Amid a plague of shootings, bystanders become heroes
A memorial on the University of North Carolina at Charlotte campus, the day after a gunman opened fire on students, May 1, 2019.
By JULIE BOSMAN, MITCH SMITH, ELIZA FAWCETT and SERGE F. KOVALESKI
Jason Seaman, a seventh grade science teacher in Noblesville, Indiana, was helping a student with a test when a classmate returned from the bathroom, drew a handgun from his pocket and began firing.
Seaman, now 34, threw a mini basketball at the student and then charged, swiftly disarming him.
“There was no choice — it was either do something, or die,” he said in an interview Tuesday, recalling the shooting in May 2018 that left him with gunshot wounds in the abdomen, a forearm and a hand. “So when you’re in that literal life-or-death situation, I’m dang sure I’m going to fight.”
“Run, Hide, Fight” became the federal guidance on how to react to an active shooting after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, with Americans encouraged to consider confronting a gunman if they cannot safely flee or stay out of sight. In the years since, it has been drilled into Americans’ heads in schools, in workplaces and in private training sessions, a bleak mantra for a nation with hundreds of millions of guns and where mass shootings have become an ever-escalating plague.
Advocates for stronger gun laws contend that no American should have to put their body on the line in the face of a gunman armed with military-style weapons at a dance hall, a religious service, a mall, a high school.
But in high-profile massacres in recent months, the last resort to fight has been taken up by bystanders, who have attacked gunmen and stopped them before they could continue.
In Colorado Springs, Colorado, in November, two bystanders, including an Army veteran, physically subdued an assailant who had entered a nightclub and killed five people in a matter of seconds. In suburban Indianapolis last summer, an armed bystander fatally shot a gunman who had already killed three people in a mall food court. And in Los Angeles County, California, last weekend, authorities said, an employee of a dance hall wrestled an assault pistol out of the hands of a gunman who had already shot 20 people at another venue and seemed bent on more mayhem.
“This could have been much worse,” said Sheriff Robert Luna of Los Angeles County.
Experts say that bystander intervention in active shootings ends the threat in a significant minority of cases, and the forces that drive people to intervene are varied. But in many situations, bystanders are unable to run or hide, trapped in classrooms or churches with attackers who are armed with high-powered weapons.
Gun massacres at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, are all examples of shootings where police officers or school security personnel were criticized as being slow to help civilians once a shooting was underway. Some Americans confronted by an armed assailant in more recent incidents have understood instantly: They are on their own.
“I feel like people are starting to come to the realization that the only one who’s going to protect you is you,” said Jack Wilson, a county commissioner in Hood County, Texas, who teaches concealed-carry classes. “People have to be willing to intervene to stop these kinds of issues.”
He was one of those bystanders: In 2019, Wilson was attending Sunday services at his church in White Settlement, Texas, when a gunman opened fire, killing two people. Wilson pulled out his own gun and fired, killing the assailant with a single shot.
“The only way law enforcement is going assist you is if they’re in your driveway,” he said. “That’s not a slam against law enforcement. They can’t be everywhere.”
Deputizing the public as a tool of last resort has not caused the pace of mass shootings to slow down. Already this year, at least 69 people have died in at least 39 separate shootings in which four or more people were injured or killed, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
“If anyone’s saying, ‘I’m hearing more about active shooters being tackled or stopped by civilians,’ it may be true that is occurring more often,” said Adam Lankford, a professor of criminology at the University of Alabama. “But it could be a function of there being more total attacks.”
Sometimes, bystander interventions have been met with tragic consequences. In 2019, Riley Howell, a student at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, was shot while trying to stop a gunman, though he managed to charge the assailant and pin him down. Howell, a 21-year-old former high school soccer goalie, died in the attack.
Advocates for stricter gun laws said that outsize attention on bystander interventions in mass shootings could distract from the deeper issue of the country’s unrelenting cycle of gun violence.
“Instead of focusing on why these tragedies keep happening, we focus on the heroic acts of the bystander,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of the gun-control organization Moms Demand Action. “We should always call a hero a hero and thank them for selflessly putting their life on the line. But it makes me so angry that we never stop to think about the fact that we shouldn’t be asking average civilians to be heroes. I don’t want my husband or my children to have to be heroes.”
Watts pushed back against responses to mass shootings that call for more people to be armed with more weapons, noting that America has a gun homicide rate that is 26 times that of its peer nations.
“There are 400 million guns in this country,” she said. “If guns made us safer, we’d be the safest nation in the world.”
During unfolding attacks, colleges and police departments now sometimes post on social media urging people to “Run, Hide, Fight,” and the phrase has become a staple of active shooter training sessions offered at schools, businesses and religious venues. The phrase, which the federal government adopted from the city of Houston, has caught on.
Katherine Schweit, a former FBI official who helped develop the federal guidelines, said training with that philosophy allowed people to think through how they might want to respond long before they encountered a gunman.
“No one should ever be told you must fight — you can’t ask that of anybody,” Schweit said. “But you can talk to them about how people have survived, and not in small numbers. A lot of people have survived when individuals have taken it upon themselves to intervene.”