The challenge of protecting public spaces from active shooters

By Jessica Klein

If you’ve so much as glanced at a newspaper in the past two weeks, you know about the shootings. On July 28, a gunman with an AK-47 style assault rifle murdered three people and wounded several others at a garlic festival in Gilroy, California. Less than a week later, on August 3, a 21-year-old opened fire in a crowded Walmart on Saturday morning, killing 21 people in El Paso, Texas. Later that evening, a shooter killed nine people using a .223-caliber “assault-style” rifle in Dayton, Ohio. And two separate mass shootings took place in Brooklyn, New York over the past two weeks, one at an annual “Old Timers Day” festival in Brownsville, the other at a candlelight vigil.

It’s no wonder people are getting afraid to go out in public. As sociologist Vida Bacj told The Trace, “It’s not just about loss of life. Shootings also steal from people the sense that they inhabit a place, that it’s their space.” Because of the increase in shootings, Bacj says, we’ll starting seeing more public spaces “designed…to be surveillance-friendly” and managed by “central, unelected authorities like the police.”

As it stands, public events tend not to be designed with mass violence in mind. In Gilroy, for instance, the shooter “cut through a back fence” to gain access to the food festival. While the festival’s planners are “responsible for providing a secure and safe environment,” Pinkerton’s VP of operations told USA Today, “they also have to have an open environment to draw the crowd.”

Like festivals, Walmart is also “designed to be open to the public.” Many Walmarts don’t have security at their entrances, and those that do focus on catching shoplifters.

Mass shootings are also hard to stop because they happen fast. Police “neutralized” the shooter in Dayton just 30 seconds after he started firing—enough time for him to kill nine people and injure more in a popular nightlife area. The shooter was well equipped for his violent spree. He wore a mask, bulletproof vest, and “hearing protection.” (Similarly, the Gilroy gunman wore body armor.) Apparently, the shooter in Dayton had ordered his rifle online.

The internet provided more than just guns in these recent shootings. The El Paso gunman posted “a 2,300-word anti-immigrant manifesto” 19 minutes before opening fire in the U.S./Mexico border town. The hate-filled manifesto went up on 8chan, an anonymous forum notorious for hosting violent people’s screeds. Because of 8chan’s connection to the El Paso murders, website security firm Cloudflare announced it would stop providing services to 8chan.

While racism very likely spurred the senseless killings in El Paso and Gilroy, it could well be behind the underreporting of the two shootings in Brooklyn. Even New York City mayor Bill de Blasio hesitated to call the shooting of 12 people in Brownsville a “mass shooting.” This is a problem, says local assembly member, Latrice Walker, as correctly labeling the mass shooting would “trigger access to vital programs which would include emergency relief, crisis response efforts, [and] training.”

Photo by Aranxa Esteve on Unsplash

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