Averting Tragedy: An Exploration of Thwarted Mass Public Shootings Relative to Completed Attacks

Published date01 September 2023
AuthorMichael Rocque,Madison Gerdes,James Alan Fox,Grant Duwe,Madeline Clark
Date01 September 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Averting Tragedy: An
Exploration of Thwarted Mass
Public Shootings Relative to
Completed Attacks
Michael Rocque
, Madison Gerdes
, James Alan Fox
Grant Duwe
, and Madeline Clark
Scholarship on mass public shootings has increased in recent years as comprehensive datasets have
become more available. As a result, much is known about the contextual and offender related char-
acteristics of such attacks. However, less research has been conducted on attacks that were planned
but ultimately did not occur. Understanding how mass public shootings may be thwarted or averted
is important for both policy and theoretical reasons. In this paper, we describe a new dataset of
averted mass public shooting threats (N=194) from 20002019 and compare them to mass public
shootings that were completed during this time (N =97). Several noteworthy ndings emerged,
including that nearly half of the averted cases were reported by a friend or acquaintance, most tar-
geted a specic location or group, and averted cases were more likely to involve school targ ets and
co-offenders. Implications are discussed.
averted mass public shootings, homicide, school violence, mass violence
Late in the summer of 2021, a 19-year-old male opened re at a pier in South Haven Michigan, injur-
ing two people before turning the gun on himself and ending his own life (Agar, 2021). When seem-
ingly random attacks occur, policymakers and the public alike often search for clues that it was going
to happen or information that could help explain such senseless actions. In this case, there was plenty
to point to; the shooter had been incarcerated as a juvenile three years prior for planning an attack on
his high school. Thankfully, that attack was averted, and the teen was required to undergo treatment
(Newman, 2018), but unfortunately this did not prevent his later act of violence.
Bates College, Lewiston, ME, USA
Northeastern University, Boston, MA, USA
Minnesota Department of Corrections, St. Paul, MN, USA
Corresponding Author:
Michael Rocque, Bates College, 2 Andrews Road, Lewiston, ME 04240, USA.
Email: mrocque@bates.edu
Criminal Justice Review
2023, Vol. 48(3) 277-299
© 2022 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/07340168221117107
Deadly mass shootings, particularly those occurring in public spaces, evoke much fear and
concern among the public (Brenan, 2019; Flaccus, 2021). Not only are these incidents more difcult
to predict than other crimes (see Duwe et al., 2021; Smart & Schell, 2021), but the sometimes indis-
criminate nature of the targets also engenders a distinct sense of vulnerability. Mass public shootings
have increased in the US in recent years, along with scholarship seeking to understand their causes
and consequences (Capellan & Gomez, 2018; Fox, 2020).
Nearly all of this work has been done on completed mass shootings. Examining planned but ulti-
mately thwarted mass shootings can be informative in terms of understanding such tragedies. This is
particularly the case at a time when threats at schools may be increasing, with 151 recorded in
September of 2021 alone (Densley et al., 2021). A comparison of completed and averted/thwarted
mass public shootings can advance understanding of the contributing factors to these deadly
events. Differences that emerge between the two may help explain why particular plots were foiled.
To date, a small body of research has examined averted school shootings (Daniels, Bradley, et al.,
2007; Daniels, Volungis, et al., 2010; Mads, 2014) and attempted mass homicides more generally
(Sarteschi, 2016), cataloging descriptions of the plots and would-be perpetrators. There are few
studies on thwarted mass public shootings plans (Silva, 2021a, 2021b; Silva & Greene-Colozzi,
2022). Silva (2021a) compared completed to averted mass public shootings from 20002019, pro-
viding a foundation for the current work. Given the recent focus in the social sciences, including
criminology on replication and robustness of results (Farrington et al., 2019; Pridemore et al.,
2018), additional research on understudied topics is warranted.
This study advances previous scholarship in several ways. First, we utilize a different dataset of
completed mass public shootings. Importantly, our dataset is part of a federally funded grant that will
be publicly available for replication and additional research. This supports the recent movement
toward open science in the social sciences in general and criminology in particular. Second, our def-
inition of averted mass public shootings is distinct from previous work. For example, we include both
planned and in-progress attacks, the latter of which Silva and Greene-Colozzi (2022) term failed
mass shootings. Finally, we expand on the incident and perpetrator information for comparative
Mass Public Shootings
The considerable interest in mass shootings shown by academics, the public, and policymakers is a
relatively recent development, which took off after 2012. In the 1980s, scholars and public ofcials
began to differentiate between serial killing and mass killing, the latter of which includes multiple
deaths in a relatively limited amount of time (Fox & Levin, 1998). In terms of fatality threshold, def-
initions vary but four or more is common (Duwe, 2020). A mass shooting, then, would be an event
with four or more shooting victims who died. A mass public shooting, which is the focus of this
paper, is a mass shooting that takes place in a public setting, not tied to any other crime, such as
gang conict and robbery (see for example, Duwe, 2020, Silva, 2021a).
Mass Public Shooting Context and Perpetrator Characteristics
Research on mass public shootings has focused on perpetrator, target, and contextual characteristics,
uncovering useful information for risk assessment and prevention. With an average age in their 30s,
mass public shooters tend to be somewhat older than other homicide perpetrators (Capellan &
Gomez, 2018; Duwe, 2020; Silva, 2021a, 2021b). They are also most likely to be white males,
although non-whites are disproportionately represented compared to their share in the general pop-
ulation (Duwe, 2020; Fox & DeLateur, 2014; Schildkraut et al., 2018; Silva & Capellan, 2019). In
addition, the average age of perpetrators is lower in school mass shootings, compared to those
278 Criminal Justice Review 48(3)

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