Threats are made for a variety of reasons. A threat may be a warning signal, a reaction to
fear of punishment or some other anxiety, or a demand for attention. It may be intended to taunt;
to intimidate; to assert power or control; to punish; to manipulate or coerce; to frighten; to
terrorize; to compel someone to do something; to strike back for an injury, injustice or slight; to
disrupt someone’s or some institution’s life; to test authority, or to protect oneself. The emotions
that underlie a threat can be love; hate; fear; rage; or desire for attention, revenge, excitement, or
Motivation can never be known with complete certainty, but to the extent possible,
understanding motive is a key element in evaluating a threat. A threat will reflect the threatener’s
mental and emotional state at the time the threat was made, but it is important to remember that a
state of mind can be temporarily but strongly influenced by alcohol or drugs, or a precipitating
incident such as a romantic breakup, failing grades, or conflict with a parent. After a person has
absorbed an emotional setback and calmed down, or when the effects of alcohol or drugs have
worn off, his motivation to act on a violent threat may also have diminished.
In general, people do not switch instantly from nonviolence to violence. Nonviolent
people do not “snap” or decide on the spur of the moment to meet a problem by using violence.
Instead, the path toward violence is an evolutionary one, with signposts along the way. A threat
is one observable behavior; others may be brooding about frustration or disappointment, fantasies of destruction or revenge, in conversations, writings, drawings, and other actions.
Types of Threats
Threats can be classed in four categories: direct, indirect, veiled, or conditional.
A direct threat identifies a specific act against a specific target and is delivered in a
straightforward, clear, and explicit manner: “I am going to place a bomb in the school’s gym.”
An indirect threat tends to be vague, unclear, and ambiguous. The plan, the intended
victim, the motivation, and other aspects of the threat are masked or equivocal: “If I wanted to, I
could kill everyone at this school!” While violence is implied, the threat is phrased tentatively —
“If I wanted to” — and suggests that a violent act COULD occur, not that it WILL occur.
A veiled threat is one that strongly implies but does not explicitly threaten violence. “We
would be better off without you around anymore” clearly hints at a possible violent act, but leaves
it to the potential victim to interpret the message and give a definite meaning to the threat.
A conditional threat is the type of threat often seen in extortion cases. It warns that a
violent act will happen unless certain demands or terms are met: “If you don’t pay me one million
dollars, I will place a bomb in the school.”
Factors in Threat Assessment
Specific, plausible details are a critical factor in evaluating a threat. Details can include
the identity of the victim or victims; the reason for making the threat; the means, weapon, and
method by which it is to be carried out; the date, time, and place where the threatened act will
occur; and concrete information about plans or preparations that have already been made.
Specific details can indicate that substantial thought, planning, and preparatory steps have
already been taken, suggesting a higher risk that the threatener will follow through on his threat.
Similarly, a lack of detail suggests the threatener may not have thought through all of the…
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Four assumptions frequently arise in the aftermath of mass shootings in the United States: (1) that mental illness causes gun violence, (2) that psychiatric diagnosis can predict gun crime, (3) that shootings represent the deranged acts of mentally ill loners, and (4) that gun control “won’t prevent” another Newtown (Connecticut school mass shooting). Each of these statements is certainly true in particular instances. Yet, as we show, notions of mental illness that emerge in relation to mass shootings frequently reflect larger cultural stereotypes and anxieties about matters such as race/ethnicity, social class, and politics. These issues become obscured when mass shootings come to stand in for all gun crime, and when “mentally ill” ceases to be a medical designation and becomes a sign of violent threat.
In the United States, popular and political discourse frequently focuses on the causal impact of mental illness in the aftermath of mass shootings.