TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The mass shootings at the holiday party in San Bernardino and the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs are on a growing list of mass shootings in America. My guest, Mark Follman, has been maintaining a database on mass shootings, which he created in 2012. He is the national editor of Mother Jones magazine and leads an investigative team covering gun violence. He wrote the current Mother Jones cover story titled "Inside the Race to Stop the Next Mass Shooter." It's about how threat assessment teams are trying to identify and deter people who may be on the verge of committing acts of gun violence. Mark Follman, welcome to FRESH AIR. So in 2012, you started compiling a data bank about mass shootings, and you've been reporting on mass shootings since then. Why did you start this project?
MARK FOLLMAN: So I started this project in July, 2012 when the movie theater massacre happened in Aurora, Colo. And when that news broke, I had this moment - I woke up in the morning to that news. If you recall, it was - it took place at a midnight screening, a premiere, of the latest "Batman" film. And I just had this moment that I think, you know, many Americans have probably had at this point where I thought, I can't believe this is happening again. You know, the attack in Tucson the year before was still somewhat fresh in my mind, where - the attack where former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot and others were shot and killed. And it just left me with a sense of wonder about - you know, and a basic question - how much is this happening? Is it happening more? I think, you know, that's been the sense that many people have had. So I did some research in my office that morning, and I was surprised to find very quickly that there was no good data on this question. How often do mass shootings occur? There was no good database with details on these cases. I found a couple of perfunctory timelines that highlighted a couple of major attacks over the years, but that was it. So, you know, my response to that was just to think this is crazy. How can there not be more information on this? And I gathered a team of colleagues, and we decided that we would just begin building our own database. And even though the Justice Department statistics existed, there was no detail. And beyond the question of how often is this happening were other important forensic questions. Who's doing these crimes? What weapons are they using? How did they get those weapons? What is their behavioral profile, their mental health profile? Do they have a criminal history? All kinds of data points that would be useful to understanding this problem. And it just simply didn't exist. So we began building it quickly.
GROSS: And you attribute the lack of a good database - before you started doing one - to the NRA's success in blocking such research. What has the NRA done to prevent researchers from studying patterns in mass shootings?
FOLLMAN: Well, it's really much broader than that - what the gun lobby, the NRA, and others have done to suppress research into gun violence in our country. The real pivot point is 1996 when Congress passed an appropriations bill with an amendment inserted into it that took money away from the CDC, which it had used a couple million dollars to study gun violence research the prior year. And the bill essentially said to the CDC, you can't do any research that could be used to advocate for or promote gun control. And what this did was create an enormous political chill on that work. It took away the money, and not just with the government funding research into not just mass shootings but all manner of gun violence - you know, the kinds of crimes that we see on our streets daily in our cities, suicide, which is a major part of the problem that often goes underreported in terms of the total number of annual gun deaths. And that chill wasn't just with government funding. I found in my reporting, talking to many public health experts and researchers, that this chilling effect really trickled down into academia and into public health, that a lot of people felt after that, look, you know, why do I want to go and study gun violence? It's a hot-button issue. I'm going to get attacked for it. I think a number of researchers have said that they became afraid that it would jeopardize their funding to study other things. So the effect from the gun lobby's politics and what it did with Congress 20 years ago has really stymied our understanding of this problem.
GROSS: So what are some of the patterns that you're seeing going over that data? Like, one of the questions you wanted to answer with this database was how do these mass shooters get their weapons? What kind of answers are you finding?
FOLLMAN: We found a very stark answer and several stark patterns. And to that question, how they get their firearms, more than 80 percent of the perpetrators in these attacks - and I'm talking about at least 73 cases now in the last three-plus decades - more than 80 percent of them have obtained - have used legally obtained firearms. We learned other things about who they are. The vast majority, the overwhelming majority, are male with one or two exceptions, including now the case in San Bernardino. That's an exceptional case in several ways. We looked at mental health. And this is a really critical issue because it's important that we don't stigmatize mental health. The vast majority of people with mental health problems are not violent. There is extensive research that shows that. And yet what we found is that the majority of the perpetrators in these cases did seem to have serious mental health problems. And many of them had shown signs of that prior to attacking. And what I've learned is that there are many, many factors that play into these cases in terms of trying to understand the why question. And that is the ultimate question here. We want to know why do people do this? How can this happen? And it's a very complicated question.
GROSS: I think we'll get a little deeper to that question in a couple of minutes. So you mentioned that most of the - that mass shooters that you're studying in your database, they've gotten their weapons legally - at least most of them have. What types of weapons have they used?
FOLLMAN: Primarily they're using semi-automatic rifles and semi-automatic handguns. And the latter, handguns, are the most commonly used. That's interesting to the debate about, you know, so-called assault weapons. And there's a lot of focus on the semi-automatic rifles, which are significant in this equation. But it's really the handguns that are the most dangerous aspect in terms of the weaponry, and especially when combined with high-capacity magazines, magazines that contain a high number of rounds. People in law enforcement generally consider that to be more than 10. So a good example of this is the case in Tucson in 2011. Jared Loughner walked into a sporting goods store, bought his weapons there - used semi-automatic handguns. I believe they were Glocks with high-capacity magazines. And he was able to fire off 30 shots in roughly 30 seconds.
GROSS: Is there any kind of, like, specific gun regulation that, if enforced, would have made the mass shootings in your database not possible, would've prevented them, outside of outlawing all guns?
FOLLMAN: Sure. It's an interesting question. I think a lot of people raise that question around the notion of the assault weapons ban. There was one in place for a ten-year period starting with the Clinton administration in the 1990s. There were mass shootings during that time. So in a basic sense, you know, an assault weapons ban isn't going to solve our mass shootings problem. I think it's really a much more global question about regulation. You know, one of the - another argument that's raised often around this is strict state gun laws. So after San Bernardino happened, a lot of people who are on the conservative side of the gun regulation issues said, oh, well, look, you know, California has the most - some of the most stringent gun laws in the country, and these people got these guns, and they were legally obtained weapons. And so those laws don't work. This is often said about Chicago. Illinois has strict regulations. Chicago has one of the worst urban gun violence problems in the nation. But in a sense, that's a silly argument as well because these aren't uniform laws across the states. And a lot of guns that are in play in Chicago are coming from Indiana. A lot of the guns in play in California are coming from Nevada, which is a place where you can buy guns really easily. So to the bigger question of what - you know, what kinds of gun regulations could potentially stop these crimes, it's difficult to say. Our data set does show that, with a number of these mass shootings, there are more than 40 weapons used by these shooters in these 73 cases that we've studied whose weapons would have been prohibited under the assault weapons legislation that Diane Feinstein put forward recently.
GROSS: You've mentioned that mass shootings are not impulsive crimes. They're usually planned, and often the shooter leaves clues - not necessarily to the targets of the shooting, but to other people that he has this in mind. These are some of the things that you've been learning from talking to people who work or have worked on threat assessment teams. What are these threat assessment teams?
FOLLMAN: Threat assessment teams are collaborative teams involving law enforcement agents and mental health professionals primarily. Sometimes they also involve administrators from schools or corporations, HR people. It's essentially a collaborative effort to carry out this strategy known as threat assessment, which is a three-part process, in essence. It is seeking to identify who might present this danger of committing an act of targeted violence. Once a subject is identified, then quickly evaluating that subject by gathering as much information as possible about them through interviews with colleagues, with bosses, with family, learning about their background, if they have one - criminally or otherwise - and then coming up with a plan to intervene. And the intervention is intended to stop this person or divert them on what threat assessment experts call the pathway to violence. So the idea that mass shootings are predatory, that it's a planned crime provides this opportunity. That is the window of opportunity, from the perspective of threat assessment, to head off these crimes before they happen. And it's essentially a prevention strategy. It's not a prosecutorial strategy. And in the vast majority of cases, the goal is to get people help. And I think, in its ideal form, it seeks to both mitigate the threat and help people who need help. The effectiveness of it is a tricky question because, ultimately, you're proving a negative. How can you say you've stopped a mass shooting if a mass shooting doesn't occur? But there are numerous cases that I learned about and was told about by people doing this work where there's very persuasive evidence that violence was imminent and was thwarted.
GROSS: What are some of the signs that threat assessment teams think indicate that somebody might be becoming a mass shooter, that they might be in the planning process of doing that?
FOLLMAN: The vast majority of these cases begin with an essential first link, which is a tip from - usually from a private citizen. Somebody observes something that really alarms them about a co-worker, or perhaps a teacher in a school sees something going on with a student that really worries them. And if that tip gets reported to a threat assessment team in a local community - normally they're affiliated with an institutions, so you have university threat assessment teams. You have them in school district, corporations have them.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Follman. He's the national affairs editor of Mother Jones magazine. He leads an investigative team that's covering gun violence, and he started a mass-shooting database in 2012. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Follman. He's national affairs editor for Mother Jones magazine, where he leads an investigative team covering gun violence. And he started a mass shooting database in 2012 that he continues to maintain. He has the cover story in the current edition of Mother Jones. And it's about how threat assessment teams are trying to prevent mass shootings. Can you give us an example of a tip that a threat assessment team was given that it decided to pursue, that it took very seriously?
FOLLMAN: One of the cases I wrote about in the current cover story of Mother Jones is a case in Oregon, where a high school student had made some threatening comments to another student, had threatened to bring a gun into the school. And one of the people on the threat assessment team, a school resource officer or a school police officer, got this information. And the team had the officer go and talk to the kid and try to understand what was going on with him. Shortly thereafter, this high school student tried to commit suicide. And he was committed to a private mental health facility in Portland. And at that point, the threat assessment team got very concerned. Suicidal profile is, I think, probably high on their list of factors that will set off an alarm bell. Again, no single factor is going to be predictive. But it's enough to get them going, to get them looking at this. So they moved into action with the school district and started interviewing family and friends and other students and so on and so forth.
GROSS: So after getting one or two tips that this kid seemed troubled and that then he tried to kill himself, how did the threat assessment team look into him to decide whether they needed to take this seriously and try to intervene in some way?
FOLLMAN: So they were able to determine pretty quickly from interviewing people around him that he was a seriously depressed kid. But, you know, that was already self-evident with the suicide attempt. But what they started to find was other evidence of what they call violent ideation. They looked at some of his notebooks from the school locker. And he had written all kinds of violent ideas in the margins about people that he wanted to kill and about his rage against his sense of being a social outcast. They also learned that he had gone online to try to purchase a gun. So taking together these various factors, they felt that it was very important, obviously, to intervene. And they felt that the best way to do that was what they called a wraparound intervention. This is essentially a positive social and therapeutic constructive process that they're using to get this kid mental health counseling, to get him help with his academic work, to try to foster the things that they knew about him were strong personal interests. He was apparently very gifted with computers. And he liked music. And as one of the experts involved in the case described it to me - he said, you know, everything they did was intended to kind of focus his mind away from these terrible thoughts he was having and to get him onto a better path.
GROSS: So the way you tell the story, things looked good for a while. And he seemed to be doing better. And then he graduated high school and not long after that moved about 60 miles away. So the threat assessment team that had been intervening, working with him, trying to get help, trying to lead him in positive directions, they were no longer in touch with him because he'd moved. And then what happened?
FOLLMAN: So a few years went by. And there were a couple members on the threat assessment team that sought to keep in touch with him periodically and to try to keep tabs. You know, I think they understood that inherently, there's this challenge of when a person leaves the fold that, you know, how do you know whether or not they're good to go for life? He had been under the care and watch of two threat assessment teams. He had graduated high school and then had stayed in the local community for a couple of years and was still under their watch and care. But then he moved away to Portland. And things didn't go so well. He had a job for a little while, wasn't able to hold it down, eventually spiraled into depression again, became much more withdrawn and was essentially kind of holing up in his apartment and playing video games. And eventually, the threat assessment professionals lost touch with him. And in January, 2009, he purchased a handgun - a semi-automatic handgun - and he went to a nightclub in downtown Portland and walked up to the entrance. This was about 10:30 at night. And he committed a mass shooting. He killed two young women and injured another handful of teenagers. And then he committed suicide at the scene - shot himself. He actually died, I think, a day or two later in the hospital.
GROSS: Well, this shows I think that a threat assessment team can do really well in identifying somebody who's a real threat of, you know - and who's in danger of becoming a mass shooter. At the same time, it shows the limitations of the threat assessment team because even with all the intervention, he moved away. Things went bad for him. And he became a mass shooter.
FOLLMAN: And not only did he go on to commit a mass shooting, but it seemed to be with the same motive, the same sense of grievance that he held in high school. He targeted a nightclub with young kids that was known as a place of where, you know, sort of well-to-do preppy kids hung out. A lot of the rage he had expressed years before, in high school, was focused on that. Those were the people he wanted to kill. So, you know, it's really interesting to think about that. If the motive was, in a sense, the same, and if in a sense he seemed to carry out the crime he had always intended to carry out, it really points to that question of, was this an effective strategy for stopping him? I mean, can we say that a threat assessment team stopped him from committing a mass murder while he was in high school? Nobody can really prove that. That's - it's impossible. But on the other hand, he seems to have gone out and committed the crime. And it also underscores how difficult it is to carry out this strategy, particularly over the long term. I mean, how do you know when a case is really over? There's no clear answer to that. And this case shows that.
GROSS: My guest is Mark Follman, national editor of Mother Jones magazine. He leads a team investigating gun violence and created a database collecting information on mass shootings. After a break, we'll talk about the cult of Columbine and why copycat shootings are a serious problem. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Mark Follma. We're talking about mass shootings. He's the national editor of Mother Jones magazine and leads an investigative team covering gun violence. In 2012, he created a database on mass shootings, which he continues to maintain. He wrote the current Mother Jones cover story, titled "Inside The Race To Stop The Next Mass Shooter." It's about threat assessment teams, which try to identify and deter people who may be on the verge of committing gun violence.
So these threat assessment teams are, like, a different kind of crime work. It's not about prosecution. It's not about, you know, imprisoning someone. It's predictive. It's about spotting a potential criminal before the crime happens. And so there's a lot of questions that enter into that about how do you do that without violating somebody's civil liberties? Like, for example, the high school student that you were talking about, the threat assessment team got access to his private journal. Is that a violation of his privacy? How did they get it? Did they have a legal right to get it?
FOLLMAN: I asked that question of many people involved in this work. And, you know, they say that they do this work with strict adherence to constitutional rights. I'm talking specifically about the law enforcement people involved. Again, keep in mind that this strategy is really predicated on the idea of prevention, not arrest and prosecution. For example, the FBI team that gets involved in these cases, they've been involved in more than 400 cases since fall of 2012. Very few of those cases involve arrest and prosecution. And so, with respect to the question about civil liberties, if the goal here ultimately is to get people help who need it, to get them counseling, to get them some kind of, you know, relief from their sense of grievance or fear or whatever is driving them, I think if it's working that way, you know, from the perspective of people doing it, that's ultimately constructive. Clearly it's going to be a delicate balance.
GROSS: You've spoken with forensic psychologists in your research. And I'm wondering if there's any kind of coherent profile that emerges of the type of person whose grievance goes so deep that they're prepared to get automatic weapons and commit mass shootings.
FOLLMAN: Well, they certainly are very focused on behaviors. And, you know, one of the behaviors that they describe is under - with a term called leakage. This occurs in the vast majority of these cases. It's a very difficult thing to detect to the untrained eye. It refers to when a person considering this crime will tell somebody. And typically, it's not the people that they intend to kill; it's a third party. There are other behaviors that the data shows, the forensic investigation show come up regularly with these cases. There tends to be an obsession with weapons or an obsession with violent imagery. Another very important aspect is expressions of interest that relate to the so-called copycat effect. And there are many cases where the people who aspire to commit these crimes or who do carry them out have stated their admiration and their desire to emulate their predecessors.
GROSS: Well, you mentioned in your article that Columbine - you know, the Columbine shooters - they actually have, like, a cult following. What are the signs of that?
FOLLMAN: Part of this investigative project became looking at what's known to people in this field as the Columbine effect. Columbine, as you know, was a watershed event in our recent history of mass shootings, where two high school kids shot up Columbine high school in 1999, killing a dozen students and a teacher and injuring many others. They did it at a time when the Internet was in its sort of early growth phase. It was the dawn of the Internet age. They had recorded videos of themselves. Their goal wasn't t just to kill. Their goal was to become infamous for killing. And in kind of a grim way, they succeeded, perhaps beyond their wildest dreams because this material that they created and the tragedy that they perpetrated became so seared into the public consciousness that it's created this whole kind of culture online where you can go. And, you know, there's people who obsess over their words and their images. And a lot of the people who have carried out these attacks since then - and not just with school shootings, with other attacks - have cited them as an inspiration. Now, Columbine isn't the only source of this copycat problem. There have been other major attacks that have inspired shooters. And there's also data showing - forensic data showing that they're very - a lot of these killers are very tuned into what the media's doing. And they're inspired by and motivated by the idea that they, too, could be famous, that they could achieve sensational news coverage if they go out and do this. So these factors are, I think, an important part and a growing part of this equation.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Follman. He's the national affairs editor for Mother Jones magazine, where he leads an investigative team covering gun violence. He started a database of mass shootings in 2012. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Follman. He's national affairs editor for Mother Jones magazine, where he leads an investigative team covering gun violence. In 2012, he started a database collecting information about mass shootings. His latest article is the cover story on Mother Jones about threat assessment teams who are trying to prevent mass shootings.
You were talking about copycat shootings and how some of that is spread through the Internet and through social media where people see the statements, people see the photos of, you know, of mass shooters posed with guns, looking really tough and dedicated and everything. What are some of the concerns you think experts have now about how social media and the media in general are covering mass shootings in such a way that they fear - that the threat assessment team experts fear might be kind of playing into that copycat sense?
FOLLMAN: Well, people focused on this problem I think have long understood conceptually that the copycat factor is real and is significant in terms of inspiring people to commit this type of crime. But it's only recently that there is more forensic evidence now proving this. And if you look at these cases, you can see very specifically how some of these killers have been inspired by sensational news coverage, which is now, you know, these days amplified instantly and exponentially by social media. A good example of this is the recent massacre at a community college in Roseburg, Ore. The perpetrator of that crime, prior to carrying it out, posted specific comments online where he expressed his admiration for another high-profile public murder that had taken place in August in Virginia. It was the case where a disgruntled ex-TV journalist murdered two of his former colleagues on live television and recorded it himself as he was doing it and posted the footage on Twitter and Facebook. That was a unique case, and extraordinary and chilling in a new way. That killer in Virginia was quickly dubbed the first social media murderer, and it went viral very quickly. It got what I think you could consider to be the kind of maximum sensational attention from the media. It was all over cable news. It was on the cover of tabloid newspapers. The New York Daily News actually published images from that killer's footage, so that you, the reader, the audience, was looking - literally looking down the barrel of the handgun of this killer at his terrified victim from his own footage. Most of us would look at the image of that Virginia killer that was splashed on the cover of the New York Daily News and be repulsed by it. But to people who are in a place where they might be thinking about targeted violence, forensic psychologists say that they are vulnerable to identifying with that, that they essentially see an antihero that they aspire to be. The New York Daily News has been very vocal about gun control. And they in a sense justified using that sensational image by saying, well look, the public has become too inured to gun violence and we have to show it in all of its horror. But the problem is it's providing this kind of fodder for people who are motivated by it.
GROSS: But this raises, like, very challenging questions for the media. So I'll turn it on you as somebody who's studying gun violence yourself and reporting on it. Have you had to make some tough calls about what to publish and what to withhold from publication? I mean, for example, like, you're opposed, I think, to publishing the manifestoes of these mass shooters and against publishing them posed, you know, and with a lot of, you know, bravado with their guns because the copycat people eat that up and it inspires them. At the same time, you know, it's a tough call to tell a journalist to withhold information.
FOLLMAN: Right, and I want to clarify I'm not opposed to publishing anything. I believe in reporting aggressively and robustly on this subject, as I and my colleagues at Mother Jones have for the last three and a half years. It's a very complicated question. And I don't pretend to have any of the answers. But I think it's something that we have to look at seriously and think about seriously and debate in the media. We know forensically that there are many people who aspire to the Columbine killers. And it's not just about inspiration, Terry. They also seek tactical information. There are cases where attackers are known to have studied previous attacks in order to cause more carnage. There was a case - a mass shooting case in New York a few years ago where the perpetrator had actually studied the massacre in 2007 at Virginia Tech and used some similar tactics, including blocking the back entrance to the building in order to trap his victims inside. So it's not just a matter of inspiration. We're also talking about, you know, as journalists do we want to be providing easy access to information like that to people who might be seeking it? So we have a duty to study them closely and report on them and understand them. But the question is, how do you do that with a balance to this disturbing risk with the copycat factor? And one of the things I did was to try to come up with a set of guidelines to at least think about. So, you know, we try not to over-emphasize our coverage of an attacker. We're going to tell - you know, we're going to tell the public who the attacker is and what they've done and how, as much as that seems journalistically valuable. But beyond that, we're not going to repeat that person's name or splash sensational photos of that person on our front page. With a question of the manifesto - should we publish every video rant or manifesto that these killers put out? I mean, their goal is to have the whole world read it. What's the value in doing that? So it may be that the better move for the media is to summarize an analysis the salient things from it and leave it at that. And I want to add one other thing -that there is precedent for this. There are other types of issues where, you know, there is no hard and fast rule but the media seems to have a general agreement with - you know, with rape victims, for example. Their names are rarely published in the media. And with suicide, where there's also a known copycat problem, a contagion effect - that if you write explicitly or broadcast explicitly about suicides there's well-known research showing that that can cause more suicide, so the media tends not to do that. Another example would be when American journalists are taken hostage overseas. Media often agrees not to write about it or to publicize it with the hopes of helping ensure that person's safety and not interfering with possible negotiations. So I think some of those principles could come in to play here. And I think it's a very worthy discussion for us to be having.
GROSS: There's a continuing debate that always gets amplified after the kinds of mass shootings that we've recently had in the United States about gun control. And then there's, of course, always people who are saying now is not the time to talk about it. But you describe our country's debate about guns as being cartoonish, idiotic, and damaging. What's your critique of America's gun debate?
FOLLMAN: Well, really what I was talking about in that piece is the way in which this debate is so calcified and so polarized that it really just seems stuck. And I think there's a remarkable disconnect between what the majority of our society thinks about guns and the politics of it. I think that the gun debate in particular is just so extreme in some ways. And when I say that I think it's damaging, what I'm talking about there is - goes back to the point of a lack of good data and research. You know, not only did the government move almost two decades ago to block that, but, you know, we don't seem to have any kind of political will to unlock that deadlock. And the Republican - one of the Republican members of Congress who put that block in place in 1966 has since completely changed his position. I'm talking about former Congressman Jay Dickey from Arkansas. He was, you know, self-described the NRA's point person in Congress to help them get that in place. And a few years ago he came out publicly with the former head in the CDC and said, look, we simply don't understand gun violence very well still to this day and in a lot of ways. And Jay Dickey has said this himself now for the last several years. And he's out saying it again with Mark Rosenberg. Two people who were once fierce opponents on this issue are now saying essentially, look, there is no value in us being ignorant about this issue.
GROSS: How many guns are out there now? You have a statistic. I forget what it is.
FOLLMAN: Nobody really knows exactly. And that goes back to the problem of lack of good data. The, you know, politicians who work, you know, who are the allies of the gun lobby have done a lot to restrict what we know about firearms in circulation - the way that we trace them, the way that their sale and ownership is tracked. We have only blunt measures of this through national surveys. But what we do know from the most reliable version of that is that there are more than 300 million firearms in circulation now, which is essentially one or more per person for every man, woman, and child in the country. Gun ownership is a little different than that. We know that it's roughly 30 to 40 percent of households. It's fluctuated over the years. So it's not that everyone literally has a gun. But there are enough guns for everyone to literally have a gun.
GROSS: Well, Mark Follman, thank you very much for talking with us.
FOLLMAN: It was a real pleasure and honor to talk with you, Terry. Thanks so much for having me.
GROSS: Mark Follman is the national editor of Mother Jones magazine, where he created a database on mass shootings and leads a team investigating gun violence. He wrote the cover story "The Race to Stop the Next Mass Shooter." This is FRESH AIR.
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