The Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church, which housed a memorial in November after more than two dozen people were killed in a shooting there. (Eric Gay/AP)

The attacks have taken on a numbing familiarity in recent years: five shot to death at an airport in South Florida. Twenty-six slain at a church in Texas. Five killed by a gunman rampaging through Northern California.

These violent outbursts last year, and others like them, had key things in common. Chief among them: Long before the violence, the people identified as attackers had elicited concerns from those who had encountered them, red flags that littered their paths to wreaking havoc on unsuspecting strangers.

This is a common thread in most of the mass attacks carried out in public spaces last year, the majority of which were preceded by behavior that worried other people, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center.

“Regardless of whether these attacks were acts of workplace violence, domestic violence, school-based violence or terrorism, similar themes were observed in the backgrounds of the perpetrators,” the report stated.

Every person blamed for a mass attack was a man, the report said. All of them “had at least one significant stressor within the last five years, and over half had indications of financial instability in that time frame,” the report found.

That included issues with family relationships, being fired or suspended from work and facing unstable living situations. More than half of them had histories of mental-health issues, criminal charges and substance abuse, the report said. And nearly half were fueled by some kind of personal grievance. Half of the attackers had patterns of making threats, while a third made specific threats to their eventual targets, the report found.

“Direct threats should be investigated, because a threat unchecked could escalate into an act of violence,” said Matthew Doherty, who formerly led the National Threat Assessment Center. “But the mere absence of a threat doesn’t mean somebody is not a danger. And that is a learning curve that many in law enforcement still need to grasp.”

The new report comes as the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., last month has prompted scrutiny of how law enforcement officials handled warnings about the alleged shooter before 17 people were slain in that massacre. Authorities were repeatedly told about the suspect’s potential for violence, including tips that specifically said he was amassing weapons and hoped to attack a school.

Doherty pointed to that shooting in stressing the need for law enforcement officials to listen to people who interact with and warn about potential attackers.

“That’s why it’s so important to draw that circle,” said Doherty, who is now senior vice president of threat, violence and risk management at Hillard Heintze, a law enforcement and security advisory firm. “What have they told others? What have they communicated [about] a potential act or capability to carry out an act of violence?”

[‘I’m constantly asking: Why?’ When mass shootings end, the painful wait for answers begins.]

He added: “There’s no such thing as an impulsive act.”

The report released Thursday studied 28 of these mass attacks, defined as those that injured at least three people in a public space. The studied attacks that occurred in 2017 left 147 people dead and injured nearly 700 others, most of them wounded during the Las Vegas shooting rampage.


A makeshift memorial after the Las Vegas massacre in October. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

According to the Secret Service report, 4 out of 5 attackers last year had “engaged in communications or exhibited behaviors that caused concern in others,” worrying relatives, friends, neighbors, teachers, co-workers and members of law enforcement. Some of those who were worried warned others about the person or avoided them; others contacted law enforcement or spoke to the person directly. For nearly half of the people later blamed for mass attacks, “those concerned feared for the safety of the individual or others around them.”

When attacks were carried out, the death tolls were, on average, larger for those attackers who had prompted concerns than those who had never worried anyone.

Some of the attacks included in the report received intense media coverage, including the Las Vegas massacre, the truck attack along a New York City bike path, the shooting rampage at a Sutherland Springs, Tex., church, the car attack that killed a woman in Charlottesville and the gunman who fired during a congressional baseball practice outside Washington.

In other cases, they were bursts of violence that devastated local communities, received some national attention and then faded from the headlines. Those included the gunman in Northern California who killed his wife and fired at strangers; the attacker who opened fire at a Tennessee church; the armed man who killed one person and injured two others inside a Kansas bar; and the gunman who made his ex-girlfriend listen as he opened fire at a pool party in San Diego.

Some of these showed the warning signs highlighted in the Secret Service report. Police said the San Diego shooter was “despondent” over a breakup; police records showed the accused Tennessee church gunman had previous encounters with police and that his father had worried he was suicidal.

Some of these violent attacks ended with the attackers killed, including the shooting at the congressional baseball practice and the rampages in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs. In other attacks, the cases are continuing to play out in court. The Kansas shooting gave way to hate-crime charges, while those charged with attacking people at the Fort Lauderdale airport and on a New York City bike path face federal charges and possible death sentences.

The report released Thursday echoes findings that have emerged in media coverage after mass attacks in the United States, which often find male attackers who had left behind trails of concern and reports of domestic violence. Some of its conclusions also echo an FBI report of active shooter incidents nationwide between 2000 and 2013, which found that mostly male attackers responsible frequently attacked businesses. That study also found that at least 1 in 10 of the incidents involved male shooters targeting current or former significant others.

Further reading:

The persistent crime that connects mass shooters and terror suspects: Domestic violence

Fort Lauderdale airport shooting suspect accused of domestic violence

Planned Parenthood shooting suspect was accused of violence against women

Gunman who opened fire on Congressional Baseball Game accused of grabbing teen daughter by the hair

Charlottesville car attacker’s mother said he hit her in the head, threatened and spit on her