Communication of Intent to Do Harm Preceding Mass Public Shootings in the United States, 1966 to 2019

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Communication of Intent to Do Harm Preceding Mass Public Shootings in the United States, 1966 to 2019

Category: Behavior, Mass Shootings|Journal: JAMA Network Open (full text)|Author: G Erickson, J Densley, J Peterson, K Knapp|Year: 2021


Understanding the motivation of a mass shooter’s intent to do harm can help practitioners and policy makers develop more effective intervention strategies.


To examine the prevalence of communication of intent to do harm, known as leakage, in a sample of 170 mass public shooters from 1966 to 2019; the characteristics of perpetrators who do and do not leak their plans; and whether leakage is a form of fame-seeking behavior or a cry for help among individuals who are in crisis or suicidal.

Design, Setting, and Participants

This cross-sectional study included perpetrators who killed 4 or more people in a public space from 1996 to 2019 and were included in a comprehensive database of US mass shootings. That database was built from August 2017 to December 2019, and analysis took place from January to May 2021.

Main Outcomes and Measures

Leakage was identified and coded using publicly available records. Any communication to a third party of an intent to do harm prior to the shooting was coded as leakage. Logistic regression models were used to examine the risk factors associated with leakage. Models estimating leakage were examined to assess the 2 hypothesized pathways to leakage (the cry-for-help model and the fame-seeking model).


The 170 participants in this sample included 166 (97.7%) male perpetrators and 3 (2.3%) female perpetrators, with a mean (SD) age of 34 (12) years. Overall, 161 participants had known race and ethnicity: 11 (6.8%) Asian individuals, 35 (21.7%) Black individuals, 14 (8.7%) Latinx individuals, 7 (4.4%) Middle Eastern individuals, 3 (1.9%) Native American individuals, 89 (55.3%) White individuals, and 2 (1.2%) individuals with other race and ethnicity. Overall, 79 mass shooters (46.5%) leaked their plans. Of perpetrators who leaked their plans, 35 (44.3%) leaked specific plans about a mass shooting, and 44 (55.1%) leaked nonspecific plans about generalized violence. The study findings indicate that leakage was associated with receiving counseling (odds ratio, 7.0; 95% CI, 2.0-24.8) and suicidality (odds ratio, 3.7; 95% CI, 1.0-13.6), suggesting that leakage may best be characterized as a cry for help from perpetrators prior to their act.

Conclusions and Relevance

In this study, nearly half of the perpetrators of mass shootings leaked their plans. Leakage was associated with receiving counseling and suicidality. Leakage is a critical moment for mental health intervention to prevent gun violence. Opportunities to report threats of violence need to be increased. Traditional threat assessment models focused on specific threats of violence may miss critical opportunities for intervention.