-shooting conduct then you have a better chance of identifying the attacker before he acts. That takes on added importance when you realize that most of these shooters plan their assaults and do not act impulsively.

Common behaviors of potential shooters in the business world are these:

  • Problem employee
  • History of violent behavior
  • Intimidates others
  • Substance abuse
  • Open or veiled threats
  • Obsessed with the job but is not a good employee
  • Loner
  • Us vs. them attitude
  • Can’t take criticism
  • Holds a grudge
  • Preoccupied with guns and gun publications
  • Shows weapons to friends
  • Interested in past acts of violence.
  • Tends to be a white male between 30 and 50 years old.


The characteristics are similar for school student shooters and, like adults, 8 out of 10 of them plan to die during their attack. Vernon said they tend to strike during the first hour or period or at lunch.

Post-incident interviews reveal many are mistaken about the shooter:

  • “He just snapped” – rarely is that so
  • “No one knew” – almost never the case
  • “He didn’t fit the profile” – there is no profile
  • “Most kids have issues” – true, but shooters have severe difficulty coping
  • “We did everything to help him” – no
  • “He never touched a gun” – most shooters’ weapons come from home
  • “He planned it alone” – others often help
  • “If only the SWAT team had been there or we had a metal detector” – most shootings are over before SWAT arrives, metal detectors have not deterred determined shooters.


August Vernon said that the best deterrence of violence at schools comes from having School Resource Officers, armed officers, and a zero tolerance for bullying. He questioned the automatic tendency of schools to lock down when there’s a threat report. He said that if his own children were aware of shooting in their school he would want them to run for their lives and not hide under desks where they’d be sitting ducks.

Finally, why do these mass shooters do it? Vernon says it’s usually anger or revenge over perceived persecutions, slights, and injustice combined with the desire for fame and recognition.

In the years I have worked in crisis management almost all the comments by clients about shooters have been about how they would respond. Unless I brought it up I can’t recall anyone talking about how they would try to avoid violence in the first place. After this seminar, prevention is going to be on my mind more than ever. After this article, hopefully yours.

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