What ends lives? Gunfire.
What saves lives? The sound of gunfire.
The Virginia Beach shooting on Friday, when an employee of the city government killed 12 people — 11 of whom were his co-workers — is notable only for its familiarity. Another mass shooting. In fact, it was the worst mass-casualty event anyone can remember since … November 2018, at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California.
But details of the rampage include one fact unique to the growing list of active-shooter cases: the assailant used a .45-caliber handgun with extended magazines and a barrel suppressor. This small detail — that the loaded gun was fitted with simple, and lawful, “silencing” equipment — threatens to upend how we understand and train for active-shooter cases in the future.
Gun violence in America is unique not simply because of our culture but also because we have lawful weaponry that can kill many people very quickly. In terms of death-to-time ratio, single-shot weapons are preferable to multi-round handguns and handguns are preferable to the semiautomatic, and the favorite of mass shooters, the AR-15. It’s a simple calculation of time.
But the Virginia Beach killer seemed to want the anonymity of silence, a tool of the coward, not one seeking fame or a blaze of glory. None of the videos or manifestos we’ve seen from New Zealand to Las Vegas appear to be part of the Virginia Beach story. The killer wanted silence.
Silence is the enemy of time. An entire “run, hide, fight” policy that governs every school, workforce and the first-responder community in active-shooter cases is conditioned on an important premise: that there is situational awareness that shots have been fired, bullets are flying and it’s always best to run the other way. Once you know where the bullets are coming from, you can — as I tell my own kids — “sprint if you can; duck if you can’t; and fight only if you must. I only have one of each of you.”
Bystanders can run from the gunfire only if they know where it is coming from. This is why the best active-shooter training focuses on access to building or school exits and open, but protected, spaces so that potential victims can get out of the way.
For first responders, in a world that has adapted to lessons learned in school shootings, they no longer assume a potential hostage situation and now are trained to run toward the gunfire — assuming, of course, they know where it is. As Jonathan Wackrow, a former Secret Service agent, told me, this “is a major shift in the attack methodology. Now, absent having the situational awareness that an attack is taking place due to the sound of recognizable gunfire, we must reconfigure our ability to identify the immediate threat along with the corresponding response.”
Survival is all about sound.
In a society with no movement toward sensible gun-control measures, the flight-and/or-fight reaction is one of the few elements in an attack that citizens can control. In some instances, flight is not possible; in other instances, potential victims engage. Recently, for example, in North Carolina and Colorado, brave bystanders have decided they had no choice but to “fight if you must,” delaying the killer’s spree; both young men saved the lives of others but died as a result.
It is true that suppressors do not quiet guns; industry experts often cringe at the popular reference to “silencers.” Instead, suppressors act like a car muffler — both devices were pioneered by the same inventor, Hiram Percy Maxim — by cooling and dissipating the gases that emanate from the chamber as the trigger is being pulled. That alters the sound enough that the gunshot’s normal sound — a suppressed gunshot can sound like a chair scraping on the floor — is difficult to identify.
Suppressors are legal in 42 states, though they are regulated under the National Firearms Act and therefore are treated like other specialty gun accessories, including requiring a background check and a $200 tax. Recently, making suppressors more easily accessible has become a focal point of gun rights activists who want to increase dwindling gun sales and hunting groups who argue that suppressors are actually a health necessity in that they reduce hearing loss. As recently as June 2017, the then-Republican-majority House was considering a law to make the regulation of suppressors less onerous. You know, for the sake of the auditory sensitivities of shooters.
One mass shooting with a suppressor does not make a trend, nor does it require us to alter how we train for or respond to them. But, it does mean we must continue to vigorously regulate and even eventually ban these devices as essential steps in adopting common-sense gun-control measures.
Gun rights advocates are correct when they say that laws will not end all gun violence. But they never finish that thought. Our gun safety goal, and homeland security goal, must be to minimize the increasing likelihood that lots of people can be killed in a matter of minutes, with no capacity for escape or rescue.
To protect life, time is of the essence. And sound adds precious seconds.
Kayyem is a former assistant secretary of homeland security and is faculty chair of the homeland security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.