Co-founders of the Violence Project, aired on Sunday, June 12, 2022 in “Face the Nation”, Dr. Jillian Peterson and Drs. The following is a transcript of an interview with James Dansley.
John Dickerson: And now we want to go to two researchers who are studying mass shootings that help policy makers stop each other. Dr. Jillian Peterson and Drs. James Danesley, of the Violence Project. Good morning to both of you.
Dr. Jillian Peterson: Good morning.
Dr. James Densley: Good morning.
John Dickerson: Dr. Peterson, I just want to – I want to start with you. Let’s talk – describe when your work started and what is included in your research.
Dr. Jillian Peterson: Yes, we started searching for the life history of the perpetrators of the massacre about five years ago. And our goal was to try to figure out where it was coming from? Why are we seeing this growth? And who are these criminals? So we built a database consisting of 180 criminals who killed four or more people in public places, almost 50 years ago. And we’ve coded each of them into more than 200 pieces of life, history, and information to try to find patterns in the data. And we also conducted interviews with the perpetrators themselves, the people they knew, the victims, and the experts in the field, trying to add some facts and analysis to understand exactly where it was coming from and what we could do to prevent it.
John Dickerson: So Dr. Denise, what composite could you bring? Or were you based on all this data? What is a normal mass shooter like?
Dr. James Densley: Yeah Al that sounds pretty crap to me, Looks like BT aint for me either. And we looked for a way to shoot instead. And we – we’ve outlined that path in our book, The Violence Project. So it starts with early childhood trauma. Many of these mass shooters have experienced some pretty scary things early in life. And it’s the chaotic, unresolved trauma that I think goes back to life, and that’s part of what we’re going to describe as the point of crisis in the lives of these people. Mass shooters are in crisis. These are people who are not living well, they are questioning their place in the world, this is often a very different kind of suicide crisis, we see a lot of overlap between suicide and murder in these cases. Mass shootings are considered a last resort. And in that regard, mass shooters are looking for meaningful answers in life, and so they are looking for other mass shooters who have committed such crimes before. They get to know those people, whether they are fanatics in online chat rooms or read their manifestos. And then finally, the last step in order with this is access to a gun. And that’s where we spend most of our time in policy talks, but we see those four stages as opportunities for intervention, their inflection points, and then we can see where they can intervene and stop the mass shootings. And that’s really the key here.
John Dickerson: So Jillian Peterson, one of the things you wrote is to change the way we think about shooters, they are us, so how does it help in times of crisis? For example, where do you seek policy intervention? What if you changed that mindset, if that’s the first step?
Dr. Jillian Peterson: Yeah Al that sounds pretty crap to me, Looks like BT aint for me either. And of course, what they do is demonic. But before they do, they will go to school with our classmates, our nephews or nieces, our neighbors, their children. These are insiders, not outsiders. So the most likely culprit in school shootings is in the classroom. And when we realize that I think it changes our mindset we start to notice these few signs of crisis when people are leaking their plans or talking about this kind of violence or talking about suicide. And so our research really points to things like suicide prevention and crisis intervention training, building crisis response teams in schools and workplaces, and having those systems in place to catch people before they do it.
John Dickerson: So Dr. Is Dennis going to have therapists in every school then? Is that so – I mean, what would be the best way to deal with these moments of crisis?
Dr. James Danesley: I think the interesting thing is that many of the measures we take to prevent mass shootings do not just stop mass shootings. So we are talking about measures with a wide spread of benefits. So, it’s about trying to catch any student struggling in the classroom, or anyone in the workplace who is feeling out of place. And so this- it could be a matter of getting physicians or counselors, I mean, we definitely want to improve the student-counselor ratio in our schools. Investing in school security is a more materialistic measure. We do not consider school safety to be the size of a small classroom or having resources in school for mental health. And so it is a key component, because we are trying to prevent not only mass shootings, but also accidental shootings or other forms of suicide and gun violence. We’re trying to make sure people thrive in their schools and workplaces. This is all part of the solution to the problem.
John Dickerson: Dr. Peterson, based on what you’ve done, I wonder if you can help me understand a few things. One, if these are insiders, in these instances, how does it affect – basically proposals to lock schools? Secondly, what does your research show you about these exercises, preparation exercises, the way they treat these students? And also, if these are suicides, how does a good person with a gun affect the idea that a gun can stop a bad person?
Dr. Jillian Peterson: Yeah Al that sounds pretty crap to me, Looks like BT aint for me either, Looks like BT aint for me either, So things like security, I think, make us feel safe. They look safe, it’s kind of tangible, but the reality is that criminals are walking in and out of that security every day. You certainly want to prepare teachers and students for the worst, but the most likely scenario is that the offender is running through all those exercises with everyone else. And if the perpetrator is coming in with the goal of killing in the shooting, or intending to kill himself, we talked to the perpetrators who said I fired this shot, because I want to go in and shoot by the school resource officer. So in that case, the good guy with the gun doesn’t become a deterrent, it becomes an incentive in some of those cases.
John Dickerson: Dr. Danes, what should we take from your work when we think about the limitations of gun ownership? For example, how do these bills affect the offender’s age, reaching 21 years of age? Is this similar to what you found in your research when we think about gun bans?
Dr. James Densley: Yes, that’s a great question. This is often such a divisive issue but I want to make sure that I propose that we look at it as a researcher and not as a kind of biased issue. And the evidence is really very clear about it, that is, if you want to make a big impact quickly, then the action is with the gun. And this is not about the violation of the Second Amendment rights. It revolves around some reasonable common sense measures. And so some of the things touted around right now – age restrictions for accessing assault rifles, for example, or ensuring safe storage and enforcement, or global background checks, or magazine sizes and magazine restrictions to do something around. These guns – the evidence is really clear that these measures can prevent some of these mass shootings that we have documented in the database. And that – they will make sure that these guns do not fall into the wrong hands. Time and time again, we see that these are the people who are in crisis. So the red flag laws that are being discussed right now, for example, are really very interesting, because if it’s a person in crisis, it’s not the time for them to go out and buy a gun. And it will temporarily restrict anyone’s ability to do so. And again, these would mean that you have to spend for these processes.
John Dickerson: Jillian Peterson, you studied – shooting where things went wrong. What about examples of one of these mass shootings being stopped before? What has been learned from that?
Dr. Jillian Peterson: Yes, we also studied incidents where someone planned a mass shooting and changed his mind, where the perpetrators actually went to school with a gun in their backpack and did not fire. The interesting thing about these cases is that time and time again, it seems like a human connection, just a bit of hope that puts the person at that point of crisis. It reaches someone and is connected to them. I think it’s very important that we’re talking, you know, gun control and threat assessment and these big policies. But then at the end of the day, sometimes it’s just a human connection with another adult or another person who can get them in the moment.
John Dickerson: Well, we have run out of time. Thank you both for your work and for being with us today. And we’ll be back in a moment.