As the crowd gathered around Ellen McNellis at Kansas City’s Starlight Theater on Sunday night, she found herself scoping out her escape.
Looking for exits and hiding places.
“Twenty years ago thoughts like that never entered my mind,” she told The Star on Facebook.
This was hours before Las Vegas would become the latest venue for horrific mass violence, with 58 dead and hundreds wounded in gunfire at an outdoor music festival.
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Nor did she need to be prodded by the fresh psychological wounds from closer-to-home public shootings into an outdoor crowd, with three killed in Lawrence early Sunday morning, or the recent victim shot by an errant gunman in Westport.
“It’s the new normal,” she said.
The burden weighs over everyone who walks into crowds, sits in a theater, joins in a congregation or gathers at a party — and that’s everyone.
There’s a balance that people have to find to prepare and protect themselves while not crippling their lives, say specialists in mass shootings and psychology.
The nation is troubled, with a Gallup poll released this summer showing that 38 percent of Americans said they are less willing to attend large events because of the threat of terrorism.
“We can’t live life in fear of all the random things that can happen to us,” said Pete Blair, professor of criminal justice and the executive director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University.
“You have to script your way through (a set of reasonable precautions) and go about your life,” he said.
First, some perspective.
The number of mass shootings — any assault in which three or more people are wounded or killed — has been growing in the United States, according to data tracked by the Gun Violence Archive.
In 2016, mass shootings killed 455 people, compared to 367 in 2015 and 264 in 2014. Through Oct. 1, the 58 dead in Las Vegas brought the total so far in 2017 to 345 — a pace that would total some 460 by the end of the year.
The number of people killed in mass shootings, however, still represents barely 3 percent of the some 15,000 people killed in all gun deaths each year. Motor vehicle deaths account for some 32,000 deaths every year.
On average, the nation has been experiencing about 17 attacks a year in which an active shooter opens fire with the intention of killing multiple numbers of people, Blair said.
So what can you do?
Survey your surroundings, Blair said. Take note of secondary, alternative exits. Know that in a panic, the rush of people may overwhelm main exits. You can place yourself where you have quick access to a way out.
If an altercation breaks out, or tension rises that could spark violence, move away from it.
And if you sense something feels wrong, don’t ignore it. Trust your instincts. Go ahead and take a safer position even if you can’t identify anything that made you feel uncomfortable, Blair said.
“There is a millennia of survival machinery plugged into your brain,” he said. “You should use it.”
Marc Gagne of Belton doesn’t disagree. But he’s not going to be driven by fear.
“I will not CC (conceal carry a weapon),” the gun owner wrote. “I will not buy additional weapons to protect myself from a perceived threat. I will not change my habits.”
However, his habits, he explained later, have always followed the advice of knowing his exits, keeping an eye over his shoulder and leaving if things don’t feel right.
The world’s experience with mass shootings “is getting worse and worse,” he said. “But I won’t be cowed into changing what I was going to do all along. There are greater things to worry about.”
Once a shooter does begin unloading, the next step is to run or hide. That means trying to put distance and barriers between you and the shooter. Don’t worry about your belongings. Try to get people to leave with you, but don’t remain if they won’t. Don’t call 911 until you are safe.
Fighting the attacker is the last resort, the FBI advises, only when your life is in imminent danger. If you do think you have to attack, commit to being as aggressive as you can be. Go all out.
If you have a gun yourself, only fire your weapon as a last resort, Blair said.
By no means, even if you are armed, should you go in search of the shooter, experts say. Other people are likely to be looking for a shooter, and the police will be coming.
“If you pull your gun out, you don’t have a uniform on — nothing to identify you as a good guy,” Blair said.
If you are near the shooter and you fire on him, you should not keep your gun in your hand once he’s down.
These kinds of conversations no longer strike people as surreal.
“It’s just the new norm, sadly,” wrote Jesus Ivan Chavira.
“I think about it, yes,” wrote Alicia Fulton. “But you can’t let fear dictate your life!”