Sheetrock, it turns out, will not stop a bullet.
Neither will most doors, or auto bodies, or what struck me as a freakishly lengthy stretch of unimpeded space—over three miles, for some guns. I learned this in a beige conference room in a Bellevue office park, where 20 or so businesspeople had gathered to eat scrambled eggs and link sausages from banquet warmers while learning how to survive if a gunman arrives to shoot up their workplace.
“Not if, but when,” the flyer from the human resources company Avitus Group had read, over a photo of businessmen fleeing an office, their orange ties swaying. Really? When? Of course, July 28, 2006, was when for the Seattle Jewish Federation, the day a gunman stormed its Belltown security door with two semiautomatic pistols, shooting six and killing one. When came to Cafe Racer in Roosevelt in 2012, from a shooter who killed six including himself; to Seattle Pacific University in 2014, from a shooter who killed one and injured two; to the Burlington Macy’s last year, from a shooter who killed five shoppers with a rifle.
But such mass shootings are still rare, I’d told myself; and I wasn’t wrong. Steve McDonald, the ex-military ex-cop who conducted the training—a manly yet sensitive guy who knew how essential a good euphemism like “become a victim” can be at a time like this—assured our group as much. Right before informing us that between 2006 and 2013, the average number of active shooter incidents in the U.S. more than doubled, from 6.4 to 16.4 per year.
McDonald took us through grim video reenactments of school and warehouse shootings, where we learned rule number one: Survival depends in largest part on what you do during the very first seconds of a rampage. So sitting in your cube pondering the relative likelihoods of that unaccustomed bang being a backfiring car, an off-season indoor fireworks display, or a gunshot is not advised; running is. Run for the nearest exit, then keep running.
If exits are impeded, hide. A room with a lockable door is best; a room whose door you can barricade by dragging up a desk or wrapping your belt around double door handles a close second. Lights out. Phone darkened and silenced; even vibrate is audible. The average shooter event lasts 10 minutes, and shooters aren’t big on dillydallying, so when they meet even a superficial obstacle they’re less liable to stand around problem solving than they are to move on.
You, however? The hider’s job is entirely problem solving. If you can call 911, do; even if you have to just set the open line on the floor and let the operator figure it out. Stay alert. Situate an obstacle, a coat rack or something, a few feet inside the door to distract the incoming shooter’s attention for the few seconds you’ll need to grab an advantage. Cast around for anything—stapler, Sharpie, old journalism plaque—you can make into a weapon. So that if he—statistically, it’s going to be a he—gets past your barricade, you can…you know. Take him. You know, down.
Okay, so in all humiliating candor, it was at this moment in McDonald’s video that I felt like I might cry. The moment where the crouching warehouse worker realizes with sinking certainty that the gunman is approaching, closer and closer, footfalls just around the corner now…and that fighting the gunman, with whatever makeshift weapon, is at once inevitable and imminent and, in its outcome, just monumentally iffy. McDonald told us that even where potential victims are themselves armed, outcomes are by no means assured; in one school shooter simulation, five of six armed students couldn’t even get their guns out of their holsters. “If you’re going to carry,” McDonald concluded drily, “you have to be trained, and trained under stress.”
But, imagining myself now in a ready crouch behind my desk, how trained was I in stabbing a human with a Sharpie? Can a person even be stapled? Could I raise enough strength of will—could I raise enough strength, period—to rain a disabling blow upon an armed predator? And why haven’t I won heavier journalism awards?
Furthermore, so long as we’re on the subject of my manifold survival deficits—why aren’t my instincts even on my side? It would seem adaptive that body and mind would serve up just what homo sapiens needs to survive this kind of lethal threat, but according to McDonald, the opposite is true. The first thing the psyche does when it hears gunshots is to normalize them; that is, go to whatever alternative sources could even implausibly explain the noise.
That’s the moment you must make yourself flee—the first in a string of conscious overrides you’ll likely have to impose on your natural defaults. Your physiology’s no help when adrenaline’s flowing, nixing peripheral vision by dilating your pupils, diminishing fine motor skills by rushing blood to your large muscle groups. (It’s why the armed students in the simulation couldn’t unholster their guns.) Your psychological defaults aren’t much better. Once you’ve left the scene, you may have the powerful urge to stop and look back. Wrong: The shooter may still be on the loose. Indeed one frequent shooter ploy is the creation of an initial event, an explosion say, which gets folks congregating in another area. Where he can pick them off.
Once law enforcement personnel arrive, on average 14 minutes after first shots, your instinct might be to run toward them. Wrong again: The cops are in what is known in the trade as a “high-readiness situation,” and may “treat you like the enemy”—another of McDonald’s blessed euphemisms. Besides, the cops aren’t primarily there to rescue you; their job one is halting the shooter. Which is why you may have to watch them leaping over bleeding, pleading victims on their way to taking the shooter down.
Much the way you may find yourself leaping over bleeding, pleading victims on your way to getting yourself the hell out—a choice, McDonald gently told us, we must searchingly consider our individual responses to. It’s but one part of the preparatory mind set McDonald urged us all to adopt in this age of workplace shootings: a mind set of expectation. We need to walk around ready. Not if, but when.
In his two-hour presentation, McDonald made no point clearer. Wherever you go—Nordstrom, Safeco Field, the grocery store, your cubicle—you must stay in readiness mode. On entering any new place, identify your exits. You must locate potential weapons. You must rehearse strategies in your head. As I sat taking all this in, realizing I have no idea where most of my office doors lead—I felt dread mount. To a level that felt at once too heavy to carry and suddenly too essential to ever put down again.
We live in shooter culture, much the way we live in rape culture, and just as women are the ones who get instructed about how rape can be avoided, ordinary citizens must now sit through workshops to learn strategies—run! hide! fight!—for getting through an ordinary workday alive. As if that had any business in our job descriptions. As if there were no alternative.