It starts with gunfire—rapid bursts blasted over the loudspeaker. This time it’s just to get people’s attention, but what if those shots fired were real? What if the sound was coming from just outside the classroom, or from down the hall? How would you react? Or better yet, how should you react?
That’s exactly what these dozen people gathered at the Pigeon Forge Community Center have come to learn more about. They’re seated orderly in a classroom decorated for summer camp, beneath a rainbow of multicolored balloons dangling from the ceiling. Colored paper cutouts shaped like hands are pasted to one wall, forming a tree. On another, a handcrafted sign reads “Chalked full of fun!” Sounds of children’s laughter seep in from the next room. A bag of rubber balls and kangaroo sacks sit in the corner.
This is active-shooter survival training, a free hour-and-a-half class led by an off-duty police officer that covers a range of topics in sharp contrast to the seemingly benign surroundings.
It’s places like this—gun-free, with a large number of people gathered in one spot—that make an easy target for a would-be shooter, instructor Aaron Clark says. As children splash in the pool and count numbers in Spanish one room over, the mood in survival class is serious. These folks are hoping to learn enough to protect themselves and those around them should someone ever open fire, to preserve a way of life they feel is threatened, and to shield the innocence that can be felt reverberating all around them.
Anything could happen, but statistics show that you’re unlikely to be caught in a mass shooting like the one at Columbine High School in 1999 or at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in June. But the number of mass shootings—which, as defined by the FBI, are indiscriminate shootings with four or more victims—in the U.S. has increased in recent years, and 24-hour news coverage has made them seem more common and widespread than they are.
“In society right now, it’s a shame you have to do this,” says Dewight Farragut, who showed up for the class with two friends. Wearing a Vols hat and an old T-shirt that says Bike Week across the front, Farragut rubs the scruff of his chin as Clark walks through his presentation. “When we were kids, we took guns out for fun—to shoot bottles and cans and stuff. But now you have to carry them for safety. We never did that when I was young.”
Farragut describes himself as a law-abiding citizen just looking to stay safe. He doesn’t live in fear of such an attack—he doesn’t fear much of anything, he says—but if it does happen, he’d like to be prepared.
Farragut’s friend Leroy Stahly agrees. So does Leroy’s wife, Radonda. Leroy Stahly says he avoids places that won’t allow him to legally carry his handgun, such as some movie theaters and other locations with posted “no guns allowed” signs. But tonight he’s made a concession, unholstering to come in the community center to study up on posturing for self defense.
The first slide of the night promises to meet that need: “Threategic: Reality based training preparing you to BE the THREAT!”
Option 1: Run
The United States leads the world in mass shootings: With just 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. was home to 31 percent of all mass shootings from 1966-2012, according to a recent FBI study. But statistics are on your side, and the chance you’ll be a victim of a mass shooting remains slim.
Still, it could happen.
Karl Kreis was in church, in Knoxville, on July 27, 2008, when Jim David Adkisson burst in and opened fire during a children’s play. Kreis’ daughter was onstage performing in a production of Annie Jr.
“It’s a surreal thing to live through something like that,” Kreis says. “I didn’t understand when the first gunshot went off. All I really remember seeing is just fire coming out. What I saw was gunfire, but your mind wants to see the best in a situation like that. Nobody around me had any idea what to do.”
Adkisson walked into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Kingston Pike that morning with a shotgun concealed in a guitar case. He opened fire in the sanctuary, where 200 had gathered to watch the play.
Greg McKendry was killed when he stepped in front of the shooter in an attempt to shield others from gunfire. Seven other adults were wounded, including Linda Kraeger, a visitor to the church who later died of her wounds.
All Kreis could think about, he says, was getting to his daughter and making sure she was okay. He ducked behind a pew as his brain tried to make fast sense of what was happening. He was scared and in shock, no doubt, but the urge to protect his family forced him into action. He stirred from his impromptu hiding spot and made his way towards the stage.
As he did, he heard a scuffle. Five churchgoers tackled and subdued Adkisson. Kreis saw the struggle and rushed to help, playing a part in detaining the man and securing the shotgun before police arrived.
The emotional and psychological scars still remain for Kreis. He knows from experience how such a horrific event can shape a person’s perspective on life, and he hopes that, by sharing his story, he can help others cope with similar feelings. For two years after the church shooting, he says he was “hypersensitive” to his surroundings, afraid to sit with his back to a crowd and skittish at any crack of noise. Even today he keeps an eye on his surroundings.
“I still always think about an exit strategy. I kind of always sit with my back against the wall,” he says. “People reacted a whole array of different ways. I know several people who don’t have memories of it at all, but they’ve had to go to therapy for it.”
Very few such shootings are stopped by bystanders. The majority of mass shooting in the U.S. since 2000 have ended in suicide—about 70 percent, according to the FBI. But law-enforcement officials and researchers have increasingly urged people to take matters into their own hands as a last resort. There have been enough mass-casualty shootings in the U.S. over the past couple of decades that experts have been able to develop a data-backed approach to survival.
There are three pillars: Run. Hide. Fight.
Option 2: Hide
“If you hear gunfire, get up and leave immediately,” Clark tells the class during what he calls a “common sense” survival seminar. If you can’t get out, hide out of sight, ideally behind something that offers some protection. “But if someone brings violence to you, that’s the time to be violent. You be the threat.”
A lot of the tips and pointers Clark offers do seem like common sense. But if you don’t prepare for those scenarios, he says—if you don’t train your mind and your body how to react, if you don’t have an escape plan—you’ll likely falter in the few seconds after someone starts shooting.
“I really believe our best option living in a free country is if people are willing to carry [a weapon] and be a responsible citizen,” he says. “That will help eliminate a threat. But just owning a gun isn’t enough. Before getting into law enforcement, I got a handgun permit, but I had no training. In my mind, I had this vision that I would rise to the occasion. I know now that that’s just not true.
“You’re accountable for everything you do with that handgun. If you’re going to take on that responsibility, you owe it to yourself and everyone around you to be trained on how to use it.”
If you don’t have a gun, any makeshift weapon may be better than no weapon at all. Clark shows a PowerPoint slide with “Attack!” scrawled across the top in bold red letters. Beneath it are pictures of scissors, a hymnal book, a fire extinguisher, and a flag pole with a pointy end—all potential weapons in the circumstances he trains people for.
But the core of what Clark and others teach in these sorts of classes is based on less confrontational principles: situational awareness, having an exit plan, and thinking about how you would respond if a situation sours.
Always scout out your nearest exit. If your family is with you, tell them the plan and where to go.
“I’ll usually tell my wife and son that if something happens, this is where we’ll exit. We make a game out of it,” Clark tells the class. “I don’t want you to be overly paranoid, but you need to think about these things.”
Pay attention to people around you, and watch out for signs that someone might be up to no good. Those include subtle hints like sweating heavily, acting nervous, or patting or touching the area where a weapon might be concealed. But potential shooters can be impossible to identify before an incident starts. Many gunmen in mass shootings are men—about 94 percent of them, according to an FBI report. But otherwise they have few characteristics in common.
The shooter at TVUUC in Knoxville told police he targeted the church because of its liberal teachings, and his belief that Democrats were running the country into the ground with the “aid of major media outlets,” according to an affidavit following his arrest. Other shooters have had varying motivations: racial hatred, religious beliefs, and mental-health issues. Many such tragedies end when the gunman or gunmen commit suicide, and their motivations may never be fully known.
Option 3: Fight
Mass shootings may still be uncommon, but it’s clear that they have been on the rise. The FBI pegs 2008 as a tipping point, though officials can’t say why. That year, the number of mass shootings more than double from an average of 5 yearly 2000-2007 to 16 each year 2008-2012.
Think about that. Hardly a month passes without some sort of senseless, indiscriminate shooting popping off. These events have happened with such frequency, and get so much media attention, that they almost seem routine. That’s why thousands of people across the country—law-abiding, everyday folks—have sought out training or more information about how to respond if they find themselves in such dire circumstances.
A sort of cottage industry has also emerged, with companies led by civic-minded people like Aaron Clark offering survival-training seminars, business-security evaluations, and gun-safety and crisis-management training. Clark has both a personal interest and sense of duty in helping people prepare for the worst, or for making smart decisions under pressure should they need to. He’s not looking to get rich. He offers classes on surviving an active shooter and basic handgun safety classes for free because, he says, everyone should have access to that information.
Since the beginning of 2015, more than 22,000 people are estimated to have taken part in active-shooter survival classes offered by Texas State University’s ALERRT Center, the Wall Street Journal reports. Research into how these events may be shaping the American perspective is scant at best, though interviews with people in some communities where mass shootings have occurred showed the incidents had shaped many people’s world view. A number of interviewees said they felt their community was less safe, according to a 2007 report in PTSD Research Quarterly.
Librarian Amy Beth Kear attended Clark’s survival class with her daughter, Rachel. With a laid-back attitude and a happy-go-lucky smile, Kear doesn’t seem like the sort of person who would formally prepare for a mass attack. But she worries that just such an incident is possible, though it doesn’t shape her daily life, she says.
“Living here in East Tennessee, you think that this could never happen here, but you never know,” she says. “There’s so much you don’t think about. You think to hide first, but really you should try to run and get out, moving in different directions. I never really thought about looking where an exit is in a room, but I’ll probably start.”
The ongoing rash of mass shootings has also shaped how law enforcement responds. Since the Columbine shooting in 1999, police have shifted away from relying on SWAT teams, which take time to assemble and get to the scene of a shooting. In an effort to save lives, officers now don’t wait around, even alone. They’ll enter a building in hopes of stopping a shooter as soon as possible and saving more lives. According to the FBI, 49 percent of mass shootings are over before police arrive.
The Knoxville Police Department is no exception. Sgt. Sammy Shaffer says officers train regularly for these types of incidents, working with federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and other local law-enforcement departments to coordinate a response, when or if it should happen here again. He declined to discuss many details, citing security concerns.
KPD also regularly conducts business security assessments and holds trainings for corporate and government agencies that request it. They rarely hold public meetings like the one Clark hosted in Pigeon Forge, but both KPD and Threategic’s talking points are modeled after industry standards.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re seeing an increase in these sorts of incidents. People should know that it could happen, and they should be prepared,” Shaffer says. “When it does happen we don’t want people to be surprised. It’s really just a matter of taking a few steps to practice, to say, ‘What are we going to do when this happens?’”
Clark is planning another active shooting survival class for 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 29 at the Pigeon Forge Community Center. It is free and open to the public. More information is available online at threategic.com.
Questions or training inquiries can be made to the Knoxville Police Department by calling 865-215-7000 and asking to speak with Sgt. Shaffer.
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