12/19/2012 12:39 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2013

Is There Anything We Can Do to Prevent Mass Shootings?

Incidents like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting -- and the Portland, OR mall shooting, and the Aurora, CO movie theater shooting -- can leave many of us feeling helpless. They can make us wonder if prevention is ever possible. Do we even bother trying?

After the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, my colleagues and I at the U.S. Secret Service worked with the U.S. Department of Education to study school shootings and school shooters. Our goal was to try to identify avenues for early identification and prevention. There is so much about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that we don't yet know. But after more than 17 years of studying school shootings, interviewing school shooters in prison, and reviewing research on other types of mass casualty attacks, one thing we do know is that prevention is often possible. Here's why:
  • School shooters and other mass shooters typically don't "just snap." Instead, they usually plan their attacks in advance, for weeks, months, or even years. This planning behavior is often observed by, and causes concern to, those around them. If we can uncover someone's plans for attack, we can often stop them before they do harm.
  • Mass shooters typically tell other people about their violent plans beforehand, in advance of their attack. Sometime they share their plans in conversations, other times in journal entries sent to others. In some cases they discuss their plans on social media sites, where a lot of people can see them. When someone hears a friend talk about hurting other people or hurting themselves -- and passes that information along to those who can help -- we can often prevent an attack.
  • Those who carry out mass shootings are typically not "psychopaths" or "sociopaths." Instead, they are usually individuals who are desperate or despondent -- whether because they have experienced multiple losses, or unbearable situations, or have some underlying mental health conditions -- and they reach a point where they feel that violence is the best way -- or perhaps the only way -- to solve their problems. But we have seen that the situations or conditions they face are usually fixable or treatable -- even if they underlying reason is some mental illness. When we can help fix their desperation and whatever is causing it, their thoughts and plans of violence typically go away.

Based on findings from our research on school shootings, we created a model for school threat assessment that guides school personnel and law enforcement on how to seek out and pull together information -- to determine if an individual is planning to engage in violence and to identify the best ways to prevent it. Threat assessment is a process that is widely used in various federal law enforcement agencies to prevent attacks on the President and other public officials. It is the same model that numerous state task forces and national associations recommended for colleges and universities following the Virginia Tech shooting. And most recently, threat assessment was the process recommended by the Defense Science Board Task Force on Predicting Violent Behavior -- convened following the Fort Hood shooting -- as the best tool currently available for preventing targeted attacks from within the military.

While debates over gun control and access to quality mental health care will undoubtedly continue, there are other things we can do in the short term to help prevent mass violence in our schools and communities. The recent mass shootings in public locales -- at the Aurora movie theater, Portland mall, and even Sandy Hook elementary school -- suggest that creating community-based threat assessment processes could address a broad array of threats from within the community more generally (in addition to the teams already in place in some schools, colleges, and workplaces). Developing and training these teams or units could be initiated at the federal, state, or local level, under models previously used to provide school threat assessment training and campus threat assessment training. Training could even be sponsored by some corporate good citizens that are concerned about safety in their communities. In the longer term, a commission on mass violence like the one suggested by Sens. Lieberman and McCain would help our country get a better handle on the larger policy issues that could reduce mass violence. Prevention is possible -- both now and later.

Dr. Randazzo is the former Chief Research Psychologist for the U.S. Secret Service, where she co-directed the largest federal study of school shootings. She is co-author of several books on targeted violence, threat assessment, and violence prevention.