Police Psychology: Active Shooter Events and News Media Reporting

Posted: September 7, 2017 in Public Information Bureau
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Police Psychology:  Active Shooter Events and News Media Reporting

Philip J. Swift, Ph.D.

It is well known that Active Shooter Events (ASE) constitute a threat to public safety in the United States. The overwhelming goal of an Active Shooter Offender(s) (ASO) is to murder and injury as many people as possible before being denied additional victims, even though the offender’s justification for committing an Active Shooter Event (ASE) varied from offender to offender. In the study “Active Shooter Event Severity, Media Reporting, Offender Age, and Location” I predicted that there was a correlation between the rate of news media reporting about an ASE, occurring in the United States between April 20, 1999, and June 15, 2016, and the severity of the subsequent ASE. I further predicted that the age and the regional location of the offender (ASO) would moderate the predicted relationship between the dependent and independent variables.  A lot of scientific talk, but let me explain.

The independent variable in this study was the number of news media reports about an ASE occurring in United States between April 20, 1999 and June 15, 2016 prior to the subsequent ASE.  The dependent variable was the casualty rate of the subsequent ASE. The two moderating variables were the age and regional location of the subsequent offender. This study was based on the hypotheses that: (a) Offenders learn from news media reports about previous Active Shooter Events (ASE) and use that information to become prolific murders and (b) firearm accessibility (as it is influenced by the age and the location of the offender) moderates the predicted relationship between media reports and causality. The number of ASE occurring over specified timeframe was calculated by counting the approximate number of news media reports about an ASE, published to ProQuest Central wire feed/newspaper/blog/podcasts/website database and Google News, prior to the next ASE.  The dependent variable was measured by the total number of individuals murdered and/or injured during the ASE (other than the offenders). The age of the offenders was calculated in years and was collected from news media reports and academic studies related to or about an ASE. The regional location of the ASE/ASOs was originally assigned using the regional boundaries outlined in the U.S. Census Bureau Regions and Divisions with states Federal Information and Processing Standards codes map (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015). An ASEs, was defined as any event in which an individual used a firearm to actively murder or attempt to murder people in a centralized populated area, resulting in the murder of four or more victims by firearm. Shootings stemming from gang or drug violence, pervasive, long-tracked, criminal acts, accidental shootings, public suicides, or did not represent a threat to the public were not categorized as Active Shooter Events.

At the conclusion of the study, the null hypotheses were retained meaning there was no effect, however the moderating effect of the location on the predicted relationship between the dependent and independent variable was not analyzed. Following the publication of this study, I reevaluated the original data and research to determine if the variable location could be quantified. Quantification of the variable location, based on the strength of regional/state firearm control legislation, would allow the moderating effect of the variable to be analyzed as originally intended.

In the study Effects of Policies Designed to Keep Firearms from High-risk Individuals Webster and Wintemute (2015) report that firearm importation increases in a state with strong firearm control legislation when it is surrounded by states with weaker firearm control legislation. Using the finding of this study and the data collected 2013 study Firearm Legislation and Firearm-related Fatalities in the United States (Fleegler, Lee, Monuteaux, Hemenway, & Mannix, 2013) the moderating variable “location” was quantified by averaging the firearm control legislation scores of the state in which a ASE occurred and the states bordering it. If an ASE state had weaker firearm control legislation then the average regional strength then the ASE state, the state’s individual score was used rather than averaged score. This process was used to ensure that firearm availability in a state was quantified accurately while accounting for illegal firearm importation in to more restrictive states. After quantifying the strength of the regional and state firearm control legislation the dataset was evaluated.  As in the original analysis, the null hypotheses were retained meaning it had no effect.  So, the states with weaker gun control surrounding the state where an incident occurred had no effect of the occurrence next incident.  That’s almost counter-intuitive, but it is following the data.

The lack of effect in both analyses does not discount the value of the original study. The original study served to highlight evidence that supports the Law Enforcement Officer’s belief that news media reports about ASE(s) were accessed and/or studied by some of the most prolific active shooters in US history. Harris’s and Kalbold’s (Columbine High School active shooters) interest in Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City Bombing mass murder) and other school shooters, Cho’s (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University active shooters) obsession with Harris and Klebold, and Lanza’s (Sandy Hook Elementary School active shooters) obsession with Harris, Klebold, and Cho are prime examples of this fact.  With empirical support for this LEO belief, additional research is needed to determine what impact the consumption of news media reports about violent events has on individuals who are not prone to violence and those that are. In other words, do active shooters seek out information about other active shooters or does information about other active shooters cause potential active shooters to carryout ASEs.

Finally, the inclusion of the regional firearm control legislation as a moderating variable and a lack of impact on the severity of ASEs is a crucial factor when considering commonly discussed ASE prevention and interdiction measures.  As reported by Blau, Gorry and Wade (2016) in the study Guns, Laws and Public Shootings in the United States “public shooting prompt debates about gun control with calls for legislation and regulations to limit the types and availability of firearms”. If firearm control legislation is not an effective means of limiting the rate and/or severity of ASEs then the resources used to debate this topic and/or create new firearm control legislation have been and will continue to be squandered. This approach should be revisited, and additional research is needed to determine if there are more effective means of limiting the rate and/or severity other than the passage of additional firearm control legislation.  In other words, controlling guns may not be the best way to control incidents.


Blau, B. M., Gorry, D. H., & Wade, C. (2016). Guns, laws and public shootings in the United States. Applied Economics, 48:49, 1-15. doi:10.1080/00036846.2016.1164821

Fleegler, E., Lee, L., Monuteaux, M., Hemenway, D., & Mannix, R. (2013). Firearm legislation and firearm-related fatalities in the United States. JAMA Internal Medicine, 173(9), 732-740. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.1286

Swift, P. J. (2017). Active Shooter Event Severity, Media Reporting, Offender Age and Location (Doctoral dissertation, Walden University).

U.S. Census Bureau (2015). Census Regions and Divisions of the United States. Retrieved from http://www2.census.gov/geo/pdfs/maps-data/maps/reference/us_regdiv.pdf

Webster, D. W., & Wintemute, G. J. (2015). Effects of policies designed to keep firearms from high-risk individuals. Annual review of public health36, 21-37. doi:10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031914-122516


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