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FBI unit works to curb gun violence

Holder says nearly 150 shootings have been avoided

Attorney General Eric Holder touted the work of a small FBI unit based in Quantico, Va.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Attorney General Eric Holder touted the work of a small FBI unit based in Quantico, Va.

WASHINGTON — The FBI says it has helped to disrupt or prevent nearly 150 shootings and violent attacks this year, in part by steering potential gunmen toward mental health professionals. It is an achievement that stands out during a year when President Obama made curbing gun violence a priority, yet has had little success in getting new restrictions enacted.

There have been hundreds of these disruptions since 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder recently told an audience of police chiefs, touting the behind-the-scenes work of a small FBI unit based out of Quantico, Va. In most cases, the FBI has helped potential offenders get access to mental health care.

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Preventing mass shootings through threat assessments and treatment is an unusual tactic for an agency known for its crimefighting and not for interventions.

One year after the deadly mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, the White House’s biggest efforts to curb gun violence — attempts to reinstate the assault weapons ban and expand background checks for all gun purchases — failed without congressional support.

Mass shootings like the rampages in Newtown, Conn., the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard, and the Aurora, Colo., movie theater do not represent the majority of gun violence.

Yet when they do occur, the shock waves are strong. Many times there is the question of whether the shooter had adequate mental health treatment to prevent it from happening. Yet, in the national discourse about reducing gun violence, mental health treatment has received much less attention than banning assault weapons.

The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit has been working with state and local authorities for years to profile potential offenders with the goal of preventing violent crimes like mass shootings.

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The prevented shootings and violent attacks from January through November represent 148 cases that a division of that unit, the Behavioral Threat Assessment Center, has conferred on during 2013. And that number is up 33 percent from 2012, Andre Simmons, unit chief of the center, said in an interview.

In the past year, this unit has received about three new cases a week referred by federal, state, local, and campus law enforcement, schools, businesses, and houses of worship, Simmons said.

The Behavioral Threat Assessment Center gets involved when someone notifies law enforcement, for example, about troubling behavior, and law enforcement reaches the center to help assess the situation.

‘‘The people around that subject often become fearful that that outcome is catastrophic act of violence, such as an active shooting or some type of mass attack,” Simmons said.

The center is staffed by agents and analysts of the FBI, the US Capitol Police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco, and Explosives, and a psychiatrist. It helps local officials assess the threat the person of concern poses. And then the center recommends how to proceed.

Depending how far along the person is on the pathway to violence, Simmons said, the center makes recommendations based on the specific case. The recommendations could be arrest, if the person is involved in illegal activity, but most often, it is getting that person access to mental health care, he said.

As an example, Simmons referred to a case his unit consulted on a few years back. There was a man at a university who began to display bizarre behaviors coupled with an increasing interest in firearms, Simmons said.

This man created a makeshift shooting range in the basement of his home where he lived with roommates, and he used pictures of the roommates as bull’s-eyes for target practice. He also was involved in animal abuse, Simmons said, and he was making statements that were troubling.

Collecting firearms and target practice are not illegal activities, but the roommates feared for their safety. So they alerted university authorities, Simmons said.

The university reached out to the FBI behavioral analysts and worked with them to develop a strategy. Working with mental health officials and campus police, a caretaking interview was arranged with the man, Simmons said. And that meeting resulted in a voluntary admission to a psychiatric facility.

‘‘Once in that facility, he was deemed to be of such compromised state, that it turned into an involuntary evaluation,” Simmons said. ‘‘And the attending physician noted as well that it was not really a question of if he would attack, but when, given the statements that he made and the thoughts he was disclosing.”

The center was launched in fall 2010. The unit’s existence is not common knowledge around the country. But awareness is growing, as the FBI has recently been sponsoring two-day conferences about the threat of active shooters, Simmons said.

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