American Psychiatric Association

Certain Behaviors Can Warn Clinicians About Impending Mass Shootings, Targeted Violence

A decade of research has uncovered certain behavior patterns that may predict an individual’s propensity for committing acts of targeted violence that are planned and purposeful, such as last week’s mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., according to a speaker today.

Among these proximal warning behaviors, one of the most frequently observed is called “pathway” behaviors. Such behaviors involve researching, planning, and preparing for an attack, according to J. Reid Meloy, Ph.D., a forensic psychologist and clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego. Meloy has served as a consultant with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit for 20 years and at today’s session was presented the 2022 Manfred S. Guttmacher Award for his book International Handbook of Threat Assessment.

J. Reid Meloy, Ph.D. (left), is the winner of the Manfred S. Guttmacher award for the book International Handbook of Threat Assessment, which he co-edited with Jens Hoffman. The award is co-sponsored by APA and the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Typically the pathway behaviors are set in motion by a grievance the individual develops, Meloy said. For example, Sirhan Sirhan, who had a traumatic upbringing in Palestine before eventually assassinating Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and wounding five others in June 1968, idealized Kennedy from afar as a father figure. However, Sirhan developed a grievance against Kennedy after the senator voted in favor of sending 50 Phantom fighter jets in support of Israel.

Sirhan soon began practicing rapid fire shooting with a .22 revolver at a shooting range. He also made four stalking attempts of the senator, which Meloy called an example of “probing and breaching,” behaviors that may suggest an attack is imminent.

A personal grievance was also seen in the case of Jared Loughner, who killed six people and wounded 13 others, including former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, at a meeting with constituents outside a Tucson, Ariz., supermarket in 2011. Loughner harbored a grievance for two years prior to the attack against Giffords after she chose not to answer a question he asked her at a previous event.


Research shows that only one-quarter to one-half of individuals who engage in targeted attacks have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, Meloy said. So it is more important to “focus on an individual’s behaviors in the moment and whether the person is moving on a pathway to violence, rather than to quibble over the diagnosis.”

Another frequently seen behavior prior to attacks is “leakage,” which refers to an individual’s communication to a third party of an intent to do harm through an attack. Prior to assassinating Kennedy, Sirhan told a trash collector that he was going to kill Kennedy. Similarly, prior to the recent mass shooting at the Buffalo grocery store, alleged shooter Payton Gendron informed 15 people of his plans to attack in a private chatroom.

Leakage occurs in the majority of cases—60% to 90%—of targeted violence and often opens the door to investigation of an individual, Meloy said. While most leakage events do not result in an attack, Meloy said he believes all should be investigated.

Identification with previous attackers/assailants, or as pseudocommandos/warriors, or as agents to advance a particular cause or belief system is also frequently associated with targeted attacks, Meloy said. Nikolas Cruz posted on a social media site “I’m going to be a professional school shooter” before he killed 17 students and staff and wounded another 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.


The least frequently observed warning behavior is the directly communicated threat, which occurs in less than 20% of cases, Meloy explained. For example, Anthony Quinn Warner, the suicide bomber who targeted a commercial center in downtown Nashville, Tenn., on December 25, 2020, used a loud audio recording device warning all individuals who could hear the message to evacuate the area.

Meloy said many clinicians mistakenly believe that if there’s no directly communicated threat, there’s no risk. “You cannot depend on the absence of the direct threat as a means of assessing whether a person poses a risk of attack,” Meloy said. “These individuals want a high body count and for their attacks to be as effective as possible and as innovative as possible to build their audience and draw people to their cause.” ■