The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Treat mass shootings the way we treated terrorism

A crowd fills Pennsylvania Avenue during the "March for Our Lives" rally.
A crowd fills Pennsylvania Avenue during the "March for Our Lives" rally. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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Michael Leiter was director of the National Counterterrorism Center from 2007 to 2011. Michael A. Sheehan is a senior fellow of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy.

The 9/11 attacks spurred one of the most dramatic reforms in U.S. history. Policymakers created the Department of Homeland Security, coordinated watch-lists and a nationwide threat-reporting system, and reformed the FBI and the Justice Department. The changes were far from perfect, but the bottom line is clear: They made us far safer.

Why hasn’t similar effort been applied to prevent mass shootings? In 2017 alone, 117 lives were lost in public mass shootings. Although we don’t have a silver bullet, federal and state officials should learn from our counterterrorism intelligence successes to improve our defenses against mass shooters.

After the Parkland shooting, Dick’s Sporting Goods stopped selling assault-style firearms. CEO Edward Stack explains how it was “the right thing” to do. (Video: Kate Woodsome, Adriana Usero, Brandon Roudebush/The Washington Post)

The most notable post-9/11 reform was the elimination of legal and policy walls separating foreign intelligence organizations (principally the CIA and the National Security Agency) from domestic law enforcement (largely the FBI). The result — the National Counterterrorism Center — pulls together all types of intelligence regardless of the source or sensitivity and includes representatives from across the government. NCTC is thus the single locale where all the dots can be connected.

The FBI could create a similar fusion organization to combat mass shootings, bringing together all the relevant information, regardless of its source and sensitivity, for experts to analyze.

The FBI would lead the effort, but representatives from other federal agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Secret Service would be critical. The center would include staff — such as mental health professionals — who can understand the totality of the issue. No longer would the effectiveness of our response to mass-shooting threats be determined by local resources, local knowledge and parochial perspectives.

Part and parcel of such a “Mass Shooting Prevention Center” would be ensuring strong linkages among federal, state and local officials. As in terrorism, while the federal government has impressive expertise and broad legal authority, its resources are limited. The FBI has fewer than 14,000 special agents, but there are more than 900,000 police officers across the United States.

Thus, this center would be responsible for making sure that all tips and investigations are shared with local officials so that when the FBI cannot — or chooses not to — pursue cases, they are smoothly handed to local officials. Simultaneously, the center would be a one-stop shop for local officials who have concerns about an individual, allowing them to see whether other states or agencies have information to support their investigations. It would also serve as a repository for lessons learned and best practices for local agencies.

Finally, as we have seen across many terrorism and mass-shooting cases, perpetrators often leave important evidence on social media, but it is often not discovered until it’s too late. The overwhelming volume of online content, limited expertise and complicated policies prevent many officials from taking action.

Thankfully, we already have a model on which to build a solution. Today, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children provides a clearinghouse to which Internet service providers and social media companies are statutorily required to report inappropriate material. In fact, law enforcement already receives reports from the NCMEC.

Internet service providers could create a similar centralized database that identifies markers — such as hashtags and user names — related to terrorism or threatened violence. This database, or “black box,” could then be queried by select federal authorities. “Hits” against the database would not provide any specific information, but they could alert law enforcement to the potential of relevant materials. That might translate to a judicially approved search warrant or subpoena — giving law enforcement a chance to connect more “dots” while still protecting privacy and civil liberties.

Like the reforms of post-9/11, these institutional changes will not cure the country of mass shootings. Doing so will undoubtedly require additional steps, some of which — as is the case with our recommendations — are sure to run up against constitutional questions. But as we also saw post-9/11, meaningful reforms require that we tackle exactly such complex issues, because only then will we reduce the likelihood of attacks.

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