September 17, 2013 in City

FBI agent questions potential Spokane mass shooting data

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Numbers crunched by a reporter for Atlantic magazine point to Spokane as a likely location for America’s next mass shooting, but an area FBI agent says the study is without merit.

Using data provided by left-leaning investigative magazine Mother Jones, the Atlantic’s Philip Bump profiles the likely culprit of the next episode in which at least four people will be shot and killed in a public place. According to Bump’s research, the next mass shooter will likely be a 38-year-old white man who is mentally disturbed. He will open fire in Feb. 12, 2014, killing seven people in Spokane with a gun purchased legally.

Frank Harrill, the FBI supervisory senior resident agent in Spokane, said the overly specific details in Bump’s analysis “takes it into the theater of the absurd.”

“I understand sort of the broad construct of what he’s trying to do,” Harrill said. “But I think it veers into something that is without validity.”

Bump stressed that the prediction is based on statistical probability, and the specificity of the prediction does not make it more likely the events will come to pass.

“There’s almost no way this will all come true,” Bump, who is based in Manhattan, said.

Bump, who said he does a fair deal of data analysis work as a political writer with the magazine, was prompted to run the analysis by Monday morning’s shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. The FBI said 34-year-old Aaron Alexis, a defense-industry employee, opened fire on workers from a balcony in one of the complex’s buildings. He killed 12 people before police gunned Alexis down.

While Washington state, and Spokane specifically, are likely candidates because of population numbers, Bump said the most certain prongs of the prediction are that the shooter will be a white man. According to Mother Jones’ numbers, which include an account of the June 1994 Fairchild Air Force Base shooting that killed 5 people and wounded 23, about two-thirds of mass shooting incidents occurring since the early 1980s have been perpetrated by white suspects, and only one of the shootings was carried out by a woman.

“If I had $1 million to bet on the next shooting, I would bet $900,000 on the man, and another $100,000 on the fact that it’s a white man,” Bump said.

The inclusion of the Fairchild shooting ties into the predicted likelihood of a future event, using Bump’s methodology. There were four reported incidents between 1982 and 2012 in Washington state, including two in Seattle. Using Bump’s analysis, that makes a shooting much more likely in the relatively less populated state of Washington as opposed to California or Florida.

Bump said conducting statistical analysis enables more robust predictions, which in turn enables local law enforcement and others to remain vigilant in spying warning signs for future attacks. For example, the data suggest a closer look at how firearms are sold, with more than 80 percent of the weapons used in mass shootings involving guns that were bought legally.

But Harrill said such analysis merely points to a shooting occurring in a city having the same traits as Spokane, not the city specifically.

Bump also used the connection between mental illness and mass shooting events to pinpoint Spokane as a likely site for the next shooting. According to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control, the Western region of the United States had the largest increase in the number of adults reporting “serious psychological distress” between 2009 and 2011.

While the numbers may clue in the public to warning signs for the next mass shooting, Bump warned against alarmism. He also hopes his predictions don’t come to pass.

“Our sincere hope is that every prediction we made is wrong because no mass killings happen again,” Bump wrote.

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