Billions of dollars are spent on fire prevention in the United States each year even though far more people are murdered in this country than are killed in fires. The same emphasis needs to be placed on preventing mass killings.
Rarely a week passes by without a mass-killing incident in one of our communities. The perpetrators of these slaughters range from single individuals to multiple assailants and include both men and women ranging in age from pre-teen to elderly adults. Weapon choices include guns, knives and even bombs, with killing sites ranging from office buildings, supermarkets, movie theatres and other public venues to buses, trains and airplanes.
Just about anything one can think of has been cited as a motive: mental illness, disgruntled employees or students, personal disputes, anti-government feelings and the urge to commit a terrorist act.
With such a wide range of variables, narrowing down commonalities to take steps that can effectively prevent and deter mass killings seems like a daunting task. What guidelines do exist typically provide recommendations specifically for small targeted audiences such as school administrators, police departments or hospitals. It is time to look at effective recommendations that are applicable in a wide variety of scenarios.
Prevention starts with education. Our communities need to engage a wider range of stakeholders -- including local business owners, venue managers, school leaders and public agency leaders -- on security issues and prevention methods to avert mass-casualty attacks.
Awareness and reporting programs tailored to local communities need to be implemented to educate employees and managers about potential early warning signs that a person may become a mass-killing perpetrator. In many cases, educators, business leaders, venue owners, and family or friends of perpetrators have cited a change in behavior prior to the killings. If a person becomes increasingly antisocial or easily angered, purchases weapons or large amounts of ammunition, or speaks of plans to kill others even in a joking -- but consistent -- manner, the behavior needs to be reported immediately.
For reporting to work effectively, anonymous systems need to be in place to allow such reports to be made without fear of reprisal. At a higher level, collaboration with psychologists and law enforcement is critical to evaluate these reports and decide when it's necessary to intervene.
Hardening targets is also key, since studies have shown that mass killers are much more likely to attack where they expect no resistance until police arrive. Locking exterior doors and allowing only a single access point is very effective. Well-placed, visible cameras and security staff are also recommended. And facilities with large glass doors and windows should consider products to reinforce the glass so that it can't be shot out by an attacker.
Educational programs to raise awareness of proper weapon safety and storage is a critical step as well. Many killers have obtained guns and knives from parents or relatives who did not store them securely.
As part of a comprehensive program including all of these recommendations, local and state agencies should consider revoking gun permits and removing weapons from homes where possible suspects have been identified through reporting systems. More cooperation among mental-health professionals, law enforcement agencies, families of possible suspects and the judicial system is critical to making this work.
Beyond these general steps, there are always going to be needs specific to a particular situation. Governments and other organizations should consider engaging with a consultant or liaison who specializes in this area to regularly evaluate possible threats and new trends in mass killings.
Of course, we will never be able to prevent all mass killings. But these recommendations are a good start for governments and other organizations that want to minimize the chances that they will find themselves at the center of the next horrific attack.