After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, FBI Special Agent Katherine Schweit was appointed to represent her agency on a presidential panel aimed at curbing gun violence.
Two years later, she co-authored a detailed FBI study of 160 active shooter incidents in the United States. She now runs a security consulting firm that advises businesses on how to reduce the risks of mass shootings and other emergencies.
Schewit knows that the random and horrific nature of mass shootings leave a lot of Americans feeling helpless. But her experience has led her to believe that people have more power to prevent them than they realize.
Before they commit their atrocities, many mass shooters leave a trail of violent outbursts, threats, and dark fixations. Schewit has long advocated for the importance of recognizing those warning signs — and taking the next step of reporting them to law enforcement.
“People feel hopeless, but we need them to feel empowered,” she says. “They are our most important resource.”
You say that there’s more people can do to stop mass shootings than they think. What does that mean in practice?
People need to not only “see something and say something,” but they need to do it urgently. Call the FBI, call the local police, call the state police. If you don’t want to call law enforcement, call a human resources office. Call the counsellor at a school.
I think it’s hard for people to appreciate sometimes how good law enforcement is at weighing the value of the information they get. Just like a landscaper knows when the trees need to be trimmed or a mechanic knows what’s wrong with a car when he hears it pull in the driveway, law enforcement knows what to do when you give them information. They know how to determine when there’s an employee who needs support and when it’s more serious than that.
But what about the cases where people did call the FBI or local police, and law enforcement for whatever reason was unable to prevent the shooting. Shouldn’t those stories discourage us?
It’s a mistake to recall a handful of anecdotal, highly publicized incidents and say “law enforcement doesn’t know what to do with tips.” They receive millions of tips a year and they work through them.
There will always be challenges with First Amendment rights, Second Amendment rights, and due process rights. Sometimes we can’t act unless we receive the right combination of information. But a failure to try is just that: a failure.
Are there specific things to look out for?
We’re not looking for somebody who’s got mental health problems, and we’re not looking for somebody who’s a loner. We’re looking for atypical behavior. When someone is moving on this trajectory toward violence, they often have a grievance that’s real or perceived. They feel shunned by a boss or spouse or spurned by someone they’re interested in, and they begin to get more obsessive about it.
What people can also watch for is the person planning, preparing. Purchasing weapons, ammunition, clothing, ballistics vests. If they’re someone who shoots with a gun — which is very common — are they shooting more than they usually do? Are they buying additional weapons that they normally wouldn’t?
Are they talking about violence? Are they showing you violent videos? Are they talking about other shootings to you or to somebody else?
Are they stopping medications they’re taking? Have they changed their behavior or their appearance? Have they given away their personal belongings?
Those behaviors are the kind that need to be reported, and they need to be reported right away.
Can you give me an example of a shooter who showed some of those warning signs?
I don’t like to use individual cases as examples, because it’s too easy for someone who might have information to say, “My guy isn’t as bad as that guy who did that,” and then they don’t call.
But here’s one illustration from a real case. There was a young man living in the middle of America. He was on a pathway to violence. He was 17. He had started to acquire weapons and store them in a storage locker off a county road. A woman saw the young man going to the locker in the middle of the school day, and something seemed off. She called the police. She saw something, she said something. And the police checked it out, and he was arrested.
You also talk a lot about the things Americans should do to prepare in case they do encounter a mass shooting.
First, you have to believe it’s a possibility. Nobody takes training seriously if they don’t think it will ever happen. I’m not saying it’s a probability. We get that this is not common, and thank God for that. But it’s not very common that you are in a car accident and yet you still put your seatbelt on. It’s incredibly uncommon to see a plane crash, but you still listen to the warnings and take the precautions every time you get on a plane. It’s no different.
Two things came out of the White House panel I served on. The first is Run, Hide, Fight, which is basic instructions to follow in case of an active shooter situation. We need people to think about all three options and teach them when each is appropriate. Part of that means checking the exits of places we go frequently. People are very patternistic. They park in the same place, they sit on the same side of the church, they use the same door to their temple. We need to think, where are the other doors? People can get stuck all going toward the same exit, but these facilities have tons of exits.
The second program is called Stop the Bleed. Lots of people know how to do first aid, or how to do chest compressions, but not many people know what to do if someone is bleeding. Stop the Bleed teaches you two things: how to apply a tourniquet, and how to pack a wound.
You are also a proponent of schools doing shooting drills for students, an idea some people find upsetting.
Every school should be doing active shooter drills, and they should be doing Run, Hide, Fight drills. Even down to young kids.
I know people will say “Young kids? Five year olds? Six year olds?” But I think it’s valuable to remember that five and six year olds are sitting in the airplane when you’re talking about what to do if the plane crashes in the water. We’re trusting that the parents that are sitting next to them know how to talk to their kids and allay their concerns. And teachers are the same way. They are paid to learn how to talk to kids at those levels.
Isn’t preparing for shootings admitting defeat to the problem, in a way.
There is no question that prevention is the goal, but until we eliminate every possibility for somebody to cause this kind of damage in a violent way we have to look at all the pieces of the puzzle.
You could say: “Why are you putting seatbelts on people? If we just taught everybody to drive nobody would get into a car accident.”
When people say: “Why are you teaching people to run? Shouldn’t we be focusing on prevention?” Those are two different things.
In your own life, how safe do you feel?
Mass shootings are still very uncommon events. They are a tiny fraction of the gun violence that occurs in the United States. The part that makes them so frightening is that you have no idea when they are going to happen, or where.
I think we can’t avoid that fact. But I don’t obsess about it, either. I keep my eyes open. And I look for exits when I go into buildings.