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

The findings, detailed in our 2021 book, The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic, show the person charged with the Buffalo shooting on May 14, 2022, shares many commonalities with other mass shooters. He was a young man – 98 percent of mass shooters are men – who targeted a retail establishment, which is the most common location for a mass public shooting in our database.

The majority of mass shooters – 80 percent – showed signs of a crisis, as exhibited in their behavior, before the shooting. Much like the accused Buffalo shooter allegedly did, nearly half revealed their plans ahead of time, such as by posting on social media. Communication of intent to do harm is most common among younger shooters, like the accused Buffalo perpetrator, who is just 18. Over 30 percent of mass shooters were suicidal prior to their shooting, and another 40 percent intended to die in the act, according to our database. A news report indicates that the Buffalo perpetrator considered taking his own life over a dozen times.

In his online diary, the accused Buffalo shooter detailed the white supremacist ideology he discovered in internet chat rooms. Our database shows that 18 percent of mass shootings are underlined by hate.

At the same time, like a quarter of all mass shooters, the accused Buffalo perpetrator developed an interest in past mass shootings. He reportedly praised other mass shooters who were similarly inspired by racial hatred, such as the 2015 South Carolina church shooter. And like 25 percent of perpetrators we’ve studied, he left behind a “manifesto” for the next generation of potential mass shooters to read.

Despite his contact with police and the hospital the year before, the perpetrator was still able to legally purchase guns, like 63 percent of the other perpetrators we’ve studied.

Toward Prevention
There is a US$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. Our research shows that even general threats of school violence, such as those made by the alleged Buffalo shooter, are a critical intervention point on the path to intended violence.

While the accused Buffalo shooter was evaluated and cleared as not posing an immediate threat, ongoing support to prevent the threat of violence becoming real and imminent in the future – including after he graduated from school and when he was no longer under the school’s duty of care – was lacking. Few mental health services are available for young adults and children in Broome County, or nationwide, and there are many barriers to accessing those that are available.

Additionally, more could have been done to ensure that a student expressing homicidal and suicidal thoughts didn’t have access to the guns they needed to perpetrate violence. For schools, this typically means educating parents and caregivers about the merits of safe storage. But once a student turns 18, permissive gun laws complicate these efforts.

In the wake of the Buffalo shooting, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced plans to pursue executive orders and laws that would require state police to seek court orders to keep guns away from people who might pose a threat to themselves or others, according to U.S. News and World Report. Our data shows that if these policies were in place and acted upon, it could potentially prevent the majority of mass shootings.

In the end, we must learn from the lives of mass shooters and the long and tragic history of mass shootings in America to do everything possible to stop the next mass shooting before it occurs.

James Densley is Professor of Criminal Justice, Metropolitan State University. Jillian Peterson is Professor of Criminal Justice, Hamline University. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.Portions of this article originally appeared in a previous article published on Feb. 8, 2019.