On March 23rd, 2021, a man thought to be mentally disturbed entered a Boulder, Colorado grocery store and began a shooting rampage. 21-year-old Al Aliwi Alissa, born in Syria but living in the United States since the age of three, managed to kill 10 people, including a police officer, before disrobing and surrendering to authorities. It’s thought that the gunman has a long history of anger issues and may have paranoid tendencies.
The shooting follows an incident where another 21-year-old killed 8 people in Georgia at local massage parlors, which he saw as a form of temptation for what is described as a “sex addiction.” The recent shootings in diverse settings follow a lull during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.
In the last few years, shooting events by the disaffected, disturbed, and disgruntled have occurred on a regular basis. Schools, churches, places of business, and other public venues are now fair game for those with bad intentions. Armed not only with weapons but with a blueprint from previous incidents, gunmen can identify soft targets easily and are more “successful” in achieving their goal of creating mass casualties.
Like COVID-19, have these events become part of the “New Normal”? Should we just get used to them?
You might think that the “successes” achieved by active shooters occur at random. The increase in the sheer number of casualties, however, reveal a strategy that is being refined to deadly effect.
The selection of soft targets is becoming a science and is leading to higher numbers of deaths and injuries. In the 2018 South Florida high school shooting, for example, the gunman activated the fire alarm to make sure there would be lots of targets in the hall. To create confusion, he tossed smoke bombs (but prudently wore a gas mask).
If the ill-intentioned are now that much better at creating mayhem, it stands to reason that our society must become better at thwarting those intentions. Here are ways that would, in my opinion, decrease the number of shooter incidents and the deaths caused by them:
Improve security in areas at risk. I would define an “area at risk” as just about anywhere where a crowd of people would gather. Better protection at malls or grocery stores may just be a matter of hiring more security personnel. Given the loss of so many jobs during the pandemic, it’s not a bad idea to train and hire workers specifically to keep an eye out for those with bad intentions. If the money isn’t there, establishing and training a volunteer safety team in places like churches, schools, or workplaces can increase the level of vigilance and identify threats early.
Although the recent attacks occurred in cities, rural areas aren’t immune. Establish volunteer safety officers in small towns where there may not be law enforcement and emergency medical personnel just around the corner. These persons should have training in security, firearms, and first aid for bleeding wounds. If there are volunteer fire departments, while not trained volunteer safety departments?
Instill a culture of situational awareness in our society. Situational awareness is a state of calm, relaxed observation of factors that might indicate a threat. These are called “anomalies”; learning to recognize them can identify suspicious individuals and save lives.
Situational awareness involves always having a plan of action when a threat occurs, even if it’s as simple as making a note of the nearest exit in whatever building you’re in. Seems like common sense, but in these days of smartphone distractions, many are oblivious of their surroundings.
Identify persons of interest through their social media posts. Some active shooter candidates are vocal about their intentions. You might be concerned about “big brother” monitoring our public conversations on social media. It concerns me also, but you must answer this question: How many deaths are you willing to accept in your community due to a lack of vigilance?
We must always be on the lookout for signs of trouble. Even if this drives some potential gunmen underground, it might identify others in time to abort their mission.
In the case of Alissa, his sister-in-law felt compelled to take a gun away from him when he was acting erratically. In some states, it is possible for family members or police to ask the court to order the temporary removal of firearms from someone who may present a danger to others or themselves. A judge makes the determination to issue the order based on statements made and actions of the person in question. Controversial? Yes, but it could save lives.
Each municipality must set a mechanism (and an earlier trigger) for the authorities to apprehend and interrogate suspicious characters. Indeed, Ali Aliwi Alissa was a known person of interest to authorities before the attack.
Learn how to stop bleeding in emergencies: Teach our citizens to avoid the natural paralysis that occurs in an unexpected event. This paralysis occurs as a result of “normalcy bias”, the tendency to discount risks because most days proceed in a certain standard manner; we usually assume that today will be the same.
By teaching simple courses of action such as the Department of Homeland Security’s “Run, Hide, Fight” triad, the decision-making process may be more intuitive and more rapidly implemented. This is more effectively taught and ingrained at a young age. Make sure it’s a part of every child’s education.
We should also teach our students simple first aid strategies to stop bleeding, the most likely cause of death in these scenarios. Rapid action by bystanders is thought to decrease the number of deaths from hemorrhage. Add “Reduce” hemorrhage to “Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic” as part of school curriculum, and lives might be saved.
Provide first aid kits for bleeding in public venues. In the last few years, bleeding kits have been packed into fire extinguisher wall cabinets in many public venues and can be accessed by those at the scene. Unfortunately, in most places, there isn’t a sign that indicates their presence. With supplies, the Good Samaritan will be more likely to save a life. I predicted, years ago, that these kits will be fixtures everywhere one day. It’s good that they’re there, but let the public know they are.
Our response as a nation has been to do little to correct the problem. I say that era must end. Let’s stop being “soft” targets. We must forsake the notion that shootings are just part and parcel of the New Normal and begin the process by which we change our attitude and level of vigilance, not in isolated cases, but as a society.
The above recommendations wouldn’t affect the average (sane) citizen’s right to bear arms. It would mean more situational awareness so that people can be more ready to “Run, Hide, Fight”.
If it means more surveillance, we should realize how much there is already. Watching people who publicly threaten violence more closely makes sense; so does increasing access to mental health resources to, perhaps, prevent someone from going off the rails.
The New Normal is an angry, dangerous place. The American identity has been replaced by many tribal ones; Most seem to hate each other. It’s a recipe for disaster that’s likely to get worse if we don’t reverse course, but that takes fortitude and determination on the part of all parties.
You don’t have to be a Department of Homeland Security official to know that there are more active shooter events on the horizon. Watch for anomalies in behavior and always have a plan of action. A prepared nation wouldn’t be invulnerable to attacks, but its citizens would have a better chance to survive them.
Joe Alton MD