How to stay safe in a mass shooting, and overcome the fear they create

The Associated Press
Residents from around the Highland Park, Ill., area listen during a vigil in Highwood, Ill., for the victims of Monday’s Fourth of July parade mass shooting on Wednesday.

Recent mass killings in Highland Park, Ill.; Uvalde, Tex.; and Buffalo have proved that such violence — while rare — is growing more common, and can happen anywhere, any time.

Even for those not caught in the crossfire, hearing about such shootings can be deeply frightening.

That grim reality of the recent large-scale killings, and the ongoing epidemic of gun violence in many American cities, raises two questions: What to do in the still-unlikely event you find yourself someplace where an armed person has opened fire? And how can you keep from being paralyzed by the possibility of that happening?

Be aware of the environment, and how to escape

In a 2017 piece headlined “How to protect yourself during a mass shooting,” security expert Ed Hinman wrote of the important of “advancing” a location, whether it be a public setting or an organized event.

“Before settling into your seat or spot, ask yourself: If there’s an attack, what will I do?” he wrote.

“It only takes a moment to answer this question before you sit back, relax and enjoy your outing,” Hinman added. “Think of it as making regular deposits in a survival bank and then, if an emergency arises, being able to make a potentially lifesaving withdrawal.”

Get down and move away from the gunfire

John Correia, who teaches armed and unarmed self-defense through his Arizona-based company Active Self Protection, said civilians should exercise logical measures to get to safety when a shooting is underway. While every scenario is unique, he said there are baseline strategies like putting distance between yourself and a shooter.

“First thing you want to think about is pretty common-sense, which is get down and if you can determine which direction [gunfire is] coming from get away,” Correia said. “That’s our general rule.”

In mass shootings, Correia said, “the perp tends to be wildly firing and so your very best bet is to be as small a target as you can and getting away as fast as you can.”

Correia suggested getting behind a solid structure if possible. Using a car as a shield may not be ideal if the vehicle is made of weaker materials like fiberglass or plastic. If there’s an option, concrete or brick walls “can be very helpful,” and would offer better protection than stucco or sheet rock dividers.

“If it’s a true heinous active shooter who is looking to target individuals, getting to a place you can’t be seen is very helpful,” Correia said.

Preparedness and training can help

While much of a person’s ability to successfully react under the stress of a deadly threat like a mass shooting stems from instinct, such inclinations are “definitely trainable,” Correia said.

Just like children playing sports learn to react quickly to a fast pitch or a pass from a teammate, they can be taught how to react in an emergency. So can adults.

“Calm is a superpower. And the ability to stay calm under stress is life-and-death in an emergency, no matter what the emergency is,” Correia said.

Being ready for a shooting can be challenging, however, because by nature they are unexpected.

“One thing you have to realize is no one knows how they’re going to react or respond,” said Jin Kim, a retired FBI agent who was the active shooter coordinator in the Crisis Management Unit. “When it happens to them, it’s in the most average, routine, mundane moment of their day.”

Gunmen in mass shootings get more sophisticated over time — throwing more advanced challenges at those trying to escape their lines of fire. The Highland Park suspect, for instance, is alleged to have taken a sniper’s position from a rooftop on the parade route which gave him a tactical advantage.

“As a collective, we underestimate the offender and the offender cohort every single day,” Kim added.

How to deal with the fear caused by shootings

For John Duffy, a Chicago-area clinical psychologist who treats many teens and young adults, the distressed calls started coming on Monday, when the office was closed for July 4.

None of Duffy’s patients were in Highland Park or directly affected by the shooting, but they were all in shock and in pain. Duffy said he spent 13 hours in appointments at his office talking through the latest American tragedy — this one in the Windy City’s backyard.

“Everybody’s been talking about the same thing,” Duffy said in a phone interview after the sessions. He and other experts have been offering the public advice for how to cope.

Find a sense of purpose and control

Writing to members of Congress, protesting, fundraising and starting petitions are all ways that regular people can help to harness their fear of daily life in a society where violence and devastation regularly dominate headlines, Duffy said.

“There’s no reason to think this wouldn’t happen again and what brings people hope, oddly, is to brainstorm about, ‘What do you think we can do about it?’” Duffy said. “I think people like the idea that they could contribute somehow to some kind of solution.”

Caroline Giroux, a trauma psychiatrist and professor at the University of California-Davis, also said it’s important for people who are gripped by panic, afraid of the next massacre at a school, mall or public event, to find a sense of control. Advocating for changes, she said, is one of the best outlets, especially if by lending your voice you can join with like-minded others.

“It’s really important to grasp any area of control we have, even if it’s only our voice,” Giroux said. “We need to get louder, we need to join our voices and that in itself can keep us going. That in itself can make us step out of our paralysis and get out of the door every day.”

Don’t brush off the fear you or your loved ones are feeling

Duffy no longer tries to calm patients down with promises that they are safe or that statistically speaking, they and their loved ones are unlikely to be caught in an event like the Highland Park shooting rampage.

“In good conscience I cant say, ‘No, we’re going to be fine, ‘ “ he said. “I always agree that this is really scary.”

It is important, he said, to let people express their valid fears and to provide for them a release for the strong emotions that follow tragedies that saturate news and social media sites 24-7.

“I find the least useful thing to do no matter who I’m talking to is to tell them it’s okay, everything’s going to be okay, because everybody’s got way too much access to all the information,” he said.

Take care of yourself in other ways

Giroux recommends practicing lifestyle hygiene: getting regular, adequate sleep, eating well, exercising, socializing and engaging in mindfulness. That doesn’t have to be a traditional exercise like meditation, she said. It can be as simple as focusing on what you are doing during mundane tasks like folding laundry or gardening.

It’s important to have “some kind of mindfulness practice every day,” she said.