Jennifer Ku crouched at the back of the classroom, waiting alongside three students. An alarm had just signaled that an attacker was potentially headed their way. After realizing her door didn’t have a lock, Ku tried to barricade the entrance with a bookshelf. But the furniture was so unwieldy that she and the students could only get it halfway across the door before giving up and stacking a few chairs and tables against it. “A shooter is usually going to give up if he can’t get inside,” she says. “I tried to cover up the window and got everyone away from that, too.”
During the earliest moments, the first-floor hallway of L.A.’s prestigious Fusion Academy remained completely silent. Then came the distant rattling of doors, followed by an unsettling noise: A “pow!” The “pows” kept getting louder as the minutes crawled by. Eventually, Ku heard a strange hand turn the knob on her doorway. Unsatisfied, the attacker threw his shoulder into the doorway, nudging the bookshelf bit by bit. His hands appeared, and finally, his face.
Pow, pow, pow, pow!!!
Ku and her students were dead. Hypothetically speaking, anyway.
The exercise was part of an advanced active-shooter training led by ex-Secret Service members of the Obama administration, given to faculty and any students who wanted to participate. The “attacker” had merely been one of those instructors, using two pointed fingers and a yell as an analogue for a gun. And while Ku was fully aware of when and how the exercise would go down, she was surprised at how quickly her nerves and adrenaline rose.
“I laughed a little afterward, thinking like, Man, if this was a real situation, I’m totally fucked,” she says. “It’s not like it was obvious that we could run. I’m not sure how we would fight. Immediately afterward, I told my boss that we need to change our doors to have locks. It’s not that hard. But you know what they said? ‘We can’t do that because we can’t be letting kids lock themselves in rooms, for safety reasons.’”
While experts debate whether mass shootings have become more frequent or just more deadly in terms of lives lost, the public is more attuned than ever before to the chances of violence erupting in schools (like Marjory Stoneman in Florida), offices (like the YouTube HQ in San Bruno), entertainment venues (like the Pulse nightclub in Orlando) and other locales where people gather together (like the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh).
The U.S. has a staggering rate of mass shootings, defined as indiscriminate killings of four or more individuals in a single incident, compared to other developed nations — ranking number 1 out of 170 countries. The violence has led to a rise in a multi-billion-dollar cottage industry dedicated to active-shooter prevention, training and protection — everything from ex-Secret Service leading conference-room lessons in corporate offices to backpacks lined with Kevlar to cutting-edge camera and fingerprinting tools. The idea is that teaching people about where threats can come from, and how they can unfold, will save lives.
“A lot of what we’re dealing with now stems from the country’s focus after the postal shootings of the late 1980s and early 1990s. As a result, prevention programs with threat-management teams started becoming more commonplace in the industry,” says Gene Rugala, a retired FBI agent and expert in behavioral analysis who consults on active shooters today. “Nowadays, after a shooting, all these individuals come out of the woodwork, trying to peddle their products and programs. It’s almost like everyone’s scrambling trying to figure out what the best way to respond is.”
But while training and prevention methods have expanded in the last 30 years, mass shootings still take more and more lives. High-profile attacks around the country serve as a sobering reality check for how prepared we can be. In the case of the Parkland shooting, all it took was a flip of a fire alarm, and the knowledge of the school’s layout and evacuation plan by a former student, to render the preparation — school-wide talks on active shooting situations, lessons on the “Run, Hide, Fight” protocol, and eight security guards — largely useless.
No wonder, then, that while mass attacks remain rare compared to other kinds of gun violence, the thought of an indiscriminate active shooter coming through the doors with firearms drawn is one that inspires resignation as much as fear in the people who have come of age in the 2000s.
“I tend to not really think about it, because there’s not much you can do. If it happens, it happens. When the shit hits the fan, it’s going to be nothing like your training,” says Chris Lum, a 28-year-old horticulturalist with Oahu Army Natural Resources in Hawaii. Lum works at Schofield Barracks, a U.S. Army installation on Oahu and a critical hub for the military’s readiness in the Pacific. For the past three years, he’s taken an annual active-shooter and anti-terrorism course, mandated to everyone who works at the base. In theory, a program designed for a sensitive military installation should be a model for other organizations, given the history of shootings at bases around the country.
But in practice, the annual qualification is just a standardized online course, featuring a roughly hour-long series of videos and questions to click through. The strategies, advice and case studies presented haven’t changed in the last three years he’s taken it, Lum says. “And yeah, I don’t think anything’s going to change in the future,” he adds. “I think I’m actually a little bit more prepared than most people, but I don’t think I’m actually prepared. Who knows if I’ll be able to find an emergency exit in time if I’m stuck in a bar or something?”
That was what ran through my own mind when Pam Graham, a former FBI conflict negotiator with decades of experience handling violent public incidents, arrived at the Dollar Shave Club headquarters (where MEL is located) to deliver a lesson on how to prevent and handle an active-shooter situation.
Fewer than two dozen employees fit into the glass-walled conference room that had been reserved for Graham. Others were merely invited to watch a livestream of the presentation. And it was just that — a simple PowerPoint presentation that walked through common red flags for disruptive or strange behavior from a potentially violent coworker, how to report such red flags and what to do during an active-shooter situation when the bullets start to fly.
Graham’s observant eyes scanned the room as she asked hypothetical questions in her distinct Southern twang: “Do y’all know who to report suspicious behavior to? Do y’all have protocols in place to escort someone out who might cause trouble?”
The room seemed to give a collective shrug, other than a few voices that noted the human resource department did have a channel to provide tips or concerns about potential workplace violence. “Ah, okay. Well, that’s good. A lot of organizations don’t have that in place,” Graham said, cheerily.
Despite her obvious expertise in mass violence, what struck me most as Graham delivered her talking points was how many blind spots it left us with. It’s one thing to have a method to report red flags. But how many people would be privy to the erratic behavior of a hypothetically violent coworker? How many of those people would be bold enough to go to human resources? And this barely applied to disgruntled outsiders or those who had already been booted from a company or school.
More blind spots arrived when we moved past prevention and into tactics for surviving an active-shooter situation. The industry standard is to teach people to “Run, Hide, Fight,” meaning that your first option is to run away from the threat, the second to hide in a secure area where you believe the attacker won’t find you, and lastly to fight back against an attacker as a last resort.
Left unanswered was the question of whether our particular office made running or hiding more advantageous. Even more opaque was the “fight” portion of the mantra, other than the general idea that you can throw objects at an attacker or spray them with a fire extinguisher. One employee next to me wondered whether Graham had any advice for how you could prepare for a counter-attack.
“When the bullets start flying, each person is going to react in a certain way. And while we talk about preparedness, only some people are going to be able to lead and even fight back,” Graham told the room after a pause. “You will see those people, and you will probably end up following those people.”
Some experts in mass violence have raised concerns about how helpful the “Run, Hide, Fight” model actually is, given that it mostly ignores the possibility that the average person can and will freeze in an active-shooter situation. The “vast majority” of the public lacks mental conditioning and physical skills to deal with the rush of fear and excitement a violent encounter creates, writes Mike Wood, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and expert in self-defense. “If the model did a better job of recognizing the likelihood of a freeze, educating potential victims about the dangers and helping to stimulate the mindset and mental preparation necessary to ‘break it,’ it would be far more effective,” Wood writes in PoliceOne, an online trade publication for law enforcement. “As it is, it simply ignores the most likely and dangerous of responses — panic-induced paralysis — leaving potential victims completely unprepared for the reality of an attack.”
Even targets that appear to have done everything right in terms of preparation and security can suffer major tragedy. The most horrifying test case may be the shooting on February 14th at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Mass shooters normally take their victims by total surprise. But it wasn’t long after Nikolas Cruz stepped out of his gold-hued Uber in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that a school employee noticed him.
Like many other schools around the country, Marjory Stoneman had spent money and time on educating its staff and students about what to do in active-shooter situations. It had even hired eight full-time security guards to roam the campus, including one armed with a handgun and a bulletproof vest. One employee, a coach and watchman for the campus, recognized Cruz as “that crazy boy,” and told a colleague that the 19-year-old was “walking purposefully” toward the entrance. The 5-foot-7 Cruz was a distinctly waifish 120 pounds, with piercing hazel eyes and a loner’s hunch. He had been expelled from Marjory Stoneman after a series of disciplinary issues. Now he was back, carrying a long black bag and and a determined gaze.
In theory, the red flags were obvious from a mile away. Cruz got a kick from posting pictures and videos on Instagram posing with knives and guns. His adoptive parents had called the police several times over his violent, depressive outbursts. Five months before this balmy Valentine’s Day in Parkland, Florida, he had left an ominous comment on a bail bondsman’s YouTube video: “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.”
The bondsman, Ben Bennight, reported the comment to the FBI, but it didn’t matter. Cruz walked into the halls of the high school, pulled out an AR-15 rifle from a black case, tugged a fire alarm and began shooting. He left mortal wounds in 17 people before dropping his gun and simply jogging out of the school alongside other students and staff during the chaotic evacuation. Nearly an hour and a half would pass after the initial 911 call before a law enforcement officer found Cruz, walking on the sidewalk with a soda he bought from a nearby Subway.
In speaking with close to a dozen people who have gone through active-shooter training, what became clear was that the depth of the trainings themselves are wildly inconsistent and that even those with more intensive training, like Ku, feel serious doubt about whether they’re ready to survive a mass shooting.
Some research seems to back up that doubt, too. “Run, Hide, Fight” is an example of an “options-based” approach that emphasizes tactics beyond just locking a room down. But people who have received “options-based” training “consistently perform worse than people with no training whatsoever” in more than 7,500 simulations, across 40 states, run by the nonprofit Safe Havens International, according to Executive Director Michael Dorn. “We do want to teach people other options, such as evacuate, and we do believe there’s a place for them to be physically resistant, it’s just the training programs we have right now are not working,” Dorn told USA Today.
Meanwhile, the assumption is that law enforcement is more prepared than ever to react swiftly to a mass attack, but high-profile massacres have shown that the people most equipped to save lives have trouble knowing what to do as well. The 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, in which patrol offices exchanged fire with the two gunmen before pausing and waiting 45 minutes for a SWAT team to arrive, changed police tactics around the country — officers were now instructed to jump into the fray, as every minute of delay could mean more innocent deaths.
But in the Parkland shooting, investigators concluded that police had wasted precious time before advancing to the third floor of the school, where 10 people were shot. The police response to the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, in which 49 people were shot and killed, was also sharply criticized — police treated the situation as a hostage case, negotiating over hours instead of rushing in to save the wounded and dying. Similarly, police failed to stop Stephen Paddock, 64, who killed a hotel security guard six minutes before opening fire on an outdoor Las Vegas concert. The dying guard, Jesus Campos, alerted hotel security that he had been shot. But 81 minutes would pass before a SWAT team burst into Paddock’s hotel room, where they found him dead from a self-inflicted gunshot. Below on the concert grounds, 58 people were dead, with more than 800 others injured.
Some people have suggested that the solution to many active-shooting situations is to ramp up security and physical barriers, but the sheer cost of implementing cameras, door buzzers and other security measures prevents many organizations from doing so. And despite a major increase in school policing after the Columbine shooting — by 2014, 30 percent of public schools had at least one police officer, up from just 10 percent in 1997 — the results have been worse than anyone could expect. Research suggests that putting police in schools doesn’t deter violent crime, but merely increases the number of students who get incarcerated for minor incidents.
What of personal armed self-defense, as many pro-gun-rights advocates say could be a solution for offices and schools? An FBI report that reviewed 160 active-shooter situations over 13 years, with 1,043 victims, found that there’s been exactly one instance where a “good guy with a gun,” in this case an off-duty police officer, ever stopped an assailant.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of mass shooters got their hands on handguns, rifles and shotguns through completely legal channels and with federal background checks (or through gun-sale loopholes). It’s no surprise that so many of the people I interviewed expressed existential dread about stopping active shooters unless gun ownership reform happens on a mass level in America. Studies indicate that gun violence generally, and mass shootings specifically, correlate strongly with the overall level of gun ownership.
“Logic would dictate, if you lower the numbers of weapons, you’d lower the number of homicides,” says Rugala, the ex-FBI expert. “But one of the problems that we’re dealing with is that we don’t even know what works to stop this because the CDC, National Institute of Health or any federal agency that’s charged with examining gun violence as a public safety issue hasn’t been allowed to. Congress passed a law in the mid-1990s that barred federal agencies from doing any kind of research on firearms or firearms-related deaths, or to look at prevention strategies.”
Despite decades of widely publicized, deeply analyzed mass shootings, the onus remains on individuals to decipher a whirlwind of prevention tools and escape tactics, without knowing exactly what might save lives most efficiently. And the debate rages on as to whether we need to be educating young children about the threats of active shooters in the first place — or whether it just traumatizes them at an early age. Ku, the teacher, says administrators at Fusion grappled with this before concluding that awareness was better than leaving it be. “They kind of brought up active shooters at this Friday rally, without using the word shooter. But some kids, of course, figured out what we were talking about, and started to get freaked out,” Ku says. “I didn’t have to go through this when I was a kid. Our parents certainly didn’t have to. It’s an interesting time.”
Experts like Rugala and Graham agree that effective preparation for an active shooter is an ongoing task rather than a one-and-done activity. I’ve never been a part of any organization, however, that offered active-shooter training on a regular basis. So I’ve taken the task on myself, growing accustomed to scanning every direction for emergency exits when I’m in a bar, club, office or school — as well as for the obvious places that a mass shooter would make their entry, and the angles that they would begin shooting based on where people are standing. I look for furnishings or walls made from steel, hardwood and stone. I close my eyes and picture the blinding muzzle flash of a weapon fired in a dark space, and imagine the terrifying explosion of gunpowder making me go deaf. I wonder if I could be strong enough to grab and control said muzzle if I found myself face-to-face with a murderer in a small room.
Like the people I interviewed who have gone through active-shooter training, I remain doubtful that I’ll survive but for the grace of a higher power in such an attack. So is this education really helping us, or just giving us some illusion of control?
Nobody seems to know. But more than anything else, I hope I don’t have to find out the hard way.