Nobody knows who he is, and nobody knows who he was. When he was a young man, his anonymity fueled his desperation, and for a short time, his desperation made him known. He was well-known enough to think that when he came home after eight and a half years in prison, there might be cameras waiting on his front lawn. There weren’t. There was just his family and the rest of his life.
So Trunk—a nickname he acquired when he went away—couldn’t be more anonymous. He works hard at his college studies, and his academic record is immaculate. He has ambitions. He has friends. He does not mind being anonymous or feeling alone, because he feels accepted and has accepted himself.
Trunk does, however, think often of the person who is out there right now feeling the way he used to feel. The person with a grievance. The person with a plan. The person with a gun—or an arsenal. The person we feel powerless against because we don’t know who he is. All we know is what he—or she—is going to do.
Mass shootings have become a feature of American life, and we know very well what follows each one: the shock, the horror, the demonization of the guilty, the prayers for the innocent, the calls for action, the finger-pointing, the paralysis, and, finally, the forgetting. We are so convinced the shootings can’t be stopped that we don’t even know if anyone is trying to stop them. And we are so convinced the evil they represent is inexplicable that we don’t try to explicate it.
But we are wrong: Mass shootings are not unstoppable, and there are people trying to stop them. They are not inexplicable, because every time Trunk hears of one, he understands why it happened and who did it. Trunk was almost one of them.
The outside of the building is nondescript by design. In an anonymous conference room inside the anonymous building, a man named Andre Simons sits at the head of the table. He is trim, compact, and alert, with a scalp shaved to a high shine, arched eyebrows, and preternaturally wide-open eyes. And he is the answer to the question of who is trying to stop the next shooting.
Within the FBI is the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime; within the NCAVC, there are the behavioral-analysis units, made famous by movies and TV for profiling serial killers. Simons is in charge of Behavioral Analysis Unit 2, which assesses threats. “Threat assessment” is a formal discipline—practitioners have their own professional organization and journal. And even though very few people know what it is, threat assessment is our country’s response to mass shootings, with Simons foremost among the federal officials trying to implement it on a national level.
Part of the shock of any mass shooting is the helplessness we feel in its wake—our inability to answer with anything more than stuffed animals and futile politics. When you start researching the question of what the United States is doing to stop mass shootings, what’s remarkable is the degree to which the arena has been turned over to the people who do threat assessment. Threat assessment is not just the best we’ve got; it’s all we’ve got.
Trunk, now 31, could be anyone from anywhere. When you look at him, you see somebody’s son; when you look again, you see a photo on the front page of the paper. He could be both. He has been both. Eleven years ago, he was arrested with a military-grade rifle slung on his back, a pistol in his belt, a machete, and 2,000 rounds of ammunition. He was dressed in black, and so were his two armed accomplices. To avoid charges of conspiracy and weapons possession, he pleaded guilty to carjacking and received a ten-year sentence. In prison, he had a nickname: Trunk Full of Guns.
Prison is, in his opinion, what saved him. “I was forced to learn social skills in jail. I’d never had the experience of talking to other people. In jail, I had no choice. If you don’t know how to talk to people, you get crushed.”
He also became reflective, especially when the prison TV showed the latest shooter. He knew shooters—he knew what they had gone through because of what he had gone through. So when he got an e-mail asking if he had ideas about stopping shootings, he volunteered to talk, if only so that others might assess the threat—and yes, the humanity—of people like him.
It started with a thought, Trunk says. “I’d be lying in bed wondering what I was doing wrong. Why didn’t anybody like me? … So I started thinking they were losers. I started thinking that they didn’t like me because they were afraid of me—because I had power and they didn’t. Because I was special. And that’s when it all really got started: when I began thinking I was special.”
Mass shooters have supplanted serial killers and possibly terrorists as a symbol of ultimate evil. Since 9/11, there have been 20 lethal terrorist attacks in the United States, resulting in the deaths of 46 people. According to USA Today, there have been 346 mass shootings (incidents in which four or more people are killed) since 1999, with some 15 percent described as “public” shootings—stranger to stranger. Nearly 1,700 people have died; many more have been wounded. What America feared after the 9/11 attacks—that it would be perpetually attacked by outsiders calling themselves Americans—finally has transpired, only with an awful twist: It is perpetually attacked by Americans who call themselves outsiders.
Mass shootings are like terrorism in that they are meant to terrorize. But that doesn’t mean shooters can be investigated as terrorists. For one thing, “the active shooter,” says Simons, “tends more often than not to be motivated by a deeply personal grievance tinged with feelings of persecution and humiliation, real and perceived, whereas terrorists are oftentimes going to be motivated by more ideological reasons.” For another, mass shooters are almost always American citizens.
When Simons is asked what his team does, he talks about what it doesn’t do. “We don’t do behavioral checklists. We don’t do stings. We are not proactively scraping the Internet for offenders … We react.” Instead, the agents depend on what Simons calls “the human bystander.” They depend on somebody giving someone else the creeps. Though he acknowledges that many bystanders are fragile resources—“it’s usually the people closest to an individual who are best positioned to observe those kinds of concerning behaviors and at the same time the most reluctant to report”—his team members have no choice but to wait for a concerned person to tell them about a person of concern.
We think of perpetrators of targeted violence as psychopaths—isolated, motivated, and conscienceless—or troubled individuals who “just snap.” According to the tenets of threat
assessment, they are neither. “The people who carry out these attacks typically do them out of a sense of desperation,” says Marisa Randazzo, a former Secret Service chief psychologist who is a managing partner at Sigma Threat Management Associates. “They typically have been of concern to people who know them for long periods of time. And when we did interviews with school shooters, they expressed a level of ambivalence that surprised me. Part of them felt they had to go through with it; part of them felt they didn’t want to at all. Part of them looked for encouragement; part of them looked for someone to stop them. The national mind-set is that they’re determined to go through with it no matter what. That is absolutely not the case.”
Next: The motivation behind the violence—and what can be done about it.