It almost happened here.
Last Tuesday afternoon, a lone gunman approached a Dollar General store in Cheektowaga. He wore an armored vest and camouflage and fired 20 rounds from an AR-15.
This story – or at least variations of it – has been told far too often across America in recent years. Mass shootings have shaken our country.
This week, it nearly shook us at home.
We have been here before. In 2010, a shooter killed four people outside the City Grill in Buffalo. A fifth person, who was paralyzed in that attack, died just last month.
Last week's shooting turned out differently. By the professionalism and grace of the Cheektowaga Police Department and some nearby good Samaritans who chased the suspect by car, this story ends without death. One person at the store was hit by a bullet. Nobody died. The suspect, 29-year-old Travis J. Green, was quickly apprehended.
But the fears and the confusion over mass shootings remain. The issue can become dangerously heated and oversimplified.
“It’s not a gun-control issue, and it’s not a mental health issue either,” said Dr. Steven Dubovsky, a professor and chairman of psychiatry at the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “It’s a bad behavior issue.”
It’s an anger issue.
This week, that anger came close to home. Our home. And there is much we want to know.
Just how likely is an active-shooter scenario? It feels like we’re hearing about them all the time.
Yes, they are happening more frequently. But you are unlikely to ever find yourself in the midst of an active-shooter scenario, like the one that happened last week in Cheektowaga, or a mass-casualty tragedy.
Here are some numbers from the FBI: From 2000 to 2013, there were 160 active-shooter incidents in the United States. Those resulted in 1,043 people killed or wounded. Halving that time frame reveals a startling trend:
From 2000 to 2007, there was an average of 6.7 incidents per year. From 2008 to 2013, the average per year jumped to 16.4.
This is a tragic problem. It’s a growing problem. But it’s a problem that needs to be kept in perspective.
“If you look at all the large public gatherings that take place throughout the entire country every single year,” said Adam Cohen, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Buffalo Field Office, “the likelihood of somebody being involved in an active-shooter scenario or situation is incredibly, incredibly low.”
In 2015 alone, the federal government reported 3,477 distracted-driving deaths, notes Steve Casner, author of “Careful: A User’s Guide to Our Injury-Prone Minds.” That’s more than three times the number of active-shooter casualties from 2000-13.
For context: You’re more likely to die while simultaneously driving and swiping a phone alert about a shooting than you are as a victim of a mass tragedy.
That’s logic. But on this topic, Casner points out, an other emotion takes over:
“It’s really hard to keep the shock of this from giving you the feeling of being personally vulnerable or personally threatened,” he said.
It’s unlikely. I get that. But I don’t feel that. I feel scared.
So do many people. One of the best things you can do is take control by planning. When you’re in a public place, or at a concert, church, school or any other so-called “soft target,” the FBI’s Cohen suggests asking yourself: What would I do if something bad were to happen now? How do I quickly get myself out of that situation?
Take note of the exits. Look for a spot where you can hide from a shooter if you can’t escape.
Don’t dwell on it, but note it.
You also can take a note from people in other countries. UB's Dubovsky points to Israel, where terrorist attacks and deadly violence are far more common than in the United States.
Israelis, Dubovsky said, set aside personal and political disputes and unite on the point of safety. It’s a dynamic far different from that in America, where mass tragedy inevitably leads to political debate over issues like gun control and mental illness.
“(Israelis) put down their differences and say, ‘We have one thing in common, and that is a common defense. We are going to take this as each person’s individual responsibility,’” Dubovsky said.
Aren’t mass shootings a mental health issue?
According to James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University who has studied and tracked these kinds of crimes for decades, less than one-fifth of mass shooters are mentally ill.
“Not that (the rest) are well-adjusted people,” he added. “They are not.”
But mass shootings cannot responsibly be connected to mental health issues.
Dubovsky, from UB, has grown frustrated watching elected officials turn mass shootings into political debate fodder.
“It’s an easy out for politicians to say, ‘OK, we solved the problem. We’re going to pass another law,’” said Dubovsky, who is particularly frustrated with New York’s SAFE Act.
Passed in 2013, the SAFE Act has an array of firearm regulations and also requires mental health professionals, such as Dubovsky, to report to authorities any patient who seems likely to harm himself or herself, or others. Dubovsky said this has made patients reluctant to fully share their thoughts, even in a closed session.
“From a psychiatric standpoint, it’s not just not safe,” he said. “It’s dangerous, because it impairs my ability to get the information I need from patients to get their confidence and work effectively with them.”
How well prepared are local authorities for a mass shooting?
By all accounts, very prepared, and that was apparent in the Cheektowaga Police Department’s swift and effective handling of the situation last week.
The FBI regularly works with local agencies, as well as private security companies, schools and businesses, to provide training. Law enforcement officials generally won’t describe specific strategies and tactics, but their work includes handling both day-to-day situations and big-scale events like concerts and sports games. At those large gatherings, law enforcement agents have a strong presence both in uniform and plain clothes.
“Cops are going to get to an active shooter,” said Peter Orchard, a supervisory special agent with the FBI. “We’ve gotten really good about training them. They’re very good about reacting. The biggest thing is public awareness.”
OK, let’s step outside ourselves. What do people in Israel do that can serve as a reminder for us?
In the words of an Israeli youth we reached out to for perspective, they won’t let their attackers "win."
First, a caveat. Israel is a geographically small country embroiled in a deeply rooted conflict between religious and ethnic groups. So to be fair, there’s a mindset difference that can’t be duplicated.
But here’s a direct and concise philosophy that can fit our lives, too. It comes from 17-year-old Benny Rotlevy, a photographer and entrepreneur who lives outside Tel Aviv. The reality of his life, as compared with an American teen, is stark. Terrorists have attacked the bus he takes to school (he wasn’t on it that day) and the places he goes on the weekends. A few years ago, he witnessed a missile attack on his hometown and had to go to a bomb shelter.
But Benny still goes out and leads a busy, sociable life.
“I guess most people in Israel maintain a sense of calm,” he said, “because if they don’t, the terrorists win.”
What can I do to prevent a mass shooting?
The best time to do it is by intervening early with a person who is troubled.
Since we know that mass shooters largely commit their crime out of a deep-rooted anger, the key is detecting, addressing and alleviating those emotions before they boil over.
The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit has identified the stages that active shooters follow as their anger builds into tragic action. These are called “Pathway to Violence:”
- Grievance: A person is deeply frustrated over what he (or she, though active shooters are overwhelmingly male) feels is an unfair circumstance. This could be bullying, the loss of a job, the crumbling of a relationship, or anything else that deeply disturbs the person.
- Ideation: The person starts thinking and fantasizing about violent ways to address the grievance.
- Research: The person starts visiting websites, journaling or blogging about the problem.
- Planning: In this stage, the person is acquiring the tools needed for violence: getting weapons and learning how to use them; or perhaps building bombs.
- Breach: This is what law-enforcement professionals consider the point of last return. At this stage, the person may commit violence at home, or visit the site of the intended attack.
The final stage is the attack itself.
Let’s say that someone in my life is acting strangely: Withdrawing, or getting overly and consistently temperamental, or showing an uncharacteristic interest in something alarming. What do I do?
Many people pretend it isn't happening. Or they avoid addressing it, hoping the behavior will go away.
This is a common mistake – one we need to stop making.
“The first thing is to not ignore it,” said Cindi McEachon, executive director of Peaceprints of Western New York, which provides housing and re-entry programming for men who were recently released from prison. “Often we take a step away, we observe it, and then we walk away from it, because we don’t want any part of it. That’s one of the first major issues.
“If you notice it, you need to trust your gut.”
I know outside help is needed. Who do I call? What happens?
If it’s a child, talk to school officials or medical professionals. In a workplace, talk to your human resources department (or the equivalent). If this is a relative, friend or neighbor and that professional structure doesn’t exist, you may call the police directly.
The goal, in any case, is to get law enforcement involved. This doesn’t necessarily have to be punitive, or even known, to the subject. The FBI regularly works with local police, schools and workplaces to discreetly investigate people of concern. Often, this is to make sure that a potential problem doesn’t escalate. The bureau will even connect with someone in that person’s life – a teacher, or a friend, for example – to check in on the subject and make sure all is OK. These folks are informants who help make sure someone on a potentially dangerous track has the best chance possible to divert to a healthier path.
But unlikely as they are, attacks in soft targets like malls, churches and concerts – places where you don’t have to go through metal detectors – cannot be completely prevented.
Which is why you need to keep your head up.
“I can’t emphasize the awareness enough,” said Orchard, who then described a typical scene in a mall: People walking with earbuds in, faces down, focused on their phones, bumping into each other, blocking out their surroundings.
“Then people start to wonder, How can a truck go down a sidewalk and mow down people in such numbers?” he said. “If you just look around the mall sometime, you’ll see why. It’s because they are just totally checked out of reality, and not paying attention.”
If I find myself near a shooter, what should I do?
The basic rule taught by law enforcement to civilians is “Run-Hide-Fight.”
Orchard is pointed on this one, too. He’s been hearing talk on the radio lately that “maybe you should fight first, and not run or hide,” he said. “That’s total B.S.”
He continued: “Your best bet is to run away and get out of there,” he said. “If you can’t run, you need to hide. If the guy has found you, and he’s going to shoot you, you’ve got no choice but to try to fight. Otherwise you’re going to be dead anyways.”
My kids are worried. What can I tell them?
Depending on their age, you can try to limit their exposure to ongoing news coverage and social media posts.
But regardless of their age, talk to them. Try to give them context: Let them know attacks are rare, but also help them gain a sense of security by making a plan. “A way to help them not be upset is to make sure that they know what they’re going to do if that bad thing were to happen,” Cohen said.
And model good behavior. Maureen Dempsey, the FBI’s spokeswoman in Buffalo, does this with her own children.
“If we don’t look too worried when we go to the mall or we don’t look too worried when we go to church,” she said, “they should take those cues from us.”