Emanuel AME Church (copy)

Emanuel AME Church. File/Staff

In January 2018, a Massachusetts woman did what she was supposed to do. 

She got on the phone, called the FBI tip line and for 13 minutes shared her concerns. 

A young man, the son of a family friend, was worrying her. On social media, he talked about killing people and showed off his guns. His mother had recently died. 

“I just want someone to know about this so they can look into it,” she said. “I just know I have a clear conscience if he takes off and ... just starts shooting places up.” 

It was the second tip the FBI had received that could have led them to a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. The young man would go on to shoot 34 students and staff members at the school, killing 17.

The woman's call came in more than a month before his attack. The FBI later admitted it should have done more. 

Sixteen months after the Parkland shooting — and four years after another massacre by a solitary gunman killed nine at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church — law enforcement officials are still grappling with how to identify and stop lone attackers before they carry out mass violence.

Emanuel AME Shooting Day 3 (copy)

A Charleston police officer takes down crime scene tape at Emanuel AME Church days after the 2015 shooting. File/Staff

Many times, like before the Parkland shooting, there are opportunities to step in before an attack occurs. Although lone attackers often isolate themselves, they regularly broadcast their intent to commit violence — in person, electronically or in other ways — which gives friends, family and authorities a chance to do something, said Indiana State University professor Mark Hamm, who studies terrorism and co-wrote the 2017 book "The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism." 

In one South Carolina example, a man last year pleaded guilty after he threatened to carry out an attack inspired by Dylann Roof, the Charleston church shooter. The Conway man posted anti-Semitic views on Facebook and talked on social media about his interest in getting a gun. The man's comments got the FBI's interest and he was later arrested by an undercover agent. 

After the Charleston shooting, a friend of Roof pleaded guilty to knowing that Roof had planned to attack worshippers at a Charleston church Bible study ahead of the June 17, 2015, shooting. In that case, the friend didn't share his knowledge until after people had died. 

While postings on the internet can show these warning signs before an attack, people can also now quickly and broadly access material that reinforces their extremist beliefs and stokes their anger. 

"You can go from a minor complaint to a full-on grievance overnight because you are so bombarded with information," Hamm said.  

Law enforcement officials share similar concerns.

“We’re seeing that same type threat in the domestic terrorism world where individual actors, lone wolves, insular-type people, can find their ideology to justify their violence and their actions online," Michael McGarrity, assistant director of counterterrorism for the FBI, said during a Congressional hearing last month.

McGarrity, during his testimony, said that tips from people and information-sharing between local, state and federal law enforcement officials are key to identifying and stopping attackers. Half of the FBI's domestic terrorism investigations are opened based on tips from the public or referrals from federal, state and local authorities, he said. The agency, McGarrity said, has about 850 "predicated domestic terrorism investigations." 

School Safety

A makeshift memorial is seen outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 students and faculty were killed in a February 2018 shooting. File/Gerald Herbert/AP

But as the Parkland shooting showed, speaking out to law enforcement isn't always enough.

The violent attacks by lone attackers have continued. Mass shootings at a Florida night club, a Texas church, a Pittsburgh synagogue and at a Virginia Beach city building are but a few of the deadly domestic attacks by a single gunman that have occurred since 2015. 

Hamm said fewer restrictions on firearms and bullets have made it easier for people to carry out large attacks in little time. More restrictions could make future attacks harder, he said. 

Virginia Beach Shooting Key Cards

A law enforcement official stands at an entrance to a municipal building that was the scene of a shooting the day before in Virginia Beach, Va. File/Patrick Semansky/AP

Peter Simi, a sociology professor at Chapman University in Southern California, said it is important that more people acknowledge that these attacks of mass violence are not new. White supremacists, like the Ku Klux Klan, and people inspired by them have carried out attacks domestically for over 150 years.

Simi, who has studied extremist groups and violence for decades, gave other suggestions for the present day:

  • Law enforcement agencies, and the public, should do more to try to understand the links between lone actors and violent attacks to see if they were inspired by extremist groups.
  • Comments from political leaders normalizing extremist and hateful views should cease.
  • Mental health programs and conversations about diversity need to happen with children at an early age.
  • And more study needs to be done on how the accessibility and ease of accessing extremist material online is affecting people. 

“I think we have a lot to learn," Simi said. 

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Reach Stephen Hobbs at 843-937-5428. Follow him on Twitter @bystephenhobbs.

Stephen Hobbs is a member of the Watchdog and Public Service team. He can be reached at (843) 937-5428.

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