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Study Finds Almost All Mass Shooters Have Four Things In Common

A new study -- one of the most comprehensive to date -- has found a series of alarming trends in America's long-running crisis surrounding gun violence and mass shootings.

Researchers at The Violence Project have spent the last two years painstakingly collating and analysing every detail of the last 53 years of mass shootings in America.

While mass shootings represent less than one percent of all firearm homicides in the country, the study has found that the attacks are becoming both more frequent and more deadly.

Twenty percent of the 167 mass shootings researchers studied occurred this century and a third took place in the last decade alone.

Last year saw the most mass shootings carried out in a single year, with a total of nine.

Where previous studies have, for the most part, focused simply on the immediate statistics of mass shootings, the Violence Project has created an interactive online database, looking at the reasons and circumstances leading up to each mass shooting occurring.

The study found that nearly all mass shooters have four things in common. Importantly, it also found that in all four of these commonalities there is usually opportunity for intervention.

Researchers believe this is critical to establishing future prevention strategies.

The study looked at mass shootings in the country since 1966 -- when the first highly publicised mass shooting took place in Austin, Texas -- and found nearly all mass shooters had experienced early childhood trauma, had an identifiable point of crisis, had studied past shootings to find inspiration and finally, had the means to carry out the attack.

Lead researcher Jillian Peterson said the lead up to a mass shooting event is a slow build over time.

"You do see intense childhood trauma, things like parental suicide, serious physical and sexual abuse, heavy bullying but that builds," she told CBS.

"Overtime you add in mental health concerns, you add in a real crisis point and then access to this script for this form of violence and the means to carry it out."

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Importantly, she added that while almost all mass shooters had been exposed to violence at a young age, the vast majority of people who experience childhood trauma won't go on to carry out these sorts of attacks.

Similarly, the research stressed that while mental health was a significant factor in mass shootings, people with mental health issues are much more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators.

Image: The Violence Project

The study also found that perpetrators of mass shootings will typically exhibit a marked change in behaviour in the days, weeks or months leading up to the shootings.

Peterson said this was typically a suicidal crisis, with 80 percent of perpetrators studied being actively suicidal and 78 percent leaking their plans ahead of time.

"If we can train people to be thinking about those signs of crisis and to not only recognise them but know what to do, who to report to, know what intervention strategies are in place in their workplaces of schools or churches... that's something we're really thinking about in terms of prevention," Peterson told CBS.

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A large part of those findings also comes from research into hundreds of instances where people had planned to carry out a mass shooting but someone or something had stopped them.

"You do find a lot of stories of people who were thinking of doing this, were in a really dark place and had seen others do this, were getting radicalised online, were gathering weapons but someone stepped in," Peterson said.

"What's inspiring is that often it doesn't take much to get someone through that crisis point," she added.

Long term intervention takes a lot, but just getting someone through that moment it can just be someone stepping in and being like 'are you ok?'

Researchers believe that knowledge can be useful not just for mass shootings but for crisis intervention, deescalation and suicide prevention.

Worryingly, the study also classified mass shootings as "socially contagious".

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"Perpetrators study perpetrators and when one happens the most concerning period of time is the week after because there tends to be more," Peterson said.

"People read about it online, they see the notoriety people get, they watch the manifestos that are shared."

The study, which was partially funded by the US Department of Justice, began in September 2017. It was just weeks before America's deadliest shooting in modern history, when a gunman opened fire from the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel room into a crowd of people at a country music festival, killing 58 and injuring hundreds more.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

Contact the author: vgerova@networkten.com.au