US Secret Service report searches for parallels in mass attacks

The first-of-its-kind report is released days after back-to-back mass shootings in California leave 18 victims dead.

Law enforcement visit the site of a mass shooting in northern California
US officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) walk towards a crime scene in Half Moon Bay, California, after a gunman killed seven people at two agricultural businesses [Aaron Kehoe/The Associated Press]

The United States Secret Service has released a report seeking to find commonalities among incidents of mass violence in public spaces throughout the country.

The analysis was released on Wednesday, days after back-to-back mass shootings in California left 18 people dead and drew attention once more to the relatively common occurrence of large-scale and often deadly attacks in the US.

The report identified 173 targeted attacks between 2016 to 2020 that took place in what it described as “public or semipublic locations” in the country. Those settings included “businesses, schools, houses of worship, open spaces and other locations where we live our daily lives”.

In all 173 incidents, three or more people were harmed, not including the attacker.

Of the 180 attackers identified, 63 were between the ages of 25 and 34, the highest rate of any age range. The next highest age ranges were 14 to 24 and 35 to 44. Approximately 96 percent of the attackers were men.

Nearly three-quarters of the attacks involved firearms. A total of 88 incidents were tallied in places of business — including restaurants and retail stores — with another 60 happening in open spaces like streets, sidewalks and parking lots. Thirteen took place at educational facilities, and five in houses of worship.

Targeted violence ‘preventable’ with tools

Wednesday’s report comes as pressure grows to create early detection and prevention protocols at the community level, known as “behavioral threat assessment”.

The report concludes from the 173 identified attacks “that targeted violence is preventable when communities are equipped with the appropriate tools, training and resources to intervene before violence occurs”.

Among its key takeaways, the report found that most attackers had “elicited concern” from family members, friends, neighbours, classmates and co-workers before turning violent. Many also had a history of being physically aggressive or displaying intimidating behaviour, while over half had experienced mental health issues.

Half of the attackers were also “motivated by grievances” and were retaliating for wrongs they perceived personally, in the workplace or at home.

Meanwhile, a quarter of the attackers “subscribed to a belief system involving conspiracies or hateful ideologies, including anti-government, anti-Semitic and misogynistic views”, the report said.

Nevertheless, the report noted that, in over two-thirds of the incidents, the attackers directed violence at random individuals, as opposed to specific targets. That same proportion of attackers made threatening or otherwise concerning communications before committing acts of violence.

However, the report added that the majority of threats preceding violence were vague, underscoring the need for early intervention even in the absence of more specific statements.

To improve overall safety, the report recommended that workplaces establish violence-prevention plans. It also called on communities to encourage early reporting whenever concerning behaviour is observed, with particular attention given to incidents of misogyny or domestic violence.

Secret Service report first of its kind

The Secret Service, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, is predominantly tasked with protecting the US president and vice president, as well as the president-elect and vice president-elect.

However, the agency’s National Threat Assessment Center was launched in 1998 to “provide research and guidance” to support individuals with “public safety responsibilities”.

Wednesday’s report was the first of its kind.

For its part, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), an agency of the Department of Justice, began documenting so-called active shooter incidents in 2017. The department defines an “active shooter” as someone engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a public space in a seemingly random fashion.

The Secret Service report was released just two days after a gunman fatally shot seven people at Half Moon Bay in Northern California, with investigators saying evidence indicates the attack may have been a “workplace violence incident”.

Just two days before that, on January 21, a gunman fatally shot 11 people at a Lunar New Year celebration near Los Angeles, California.

At least 70 people have been killed in mass shootings across the US so far in 2023, according to data collected by the Gun Violence Archive (GVA).

Source: Al Jazeera