January 28, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Active Shooter Threats Against Public Venues

• The shootings at the shopping mall in Columbia, MD on January 25, demonstrated the threat of active shooter incidents in public venues remains a persistent concern

• The motivations driving active shooter attacks against such public venues differ from those against other places, such as offices, schools and universities

• With public venues also subject to workplace violence by current or former employees, perpetrators share certain common motivational characteristics

• Risky indicators characterizing potential active shooters against public venues can be identified for preemptive countermeasures.
This IntelBrief focuses on the unique characteristics likely to motivate active shooters to target the specific category of public venues, such as shopping malls; subsequent Briefs will explore other active shooter scenarios.

Please also see TSG IntelBriefs, The Active Shooter Scenario: Understanding the Threat, October 23, 2013, and Understanding the Threat: Approaches to Preventing and Mitigating Active Violence Scenarios, November 1, 2013.

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The threat of active shooter incidents against public venues such as shopping malls, movie theaters and amusement parks continue to pose a major concern to managers of such facilities, public safety officers tasked with protecting them, and employees and customers who are directly in danger of such violent attacks. Moreover, active shooter attacks against such facilities also result in substantial economic damages represented by loss of business when they are closed for temporary or longer term periods.

An active shooter is defined as an armed person (or several persons) in the process of engaging in a shooting spree, with the intent of continuously harming others. In an active shooter situation, the perpetrator continues the shooting spree with unrestricted access to additional victims, whether they are initially or randomly targeted.

Active shooters generally arrive at the location of their targeted attack with the intent to commit mass murder, as opposed to killing a single victim. The victims may be intentionally targeted or they may be random “targets of opportunity.”

This sub-set of mass murder killings excludes criminal incidents such as bank robberies, drug deals that may turn lethal, and politically motivated attacks such as terrorism that might incorporate an active shooter component in their rampage (such as the attacks in Mumbai, India, or Nairobi, Kenya).

Although the general objective of such attacks is to maim or kill as many as possible, in some situations even one or two fatalities will be accompanied by several additional persons wounded. The incident at the shopping mall in Columbia, MD, on January 25, caused two fatalities and a single injury (with others suffering injuries during their escape), and it has been reported that a 19-year-old shooter used a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun and had a large quantity of ammunition, in addition to storing crude explosives in his backpack, indicating he may have intended to cause far greater fatalities than he ultimately brought about. 

Active shooter incidents are generally terminated once the attacker (or attackers) is overtaken by preventative law enforcement action or upon self-inflicted death (as  occurred at the Columbia, MD incident).

According to a recent study of 84 active shooter events between 2000 and 2010, most incidents occurred at public places where people spend a relative good deal of time, such as employment (37 percent), schools and universities (34 percent), public venues such as shopping malls and movie theaters (17 percent), with the remaining 12 percent occurring in other locations, such as religious institutions and military bases.*

In terms of motivation, active shooters are generally driven by an assortment of pent up grievances, anger and hatred against their intended targets, as well as, in some cases, the notoriety or fame that such murderous rampages will generate for their horrific acts of “retributive justice” either in their lifetime or posthumously.

At the same time, however, not every potential active shooter is likely to intentionally target a place of employment, a school, a shopping mall, a place of worship, or a military installation—as different sets of motivations are likely to drive the perpetrators to attack each of these particular locational categories.

Recent attacks against public venues include the following:

• July 20, 2012: 25-year-old James Holmes killed 12 and wounded 58 during a screening of “the Dark Knight Rises” at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

• December 11, 2012: 22-year-old Jacob Tyler Roberts opened fire at the Clackamas Town Center in Portland, Oregon, killing two people and wounding one person, before taking his own life.

• November 1, 2013: 23-year-old Paul Anthony Ciancia used a rifle to kill a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer and injured several other people at Los Angeles International Airport.

• November 4, 2013: 20-year-old Richard Shoop entered the Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus, New Jersey and proceeded to fire random shots with an automatic rifle before taking his own life (no other fatalities or injuries occurred).

As demonstrated by the relative frequency of the attacks against such targets, commercial facilities are attractive to active shooters because they are generally highly congested with people and the inherent vulnerabilities—particularly, unrestricted public access with a large number of entry points—create challenges for security personnel to protect.


Strategic Assessment

While the majority of active shooters who target public venues are generally unknown to their victims, many of these attacks are actually preventable, since such perpetrators exhibit risky behaviors and mindsets that can be detected prior to their attacks—although these behaviors will likely differ from one perpetrator to the next. For example: there might be a noticeable abrupt change in personal behavior, such as homicidal or suicidal tendencies; a traumatic personal experience, such as expulsion from school or a sudden job termination; expressions of intense personal grudge and an increase in ominous belligerence against others that might be expressed in person or on social media sites; a history of resorting to violence against others; and, significantly, a recent and unexplained acquisition of weapons and ammunition.


* J. Peter Blair, “United States Active Shooter Events From 2000 to 2010: Training and Equipment Implications,” Blair-UnitedStatesActiveShooterEventsfrom2000to2010Report-Final.


• The rate of active shooter incidents against public venues is likely to remain relatively frequent, particularly due to their attractiveness as highly congested and vulnerable targets   • The number of fatalities and injuries caused by such attacks is likely to continue to vary, with the majority of attacks causing low numbers of casualties, but with a few attacks, such as in Aurora, Colorado, resulting in mass casualties

• As demonstrated by the effectiveness of the quick response by public safety and emergency personnel at the Columbia, Maryland shopping mall incident, certain public venues are improving in managing such incidents, although improvements and upgrades may not be uniformly applied nation-wide.


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