MASS SHOOTINGAccused Buffalo Mass Shooter Had Threatened a Shooting While in High School. Could More Have Been Done to Avert the Tragedy?

By James Densley and Jillian Peterson

Published 21 May 2022

There is a $3 billion industry in U.S. school safety focused almost entirely on hardening schools with active shooter drills, metal detectors and armed security. In recent years, however, behavioral threat assessment teams – teams in schools that get troubled people help before they turn to violence – have been touted as key to bridging the gap between hard security and soft prevention.

Nearly a year before he was charged with shooting and killing 10 shoppers, and wounding three more, at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store, a then-17-year-old student reportedly told his classmates at Susquehanna Valley High School that he “wanted to do a shooting, either at a graduation ceremony, or sometime after.”

He also reportedly mentioned that he wanted to do a murder-suicide at the school, which is located in Broome County in New York.

A teacher reported the comment – made online – to a school resource officer. Since the perpetrator had been at home when he made the comment, it triggered a visit from state police, as opposed to the school resource officer, according to an official account of the episode published in the wake of the shooting in The Buffalo News.

“The State Police visited the home, talked to the student and persuaded him to undergo a mental health evaluation at Binghamton General Hospital,” the article states. “When a doctor evaluated (the perpetrator) as not dangerous – a key hurdle required in the Mental Hygiene Law to hold someone against their will – he was returned home and allowed to graduate days later.”

The story is not unlike the dozens of stories that we, a forensic psychologist and a sociologist, have collected in recent years in our effort to study the life histories of mass shooters. It typifies what we believe is one of the biggest challenges that schools face when it comes to averting school shootings – and in the case of Buffalo, mass shootings in general. And that challenge is recognizing and acting upon warning signs that mass shooters almost always give well before they open fire.

Patterns Emerge Among Shooters
With funding from the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, we have built a database of 180 mass public shootings that have taken place in the United States since 1966. A mass public shooting is defined as an event in which four or more victims are killed with a gun in a public place. The goal of this project is to use data to look for patterns in the lives of mass shooters. The purpose is to develop a better understanding of who they are and why they did what they did, in order to prevent future tragedies.