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Summary: Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America by Mark Follman


Having reported on gun violence for more than a decade, Mark Follman chronicles behind-the-scenes research and efforts by law enforcement officials and mental health experts who are trying to make sense of senseless, violent acts and prevent them. They are striving, with some success, to prevent mass shootings and assassinations. Often, commentators and the media position gun control as a Second Amendment issue or sensationalize tragic events, giving shooters the spotlight they seek. But intervention in a potential shooter’s life at a critical, early moment can save lives. As Follman reports, you can find some hope in the steps experts are taking to ameliorate a seemingly hopeless situation.


  • Mass shootings are not only a gun control problem.
  • As gun massacres have increased, “behavioral threat assessment” has burgeoned to counter them.
  • Psychologist Robert Fein’s approach to shooters relies on empathy instead of force.
  • John Hinckley’s attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life forced federal agents to seek help to assess threats.
  • Workplace shootings became an issue starting in the mid-80s, but schools became the focus in 1999 after Columbine.
  • In 1999, an Oregon school system pioneered the development of a K-12 threat assessment program.
  • Legislation and serious preventative efforts often follow a tragedy.
  • No checklist can predict who will become a mass shooter.
  • Despite the hurdles, behavioral threat assessment efforts hold great promise.

Book Summary: Trigger Points - Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America


Mass shootings are not only a gun control problem.

The “mass shootings era” in the United States began in the 1960s and has been building ever since. Until 2012, few researchers had explored the commonalities in mass shootings. In part that was due to the National Rifle Association exercising its clout during President Bill Clinton’s administration to keep federal dollars from being spent on research into gun violence. When researchers eventually established a database, they looked back at 30 years of cases in which a single assailant had killed at least four victims.

“What if there existed a community-based model for intervening constructively with troubled people well before they armed themselves and went on a rampage?”

As researchers accrued data, they realized that nearly all the shooters examined in the study had manifested warning signs before their attacks. This contradicted the pervasive media fiction that mass killers’ actions were a total surprise to those who knew them.

The researchers also learned that the FBI has a low-profile threat assessment team that cooperates with local authorities and has successfully mitigated scores of potential shootings.

As gun massacres increased, “behavioral threat assessment” has burgeoned to counter them.

Behavioral threat assessment teams have become a fixture at schools, colleges, corporations and other facilities where groups gather. Now in its third decade, the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP) has more than 2,600 members.

The little known preventative efforts of ATAP members and other experts are a lifeline in an otherwise frightening landscape. They have found that often someone who knows a potentially violent person can sense that something is amiss. Once alerted, trained personnel can intervene to check on the person and those around him or her. Authorities try to gauge the person’s state of mind and to determine whether he or she has “access to weapons.”

“Determining precisely why people commit mass shootings doesn’t necessarily matter as much as knowing how they reach the point of attacking.”

Drastic measures such as being fired from work, expelled from school or incarcerated on some other matter may delay rather than resolve the danger. “Temporary restraining orders” have precipitated violence numerous times. Addressing a potential issue means staying attentive to “the individual’s root grievances and pathologies.”

Russell Palarea, president of ATAP, earned a psychology degree and did advance work in “operational psychology” with the goal of stopping murders from happening rather than being limited to approaching them forensically after the fact. He and other experts criticize the media for emphasizing the sensational aspects of mass killings.

Psychologist Robert Fein’s approach to shooters relies on empathy instead of force.

In 1975, Harvard-educated psychologist Robert Fein helped initiate a program at a Bridgewater, MA prison for violent male offenders. Fein interviewed men who had suffered “unspeakable” experiences and committed “unspeakable” crimes. He underwent psychiatric therapy himself to deal with what he had learned. Fein’s mentor, Dr. Shervert Frazier, had concluded that committing murder is a process with phases of development that lead to an event – not solely the event itself.

When Mark Chapman murdered John Lennon in Manhattan in December 1980, researchers focused on the killer. Chapman basked in the limelight of his victim’s fame and became a model for potential murderers.

“[Chapman] created a new version of a ‘cultural script’ – a kind of narrative template for future killers to mimic.”

Through this and other insights, researchers were able to describe the “pathway to violence.” They learned that killers often seek fame and, hence, they pursue well-known victims whose political views are secondary to their prominence.

As early as 1981, law enforcement officers at the highest levels met with behavioral science, mental health and legal experts to share information. The resulting report emphasized focusing on situational aspects surrounding potentially dangerous people when trying to mitigate threats. The US Secret Service amassed a directory of such people and conducted follow-up visits every three months to see if these people still posed a threat. However, the information they gathered often sat in files, unread.

“Were federal agents really going to start working hand in hand with psychologists to thwart murder plots? The role of law enforcement was to investigate crimes, not prevent them.”

Fein consulted with the Secret Service on the best methods for identifying and managing possible threats to the President and other people. He learned that although Secret Service agents share their experiences informally, at that time no one had systematically analyzed their case files or compiled the information.

John Hinckley’s attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life forced federal agents to seek help to assess threats.

The Secret Service reorganized and expanded under pressure after John Hinckley Jr. nearly succeeded in assassinating President Ronald Reagan. The Secret Service faced a new deluge of potential threats.Fein counseled agents about how to ask questions and how to assess what level of threat a potential attacker poses in real time.

“Hinckley’s meteoric infamy had produced a copycat case telling both for its speed and specificity, and in how it suggested a danger from heavy media focus on assassins.”

Fein and his Secret Service colleagues discovered that a wealth of contradictory information rendered threat reports useless to federal agents. Compounding this logjam after Reagan’s shooting, at least one psychiatrist insisted to agents that a particular patient could be a threat. However, since the families of Hinckley’s victims had sued his psychiatrist, the psychiatrist then had to try to protect himself from potential malpractice litigation.

Workplace shootings became an issue starting in the mid-80s, but schools became the focus in 1999 after Columbine.

The mass shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, inspired later copycats. Officials regarded any interest in Columbine or any emulation of its shooters as a warning sign.

Mental health leaders met with Secret Service director Brian Stafford and the head of the National Threat Assessment Center, Bryan Vossekuil, to ask questions. The educators asked these law enforcement experts how to make their schools safer. Metal detectors and other security features became fixtures at academic institutions.

“A storm of criticism about how police had set up a perimeter and delayed going into Columbine High for more than half an hour was already stirring a fundamental change in law enforcement training nationally.”

Interviews with school shooters reaffirmed the themes that emerged from the interviews at Bridgewater prison. Most school shooters share their plans beforehand. Many had been bullied. Analysts emphasized the need to provide someone to listen to troubled young people and offer them a way to belong to a group or participate in an activity that could help them turn away from violence. The “bystander problem” proved especially troubling. In several cases, other people, bystanders, had warnings of a shooter’s intentions, but said or did nothing. Researchers note that this phase in a shooter’s planning is ripe for intervention.

In 1999, an Oregon school system pioneered the development of a K-12 threat assessment program.

At the Salem-Keizer School System in Oregon, security director John Van Dreal, lead psychologist Courtenay McCarthy and their colleagues set out to mitigate problems long before they tip toward crises. Each advisor and counselor in the school system now trains with specialists and helps anchor crisis response teams in each school building.

The members of the Mid-Valley Student Threat Assessment Team (STAT) have backgrounds in other fields, as well as in education. Team members meet regularly and work through questions to gauge the level of threat a troubled student might present and to determine an appropriate response. The system reviews about 200 cases a year and finds that about 20% of them raise enough concern to warrant further engagement.

When a student seems troubled, team members arrange meetings with the student, parents, teachers and friends to gain clarity and provide advice. If the student has shared “specific details” of planned violence, or has alarmed more than one person, the situation draws a higher level of scrutiny.

“While it was instinctive and purposeful to ask suicidal adolescents why they wanted to kill themselves, an equally urgent priority for threat assessors could be to discern where they might be planning to end their lives.”

The team uses a “wraparound strategy” of designating certain teachers to work more closely as mentors for a “kid in crisis” and to find activities and groups that could possibly help. Suicidal intent can easily cross over to homicide. Increasing numbers of young people are committing suicide at school rather than at home, yet parents often prove unaware, or “in denial’ or uncooperative about their child’s problems.

The STAT team tries to avert shootings and to save troubled students from ever reaching the point of planning to shoot. Collaboration among threat assessment teams as a scrutinized student moves between schools or gets older can help, but can’t always prevent problems. With two decades of experience, experts now more clearly see the links between issues at school and credible threats.

Legislation and serious preventative efforts often follow a tragedy.

The Los Angeles Police Department established the first specialized stalking unit following the murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer on July 18, 1989. Legislation in 1991 made stalking behavior a crime in California.

Because of many cases of stalkers pursuing celebrities, officials first viewed stalking as a high-profile problem. But soon stalking’s breadth as an issue for ordinary people became apparent. Authorities eventually realized that instances of stalking number in the millions each year. By the mid-1990s, every state had anti-stalking laws.

The 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech focused attention on college campuses. For two years, emails had circulated among Virginia Tech’s staff expressing worry about a Korean-born student named Seung-Hui Cho. The campus police department knew about reports of Cho stalking and harassing female students and threatening suicide. This information never reached the university’s Care Team, which took no action. In 2007, Cho shot students in a dormitory and classroom, killing 32 people.

“By 2015, sensational news coverage, unfiltered social media content and shooters’ quests for notoriety were streams merging into a raging current.”

Access to Virginia Tech’s files showed many warning signs and lost opportunities to intervene with Cho – missed due to lack of collaboration and general obdurateness. After this shooting, the FBI, the Secret Service and the Department of Education received government mandates to work together to research instances of campus violence. After 2007, many such institutions began to develop threat assessment operations.

Violent massacres brew over time with planning and patience.Not all mass shooters suffer mental illness. Associating mental illness with mass murder stigmatizes millions of people with mental health diagnoses, most of whom are non-violent.

In fact, no checklist can predict who will become a mass shooter.

Mass shootings are more prevalent in the United States than anywhere else, though they make up a small fraction of the nation’s gun violence. The American educational system has invested billions of dollars to address this issue and practices “active shooter” defensive drills in schools – possibly at a terrible cost to young psyches.

Despite the hurdles, behavioral threat assessment efforts hold great promise.

Local communities need a centralized system to share information about potential threats. The FBI’s Behavioral Threat Assessment Center has worked since 2010 to forestall violence and to do “deep research” on this problem. After the Sandy Hook tragedy, Congress gave the FBI jurisdiction to help investigate such events.

“Shooter-focused new coverage and social media content do not cause a person to commit violence, nor is there scientific evidence that graphically vdiolent video games, movies or music do.”

As researchers amassed details of a shooter’s trajectory, they found time and again that if only one person had said or done something, a tragedy could have been averted. While social media complicates some things, it does facilitate the work of experts trying to spot patterns of “humiliation, blame, vengeance and despair,” information that is clear to those who know how to see it.

After losing her son Dylan, age 6, in the Sandy Hook massacre, Nicole Hockley helped launch Sandy Hook Promise, a non-profit dedicated to promoting early intervention strategies.Sandy Hook Promise videos went viral overnight. Millions became familiar with the warning signs of potential mass shootings.

About the Author

Longtime journalist Mark Follman is the national affairs editor at Mother Jones.


“Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America” by Mark Follman is a meticulously researched and thought-provoking book that delves into the complex issue of mass shootings in the United States. Follman, an accomplished journalist, shines a light on the various aspects of this pervasive problem and provides a comprehensive analysis of the efforts made to prevent such tragic incidents.

The book begins by setting the stage, discussing the historical context of mass shootings in America and their devastating impact on individuals, communities, and the nation as a whole. Follman presents a range of statistical data and case studies that demonstrate the alarming frequency and severity of these incidents, leaving no doubt about the urgency of finding solutions.

One of the book’s strengths lies in Follman’s deep dive into the underlying causes and contributing factors of mass shootings. He explores the influence of social isolation, mental health issues, extremist ideologies, and the accessibility of firearms. By examining these triggers, Follman provides a nuanced understanding of the complexities surrounding mass shootings, avoiding oversimplification and sensationalism.

Follman’s extensive research is evident throughout the book. He not only draws from official reports and academic studies but also conducts interviews with survivors, law enforcement officials, policymakers, and experts in the field. This multifaceted approach adds depth and authenticity to the narrative, giving readers a well-rounded perspective on the subject matter.

The author highlights the various initiatives and strategies implemented to prevent mass shootings. He explores law enforcement efforts, community-based interventions, and legislative actions aimed at curbing gun violence. Follman critically assesses the effectiveness of these approaches, providing a balanced analysis of their strengths and limitations. This nuanced approach elevates the book beyond a mere commentary, offering readers valuable insights and potential paths forward.

Moreover, Follman does an excellent job of humanizing the victims and survivors of mass shootings. By sharing their personal stories and experiences, he brings empathy and emotional resonance to the narrative. This approach reminds readers of the human toll of these tragic events and serves as a call to action for society to address this pressing issue.

While “Trigger Points” is a comprehensive exploration of mass shootings, it is not without its limitations. Some readers may find the book’s focus on the American context limiting, as mass shootings are a global phenomenon. Additionally, the book primarily examines mass shootings from a sociopolitical perspective, occasionally neglecting other potential contributing factors such as media influence or cultural dynamics.

In conclusion, “Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America” is a compelling and essential read for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of mass shootings. Mark Follman’s meticulous research, balanced analysis, and compassionate storytelling make this book a valuable resource for policymakers, advocates, and concerned citizens alike. By shedding light on the intricacies of this issue, Follman encourages critical thinking and meaningful dialogue to address the urgent need for effective solutions.

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