First, Brandon Tsay froze when a gunman pointed a gun at him, he said. He was sure that these would be his last moments.
But then something came up about Tsay, who worked at the ticket desk in the lobby of his family’s Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio, a dance hall in Alhambra, California.
He lunged at the gunman and fought his way through multiple blows to wrestle the gun away, he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper Monday night.
The gunman had already killed 11 people and injured 10 others before arriving at Tsay’s workplace.
Tsay’s courage saved his life that day, but probably countless others as well, said Ronald Tunkel, a former special agent with the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who trained as a criminal profiler.
While Tsay’s actions show heroism and bravery, what he has done is more possible than people think, said Dr. Ragy Girgis, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University in New York City.
“People have a great ability to react to tragedies like this. People wouldn’t realize how heroically they could react,” he said.
Fortunately, most people won’t find themselves in a situation where they have to respond to a mass shooter, Girgis said. But incidents like this are all too common and growing in the US, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
There isn’t much research on civilian intervention in mass shootings, Girgis said.
However, as mass shootings are a regular occurrence in the United States, companies, nonprofits, and schools are educating people on how to respond. Tunkel and Jon Pascal, instructors for both Krav Maga Worldwide and Force Training Institute, say they’re seeing more training and protocols around active shooting situations for regular people.
A word of warning: If your sense of safety is beginning to contribute to anxiety or interfere with life in a meaningful way, it may be time to consult a mental health professional, said psychiatrist Dr. Keith Stowell, Chief Medical Officer, Behavioral Health and Addiction for Rutgers Health and RWJBarnabas Health.
Tunkel said responding effectively to emergency situations requires two things: awareness and preparation.
Create “a habit of safety,” Pascal recommended. That means people routinely take note of the mood of the crowd they’re in, the exits and entrances, and what tools are available around them in case they need to respond to a scary event.
“We don’t want to go around paranoid and not live our lives, but I think when we make personal safety a habit, it becomes something normal,” he said.
Your worst-case scenario will likely never happen, but being prepared means you have ways to take care of yourself and those around you when it does, Pascal added.
In addition to being aware of your surroundings, Pascal recommends making a plan for how to respond in the event of a medical emergency, fire, or violent emergency.
It’s always important to look for two ways to exit a building in case a hazard or obstacle blocks one, he said. And at home or at work, he recommended looking out for lockable doors and things that can be barricaded.
Once you have the plan, practice it, he added. This bookcase could look like the perfect barricade in your head, but then be impossible to move in an emergency, Pascal said. And you want to be sure that your escape routes don’t have locked doors that you can’t open.
However, the preparation can also take the form of training – and that doesn’t have to be long-term, intensive and situation-specific, says Tunkel.
Self-defense or active shooter training can help impart knowledge and strategies you can apply quickly if ever needed, Pascal said. But even more general training can help you instill the mental and physical responses needed in an emergency, Tunkel said.
Weightlifting and team sports can show you that you’re physically capable of responding, he said. Yoga and meditation can train your breath and brain to stay calm and make good decisions in times of crisis, he said.
And in a dangerous situation, it’s often the safest thing to act quickly and decisively, Pascal said.
It’s hard to be decisive when bullets are flying. Many victims of mass shootings have reported that events were confusing and that it was difficult to tell what was happening, Girgis said.
And when people don’t know what’s happening, they often rely on their instincts to make decisions about what to do next, which can be scary, Pascal said.
The human brain likes categories to make things easier, so it will often default to associating new things with those we’ve previously been exposed to, Stowell said. When a person hears a popping sound, they’re likely to assume the sound is something familiar, like a firecracker, he added.
Instead, Pascal advised people — whether they think they’re popping balloons or hearing gunshots — to stop, look around to gather as much information as possible about what’s going on around them, listen to see if they’re hearing anything learn from the sound and smell the air.
Because where shots are fired, there is often gunpowder, said Pascal.
Once someone has gathered as much information as possible, it’s important to trust their perception of danger, Tunkel said.
Knowledge of danger activates a fight-or-flight response that humans have refined over thousands of years to respond to predators, Stowell said.
But when a person finds themselves in a dangerous situation that’s so far removed from anything they’ve experienced before, it’s not uncommon for them to freeze, he added.
This is where training of any kind comes into play. While it doesn’t teach you every detail of how to react, it does give your brain a range of knowledge to draw on in a dire situation, Stowell said.
Wrestling a gun isn’t the only way to act when there’s a mass shooter, Pascal said.
The US Department of Homeland Security has developed a protocol called “run, hide, fight.”
“Run” refers to the first line of defense – to get out of a dangerous situation as quickly as possible, Pascal said. You can also encourage others to run away, but don’t fall behind if they don’t go with you.
If escaping isn’t possible, the next best option is to hide, which somehow makes it harder for the perpetrator to get to you, he said.
If none of these options work, you can fight.
“You don’t have to be the tallest and strongest person in the room,” Pascal said. “You just have to have that attitude that nobody’s going to do this to me and I’m going home safe.”
Although most people are capable of reacting to a hazard, it’s important not to judge how much or how little a bystander or victim is acting, Tunkel said.
“What may be reasonable for one person in one situation is not for another person in another situation,” Pascal said.
Regardless of how well trained a person is, mass shootings are “beyond the scope of what we’ve had to experience in our daily lives,” Stowell said. “Despite training, there is no real expectation of a correct reaction.”