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Red flags before Santa Monica shooting, but pointing fingers is hard (+video)

John Zawahri, the alleged shooter in Santa Monica, Calif., was said to be deeply interested in assault weapons and apparently had a difficult home life. But it can be complicated to take steps when signs like these surface.

Red flags ahead of Santa Monica shooting
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Emerging details about the troubled past of the alleged shooter in Santa Monica, Calif., are reopening discussions about the identification of red flags – and the issues involved in responding to them.

John Zawahri is accused of fatally shooting five people last Friday and was killed by police. In high school, he was deeply interested in assault weapons, which in 2006 led school officials to report him to police, says Sandra Lyon, superintendent of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

According to local media reports, a fellow high school student went to Mr. Zawahri’s house, where Zawahri showed his guest a samurai sword and tried to regale him with a list of people he wanted to hurt. The student informed the school principal of the incident, and Zawahri was sent to UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, although released quickly.

Zawahri was also studying video-game production at Santa Monica College, where he did not finish his degree. Behind all this was a home life apparently full of violence. In an application his mother filed for a restraining order against his father, she accused the elder Zawahri of threatening to kill her, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“This all looks and sounds so familiar,” says Carolyn Wolf, a mental-health lawyer in Lake Success, N.Y. So much of this is about the need to raise awareness in schools, workplaces, and families, she says. “You can teach people to identify what we call red-flag behavior,” she notes.

Such signs could include a sudden change in behavior, say, from outgoing to hiding in a corner; an affinity for violent weapons; strange writing; talk of feeling hopeless; and a desire to hurt someone else.

“You can train lay people to recognize these,” Ms. Wolf says, adding that she has helped establish threat assessment teams in many settings.

The question of what to do next is less clear, says Mona Shattell, an associate professor in nursing at DePaul University in Chicago. One problem with responding to red flags is that often these behaviors, while odd, do not clearly meet the requirements for inpatient or outpatient commitment.


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