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Georgia town teaches ‘fight back’ as option in mass shootings

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By Richard Fausset

New York Times

DOUGLASVILLE, Ga. >> When the police held town hall meetings here in the past, they were lucky to see a half-dozen people. But the topic of the most recent one was “Active Shooter: A Citizen’s Guide to Planning for Survival.” And the place was packed.

Chief Gary Sparks, an Army veteran with 29 years on the police force, set the mood with an opening chat that was part folksy pep talk and part pragmatic self-defense lecture. The world has changed, he told the crowd: Google the floor plans of stadiums and concert sites before going to them. Study the layout of your grocery store. Make a note of places to make a quick exit or to hide. And be ready to pounce, if you must, with maximum aggression.

“You can’t go out here and not have a mindset to win the fight,” Sparks said. “Can’t go around here with no sheepish-type mindset. There ain’t no sheep dogs. Everybody in Douglasville, we tigers, lions, bears, elephants, whatever you want to be.”

And so it went in this macabre genre of continuing education class, an increasingly common ritual in a firearm-saturated nation where many feel particularly vulnerable after the murderous Islamic State assaults in Paris in November, the bloody attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, two weeks later and the massacre of county employees in San Bernardino, California, last month.

Held one night during the week after Christmas, the Douglasville meeting attracted about 80 people: worried retirees, worried office workers, worried teachers and parents, and a worried 21-year-old in a heavy metal T-shirt, Chris Wallace, who said he felt particularly exposed in crowded public places. He was thinking about applying for a concealed carry permit.

“You can never be too safe,” he said.

Over the course of 90 minutes, the police encouraged them to adopt a view of the world that was, in essence, the default view of police officers: Keep your head on a swivel. Constantly triage potential threats. Incessantly toggle through angles of escape and plans of attack.

They handed out a stapled packet that defined an “active shooter” as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” It was full of statistics (“Such incidents,” it said, occur, “on average, once every five weeks in this country”), mini-primers on the “dynamics of perception” (“Our brains take the shortest route to help us mentally negotiate through unexpected occurrences”) and guidelines promulgated by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security known as “Run, Hide, Fight” — the three main options for someone embroiled in an “active shooter” event, with fighting typically recommended as a last resort.

The police screened a video in which a fictional gunman clad in black blasted away at fictional white-collar employees during their mundane workday. “The authorities are working hard to protect you and to protect our public spaces,” the baritone narration went. “But sometimes bad people do bad things.” The workers were shown running, hiding and, in the end, attacking the gunman as he barged through a door.

The idea of preparing for a mass shooting has been embraced for years by many school systems in the United States, as well as some workplaces: Employees of both the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado and the government agency in San Bernardino County had received such training before the massacres there. But in recent weeks, more sessions like the one here have bloomed nationwide. Hundreds came for a seminar at City Hall in Livonia, Michigan. Boy Scout Troop 212 received a lesson in survival from the Iowa City Police Department. Numerous state and local governments — including the tiny town of Level Plains, Alabama, and the State of New Hampshire, which employs about 11,000 people — announced expanded training for employees in 2016.

While the odds of an American being involved in an active-shooter event remain extremely slim, a 2014 FBI study showed that about 11 such shootings occurred each year on average between 2000 and 2013, with the frequency increasing.

Public safety officials have long recommended that people evacuate or hide in “lockdown” during attacks, but in the last couple of years officials have also widely accepted fighting back as a last resort. The idea of proactive self-defense was embraced wholeheartedly in Douglasville, a suburban city of 32,000 just west of Atlanta. Danine Mezzell, 57, said she came to the meeting here after sitting in the local mall during the heart of the holiday shopping season wondering how she would survive an attack without her handguns, which she has a permit to carry but which the mall prohibited her from bringing.

“I was like, ‘Wow, we’re just sitting ducks here,’” she recalled.

Bennie J. Amey, 50, a gospel musician and informational technology worker, said he was glad that the police were emphasizing an aggressive response. He hoped that domestic and foreign terrorists would get the message that Americans “are people who fight.”

About halfway through the meeting, the officers showed a second video in which an instructor from ACT Cert, a private “attack countermeasures training” company, told a group of college students how to increase their chances of survival if a gunman broke into their classroom. In the video, many of the students moved out of what the instructor called the “kill zone”: the gunman’s initial view of the room. Some of them gathered on either side of the door. When a man pretending to be the attacker entered the room, they pounced on him, grabbing his forearms and wrestling him to the floor.

A question-and-answer session followed the video. Kimberly Fugate, 49, a middle school Spanish teacher, said that her public school had a lockdown plan, and that she had told her students to hide and be quiet if there were an attack. “What else can I do?” she asked.

The chief said that if the opportunity presented itself, she could “jab that guy in his eyeball” with a pencil. “You bite his nose off.” The students, he said, could kick the attacker while he was down “with a hundred little feets.”

The crowd laughed, but some safety experts consider such advice dangerous. “It requires a lot of judgment in terms of whether to fight or not,” David Esquith, the director of the federal Department of Education’s safety office, said in an interview. “And this is a judgment that only an adult can make.”

While mass shootings dominate cable newscasts, they make up a minuscule proportion of the nation’s 32,000 gun deaths annually. And the overall crime rate is now half of what it was in 1990, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, and almost a quarter (22 percent) less than it was at the turn of the century.

At the meeting in Douglasville, however, the mood had turned cathartic as people discussed self-defense scenarios. A man in a leather jacket asked how a legally armed person who shot an intruder should act once the police arrived: “Because I don’t want to get shot,” he said.

Capt. Brad Stafford told him that he should, in that scenario, put his gun down and place his hands on his head.

A man with a gentle drawl said that his daughter-in-law, a teacher, had complied with the no-weapons rule at her school. But he said that she just happened to keep a claw hammer and a screwdriver with her at all times.

“You never know when she needs to install something,” he said. “And that girl from the Bronx would turn you into hamburger.”

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