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What I Learned at an Active Shooter Workshop

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“No guarantees,” said Deputy Chief Ken Craig throughout the evening. “You won’t know how you’re going to respond until it happens.” The ominous disclaimer hushed the room as one by one, we placed ourselves at the center of a worst-case scenario. What would you do if, on a night out with your friends, a gunman walked in and opened fire? Queer people find themselves considering the question more and more. State Senator Scott Wiener, who is gay, received a bomb threat at his San Francisco home Tuesday, December 6th. Senseless online right-wing sensation @LibsOfTikTok pushed her homophobic agenda on Tucker Carlson earlier this afternoon. In the absence of sensible gun legislation, what happened in Colorado Springs and Orlando feels bound to recur, even here. That’s why last week, queer-oriented business owners held an active shooter workshop. 

In December 2020, Lucky 13 near Church and Market closed its doors for good. Two years later, the “storied SF dive bar” briefly returned to life for a crash course in community defense. The two-hour class, intended for the city’s gay bar and nightclub owners, was not open to the public. The workshop was a joint effort by officers from the Castro Community on Patrol (CCOP) and Community Patrol Services (CPS) along with the San Francisco’s Police and Fire Departments, with additional support from the Department of Emergency Services as well as Homeland Security, the FBI, and the District Attorney’s office.

Thanks to Stuart, I was fortunately able to attend.

Rehearsal for the preventable

The average nightclub shooting is over within five minutes. Survivors will tell you it feels like eternity. In reality there is nothing average about a shooting. Each is highly circumstantial (what an American thing to write), the only traits in common being bullets, terror, and slaughter. 

We spent a great deal of time fleshing out morbid hypotheticals. “A building like this that’s got limited access and might be dark and noisy, is going to be totally different from an office building that has lots of space but is [otherwise] pretty quiet.” Deputy Craig warned that we might not recognize the sound of gunfire right away. Elements of your environment can make it easy to misconstrue as something less sinister. It could register as a component of club music or someone setting off fireworks. “Even people getting injured and going down screaming, you might not recognize it because of the noise and flashing lights.”

The purpose of the active shooter workshop was to interrupt and override the trauma response. It’s well-known that in cases of extreme stress, the body goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Reacting robs you of valuable seconds that could otherwise enable your thought-out survival. I looked around at the various armed authorities represented in the room and understood ours was a lesson in combat. “You can rarely have too much training,” said Craig, insisting that everyone from the cleaning crew to CEO knows the plan. “Unfortunately, you can have too little training, and that’s where you get into trouble.” I realized while taking notes the evil genius of our government’s lax gun laws. From first-graders to seniors in retirement homes, this is how they’re drafting everyone. 

Assimilating into a culture of violence

In college I got accustomed to mentally marking my exits as active shooter protocol intruded on my professor’s syllabi. Years passed and the killings piled up: Sandy Hook (2012), San Bernardino (2015), Roseburg (2015), Pulse Nightclub (2016). As a student, I knew we weren’t safe, and by the time we all graduated, so had the threat. It didn’t matter whether I found myself in a theater, a gay bar, at work or buying groceries. The difference between an office-to-office stalker and an impulse-driven shooter is negligible when you’re the one being fired at.

While we contemplate why these tragedies are allowed to keep happening, let’s consider our options. Should you run, even if you’re hesitant to leave without everyone you came with, or would you hide? Maybe you’re the hardass who imagines he’ll take down the active shooter. Whatever happens, however we apply what we learned, there’s no guarantee it’ll get us out alive. Here’s how to give yourself the best chance of survival in any case.

Run

If you find yourself at the mercy of an active shooter, your best and safest bet is getting out. Did you mark your exits when you entered the venue? If the only one you can think of is the place you came in, you’re already out of luck. Crowds accumulate in entryways, forming bottlenecks that could result in your getting crushed.

Warn the people in your way that the danger is behind you. Gunfire is eardrum-bursting loud, doubly so in enclosed spaces, making it difficult to tell where it’s coming from. Whether you help the wounded is up to your discretion. An FBI agent who responded to the Virginia Tech shooting spoke of a gravely injured student he encountered. She’d been shot four times. “She’s gone,” said his partner. “Leave her.” The only reason she’s still alive, he told us, is because mere moments before, the shooter took his own life. With the threat “neutralized,” officers could shift directives from his apprehension to the recovery of his victims. 

The cops should arrive in two minutes or less, he alleged. I mention this because we were told to escape with our hands up. Remember that when you’re running for your life. If the gunman doesn’t kill you, a mistaken police officer might.

Don’t stop running once you’re outside the club. Round a corner or two, out from the range of stray bullets. 

These always creeped me out as a kid. They still do, but for different reasons.

Hide

Sometimes escape isn’t possible. If you can, choose a room with a lockable door and barricade yourself behind it. Don’t choose the restroom. History proves that’s a bad idea. “Don’t go where they can easily find you,” said CCOP Officer Gregg Carey. “Remember, they are actively hunting.”

I remember hunting pheasant with my dad, their amber-emerald plumage streaking overhead when we scared them up from the milo stalks. My dad swiveled like a turret and, as taught, I crouched down out of danger. A single shotgun blast echoed across the Plains, the jingle of a dogtags bounding past me in its wake. When I was old enough to nab my first bird, we returned to the fields. “Rule number one,” he said, handing me the Remington: “Never aim at anything you’re not prepared to kill.”

Deputy Craig resumed speaking. You don’t want to reveal your location, he said, so make sure you and everyone you shelter with silences their phones. I pictured myself and the people around me in some manager’s office with a filing cabinet shoved against the door. We’re crouched on the floor since rounds can penetrate sheetrock with little resistance. Someone we’re with was shot in the leg. A version of me that isn’t made squeamish by blood dresses the wound and applies pressure to slow the bleeding.

Meanwhile, one of us must find the address, call 911, and read it to dispatch. Cops are best reserved for occasions like this, where someone overdoes it on their patriotism. Police responses to Pulse and Uvalde have proven they’re not a surefire bet. In San Francisco however, our authorities appear to understand that the queer community is in danger. The Department of Homeland Security finally acknowledged in November that LGBTQ+ gathering spaces are targets for terrorist attacks.

Fight

There’s a good chance your future attacker vapes.

Ultimately, it might be you keeping yourself uncounted as yet another blood sacrifice to the NRA. In this most undesirable position, you have to fight. The key is separating the weapon from the assailant however you can. If it’s you and one other, one can distract while the other charges. Never pick up the weapon once you disarm the attacker. Nothing will stop police from thinking you’re the aggressor the moment they enter the premises.

Deputy Craig was sure we made the connection: “If you take on someone with a knife, you’re going to get cut. If you challenge a gunman, you’re going to get shot. If you are not prepared for either of those outcomes, your best bet is to run.” 

The trans woman and the veteran who together stopped the gunman at Club Q in Colorado Springs knew the risk. They knew what we were learning, that when all is said and done, it’s up to us to stop it. You’re supposed to go for the eyes, the head, the groin, whatever you know will collapse him. Keep him down until the cops can ‘take it from there.’

At the end of each scenario, a group of profoundly traumatized survivors must manage their shock and grief. “Very few people have seen anyone that has been shot and is bleeding,” said Deputy Craig. Mass shootings, he continued, impact everyone involved, including first responders. The stress will impact you “for quite some time,” said Craig. Understand that having a plan in-place to care for all involved beforehand will “make it easier post-incident. Hopefully we never have an incident,” he wished. “But, there are no guarantees. Preparing for recovery in the aftermath is a key part for your employees and yourselves.”

No guarantees

If our elected legislators won’t stand for us, they’re standing behind us. Insert political cartoon of some senator using a gay kid as a body shield. Sadly, the best we can do is prevent would-be attackers from entering the building in the first place. If the lessons from this workshop stick, expect to see beefed-up security at your favorite queer hotspots. I asked SF Eagle owner Lex (first name only) what holding an active shooter workshop says about where we are now. 

“It isn’t just now happening,” he told me. “It’s always been an active situation for the gay community. I own the San Francisco Eagle and we’ve always been aware that something could happen. That’s why we try to offer a safe space, because we all have to be looking over our shoulder out there.” 

Surviving an active shooter situation requires pre-planning, quick thinking, and luck. Mark your exits. Be ready to run if you hear gunfire. When a gun goes off, don’t hesitate. If we can interrupt our shock and turn reaction into action, we might make it through. No guarantees.

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Jake Warren

Jake Warren

A Potawatomi nonfiction writer and Tenderloin resident possessing an Indigenous perspective on sexuality and a fascination with etymological nuance. Queer decolonial leftist, cannabis industry affiliate, seasoned raver, and unofficial earthquake authority.

1 Comment

  1. Cadence
    December 29, 2022 at 12:51 pm — Reply

    one thing to add is the door guy is the first line of defense. If the door guy is smart, he can spot trouble coming. It’s better to prevent the situation from even taking place.

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