Are Those Really Gunshots?

[Recently], I was reading an article about last year’s San Bernardino active killer attack.  The article summarized the attack which eventually led to 14 people being killed and 22 more being wounded.

While reading through the victims’ statements, I was stunned yet again to see how many of the victims were in denial about the attack, even after hearing gunshots.  Like many other active killer attacks, victims were paralyzed by “normalcy bias” and tried to rationalize the sounds of the gunfire as anything other than what they actually were.

According to the article:

“Colleagues inside had heard popping sounds, but many didn’t recognize the sound of gunfire until the doors burst open and they saw a man in black start spraying bullets. They didn’t recognize him or his wife. People ran in horror, some dove to the floor and others fell from the fusillade.

Even then, some weren’t sure what was happening, with one county official taking cover and thinking it was the “most glorified training I had ever seen.

Probably on the second or third clip, it finally clicked that this wasn’t an exercise,” he said. The report provided confidentiality to witnesses, victims and first responders.”

It shouldn’t take hearing three full magazines’ worth of bullets being fired to realize you are being shot at.  Unfortunately, rationalizing gunfire as some other innocuous noise is exceedingly common in active killer events.

Take a look at a few more examples:

– In the 2011 Gabby Giffords shooting in Arizona:

“Pam Simon’s first thought was “this is not happening.” The aide to Gabrielle Giffords’ next thought was “that’s a toy gun.” A moment later: “It’s happening.”

– In the 2014 Seattle Pacific University killing, students thought the gun shots were “science experiments”.

– In the Marysville, Washington school shooting, one student stated:

“I heard four [shots] “gak, gak, gak, gak,” I thought someone was kicking the door,” Kadell told the station. “Then I heard “gak, gak,” people started running and screaming it was a gun.”

There are dozens more examples.  In the Oikos California college shooting  (where 10 people were shot), victims reported thinking that the gun shots were fireworks.  The same was true when two students began shooting inside Columbine High School in 1999.  In the Beslan School massacre, people thought the initial shots were popping balloons.  Victims trapped inside the Virginia Tech classroom building during that school shooting believed they were hearing construction noises, not gunshots.

In almost every active killer attack, the witnesses hear gunshots and let their brains spin up some alternate explanation for the loud noises.  I’m convinced that if people simply made an escape attempt the very second that they heard the sound of a possible gun shot, there would be far fewer casualties in these heinous events.

The noises you are hearing may be popping balloons or fireworks.  They may also be gunshots.  If you assume the former and are wrong, you get killed.  If you assume the latter and are incorrect, at worst you may feel some embarrassment.  Which option is the best choice?  If you are in a public place and you hear anything that may possibly be gunshots, don’t rationalize the sounds as something less ominous.  Assume they are shots being fired and exit the building in the direction opposite the sounds.  If it is truly just balloons, you may be embarrassed.  Being embarrassed is far better than being dead.

Greg Ellifritz is the full time firearms and defensive tactics training officer for a central Ohio police department. He holds instructor or master instructor certifications in more than 75 different weapon systems, defensive tactics programs and police specialty areas. Greg has a master's degree in Public Policy and Management and is an instructor for both the Ohio Peace Officer's Training Academy and the Tactical Defense Institute.

For more information or to contact Greg, visit his training site at Active Response Training.

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