Over the past several years, we have continued to be confronted as a nation by individuals (both sane and insane) acting out for a variety of reasons via mass shootings. From the law enforcement perspective, identifying and preventing these kinds of attacks is extremely difficult.
Since 9-11, a massive domestic and international intelligence collection machine has been funded and put into place. Within the United States, we have more than 70 fusion centers and more than 100 FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces operating literally around the clock. Yet, the events we have witnessed from Colorado to Wisconsin continue.
Prevention of attacks conducted by “Lone Wolves” or international terrorists has been at the top of our government’s agenda for many years. So why can’t we prevent the kinds of events we have experienced in recent months and years?
I believe there are a number of reasons for this:
- We are a nation of laws, and free speech is guaranteed under the Constitution;
- Lax gun laws governing handguns and assault weapons are weak and chaotic;
- Background checks surrounding the purchase of weapons are superficial and ineffective in many instances;
- The Internet and the media provide 24/7 information that can incite mentally unstable individuals to act out;
- Mental health professionals walk a difficult line in providing information to authorities and may need to have greater leeway in providing such information when confronted with a patient who is on the edge of violence;
- Law enforcement overall is stretched thin and must depend on the community for assistance in identifying potential actors; and
- Threat and warning analysis may not be able to identify individuals who could pose a threat in the short and long term.
Within the United States, collection of intelligence on citizens by law enforcement without proper predication has since the mid-1970s been tightly controlled by law and regulations. Law enforcement can, when alerted, conduct preliminary and full investigations of individuals and groups. However, many times such cases go nowhere, are found to be without merit, and because of more pressing matters, the investigative agency must move on.
There is no easy way to identify and counter every individual out there that decides to make a statement, or gain fifteen minutes of fame, if you will. But in most instances, someone (family, friend, neighbor, coworker, medical or mental health professional) is aware that something is not right with an individual. Unfortunately, as we have seen too many times, they do nothing, or do not pursue their beliefs forcefully before the worst happens. People need to understand that we are all in this together, and when they do nothing, bad things can happen.
This whole area of “Lone Wolves” may need more examination and study with more emphasis on threat and warning analysis. I noticed in the news this morning that the Southern Poverty Law Center had been following the Wisconsin shooter for some time. When I was in the FBI years ago, I interacted with the Center. It had a lot of information in their files and databases, much of which the FBI could not act upon, but I have always felt that there was a lot of merit in what they were doing to counter violent domestic groups or individuals.
They and other private organizations have the luxury of being able to collect information on a lot of people and groups. It seems to me that there might be some benefit to working more with these kinds of institutions as part of an improved threat and warning analysis effort dealing with “Lone Wolves.” There is no silver bullet, but I believe that more needs to be done in this area.