Today at least 31 people were killed by gunfire at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, in senseless violence. Early reports suggest that the perpetrator was a boyfriend of a Virginia Tech student who was “looking for his girlfriend.”
But whatever the proximal cause of this tragedy, the larger question is how we can prevent such incidents in the future. In the wake of the Columbine shootings, one report (PDF) from the National Institute of Justice suggests that as many as two-thirds of these seemingly random occurrences are preventable. Large attacks are planned, and attackers reveal their plans to others. In one case an attacker had told so many friends that 24 fellow students gathered to watch the planned confrontation.
The report found that profiling students was not effective: there was no common profile of the “school shooter.” More important is looking for the warning signs:
In more than half the cases, the attacker’s behavior caught the attention of more than one person. Behaviors that led others (e.g. school officials, police, fellow students) to be concerned included those related to the attack, such as efforts to obtain a gun. But they also included behaviors not clearly related to the attack. More than three-fourths of the attackers threatened to kill themselves, made suicidal gestures, or tried to kill themselves before their attacks.
So, it seems, that efforts designed to address suicidal behavior and prevent suicide attempts may have the added benefit of protecting others from the senseless violence of those whose mental problems have led them to contemplate killing themselves. The number of suicides in the U.S. each year is nearly double that of homicide, so addressing the suicide problem is no less urgent than the homicide problem.