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Transcript: Dr. Jillian Peterson and Dr. James Densley on "Face the Nation," June 12, 2022

The Violence Project co-founders on mass shooters
The Violence Project co-founders on mass shooters, guns and prevention 10:34

The following is a transcript of an interview with Dr. Jillian Peterson and Dr. James Densley, co-founders of The Violence Project, that aired Sunday, June 12, 2022, on "Face the Nation."

JOHN DICKERSON: And we now want to go to two researchers who have been studying mass shootings to help policymakers stop the next one. Dr. Jillian Peterson and Dr. James Densley, of the Violence Project. Good morning to both of you. 


DR. JAMES DENSLEY: Good morning. 

JOHN DICKERSON: Dr. Peterson, I just want- I want to start with you. Let's talk- describe the scope of your work when it started and what your research consists of.

DR. JILLIAN PETERSON: Yeah, we started looking into the life histories of perpetrators of mass shootings about five years ago. And our goal was to try to understand where is this coming from? Why are we seeing this increase? And who are these perpetrators? So we built a database that includes 180 perpetrators, who killed four or more people in a public space, going back about 50 years. And we coded each of them on over 200 pieces of life, history, information, to try to look for patterns in the data. And we also conducted interviews with perpetrators themselves, people who knew them, victims, and experts in the field, to really try to add some data and analysis to understand where this is coming from and what we can do to stop it.

JOHN DICKERSON: So Dr. Densley, what composite were you able to come with- come up with? Or were you based on all of these data in terms of what the typical mass shooter is like?

DR. JAMES DENSLEY: Yeah, I think a lot of people are searching for a profile of a mass shooter. And we instead saw a pathway to a mass shooting. And we- we outlined that pathway in our in our book called "The Violence Project." So it starts with early childhood trauma. Many of these mass shooters have experienced some pretty horrific things in life, early in life. And this is unsettled, unresolved trauma that I think comes back later in life, and is part of what we describe as being a crisis point in these people's lives. Mass shooters are in crisis. These are individuals who are not living their best selves, they are questioning their place in the world, it's often a very sort of suicidal crisis, we see a lot of overlap between suicide and homicide in these cases. A mass shooting is intended to be a final act. And with regard to that, people who perpetrate mass shootings are searching for answers meaning in life, and so they go searching for the other mass shooters who've done these types of crimes previously. They identify with those individuals, they get radicalized in chat rooms online or reading the manifestos of these individuals. And then finally, the sort of last step with this is access to a firearm. And that's where we spend, obviously, a lot of time in the policy conversations, but we see all four of those steps as opportunities for intervention, their inflection points, and then places where we can intervene and prevent a mass shooting. And that's really the key here.

JOHN DICKERSON: So Jillian Peterson, one of the things you've written is that to change the mindset about the way we think about the shooters, that they are us, so how does that- that help in these moments of crisis? Where for example, would you seek a policy intervention? If you change that mindset, if that's the first step?

DR. JILLIAN PETERSON: Yeah, I think we tend to think of the perpetrators who do this is just these evil monsters kind of lurking out there. And of course, what they do is monstrous. But before they do it, they are our classmates, our nieces or nephews, our neighbors, their children going to the school. These tend to be insiders, not outsiders. So the most likely perpetrator of a school shooting is in the classroom. And when we recognize that I think it kind of shifts our mindset to make us start noticing some of these signs of a crisis to notice when people are leaking their plans or talking about this kind of violence or talking about suicide. And so our research really points to things like suicide prevention and crisis intervention training, building crisis response teams in schools and workplaces and having some of those systems in place to catch people before they do this.

JOHN DICKERSON: So Dr. Densley then it's about having therapists in every school? Is that a- I mean is that essentially what would be the best way to deal with these moments of crisis?

DR. JAMES DENSLEY: I think what's interesting about this is that a lot of the measures that we would take to prevent mass shootings don't just prevent mass shootings. So we're talking about measures with a broad diffusion of benefits. So, this is about trying to capture any student who's struggling in a classroom, or anybody in the workplace who is feeling out of place. And so it- it could be a case of getting therapists or counselors, I mean, we definitely want to improve the student counselor ratio in our schools. The investments in school security tend to be more physical measures. We don't recognize that smaller class sizes or having resources in a school for mental health is also school safety. And so this is a major component of this, because we're trying to prevent not just mass shootings, but also accidental shootings or suicides and other forms of gun violence. We're trying to ensure that people are thriving in their schools and in workplaces. It's all part of the solution to this problem. 

JOHN DICKERSON: Dr. Peterson, based on the work that you've done, I wonder if you could help me understand a couple of things. One, if these are insiders, in these instances, how does that affect these- the proposals to lock basically lock up the schools? Second thing, what does your research show you about these drills, the preparedness drills, as- as they deal with these students? And also if, if these are suicides, how does that affect the idea that a good person with a gun can stop a bad person with a gun?

DR. JILLIAN PETERSON: Yeah, I think once you recognize that the most likely perpetrator is a student in that school who is actively suicidal, and makes us think twice about some of these measures. So things like security, I think, make us feel secure. They look secure, it's something kind of tangible, but the reality is the most likely perpetrators is walking in and out of that security every day. You certainly want to have teachers and students prepared for the worst case scenario, but the most likely situation is that perpetrator is running through all of those drills along with everyone else. And if the perpetrator is coming in with a goal of being killed in the shooting, or killing themselves, we talked to perpetrators who said I did this shooting, because I wanted to go in and be shot by the school resource officer. So in that case, the good guy with a gun doesn't become a deterrent, it becomes an incentive in some of those cases.

JOHN DICKERSON: Dr. Densley, what should we take from your work as we think about limitations on gun ownership? For example, the perpetrator's age, how is that affected by these bills to raise the age to 21? What other when we think of the gun restrictions matches up with what you found in your research?

DR. JAMES DENSELY: Yeah, it's a great question. It's often such a divisive issue but I want to make sure that I preface this that we approach this as researchers and not as a sort of a partisan issue. And the evidence is actually very clear about this, which is, if you want to have a big impact quickly, then the action is with the firearms. And this is not about an infringement upon Second Amendment rights. It's around some reasonable common sense measures. And so some of the things that are being touted right now around - age restrictions for accessing an assault rifle, for instance, or safe storage and ensuring that that is enforced, or universal background checks, or doing something around magazine size and magazine restrictions for these firearms - the evidence is really clear that these measures could have prevented some of these mass shootings that have occurred that we have documented in the database. And that- they would ensure that these firearms are not falling into the wrong hands. Time and time again, we see these are individuals who are in crisis. So something like the red flag laws that are being discussed right now, for instance, are really quite interesting, because if this is a person in crisis, that's not the time that they should be going out and purchasing a firearm. And this would put a temporary restriction on someone's ability to do that. And again, it's just temporary, but it gets them the help they need, so that they're not using that gun for the perpetration of a mass shooting or any other sort of situation.

JOHN DICKERSON: Jillian Peterson, you studied the- the shootings where things went wrong. What about instances in which someone was stopped before one of these mass shootings? What have you learned from that?

DR. JILLIAN PETERSON: Yeah, we also studied cases where somebody planned to do a mass shooting and changed their mind, even cases where the perpetrator actually went into the school with the gun in his backpack and didn't fire it. What's interesting about these cases is time and time again, it seems to be a human connection, just a bit of hope that gets the person through that crisis point. It's somebody reaching out and connecting with them. I think it's- it's so important that we're talking about, you know, gun control and threat assessment and these bigger policies. But then at the end of the day, sometimes it's literally just a human connection with another adult or another person that can get them through the moment. 

JOHN DICKERSON: All right, we've run out of time. Thank you both for your work and for being with us today. And we'll be back in a moment.

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