The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Searching for answers and patterns after the Seattle-area school shooting

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The teenager who opened fire in his high school cafeteria last week, killing two people and injuring three others before taking his own life, did not seem to meet the stereotypical image that we often ascribe to the people who carry out these shootings. After shootings in California, Colorado, Maryland, Connecticut and Washington state in recent years, the picture that emerged was of a disturbed young man seeking to avenge some perceived injustice; in some cases, there were warning signs for months or years, while in other situations the clues were only visible in hindsight.

Those shootings, though, generally involved loners who fired at random, seeking to kill as many people as possible. Jaylen Fryberg, the 15-year-old identified by authorities as the shooter who attacked fellow students at Marysville-Pilchuck High School outside Seattle, was regarded as a popular, happy teen, who was a homecoming prince and a football player, one who belonged to the Tulalips Tribes, a prominent group in the Snohomish County region.

He did not attack at random, police say. Instead, he texted five friends — two of them his cousins — and invited them to lunch, Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary said, shooting them when they had gathered at the lunch table. A motive remains unclear, Trenary said. “I don’t know that the ‘why’ is something we can provide,” he said during a news conference. So it is difficult, right now, to conclusively say how this particular shooting relates to the larger epidemic of violence that seems to periodically erupt with gun violence in our schools, universities, movie theaters, shopping malls and beachfront towns.

However, there are ways that this shooting does fit a pattern that has emerged over the years. The FBI recently released a study of 160 “active shooter” incidents in the United States between 2000 and 2013. (“Active shooter” incidents involve a person armed with firearms trying to kill others in “a confined and populated area,” according to the FBI’s definition.) The study did not cover every type of gun violence — ignoring, for instance, accidental shootings or gang-related shootings — but it covered a range of these situations.

While we still don’t know why the shooting occurred (nor if any explanation will truly suffice), we do know that these gunmen frequently target their friends and loved ones. Nearly one in 10 active shooting situations studied by the FBI involved gunmen — and they were almost exclusively male — targeting family members. (And one in 10 of these incidents involved shooters going after current or former wives or girlfriends.)

Almost a quarter of these shootings occurred at schools, the second-most common environment after businesses. Shootings in schools, though, “account for some of the higher casualty counts,” the study noted. And most of these shootings in high schools and middle schools involved students at the schools. The shootings that involved businesses tended to involve current or former employees, something we saw just last month with the shooting at a UPS facility in Alabama.

But during other situations, the locations were “less significant than the victims targeted,” the study said, as gunmen targeted family members or girlfriends. We often hear about the shootings where a gunman opens fire in a mall or movie theater to wreak havoc, killing strangers with whom their lives only briefly intersected, but very often, the people targeted are some of those closest to the gunmen.

Perhaps most worrisome, the FBI study indicates that such incidents are happening more frequently. The study found that that the number of active shooting situations had increased in recent years, going from 6.4 such incidents each year from 2000 to 2006 before more than doubling to 16.4 incidents each year from 2007 through 2013.

These shootings spanned the country, occurring in 40 states and the District of Columbia, and they ultimately left 486 people dead (not including the shooters) and 557 people wounded (which included injuries other than gunshots, like being cut by shattered glass during such a situation). They draw our attention to the horror at this school or that shopping center, leaving permanent scars on the psyches of the communities and people involved, even as our eyes are drawn to the next shooting, the next spree, as we look for anyone who can provide the “why.”