For those caught up in the chaos and horror of a shooting spree, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has a survival plan.
With seminars, online courses, posters, a booklet and even a pocket card highlighting salient points, the department is educating mall owners, office managers and the public on how to lessen the likelihood of becoming a casualty.
The pointers include yelling at or subduing the shooter in some situations. The online course consists of quizzes and assignments such as telling how to respond during a gunfire assault. While the guidance may seem reminiscent of advice given to 1950s’ schoolchildren to hide under their desks to survive a nuclear attack, security professionals said people need to prepare for the increasing deadliness of mass shootings.
“The only method of response is for citizens to understand their options to cope and respond to avoid being a statistic, because someone usually dies,” said Robert Siciliano, a Boston-based security consultant. “In this case, information certainly is power.”
Even so, Colin Goddard, one of the survivors of the Virginia Tech university massacre in 2007, said he doesn’t think any of the booklet’s pointers would have helped him avoid the four bullets Seung-Hui Cho pumped into his leg, hips and shoulder.
“You can never prepare for something like that,” Goddard, 26, said in a telephone interview.
A New York Police Department report last year found that 281 mass shootings occurred between 1966 and 2010, and many of the most lethal incidents happened in the past decade.
In the latest tragedy, a gunman wearing a gas mask, ballistic helmet and vest killed 12 and injured 58 on July 20 in Aurora, Colorado, when he opened fire in a movie theater showing a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.”
The booklet and online course indicate that “attitudes have evolved into a tacit, realistic acceptance that violence in our workplaces, schools and public places has become a part of our lives,” Joseph A. LaSorsa, a former Secret Service agent who’s a Swansboro, North Carolina-based security consultant and private investigator, wrote in an e-mail.
The booklet includes guidance similar to what’s used by university and business security forces across the country.
“The book has been a good reference guide” for security plans, said Captain Ashly Foster of the emergency operations unit at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.
Shooting incidents unfold over a matter of minutes, and semiautomatic weapons rack up casualties quickly.
With so little time for police to react, it’s up to the intended victims to try to avoid the carnage as much as possible until help arrives, said Paul Browne, a spokesman for the New York Police Department.
The Department of Homeland Security’s guidance, first compiled in a 2008 booklet aimed at retailers and mall operators, has proved so popular it’s being used by companies throughout the private sector, said Peter Boogaard, a department spokesman.
Since the “Active Shooter Program” began four years ago, 125,000 people in the government and private sector have been trained in the seminars, online course, booklets and other guides it offers, according to Boogaard.
Boiled down to the essentials, the advice is to evacuate or hide, and if those options aren’t available, disrupt the attack by distracting the shooter or taking him out.
Goddard said he and other students in his French class had no opportunity to do anything other than hide under their desks as the rampage unfolded on Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus before bullets started flying through the door and Cho entered, spraying the room with gunfire, Goddard said.
It wasn’t until Goddard said he smelled gunpowder and felt the warmth of blood spreading over his newly broken leg that he knew what was happening.
“I really totally didn’t understand what was going on until I was shot the first time,” said Goddard, who now is an assistant director at the Washington-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which advocates for gun control.
“It’s pretty messed up that the U.S. government treats these shootings like they would a natural disaster,” as if these rampages “were something that can’t be prevented,” he said.
Joseph LaRocca, senior adviser at the National Retail Federation, a Washington-based trade group, said he approached the department about doing the booklet after a gunman killed eight and took his own life at the Westroads Mall in Omaha, Nebraska, in December 2007. The department put out the booklet in October of the following year.
While the safety of retail employees and customers was the main reason, LaRocca said his members also were concerned about the legal liability they would face for not trying to do anything to minimize the loss of life during a rampage.
Boogaard declined to comment on how much the booklet or other materials cost to develop.
In the booklet, the reader is advised to “take note of the two nearest exits in any facility to visit” so you’re not caught flat-footed and “evacuate regardless of whether others agree to follow.”
Such advice in the booklet just sounds like common sense, Goddard said. Still, not everyone follows common sense, and some of the shoppers at Westroads moved toward the sound of gunshots, putting themselves in the line of fire, LaRocca said.
In the booklet, the department advises people to remember to keep their hands visible and spread their fingers so police arriving on the scene don’t mistake them for the shooter.
If escape is impossible, silence cell phones and find a safe room where the door can be blockaded with furniture.
Students in some of the other Virginia Tech classrooms were able to move their teachers’ heavy desks in front of the door, keeping Cho at bay, Goddard said.
During the mayhem, Goddard said he adopted his own rules of survival: “Just don’t do anything to let him know you’re alive.” He also threw his cell phone, which was emitting the voice of the 911 dispatcher, to avoid attracting any more of Cho’s attention, Goddard said.
The booklet counsels to avoid “pointing, screaming and/or yelling” at police. If the possibility of death is imminent, though, try shouting at the attacker or throw items and improvise weapons to subdue him, according to the booklet.
In some cases, simply yelling at a shooter has disrupted the “loop” of the attacker’s homicidal thinking, slowing down the attack, said Mark Lomax, executive director of National Tactical Officers Association, a Doylestown, Pennsylvania-based law enforcement group.
The booklet makes no mention of whether employees or the public should use guns to cut down the attacker. That’s because some of the companies that were the original audience for the booklet prohibited their employees from carrying guns while at work, LaRocca said.
Jacqueline Otto, a spokeswoman for The National Rifle Association, the Fairfax, Virginia-based gun-rights lobby that has supported concealed-weapons statutes, declined to comment, citing sensitivity about “policy discussions” so soon after the Colorado rampage.
The best advice in the department’s materials are the tips on recognizing potential shooters, said Siciliano, the security consultant: people who are suicidal and make comments about “putting things in order,” talk of financial problems or have “empathy with individuals committing violence.”
Goddard said expecting people to save themselves after a shooting begins isn’t doing enough to protect the public.
“We got to do better than just something at the last second,” he said.