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Author examines the behavioral patterns of people who carried out mass shootings

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Fifteen minutes - the shooter in Uvalde, Texas, posted private messages through Facebook that he was going to shoot up an elementary school and 15 minutes later, he did. Here's what Republican Governor Greg Abbott said yesterday in a press conference.

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GREG ABBOTT: There has been no criminal history identified yet. He may have had a juvenile record, but that is yet to be determined. There was no known mental health history of the gunman.

MARTIN: But that fact did not stop Governor Abbott and other Republicans from deflecting talk about stricter gun laws and instead blaming the massacre on mental illness.

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ABBOTT: The ability of an 18-year-old to buy a long gun has been in place in the state of Texas for more than 60 years. Anybody who shoots somebody else has a mental health challenge, period.

MARTIN: But again, in Abbott's own words...

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ABBOTT: There was no known mental health history of the gunman.

MARTIN: I talked to Mark Follman about this. A decade ago, he created a database to track mass shootings. He's the author of "Trigger Points: Inside The Mission To Stop Mass Shootings In America."

MARK FOLLMAN: There's often, in the aftermath of these attacks, a rush to blame mental illness as the fundamental cause. And that's just not true. When you study these cases, there is a whole range of circumstances and, often, a rational thought process in the person planning this kind of violence. So of course, we have to acknowledge that no person who commits a mass shooting is mentally healthy. They have deep problems. But it's a range of problems that are behavioral, that are circumstantial. There are things going on in their lives. There's lack of connection. You know, these are at-risk people, people in crisis. And there is opportunity to intervene before they get down this - what's called the pathway to violence.

MARTIN: From the spate of shootings that you have to work from and in terms of a research sample, what are the patterns? What's a warning sign that we collectively, as a culture, are not taking seriously, apparently?

FOLLMAN: Often, people around a would-be attacker will notice disturbing behavior or things that make them uncomfortable. And what's imperative is to reach out for help because behavioral threat assessment teams will look at a wide range of information about a person's situation and figure out what the root causes are of the problem and then try to step in. So often, we're talking about people who have developed violent ideas because they feel as if they have no other option. There's no one thing that predicts whether or not a person will do this, including a social media post declaring it. Of course, that's a very troubling sign. The point here is that there needs to be proactive action. And I think it's very important for the American public to realize that this is not a hopeless problem. There are ways to confront this before it actually occurs because these are planned attacks, because these are not totally insane people who are just snapping.

MARTIN: What does that look like, then? I mean, what kind of interventions need to be happening that are not happening?

FOLLMAN: So what a threat assessment team will do in a school setting is evaluate the circumstances, gather information by talking to people around the person of concern - peers, fellow students, teachers, talking with the family - and gathering information about that person's situation to try to identify what they need, then offering them help through counseling, through educational support, through social services. There's a program in Salem, Ore. The Salem-Keizer school district was one of the first to create this model after Columbine in 1999. And they have a very robust threat assessment program where they bring together multidisciplinary expertise in mental health, in juvenile services, in law enforcement. There are educators and administrators in the room, counselors. And they're working together to determine what is wrong in any given case and how can they step in and help.

MARTIN: I guess we don't know how many lives have been saved by those prevention programs.

FOLLMAN: This work has gone on for a long time in many places. And I believe it has stopped, perhaps, dozens of attacks like this, maybe even hundreds of them. You can never say definitively that you've prevented violence if violence doesn't occur. But I looked at and went deep inside a number of cases where there is very compelling circumstances that if there had not been an intervention of this kind - you had people who were setting up for very scary situations, posting things on social media like we just saw with this case in Texas. Had there not been an intervention of this kind, almost certainly, there would have been a violent attack.

MARTIN: It does not have to happen. It is not something that we, as a culture, have to tolerate.

FOLLMAN: That's right. This narrative that we have of resignation about mass shootings is unhelpful. It's wrong. I think it actually perpetuates the problem. There is case evidence that shows us that perpetrators are aware of that specifically. And they're looking for justification for what they're doing. They see this kind of violence as a solution, a valid solution, to their problems. And that may be hard to relate to, but that is the reality of what is happening in some of these cases. So not only is it wrong to say there's nothing we can do or nothing will ever change, it may actually be exacerbating the problem.

MARTIN: Mark Follman is the national affairs editor for Mother Jones and author of the book "Trigger Points: Inside The Mission To Stop Mass Shootings In America." Thank you, Mark.

FOLLMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.