This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.Sarah Green Carmichael: The recent tragedies in Buffalo, NY and Uvalde, TX have underscored the plague of gun violence in the US and in particular, the rising incidence of mass-casualty shootings. There are now signs of a possible bipartisan compromise in Congress to strengthen gun laws, upgrade school safety and increase mental-health support. You’re a senior operations researcher at RAND and recently led a two-year project to develop a “Mass Attacks Defense Toolkit” outlining evidence-based ways to prevent mass shootings. Can you talk a little bit about how you framed the problem?
John Hollywood, senior operations researcher, RAND Corporation and co-author, “Mass Attacks Defense Toolkit”: This project grew out of earlier research that we had done on counterterrorism. Back then, we wanted to know, “How can we do a better job foiling terror plots?” In many ways, mass shootings are very similar. So we asked questions like, “What happened in the cases when potential plots were stopped in advance? What were factors that contributed to attacks having fewer casualties?” About two dozen people worked on this for the better part of two years.
SGC: What were your key takeaways?
JH: There are really three. The first is that yes, we can detect and foil a lot of these. The public is key in this; almost two-thirds of foiled plots were foiled because members of the public reported people who had discussed their intentions to attack or did things like amassing arsenals or surveilling a target site.
Second, as those reports are coming in, it’s important that you have relentless follow-up. Each case needs to have a single point of contact who is responsible for making sure that people follow up with the person that has been reported. You don’t want to have dropped balls. Procedurally, there are cases, especially with some of the higher-casualty plots, where those tend to be associated with dropped clues and dropped balls.
Third, you need to have advance planning and training in the agencies that are going to be involved in responding to a mass attack. And this includes not just police, fire and EMS but the emergency management representatives of schools, shopping malls and other so-called “soft targets.”
SGC: So many of these shootings happen in schools, malls, churches. What kind of world are we creating if we are asking people to be constantly vigilant for threats, even if they’re at the movies or at church?
JH: I think that’s an excellent point. And that’s why I think part of what we were trying to do with our research is focus on what specifically to look for, like people bragging on social media about the gun they just bought to carry out an attack. Before the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the shooter went on at length online about researching how to kill people.
SGC: How common is it for a potential mass shooter to give off warning signs?
JH: In the majority of the higher-casualty shootings, you’re usually talking about people doing a lot of planning and amassing larger arsenals. It may not be as clear-cut as a person literally posting their attack plans months beforehand, but usually there is some observable thing that can be reported. In the case of Uvalde, for example, there clearly were concerns about how the shooter was acting — he was doing significant self-harm. But at this point it seems like there wasn’t a whole lot that was reported to anyone in a position of authority.
SGC: The Buffalo shooting is another recent example where the shooter had been questioned by police after making a school-shooting threat. That was about a year before the grocery-store shooting he went on to commit. How long should law enforcement keep following up?
JH: Even more than a specific time-period, the thing is to actually schedule follow-ups and not just let people totally drop. I mean, I understand with the Buffalo case, you know, he convinced the mental-health evaluators that he was just joking. But it does sound like there were other significant behavioral concerns, and it’s not clear those were taken into account. But the thought is, if he had been provided with additional services and supervision, then you have at least a more significant chance of picking up the other things he was doing, like going online and describing his increasing radicalization and plans to kill lots of people of color.
You can keep track of the follow-up on conventional office productivity software. It could be as simple as a spreadsheet. But someone needs to be case manager staying on top of it. And the same principles can be applied to preventing homicides and suicides.
SGC: One of the tips in the toolkit was that police officers who respond to domestic violence calls should have a standard procedure where they ask about a firearm in the home. Can you talk about why that’s so important and what other kinds of checks could be useful?
JH: If you identify that someone is posing a violent risk to themselves or others, then you really need to make sure they’re not in a position where they can use firearms quickly to harm themselves or others. But as for what goes into making those determinations, that’s honestly a bit of a weakness [in the literature]. One thing we heard about repeatedly from our experts was the importance of doing these wellness checks, and I’ll put calls related to domestic violence in that category as well. They’re critical. But how do you do that assessment? How you really find out what’s going on and collect that information? We couldn’t find any guidance on how to do this, in terms of both how to interact with people and the decision trees you should follow during those conversations. I can’t say they aren’t out there, but we spent a lot of time trying to find them. So that’s a definite “more research needed” area.
SGC: By focusing on things we can do within our existing gun safety laws, are we just resigning ourselves to the fact that we’re not going to solve this problem, and we just have to mitigate the damage?
JH: I think there’s a lot we can do, even within existing laws.
For example, inherent to mass shootings is amassing an arsenal. While there are people who collect guns or buy them for hunting or self-defense, the way that people buy those guns looks very different from the way that they acquire guns for mass attacks, where, for example, there’s a focus on massive amounts of ammunition.
We haven’t done a whole lot to educate the gun-owning public on how to sell or transfer guns safely so that they don’t fall into the wrong hands. I bet gun owners know very well how to handle a gun safely. But I bet many of them don’t know the first thing about how to sell a gun safely, because we almost never talk about it.
What are the warning signs that someone buying your gun is up to no good? Who do you report it to? And what happens to that report? If I have a person who poses a threat to themselves or others, and they just tried to buy a gun, I would think it would be very high priority that this person really needs a much closer look.
SGC: It appears possible that Congress might pass some legislation to address gun safety and mental health. Do you think lawmakers are asking the right questions?
JH: For helping with gun violence in general, Rand published a report called “Gun Policy in America.” The big policies that they recommended were child safety access laws; waiting periods; and repealing Stand Your Ground laws. The biggest one by far was child safety access to make sure that guns are secure.
With mass attacks, we could do more with the fact that getting the guns and the ammunition and the skill to use them are key parts of these attacks — just like with other kinds of terrorism attacks, you want to look for people who are trying to assemble explosives.
SGC: Like how we notice when someone buys lots of fertilizer? Or, with drugs, when someone tries to buy a lot of Sudafed?
JH: Yeah. And I think with guns you can have something very similar. I just don’t feel like the processes are really in place.
SGC: I’d like to ask you a couple of questions specifically about schools. Is it effective to do these drills where students hide under their desks?
JH: We didn’t look at those drills specifically, but we do talk about the importance of “run, hide, fight.” First, you really want to focus on escaping. If that’s not possible, the priority is hiding — when hiding means there’s a locked door between you and the shooter. A lot of people were saved in the Oxford, Michigan shooting, because they did lock the door successfully. But if you are in the same room with the shooter, hiding under a desk or a table is about the worst thing you can do.
I know it’s horrible talk about this. But one thing I want to make clear is that it’s “run, hide, fight.” It’s not “run, hide and do nothing.” If you’re faced with a shooter at reasonably close range, everybody in the room should try to tackle the shooter. We have twelve cases of that happening, and they were successful in all cases. There have been cases where high school students tackled a shooter and, to be blunt, it worked. But elementary school? It’s not reasonable to ask elementary school kids try to tackle a shooter.
The key thing is movement. For most shooters it’s very hard to hit moving targets, especially under pressure. You want to be a moving target, and tackle them from multiple angles at once. You don’t want to be a stationary target, especially at close range.
SGC: Anything else that you would think would be helpful specifically on making schools safer?
JH: I don’t think we need to turn schools into fortresses. Having basic entry control and internal barriers like locking doors would get us a long way.
I hear other ideas like totally redesigning all our schools against mass shooters or putting metal detectors everywhere. But again, what do shooters want? They want to find a crowd of people that they can shoot at close range as if they were stationary … like a crowd of people waiting to get through a metal detector.
SGC: I wasn’t planning to ask you this. But how did you stay happy, doing research on this topic for two years?
JH: It honestly does have a cost. But I like to think that we can save lives and trauma out of this. And I try to be as clinical as possible. For me, quite honestly, I deliberately try to avoid reading about victims. I just focus on security and procedural considerations. But it’s very hard. It does eat at you.