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Active Shooter Situations Have Paused During The Pandemic. What Can That Teach CRE?

As crowds have dwindled and public spaces have closed during the coronavirus pandemic, mass shootings by lone gunmen in public spaces have virtually stopped — a pause that some experts are using to study what factors go into active shooter scenarios and how to stop them.

While some cities have suffered an increase in gun violence overall, the scenarios involving one active shooter unknown to victims have been scarce. It turns out that 2020 has provided a rare test case that might have never happened but for the pandemic: the ability to study what can stem or stop the rash of shootings the U.S. has endured over the last 20 years, and the tools to impart that lesson to law enforcement and owners of commercial space.

"It's perfectly reasonable to wonder what lessons might we learn from the unintended consequence of fewer mass shooting incidents," said Georgia Institute of Technology associate professor Munmun De Choudhury, who studies the impact of active shooter drills in schools.


The gap is giving property managers and others responsible for security in public places additional time to prepare for active shooting incidents, if they don't already conduct training and have emergency procedures spelled out, just as they might for a natural disaster.

A recent study by researchers Jaclyn Schildkraut and H. Jaymi Elsass, as reported by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, defined a mass shooting as an incident of targeted violence carried out by one or more shooters at one or more public or populated locations, with victims chosen at random or for symbolic value.

By that definition, there have been 340 mass shootings between 1966 and 2016, with 1,141 deaths and 2,526 victims. The number of those events had been increasing before the pandemic, with an average of about 16 per year from 2006 to 2016, compared with seven per year between 1996 and 2005, and four per year between 1986 and 1995.

For all of those 50 years, more than half of the incidents were in workplaces or schools (29.7% and 27.6%, respectively). Retail establishments accounted for 7.1% of the incidents and restaurants or nightclubs 8.8%.

Thus far, 2020's lockdown and subsequent pandemic-related distancing have been marked by a substantial drop in public shootings.

There were 23 incidents of shootings in which four or more people died during the second and third quarters of 2019, according to data compiled by gun violence research group Gun Violence Archive. But during the second and third quarters of 2020, the number of incidents in which four or more people died was 15, and none of them involved shootings at a public place.

Moreover, the three shooting incidents that have caused the largest number of deaths (seven in each incident) in 2020 were the murder-suicide of a family, and two shootings in private residents apparently related to other criminal activity. In 2019, by contrast, the three largest number of deaths in shooting incidents were at a retail store (a Walmart in El Paso, Texas), a municipal building (Virginia Beach) and outside a bar in an entertainment district in Dayton, Ohio.

That data is important for a private sector looking to minimize or eliminate active shooter situations, experts said.

"The current situation shows that systemic policies in public spaces might help. For instance, ones that discourage or make it harder to bring guns," De Choudhury said. "Other policies may include better evidence-informed preparedness or revisiting the premise of allowing concealed carry of firearms in public spaces."

Although in different places, all of the largest shootings in 2019 had in common a large number of people in a public place that is easily accessible to a shooter who wanted to attack randomly. In 2019, public places were often characterized by large numbers of people. In 2020, those have been much harder to find.

Polls also show that despite their rarity, Americans are apprehensive about events involving random active shooters. In a poll conducted in the summer of 2019, not long after a gunman murdered 22 people at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart, Gallup found that 48% of U.S. adults are "very" or "somewhat" worried about being the victim of a mass shooting, up from 39% in 2017, not long after a shooter killed 58 people in Las Vegas from a sniper's perch in a hotel room.

Although a remote possibility for any given property, the frequency and randomness of past active shooter scenes have made training for the eventuality a must-do requirement for most commercial properties. That drop in active shooter situations in public places is also likely only a pause, experts say.

"All the stressors are out there, even more than before. People [are] losing their jobs or homes, with individuals or families under stress, so that's something to be aware of," Texas State University Professor of Criminal Justice Pete Blair said.

Jesus Villahermosa was on the Pierce County (Washington) Sheriff's SWAT Team from 1983 to 2013, where he served as the point man on the entry team and responded to active shooter incidents. He founded Crisis Reality Training in 1986 to provide active shooter and other kinds of emergency training courses for schools, hospitals, transportation agencies and other organizations in the United States and Canada.

Villahermosa said it is just a matter of time before more public active shootings happen because the intensity and duration of the pandemic could also be factors in triggering a lone gunman. High levels of stress and periods of isolation are probably factors in at least some active shooters' decisions to go on a rampage, Villahermosa said. 

"The mental health community is extremely concerned about the impact of the pandemic,” he said. “Stress levels are higher on everyone, but not only that, a lot of people are isolated more than ever before."  

Blair said training to deal with active shooters shouldn’t take a pause, especially at places like malls or large stores, just because incidents are down. Now is a good time to train security personnel at commercial properties about what to do in an active shooter scenario.

"Properly trained personnel mean that within minutes, the mall is closed, and people are using back hallways to get out of the building,” Blair said. “They know to avoid the attacker, deny access to your location, and as a last resort defend themselves.” 

The psychology of why a shooter may randomly open fire on a public crowd isn't fully understood. But experts say that typically such people want a lot of potential victims to shoot at, so they're holding off for now, when targets are few in number. That could all change once consumers flood back into public spaces.

An active shooter training exercise in Monterey, California.

Office property managers also need to be more aware of the possibility of a mass shooting after the pandemic, Villahermosa said. In the case of office space, signs of trouble might come when someone associated with a specific workplace shows warning signs.

"It's important to be aware of warning signs," he said. "It's one way to mitigate risk. When it comes to active shooters, you can't eliminate risk, but you can mitigate it."

It is possible that there will be less workplace violence after the pandemic, as an unanticipated side effect of more people working from home, Villahermosa said. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 25% to 30% of the workforce will be working from home at least a few days a week by the end of 2021, as a legacy of the pandemic.

"That might be a lingering impact, as fewer people gather together in offices," he said, though it isn't likely to be the case for retail space or theaters or schools, which will see crowds return as soon as the pandemic ebbs.

Blair is also executive director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center, or ALERRT, at TSU, which provides active shooter training throughout the country. While private training companies charge fees of various amounts, ALERRT training is usually delivered at no cost. Since 2002, the federal and state governments have awarded the ALERRT Center more than $50M in funding.

Blair said that groups that train first responders to active shooting scenes, or companies looking to prevent them, sometimes have tools they can use ahead of time to minimize risk.

“You hear someone talking about violence, or showing weapons, or posting it on social media, that needs to be taken seriously and referred to law enforcement,” Blair said.

Red flag laws, which exist in 19 states and the District of Columbia, are one tool for heading off potential gun violence. They allow law enforcement to petition a court to authorize the seizure of weapons from a person who may be a danger to themselves or others.

Random active shootings are statistically rare occurrences, though when they are successful they are so horrific that the nation's attention turns to the event, at least for a short time. And while locations may be chosen at random, experts say that these kinds of mass attacks often have warning signs.

"Most aberrant behavior is preceded by some form of precursive behavior," which often involves a would-be shooter "broadcasting" their intentions, either by telling someone or posting on social media, Security Management Services International President Bill Nesbitt said. "Being able to read those signs can be helpful in preventing an incident." 

In practice, however, acting on warning signs has been difficult to do, sometimes because of a lack of communication between agencies. Devin Kelley, who committed the Sutherland, Texas, murders, had a long history of violence and other offenses while in the Air Force, which did not share that information with the FBI or other law enforcement agencies.

ALERRT offers a number of training courses, the most relevant to active shooter incidents is the Civilian Response to Active Shooter Events half-day course, which offers information based on a strategy known as Avoid, Deny, Defend, which was developed in 2004 by the organization.

If possible, according to the strategy, a shooter should be avoided, such as by leaving the building. If that isn't possible, one should put up some kind of barrier to deter the shooter, such as a locked door. And, as a last resort, a would-be victim needs to defend himself or herself.  

“Training needs to remain a focus,” Blair said. “Some shopping mall owners are already quite effective with their training, and the industry needs to adopt it more widely.

Some companies also develop their own training courses for employees. Walmart has every employee train for the eventuality of an active shooter, mostly by watching videos, The New York Times reports.

When the store manager in El Paso realized an active shooter was in the store, he declared a "code brown," which alerted every employee of the situation. Per their training, they then started herding customers out of the store, along with other measures to protect them. 

"You have to follow the murderous logic of the shooter," Villahermosa said, because research on active shooters has shown they usually want to kill as many people as possible at once. "As soon as we open our doors again, active shooters will come back."