On the way to work a few weeks ago, I called into one of the three Starbucks conveniently located between Kingston train station and my office. It was five to nine, so I figured the one just inside the shopping centre would be the emptiest. As I waited for my drink, and tried to avoid the banal barista chatter by turning up my music, I noticed a sudden change in the atmosphere. A couple of muffled bangs led me to whip off my headphones. In a matter of seconds, everyone in the shop had leaped to their feet. Drinks were spilled, bags were dropped, and the Starbucks crew converged to form an impromptu evacuation team, ushering customers to the back-of-house area. This all happened so quickly, I had no time to register what was going on. All I heard was a couple of panicky middle-aged women scream “Oh God, they’re shooting, they’ve got guns.”
Still oblivious to what was going on, I followed the crowd past the store-room, through the back door and into the service corridors of the mall. As several people burst into tears, I found myself shifting from a purposeful walk to a light jog. We passed through several sets of double doors, and found ourselves at an emergency exit. Some of the women were so terrified that they struggled to keep hold of their purses and phones, scrabbling around to pick them up off the floor, only to promptly drop them again. We waited by the exit, and heard further bangs, followed by screaming police sirens. I looked back the way we’d come, and wondered how long it would take someone with an automatic weapon and a lack of impulse control to find us.
All I heard was a couple of panicky middle-aged women scream “Oh God, they’re shooting, they’ve got guns”
The whole experience, from start to finish, can’t have been more than a minute. But in those sixty seconds I’d experienced the improbable but entirely genuine fear of being caught up in the kind of violent attack we see all too often on the news. Having been momentarily silenced by my pulsing adrenal gland, the logic centre of my brain was now busy playing catch-up. In the words of the Pet Shop Boys, “It couldn’t happen here.” And, as it happens, it hadn’t. It emerged later that several armed robbers had raced into the centre on motorbikes, and attempted to loot the jewelers next door to the coffee shop. Those bangs we’d heard? Just sledgehammers hitting the toughened glass. And not the sounds of an aggrieved nutcase armed to the teeth with automatic weaponry, determined to take out as many strangers as possible.
There’s a reason why the names Dunblane and Hungerford can still invoke an involuntary shudder – it’s because those atrocities are rare enough for us to remember every harrowing detail. Furthermore, both of those tragic events led to the tightening of our already restrictive gun laws. If such an outrage can have any kind of positive legacy, let that be it.
The NRA and its many supporters are still trotting out those depressing clichés like “Guns don’t kill people…”
Those cinema-goers in Aurora, on the other hand, weren’t so lucky. And as yesterday’s news revealed, neither were the worshippers at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. That’s two horrific shootings in less than three weeks. And yet, the NRA and its many supporters are still loudly trumpeting their Second Amendment rights, and trotting out those depressing clichés like “Guns don’t kill people…”
Everyone rushes to wring their hands, and speculate over what could drive someone to commit such an outrageous act, but at the same time, they argue against any kind of gun control – stating that ordinary people need guns in order to fend off the maniacs. Because that couldn't possibly end badly.
One particularly depressing sign of the times, is the City of Houston’s response to the Colorado shooting. Using a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, the Regional Catastrophic Planning Initiative has produced a five-minute video entitled ‘How to survive an active shooter event’. Even the title seems grimly euphemistic, as though we’re talking about some kind of online RPG, rather than an unprovoked mass-murder involving military-grade weaponry.
Narrated by someone who narrowly missed out on a career voicing movie trailers, the clip starts: “It may seem like just another day in the office, but occasionally, life feels more like an action movie than reality.” The film then proceeds to present a fictionalized account of a mass shooting, featuring plenty of PG-13 brutality, as several generic employees are shotgunned in the lobby of their offices by a Vin Diesel lookalike. As voiceover man explains condescendingly, “sometimes, bad people do bad things”, we see a parade of depressing casualty statistics, such as ‘21 killed, 19 wounded eating at a fast food restaurant’ and ‘32 killed, 25 wounded while attending classes.’
Against a backdrop of frightened office workers fleeing for their lives, we’re told “If you are ever to find yourself in the middle of an active shooter event, your survival may depend on whether or not you have a plan. The plan doesn’t have to be complicated. There are three things you could do that can make a difference. Run. Hide. Fight.” Over the next four minutes, we see each of those options explored in some detail, along with helpful tips like “Encourage others to leave with you, but don’t let them slow you down with indecision” and “Silence your ringer and vibration mode on your cellphone."
But like the duck and cover advice that was drilled into kids throughout the Cold War, it’s putting a sticking plaster on a gushing head-wound
Shortly after the Aurora shooting, I saw a Tweet that read: “In school there are fire drills & earthquake drills. Does anyone know what to do if someone opens fire in public?” As though the best that anyone can do, is be prepared for the next time it happens. But like the duck and cover advice that was drilled into kids throughout the Cold War, it’s putting a sticking plaster on a gushing head-wound. Rather than asking what to do when a shooter attacks, surely people should be asking when these events became so normalised that people need to learn some kind of standard evacuation drill. Will the U.S. reach a point where every six months, school kids will hear the bell ringing, and be expected to file out of their school neatly, in preparation for the possibility that some lunatic, with enough firepower to clear-cut a rainforest, decides to murder a crowd of pre-teens?
The last part of the video tells viewers “Your actions can make a difference for your safety and survival. Be aware and be prepared.” However, there is another way to ensure their survival. But it’s going to take a lot more than hiding in a stationery closet with the lights out, to make it a reality.
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