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Rare Incidents Data Collection Methods to Advance Research on Mass Violence

National Institute of Justice
San Antonio, TX

Thank you and welcome. It is most gratifying for us at NIJ to host, interact with, and learn from our expert research partners. 

We appreciate that you’ve come from all over the country to convene with us here in San Antonio, Texas—the home of “The Alamo.” 

The Importance of Mass Violence Research 

I am David Muhlhausen, the Director of the National Institute of Justice. As you know, NIJ is the scientific research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. 

This is an important moment in time, and an important opportunity, to take stock of our collective, science-based knowledge of a subject of great urgency – that is, research to better understand and prevent mass violence. 

It is an urgent matter for NIJ, for the Department of Justice, for law enforcement everywhere, and for you who do this important work, because we’ve all seen that even one mass casualty incident is traumatic for our entire nation – whether it’s a mass shooting, a terrorist attack, or a school shooting. 

We need more and better tools to help stop mass violence – and in a minute, I’ll talk about some specific NIJ-supported research to be discussed in this meeting and about other NIJ initiatives to further that cause. 

NIJ and the Role of Science in Advancing Justice

NIJ is able to support your research today because half a century ago, Congress decided that a dedicated federal science agency was essential to the future of criminal justice work in America. 

Science is essential to the cause of criminal justice because science helps identify, solve, and prevent crime.

We at NIJ, through the expertise of our own scientists and our outstanding research partners, have been in prime position to strengthen the science that produces the kind of valid, objective data that advances justice solutions – on a multitude of fronts. 

Mass Violence Affects All of Us

Every bit of that work is important, of course. But few areas of inquiry for NIJ could be more vital – or timely – than the search for science-based solutions to the threat of mass violence. 

When young children perish in a school shooting, we all share that terrible sense of loss. 

When a lone shooter murders and wounds unsuspecting citizens at a concert, movie theater, and other public spaces, he takes aim at our collective sense of security and well-being. 

Mass violence affects all of us. 

A Need for Better Data, Common Terms, More Connections

We at NIJ accept our challenge to find better answers, through support of rigorous scientific study, to the Who’s, the How’s, and the Why’s of mass violence. What we do helps law enforcement and the intelligence agencies anticipate, intervene, prevent, and better respond to these horrific incidents going forward. 

It is our scientific mission to constantly strive for better data, a better understanding of what the data are telling us, better connectivity between data sources, and more consistent definitions of terms. 

We need to take full advantage of the rich, resourceful, and well-designed databases that many of you here have developed, are developing or are expanding. Further, we need to build bridges between the data sources that can help us see the whole picture, not just pieces of it. 

We need to be able to identify and apply all relevant data – including data from open sources, and not just official sources. 

We know we are on the path to meeting those goals, because so much excellent research is already in hand, with the promise of more to come. 

About This Meeting

We are excited about this meeting. It is unique in that it brings together scholars from three areas of NIJ-supported research – terrorism, mass violence, and firearms violence – in a setting where you all can learn from each other’s experiences. We from NIJ are here to learn from you all as well. 

And we really appreciate having so many leading authorities in these areas of scholarship with us here today.

We will learn from experts on terrorism who built and expanded seminal databases on terrorism such as the Global Terrorism Database, the American Terrorism Study, and the Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS). 

We will hear about research in process that is addressing: the causes of school violence, using open-source data, the psycho-social life histories of mass shooters, a comprehensive assessment of nearly 40 years of mass shootings, and a study of the nature, trends-and-correlates, and prevention of public mass shootings over many years. And we’ll learn about research on firearm purchase behavior and subsequent events.

The method, validity, and accuracy of data collection will be an area of special focus. There will be critical discussion of current models and methods, and how well they work in terms of capturing information, determining data validity and reliability, and addressing other data challenges. We’ll hear about methods of creating and expanding databases on rare incidents. 

We know that researchers on terrorism faced data challenges similar to those now facing mass shooting researchers. We can learn from their experience. 

Through our Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, we’ve funded an in-depth study of school shootings. We can ask, ‘How can the methods used in that research illuminate our study of mass violence incidents?’

Other NIJ Work on Point

All of this ties into work NIJ has been engaged in for decades. For example, NIJ has funded research on terrorism since 2002, and since 2012, we’ve supported several projects focusing on “radicalization to terrorism” – to understand the social conditions that can lead individuals to become terrorists. A goal of NIJ’s work on terrorism is to provide community leaders with data for bolstering resilience and developing communitywide responses that can prevent and counter terrorist threats. 

From the domestic radicalization research, we learned that lone actor extremists may signal their intent to engage in acts of terror as well as convey their grievances, ideologies, or desires to hurt others. We need to know if this pattern also emerges for mass shooters.

NIJ’s Gun Violence Research Portfolio dates back nearly 30 years. Since 2013, we have funded projects to develop data and methods for understanding the use of firearms in and other acts of violence. 

In the past two years, NIJ grant solicitations on firearm violence have cultivated research “that builds knowledge and informs policy and practice to reduce the incidence of public mass shootings.” The 2019 study awards will not be limited to incidents involving a certain minimum number of fatalities, but rather will encompass incidents “where there was an evident premeditated intent to kill multiple victims but the plan was either not carried out or resulted in less or no fatalities and injuries.” 

So we need to cast a wide net, and with these studies we will do so. 

Before I close, permit me to acknowledge and thank our own mass violence expert, NIJ social scientist Basia Lopez, who did so much to lay the groundwork for this meeting. 

Mass violence is everybody’s problem. The work you are doing is critical to finding solutions to that problem. We thank you for that work and for sharing it with us all over these two days. I believe these two days represent a critical step toward better solutions to mass violence, a vital objective for the National Institute of Justice and our nation. 

Thank you.