Two Minnesota professors who have compiled a comprehensive database of mass shootings in the United States are taking their work to lawmakers, school leaders and law enforcement officials in hopes of preventing future tragedies.
Hamline University Prof. Jillian Peterson and Metropolitan State University Prof. James Densley are hosting a training session Friday in downtown St. Paul to discuss their preliminary findings and mass shooting prevention strategies. More than 200 people from across Minnesota and the country are scheduled to attend the sold-out session.
The professors also will present their findings to a Minnesota House committee in early February.
The aim is to use the data, said Peterson, a psychologist, “to design prevention strategies so we can get to a point of preventing a mass shooting vs. just reacting once it happens.”
They’ve made their “Mass Shooter Database” publicly available, drawing international media attention. The data set has been downloaded by researchers, policymakers and journalists more than 1,000 times since late November.
“We are really encouraged by that. There are a lot of people interacting with the data and may be able to use it with the goal of prevention,” said Densley, a sociologist.
Peterson, Densley and a team of students researched and coded more than 100 data points for every mass shooter in the United States since the 1960s. They interviewed witnesses, scoured news accounts and court files and recorded data ranging from childhood trauma and criminal history to birth order.
The database includes more than 170 mass shooters, according to the federal government’s definition — the killing of four or more people in a public space, excluding gang and family violence.
The incidents add up to more than 1,200 people killed at schools, offices, churches and restaurants and include two shootings in Minnesota: the 2005 school shooting at the Red Lake Indian Reservation and the 2012 workplace shooting at Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis.
The database, done under the auspices of the Violence Project, the professors’ nonpartisan think tank, is one of three research projects focused on mass shootings to receive funding from the National Institute of Justice, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Some of the preliminary findings: Most school shooters targeted schools they were attending or had attended, raising questions about the value of mass shooting drills.
“When the shooters are going through the drills themselves, that may not be the best way,” Peterson said. “Are we showing the shooters where the vulnerabilities are?”
Also, school shooters don’t plan exit strategies. The shooting event is a suicide and a sign of a person in acute crisis, she said. Some shooters may share their dark plans, but those they confide in often stay silent for fear of further harming the person in crisis. That knowledge could open the door to intervention with mental health services, Densley said
Rep. Kelly Moller, D-Shoreview, plans to attend Friday’s training session and is working to have Peterson’s and Densley’s research shared more broadly with lawmakers.
“I know they’ve gotten some national attention. I am really excited for the opportunity to go,” said Moller, a member of the Education Policy and Public Safety committees. “This is going to give me some more information for me to do my job.”
Aiding policymakers is one of the primary reasons the professors embarked on the project, noting that emotions and political partisanship often dominate the public conversation around mass shootings.
“We just felt dissatisfied with the level of discourse and the level of knowledge about mass shootings,” Densley said.