Courts & Crime

Multiple-victim shootings have reached ‘an alarming rate,’ FBI says

Police officers stand watch in the vestibule of the Regal Union Square Stadium 14 Theater in Manhattan, Friday, July 20, 2012, following the Batman “Dark Knight Rises” theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado. (Bryan Smith/Zuma Press/MCT)
Police officers stand watch in the vestibule of the Regal Union Square Stadium 14 Theater in Manhattan, Friday, July 20, 2012, following the Batman “Dark Knight Rises” theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado. (Bryan Smith/Zuma Press/MCT) MCT

Active-shooter incidents, in which gunmen try to kill people in a populated area, are becoming more common and more deadly, according to a first-of-its-kind FBI study released Wednesday.

In often chilling detail, the FBI study reveals that most of the 160 shooting incidents examined ended within just a few minutes and were almost always perpetrated by men. And each incident that occurs, officials add, can provide twisted inspiration for copycat killers down the road.

Between 2000 and 2006, the study found, an average of 6.4 active-shooter incidents occurred annually. Between 2007 and 2013, the average more than doubled – to 16.4 such incidents each year.

“It’s troubling,” FBI Assistant Director James F. Yacone told reporters. “They’re cropping up around the country at an alarming rate.”

The “copycat phenomenon,” added Andre B. Simons, of the FBI’s famed Behavioral Analysis Unit, “is real.”

The nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies, as well as fire and rescue departments, have been struggling to develop training and protocols for confronting active-shooter scenarios. Officials define an active shooter as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.”

Some active-shooter incidents achieve lasting notoriety, as when 24-year-old James Holmes killed 12 people and wounded 70 at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in 2012. Holmes’ trial – he has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity – has been set to start in December.

Other active-shooter incidents studied by the FBI remain primarily local tragedies, as when 42-year-old Laurence Jones killed two people, wounded two others and then committed suicide at a Fresno, Calif., food processing plant in November 2012; or when 42-year-old Pedro Alberto Vargas killed six people at an apartment complex in Hialeah, Fla., in July 2013.

“Many active shooters have a real or perceived, deeply held grievance,” Simons said, adding that the public shooting may give a sense of “omnipotent control plus notoriety.”

Vargas was subsequently killed by police in a shootout, an encounter that the study further notes puts law enforcement officers at real risk of harm. Law enforcement “engaged” a shooter in 45 of the 160 incidents studied. In 21 of these incidents, officers were either killed or wounded. The numbers, officials say, drive home some life-or-death lessons.

“Law enforcement needs to be ready, and needs to be thinking ahead before they arrive,” said Katherine Schweit, program manager for the FBI’s Active Shooter Initiative.

Proper equipment and relevant training, officials added, are needed even in small, rural departments, where response times may lag. That could mean equipping more officers with improved body armor, helmets, rifles and compatible emergency radios, officials suggested Wednesday. They noted that only one of the 160 incidents studied were ended by a SWAT team.

“It is the line-level officer where the rubber meets the road,” said study co-author J. Pete Blair of Texas State University.

Researchers also found, though, that active-shooter incidents often end before police show up. In 21 of the 160 incidents, unarmed citizens confronted the shooter and ended the threat. In 90 of the incidents, the shooter either committed suicide, stopped shooting or fled the scene.

“Citizens need to be ready and think about what they might have to do,” Schweit said.

Thinking quickly, in particular, may be essential. In 64 incidents where duration could be determined, 44 ended in five minutes or less, with 23 ending in two minutes or less.

Nearly half of the incidents occurred in what officials called “areas of commerce,” as when Alburn Edward Blake killed a customer and then himself at a Wendy’s restaurant in West Palm Beach, Fla., in March 2008.

Schools, like Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. _ where Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 students and six adults in December 2012 _ and other educational environments, were the site of about 24 percent of the incidents.

All but six of the 160 incidents involved male shooters, as when 48-year-old Jesse Ray Palmer wounded a woman at a courthouse in Girard, Kan., in September 2011 and then was killed by police.

“We’re susceptible to this type of violence, regardless of the size of the community,” said FBI Assistant Director Kerry Sleeper.

CORRECTION: In an earlier version the number of wounded in Aurora, Col. and the date of the trial of the shooter, James Holmes, were incorrect.