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Assessment can prevent mass shootings

As Oregon and the nation debate the best way to respond to mass shootings in schools and other places, most of the disagreement stems from disputes between those who focus on gun restrictions and those who see those restrictions as an infringement on their rights that wouldn't prevent future violence. But there is another approach that everyone ought to be able to agree on: early intervention with individuals who show warning signs associated with mass shootings.

The FBI's Behavorial Analysis Unit works aggressively to head off potential shootings, often by getting high-risk individuals into treatment. In 2013, a year after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., the FBI's Behavioral Threat Assessment Center estimated it had prevented 148 potential mass shootings that year alone.

In Oregon, the Salem/Keizer School District has a nationally recognized, interagency program called the Mid Valley Threat Assessment System. The program combines a Student Threat Assessment System with a Threat Advisory Team focused on adults.

While there is no foolproof profile of mass shooters, there are recurring characteristics: most are male; most are white, between 20 and 40 years old. Many are loners from troubled families who may exhibit a fascination with guns, nurse grievances and have a mental illness.

The difficulty is that many people fit that profile who will never commit an act of violence. But in many cases when a mass shooting has occurred, those close to the shooter saw warning signs they either did not recognize or did not report. When reports are made, trained threat assessment specialists can respond and get the troubled individual they help they need.

The Salem/Keizer team had one early success that ultimately ended in tragedy. A story in Mother Jones magazine described the team's efforts to provide support for Erik Ayala, a McNary High School student who threatened to shoot classmates in 2000 and then was hospitalized after a suicide attempt. The newly formed threat assessment team gave Ayala counseling, tutoring and support from friends. That worked, until Ayala moved to Portland in 2009, where his support system lost track of him. He became increasingly depressed, bought a gun and opened fire outside The Zone, an underage nightclub, killing two and injuring seven.

In the successful part of that case, as in many others, the key was a classmate who reported Ayala's threat of violence, setting the intervention in motion.

Last month, two Josephine County high school students were arrested in separate cases after each issued threats of violence. In each case, someone reported the teenagers to authorities. One was released to his parents; the other, who had amassed an arsenal of firearms and stockpiled body armor and talked of shooting police, remained in custody at last report, charged with weapons-related crimes.

Even before a crime is committed, however, threats or other troubling behavior can surface, and friends, family members or others should not hesitate to notify authorities. At that point, a trained team can respond and perhaps prevent a tragedy.

Local school districts should explore creating a team like the one in Salem. State legislators could facilitate that by offering grants to offset the costs.

And all of us should be ready to speak up if a loved one or an acquaintance exhibits troubling behavior or makes statements about harming others. It may save more than one life.