A mall. A church. A nightclub. These are now what we know as "soft targets." Not that long ago soft target was one just a term used by military, federal or police operations. But it's, sadly, entered everyday terminology. These soft targets are considered any public place where security is limited and are potentially populated by a high number of victims.
"Active shooter" is another head-shaker in today's lexicon: Its definition is someone with a gun or guns, trying to kill as many people as possible — a mass shooting. And these shootings seem to be happening more often in the U.S., and in places that are considered safe. A movie theater. A sporting event. A music festival.
And that's where the latest shooter took aim. He booked a hotel room in Las Vegas overlooking the Route 91 Harvest festival, and killed 58 people and injured hundreds more on Oct. 1, 2017 in what was apparently a methodically designed plan.
Even though the chances of dying in a mass shooting (a shooting where four or more are killed at once) are low — just one in 15,325 according to a data analysis by Business Insider — staying vigilant when visiting these so-called soft targets, especially if the unthinkable happens, could save your life.
1. Stay Alert
First of all, it's important to be prepared. Not paranoid and not terrified, says Paul Merritt, owner of Fortress Consulting, which specializes in helping businesses guard themselves against active-shooter situations. "You can't walk around thinking the sky is going to fall," he says. But be prepared.
"First of all, these [shootings] are extremely rare occurrences," Merritt says. "But understand: Things do happen and can happen."
This is actually the important first step in maintaining your safety. Once you come to grips with the idea that you might one day find yourself in an active-shooter situation, Merritt says, you take precautions. Merritt likens preparing for an active-shooter situation to fire drills. Yes, fires exist. No, you are not likely to die in a fire. Still, it's smart to be prepared for what to do should a fire break out in your home or office building.
2. Always Be Situationally Aware
When you fly on a plane, for instance, flight attendants tell you where the exits are located. Do the same when you're at the mall or the movie theater. Look around as you shop or before the movie begins. Where are the exits? Where did you come in? Having an idea of your location will come in handy if a worst-case scenario unfolds.
3. Deny Denial
Merritt says one of the most common responses from people when they hear gunfire? "They assume it's fireworks," he says. "But that's denial kicking in." If you think about it, there are very few places in which you will encounter fireworks. A crowded soft target is not one of them. Assume it's gunfire, and make your next decision.
4. Move and Create Distance
Many of the helpless victims at the Las Vegas music festival could do little but duck or lie down. They had no choice. But Merritt maintains this is an anomaly. In most shootings, people have room to run or hide. First note where the gunfire is coming from, and move as quickly as possible in the opposite direction, toward the nearest exit (that you previously noticed).
Do not lie down, if at all possible. "It makes you an easily available target for the shooter," Merritt says. "Create distance from the bad guy ... A moving target is harder to hit." If you cannot move quickly, find the nearest hiding place. "Get out of the view of the shooter," Merritt says. And silence your cell phone. Text people, instead, to let them know your location and whether you need help getting to safety.
5. Leave and Keep Going
Once you've removed yourself from danger, run and don't stop going. Call 911, but keep moving until you are completely out of the area. If you can help others without endangering yourself, do so. If you can't leave and are stuck in a hiding place that is safe, stay there until authorities arrive. This could take minutes or hours, but stay hidden.
Merritt offers one last piece of advice, and it's another head-shaking reminder of the times we live in: Learn to use a tourniquet. You never know when you'll be called upon to use this skill.
Stories have emerged from Las Vegas, and other shootings, in which proper application of a tourniquet stopped or slowed a victim's bleeding — and it saved someone's life. Merritt says he keeps one tourniquet in his car, and one at home.
"Hopefully," he says, "I'll never need to use one."