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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

What Soft Targets Can Learn from the California Mass Shootings

Through information, assessment, and action soft targets don’t have to accept vulnerability and potential violence as inevitabilities.

The recent mass shootings that stunned California communities two days and nearly 400 miles apart had divergent motives, but the killers similarly picked multiple soft targets. Countless venues, stores, workplaces, and other locations that traditionally don’t have hardened physical security baked into their facilities may understandably react to these shootings with alarm about their own security posture. If dance halls and mushroom farms can be targeted in mass shootings – and an LGBT bar in Colorado Springs, and a grocery store in Buffalo, and a Walmart in El Paso, and a music festival in Las Vegas, et al – how can an otherwise unremarkable location predict that they could be targeted by a gunman or prepare for the chance however remote?

There are takeaways from the California mass shootings that can help inform potentially vulnerable locations as they assess their preparedness.

Huu Can Tran, 72, opened fire on patrons celebrating the eve of the Lunar New Year on Jan. 21 at Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, Calif., killing 11 people between the ages of 57 and 76 and injuring nine. The dance party was being held from 8 p.m. until 12:30 a.m., and shots were first reported at 10:22 p.m. Using a semi-automatic MAC-10 variant with a 30-round magazine, the gunman fired 42 shots in the dance hall, sheriff’s officials reported.

Just over four miles away and minutes after the Monterey Park shooting, the gunman walked into the Lai Lai Ballroom in Alhambra. He was confronted in the lobby by Brandon Tsay, whose family owns the establishment, and after a struggle Tsay undoubtedly saved lives by wresting the gun away from Tran. The next day, Tran died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head as police approached his van in a Torrance parking lot.

Tran had one arrest on his record: in 1990, police questioned him for carrying a revolver that he said was for protection as he followed a liquor-store-robbery suspect. Two years later, he claimed to police that his life was being threatened by relatives of a woman he had been dating.

Why did he target the dance studio? Law enforcement officials aren’t sure. Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna told reporters that Tran had not been to the Star Ballroom Dance Studio for five years and officials “have not been able to establish a connection between the suspect and any of the victims thus far.”

Two days after the Monterey Park shootings, a pair of farms on the Central California coast were attacked with a clearer and all-too-familiar motive: workplace violence. Chunli Zhao, 66, is accused of killing seven people and critically wounding one more after opening fire with a legally purchased semi-automatic handgun at the Mountain Mushroom Farm/California Terra Garden at 2:20 p.m. followed by a shooting nearly three miles away at Concord Farms, where Zhao had worked seven years ago. At 4:40 p.m., Zhao was arrested as he sat in his parked car outside a San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office substation.

The shooter targeted current and former co-workers, telling NBC Bay Area in a jailhouse interview that he had been bullied, that his supervisor did not address his concerns about working long hours, and that he believes he suffers from mental illness. A witness reported that the gunman appeared “very angry” but was “laughing” and “smiling” after shooting his initial victims. Last July, another worker at the California Terra Garden farm was arrested and charged with attempted murder for allegedly firing a handgun at another employee’s trailer.

In 2013, a temporary restraining order was issued against Zhao after a roommate and co-worker at a restaurant in San Jose said Zhao tried to suffocate him with a pillow and threatened to kill him if he wasn’t able to return to work. The San Mateo County District Attorney said that Zhao was incensed about a $100 bill he had been told to pay for damaging a forklift on the job. Zhao blamed the equipment collision on a co-worker, and allegedly shot the co-worker, the co-worker’s wife, and the supervisor who told Zhao to pay the repair bill.

Two shooting sprees two days and hundreds of miles apart, with random victims in one and targeted individuals in the other, with entertainment venues barely connected to the shooter in Southern California and workplace violence on the Central Coast.

Yet there are common denominators. The shooters hit or attempted to strike multiple sites (of like kinds – dance studio to another dance studio, farm to another farm) that were a short drive apart. The first target for the Southern California shooter was a ballroom he had not visited for years, underscoring that known targets – ones that might be connected in some way to animus – can stick with potential attackers. Neither shooter was known by law enforcement to be a violent threat. Both shooters were older Asian males, which is unique: according to statistics on 180 perpetrators of mass attacks in public spaces from 2016-2020 compiled by the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, only 7 of those were of Asian descent and only 5 out of the 180 were over age 65.


Given the aforementioned attack trends and shooters from two low-incidence demographics striking within such a short timeframe, it begs the question of whether the Half Moon Bay shooter was inspired to any degree by the Monterey Park shooter. Simply the knowledge of an attack happening or certain available details can be enough of a push for a potential attacker already teetering on the edge. In the NTAC review, 93 percent of attackers had experienced a major stressor – such as family, work, financial, health, or court problems – within five years prior to the attack; for 49 percent, the triggering or accelerating stressor occurred within a month of the attack. Add to that pressure cooker some breaking news about another person seeming to “snap” and conducting a mass attack, and a person close to the breaking point could quickly see himself in the killer’s shoes.

If a killer’s actions are known – regardless of whether he or she is publicly identified officially or on social media, or whether the name is withheld by law enforcement, or whether it is withheld by media in an effort to tamp down the killer’s notoriety – the crime can inspire copycats. This inspiration can materialize in ways that do and don’t mirror the first attack. Copycats could be inspired to act out of a shared ideological motive such as white supremacist killers who repeatedly cite Brenton Tarrant’s 2019 mosque mass shootings in Christchurch, they could be inspired to mimic a certain tactic or target regardless of the ideology that compelled the original killer, or they could be replicating the killer’s general actions – i.e., conducting an attack in a location or manner likely to result in high casualties – because of curiosity, envy, or a belief that the shooter must have felt a certain way when he finally gave into his violent impulses and the would-be attacker wants to feel that way too.

Who might attack?

At their core, regardless of grievance or ideological motive, mass shootings are rooted in a perpetrator’s desire to recapture, wield and exert power. Sometimes this is explicitly detailed in online posts or manifestos left by killers. Shooters motivated by incel ideology want to exercise power and control over the women they think have shunned them and the men who have relationships with those women. White supremacists fear losing power to other racial and ethnic groups. Conspiracy theory extremists, such as the 2016 Comet Ping Pong shooter, believe that they need to take back power from whatever perceived puppetmasters play the villain in said theory. Islamist extremism operates from the belief that they are proxies for divine power and must convert the world by violence. Militia extremists find a sense of power in their paramilitary training and in the belief that they are the last line of defense and, at times, offense. Sovereign citizens believe that power is theirs to exercise without the power of the government or law-and-order structures. Shootings motivated by domestic violence are an attempt by the perpetrator to exert power and control over a partner they feel has wronged them and potentially others they may believe have played a role in their relationship troubles. Current or former employees who escalate to workplace violence can be driven by powerlessness they may feel from a layoff or other situations in the work environment, propelling them on a quest to assert power and control over the workplace and often target higher-ups in positions of power. Shooters who have been bullied try to assert power over their tormentors or perceived tormentors, when they also kill people other than those who previously interacted with the perpetrator.

It’s then valuable to assess what a potential shooter feels he might gain from attacking a specific target, either the location or the people within. Is he aiming to be amplified as a hero among extremist networks that frame their motives in war imagery and rhetoric? Does he want people with whom he has had previous contact such as work or personal relationships to witness or fall victim to the attack? Or will the target and the victims be more a matter of chance – a soft target of opportunity such as the July 4, 2022, parade attack in Highland Park, Ill. – and the killer will feel more amplified by their choice of weapon or the overall attack plot?

While the California shootings demonstrated that the profile of a mass shooter can fall outside of historical trends, the NTAC study does reveal patterns: only 5 of the 180 attackers were female (not surprising as extremist messaging across the ideological spectrum, for example, consistently pushes the narrative that a man should embrace violence to further their goals or worldview), the average age was 34 years old, 57 percent were white, 64 percent had a prior criminal history with the majority of those nonviolent offenses, and 41 percent had a history that included at least one domestic violence incident for which they often did not face any charges. Thirty-four percent had a history of substance abuse and 58 percent experienced mental-health symptoms including depression, psychotic symptoms such as paranoia or delusions, or suicidal thoughts at some point before or during their attack. Twenty-six percent ascribed to a conspiratorial, topic-specific, or hate-focused belief system such as antisemitism or racial supremacy. And 63 percent of all attackers in the study had an online presence through blogs, social media, chats, etc., with 23 percent of all attackers previously posting concerning content online such as threats, references to previous mass shootings, and hateful or violent posts.

What will be a targeted location?

In 53 percent of the attacks studied in NTAC report, the attacker had no known connection or affiliation (such as an employee, customer, student, resident, etc.) to the attack location. Sixty-eight percent of attacks killed random victims (who could share characteristics such as ethnicity or religion) instead of targeting specific individuals. Knowing that many people are planning violence in the spaces – with few or no witnesses as deterioration progresses to the attack planning stages – soft targets may be left without any indicators to warn them to assume an enhanced security posture.

The “softest” point to attack is going to differ by venue. First is to consider what may be likely to make a place a desirable target to an attacker. There could be a symbolic nature to the attack and the target (such as the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting or the 2016 attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando), an employee working at the establishment who has a restraining order against a spouse, a workplace with a pattern of low morale and ongoing conflicts or incidents, or even a soft-target’s juxtaposition to a high-profile target. Additional variables include the nature of the event: Is it open-air with ways to get around security, is the topic likely to stir hate or is it controversial, will it be especially crowded and centralized or dispersed, is it large with a hard-to-enforce perimeter like in the 2019 Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting?

The Monterey Park shooter’s selection of the two dance halls – the first, one he hadn’t been to in half a decade – suggests that he may have picked the location because of target confidence: knowing the general layout of the facilities and an escape route, the size of crowd that would have been dancing that night, the size of the crowd halfway through the evening as the clock inched closer to Lunar New Year, and the degree of distraction due to music, dancing, lighting, and celebration in a setting where the jovial attendees would feel impervious to bad events.

The Half Moon Bay shooter’s decision to target Concord Farms after killing co-workers at his current place of employment also points to an attacker seeking target familiarity while underscoring just how long a former employee of concern may hold a grudge.

Expect copycats – but not necessarily ideological ones

While the March 2021 mass shooting at the King Soopers store in Boulder, Colo., has not been deemed terrorism and the suspect is still regarded by the court as mentally incompetent to stand trial, that didn’t stop al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from releasing a special online guide soon after the attack to assess what was done well by the attacker and what could have been done to inflict more harm. Al-Qaeda praised the shooter’s choice of weapon and target – “a place where people gather, which can bring about the largest number of deaths” during a “time in which people gather to take the Corona vaccination” – while insisting that attackers shouldn’t be taken alive and should issue statements before or during attacks to erase ambiguity about motive. Whether or not the shooter even liked al-Qaeda was irrelevant to the terror group – the purpose of their Inspire guide was to push others to mimic and “improve” upon the Boulder attack.

Shooters themselves often leave behind manifestos, online posts, or other evidence that weaves a picture of a killer ascribing to a stew of ideologies or, in the case of the 2017 Las Vegas shooter, apparently none at all. Ideological underpinnings can fall by the wayside as the desire to attack moves into the decisive phase toward planning and execution. Attackers could be influenced by a white supremacist’s writings, an anti-government extremist’s target selection, and Islamist extremist guides that show D.I.Y. terrorists how to construct an IED.

Mass shooters also learn from each other. Some lessons are expressed more overtly, like in the manifestos issued by white supremacist shooters that hail their predecessors from previous likeminded attacks. Attacks are often openly analyzed and tactically debated, whether in informal discussions on online forums or to the point of al-Qaeda’s magazine-style guide. Ideological lines won’t keep a shooter from mooching pointers – al-Qaeda was notably careful to focus more on the Boulder shooter’s tactics such as firearms acquisition and target selection than attempting to apply a motive.

The copycat also may not act within days of the inspiring attack but rather set into motion violent acts that unfold further down the road. Juraj Krajcik, who killed two people and wounded a third in an October shooting outside an LGBT bar in Bratislava, left behind a lengthy manifesto stating that he was first inspired by the 2019 attacks on mosques in Christchurch and a synagogue in Poway, Calif., but he credited the Buffalo grocery store shooter last May with giving him “the final nudge, allowing me to overcome my own indecision and begin seriously working towards carrying out an operation… The final nail in the coffin was Payton Gendron. His livestream gave me new inspiration.”

Know a soft target’s softest points

Physical security such as access control is critical. But soft targets must also think beyond the surveillance cameras and locks when assessing their softest points. Not having emergency plans in place, not engaging in active-shooter training, not ensuring employees have the knowledge and support to detect and respond, not utilizing the resources offered by government agencies and other critical information-sharing organizations (such as the sector-specific Information Sharing and Analysis Centers or the Secure Community Network that assists Jewish facilities with security), and not preparing for the worst all make soft targets softer.

Circumstances can also make a soft target softer, including special events that increase crowd size and distraction, certain days and times that make a target more attractive to a perpetrator such as when a school lets out for the day or a synagogue holds Shabbat services, physical access points that are neglected when the main access is busy or overwhelmed, or staff on duty at the time who may be less poised to respond to an emergency. A location’s particular “softer” points may also be known to potential attackers through publicly accessible information or surveillance.

A location’s softest points could include an insider with a motive to attack. Indicators could be on social media. Indicators could be cloaked by online pseudonyms. Indicators could be on display for large portions of staff, such as vocal grievances. Seventy-six percent of attackers “exhibited behaviors that elicited concern in others and/or shared concerning communications prior to their attacks,” according to the NTAC report, including changes in demeanor, disturbing communications or direct threats, physical violence, stalking or harassing, obsession or inappropriate actions with weapons or research into means such as explosives, violent interests or unusual interests such as extremist content or conspiracy theories, self-harm, isolation, or substance abuse. Employees must have channels to report concerning behaviors and have confidence that employers properly assess the concern and take any appropriate actions.

Large and small businesses, schools, houses of worship, organizations, event venues, and other potential soft targets should regularly assess their security posture – including physical security, employee training, emergency response plans, and proactive relationships with law enforcement and information-sharing groups prior to any threat – and stay nimble to adapt to an evolving threat landscape. Here are some resources to assist:

CISA Security of Soft Targets and Crowded Places Resource Guide

Department of Labor Workplace Violence Program

CISA Active Shooter Preparedness

CISA Public Venue Bag Search Procedures Guide

CISA Mass Gathering Security Planning Tool

National Council of Information Sharing and Analysis Centers (ISACs)

The California shootings highlight the vulnerability of soft targets – but through information, assessment, and action soft targets don’t have to accept vulnerability and potential violence as inevitabilities.

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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