If an active shooter is at your door, there is no right answer, Baltimore County police officer George Mussini told a crowd of more than 70 people at Loyola University’s Timonium graduate center May 2.
“There is no perfect solution,” Mussini said. “However, what we can do is be prepared to respond and act.”
In an hourlong training session, Mussini taught residents from around Baltimore County how to do just that. The police officer told the audience that in a mass shooting, avoiding the incident or keeping the shooter out of the room are the best scenarios. But if audience members encounter a shooter, they should act, Mussini said. In other words, fight or flight, but never freeze.
The event, held jointly by the county’s Police and Community Relations Councils, or PCRC, and Towson Area Citizens on Patrol, or TACOP, is one of a series of presentations Mussini has done in recent years to teach people what to do in the event of a mass shooting.
The training program was developed by the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training center at Texas State University.
Statistically, mass shootings are much more rare than general gun violence — out of more than 53,700 incidents the nonprofit tracker Gun Violence Archive counted in 2017, 333 were mass shootings, about 6 percent (the organization defines mass shootings as those in which four or more people are shot or killed in a single incident.)
But tragedies over the past year have brought mass shootings to the forefront.
Wesley Wood, head of Towson’s PCRC, said that he saw a spike in interest around active shooter training after the Las Vegas massacre in October last year, in which 59 people were killed and hundreds injured.
“There’s a real demand for it,” Wood said.
Attendee Patty Logan, of Towson, said she was at the training because a member of her family was at the scene of the Las Vegas shooting. Only a few months beforehand, she said that family member took the same active shooter training, and knew what to do when it happened.
“Better safe than sorry,” Logan said.
Pat France, vice president of TACOP, said the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 died, also brought awareness to the issue.
“I just think that because the kids from that school were so active, I think that people are saying, you know, we should have been doing this all along,” France said.
Antonio Jackson, director of Sunday morning worship at the Upper Room Worship Center in Parkville, attended the event with a handful of members of his church in order to learn how to protect their congregation.
“In the environment we’re in, churches are an open environment,” Jackson said. “We want to know what to do.”
Much of the training was spent on teaching attendees how to remain calm in a crisis. Mussini had them practice “combat breathing,” a slow breath in through the nose and out through the mouth.
He also emphasized the importance of knowing where emergency exits are in buildings people frequent, like schools or offices. To illustrate his point, Mussini showed the audience a harrowing video from the Station nightclub fire, in which 100 people died in Rhode Island in 2003 during a Great White concert. That fire, he said, was so deadly because everybody tried to exit through the same narrow hallway by which they had entered.
The mantra drilled into attendees was simple: “Avoid, Deny, Defend.”
Avoid the shooter — get out of the building using any escape route possible, Mussini said, pointing out that kitchens in restaurants and stores in malls have exits in the back.
If escape is not possible, deny the shooter access, locking doors and building barricades, Mussini said.
And then, if all else fails, Mussini said, defend yourself, attacking the shooter with whatever is available.
“We do not want anybody under tables,” he said. Later, he held up a chair with one hand and said: “This will not stop a bullet.”
“If you wait your turn to get shot, guaranteed you’re going to get shot,” Mussini said. “We don’t wait. And we don’t play dead.”
The best place to wait inside a room, he said, is not the opposite corner from the door, but right next to it, waiting to pounce as a gunman enters.
“Anybody can jump on somebody with a gun,” Mussini said. “Is it dangerous? Yeah. But what else are you going to do? Wait for your turn?”
The police officer also demonstrated ways to fight off a shooter using common tools like scissors or fire extinguishers, which he said can blind or choke an assailant. And when the canister is empty? Mussini swung the fire extinguisher over his head like a club and said, “Seal the deal, my friends.”
In one emotional moment, Mussini showed a picture of a police officer who survived being shot 15 times.
“If, God forbid, you ever get shot, you fight. You stay alive. You tell your story,” Mussini said. “Don’t let them choose your time.”
When police arrive on a scene, Mussini said the most important thing to do is to follow instructions and to show your palms so that they know you are not the shooter.
The police officer said he has been conducting the training for two to three years now. Though the training’s content was, at times, disturbing — organizers recommended avoiding bringing children — Mussini said his goal is to make trainees feel empowered.
Sharon Opdyke, of Parkville, said she saw how the training could increase anxiety in some people, but for her knowing what to do “makes me feel more confident.”
“I want you to know that you’re not helpless,” Mussini told the audience. “What you do matters.”