WASHINGTON -- The FBI says it has helped to disrupt or prevent nearly 150 shootings and violent attacks this year, in part by steering potential gunmen toward mental health professionals. It is an achievement that stands out during a year when President Barack Obama made curbing gun violence a priority, yet has had little success in getting new restrictions enacted.
There have been hundreds of these disruptions since 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder recently told an audience of police chiefs, touting the behind-the-scenes work of a small FBI unit based out of Quantico, Va. In most cases, the FBI has helped potential offenders get access to mental health care.
Preventing mass shootings through threat assessments and treatment is an unusual tactic for an agency known for its crime fighting. One year after the deadly mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, the White House's biggest efforts to curb gun violence -- attempts to reinstate the assault weapons ban and expand background checks for all gun purchases -- failed without congressional support.
Mass shootings such as the rampages in Newtown, Conn., the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard and the Aurora, Colo., movie theater do not represent the majority of gun violence. Yet when they do occur, the impact is high. And many times there's the question of whether the shooter had adequate mental health treatment to prevent it from happening. Yet in the national discourse about reducing gun violence, mental health treatment has received much less attention than banning assault weapons.
The FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit has been working for years with state and local authorities to profile potential offenders, with the goal of preventing violent crimes such as mass shootings. The "prevented" shootings and violent attacks from January through November of this year represent 148 cases that a division of that unit, the Behavioral Threat Assessment Center, has conferred on in 2013. That number is up 33 percent from 2012, Andre Simmons, the center's unit chief, said in an interview. In the past year, he said, his unit has received about three new cases a week referred by federal, state, local and campus law enforcement, schools, businesses and houses of worship.
The Behavioral Threat Assessment Center gets involved when someone notifies law enforcement, for example, about some troubling behavior, and law enforcement reaches out to the center to help assess the situation.
The center is staffed by agents and analysts of the FBI, the U.S. Capitol Police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives and a psychiatrist. It helps local officials assess the threat the person of concern poses. And then the center recommends how to proceed.
Depending how far along the person is on the "pathway to violence," Mr. Simmons said, the center makes recommendations based on the specific case. The recommendations could be arrest, if the person is involved in illegal activity, but most often, it is getting that person access to mental health care, he said.
Mr. Simmons cited a case his unit consulted on a few years back. He said there was a man at a university who began to display bizarre behaviors coupled with an increasing interest in guns. This man created a makeshift shooting range in the basement of his home, where he lived with roommates, and he used pictures of the roommates as bull's-eyes for target practice. He also was involved in animal abuse, Mr. Simmons said, and he was making statements that were troubling. Collecting guns and target practice are not illegal activities, but the roommates feared for their safety, so they alerted university authorities, Mr. Simmons said.
The university reached out to the FBI behavioral analysts and worked with them to develop a strategy. Working with mental health officials and campus police, a "caretaking" interview was arranged with the man, and that meeting resulted in a voluntary admission to a psychiatric facility.