By the latest report, 59 are dead and 516 wounded in the Las Vegas mass casualty attack, allegedly perpetrated by a lone wolf attacker with no ties to foreign or domestic terrorist organizations. This is only the latest in a string of mass casualty attacks, linked by the lack of any clear pattern, outside direction, or common cause.
RVA Mag reached out to former FBI counter-terrorism expert Marc Mori, British special forces officer John Yourston, and Richmond Chief of Police Alfred Durham to ask how people can plan and prepare, and what we can do as a society to prevent and limit these attacks.
Mori, a retired FBI agent who specialized in counter-terrorism, spoke about the challenges to law enforcement. “Lone wolf attackers follow the leaderless resistance model,” he explained, noting that we still know little about the attacker and his motive. “It’s much easier to do surveillance on individuals working with foreign groups. American citizens have rights for good reason.”
Mori talked about the motivation and mindset revealed in the little information that is available, comparing this shooter to the 1966 sniper attack at the University of Texas. “To choose to be up at that height, looking down on others that are helpless, it speaks to me about the level of helplessness and lack of empowerment they feel. It’s a level of control, and of distance.”
“I think he wants people to feel chaos because he lacks a sense of power,” said Mori, noting that many times, perpetrators have a history of victimization. “Law enforcement is a band-aid. Unless you are prepared as a society to have a very intrusive surveillance system, with the realization it can be misused by whoever is in power, you can’t predict these.”
He compared our national response to the war on drugs or the war on terror, describing both as failures. “Whenever you declare war on something, you get more of it. You inflate the cycle of violence. When people see an act of violence against a group they identify with, they tend to assimilate that and seek revenge.”
Mori was critical of our gun culture, gun access, and the prevalence of extreme violence in American entertainment. “We’ve decided that we’re okay with all of that. It’s hard for me to accept that we’re okay with that. We need to really look at ourselves.” He also described the isolation of people who carry out these attacks, but stressed the importance of not minimizing the harm dealt to victims or exonerating the attackers.
“Our society leaves some people outside of the loop,” said Mori. “From the school system to the economic system, to families, we’ve architected a system that leaves some people out. When people are isolated, they often take the action of violence. Attacks like this say, ‘I’m going to make you see that I matter.’ It’s significant that he took his own life. It says he saw no other way.”
While Mori spoke about ways to prevent these attacks on a fundamental level, retired British special forces officer John Yourston talked about the tactical approach authorities would take. He’s spent most of his decorated career in the Special Air Service, the British equivalent of Delta Force, with long stints in Iraq and other hostile environments as a security adviser.
“There’s two main elements; firstly, identifying the firing point and containing it; and also the mass crowd situation,” he said, noting that response teams consist of both first responders where the victims are and specialized SWAT teams moving toward the shooter. “In real operational terms, the incident was brought to a conclusion relatively quickly in respect of neutralising the threat, although as we all know now it was a shocking level of carnage and the ramifications of this attack will take a lot longer to reconcile.”
While police were establishing an outer cordon for security, other police were moving inward, establishing an inner cordon to coordinate the SWAT response. After seeing videos and news reports, Yourston had recommendations for civilians who find themselves in an active shooter incident. “In all instances, the best course of action is to go to ground and take cover,” he said. “Once in cover, stay behind cover. Do not exacerbate the situation and increase confusion. Await the security forces’ response, and once they have taken control of the situation, comply fully with any instructions given.”
Yourston went on to say, “Many in the crowd remained standing even though there were bursts of rounds. That’s not recommended.” Highlighting that this attack was particularly confusing and chaotic, he told RVA Mag, “The issue here is that most civilians have never heard fully automatic fire coming in their general direction, nor will they be able to recognize the ‘crack and thump’ effect of high velocity rounds.”
The crowd was indeed enveloped in carnage, but 32 stories above, the killer was in a relatively calm situation that he probably planned well. “The shooter had, from his vantage point, excellent fields of fire, and his left and right of arc covered the whole of the area of the concert. Add to that the height of his firing point and the relative close range, it was literally a fish in a barrel scenario.”
“It is my view that the shooter had already [conducted reconnaissance on] the Hotel, tested the existing security and search procedures in place, and essentially proven his chosen concept of operation,” said Yourston. He went on to explain that as a lone citizen with no previous contact with law enforcement, designing preventative mitigations would be “practically impossible.”
He echoed many of Mori’s sentiments about prevention, criticizing America’s lax gun laws, and questioning the pre-concert security. “The shooter’s ability to get 10 assault rifles and the ammo needed up to the firing point, and to have such a target rich opportunity, raises the question about access control security,” he said, noting that security preparation didn’t seem to include the high-rise buildings around the concert.
Richmond experts had advice and insights for RVA Mag, too. “This is a critical moment in time,” said Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham, who was actually an Assistant Chief in the Washington Metropolitan Police Department during the Washington Navy Yard shooting. “The fear that is instilled in the citizenry by these attacks, people have to be on guard all the time. Going to a restaurant, going to a concert, it’s humanly impossible to be on guard all the time. Everywhere you go.”
A former Marine, he knows what gunfire looks and sounds like, and described a response similar to that articulated by Yourston. “Light travels faster than the speed of sound. You don’t know what’s coming. The best thing is cover and concealment. Concealment so they don’t see you, cover to protect you from shooting.”
He said citizens should call 911, but had advice for when the lines were busy. “When you get into cover, send a text to a loved one. Tell them what you see, what you hear. Let someone know what time the shooting began, what you heard, what you saw,” Durham went on to say, “Tell them where you are and what you’re doing. Call 911 first, but if it’s busy, make sure someone else has the information and can keep calling us to relay it.”
“From experience, the best thing is to protect yourself. Stay in cover no matter what,” noting that injuries increase when citizens try to leave cover to provide first aid in the line of fire. It is also important for citizens to know that police are not always able to stop and provide first aid or move the injured in the middle of an attack. “When we come, our first priority is to end the crisis. We have to get to the shooter and stop them.”
“I’m hoping we never have to experience this again, but we will. It’s not if, it’s when,” he said, when asked about preparation. “We do active shooter trainings with the state and local organizations to prepare for when it does.”
Richmond is very different from Las Vegas, however, and the lack of publicly accessible high-rises next to gathering spaces make an identical attack unlikely, but there is nothing stopping a different mass casualty attack here. These attacks can occur wherever people congregate, and it’s seemingly impossible to predict where and when the next one will be. Since the attack at Sandy Hook in December 2012, there have been 1,715 people killed in 1,518 mass casualty attacks, occurring all over the nation – a trend not likely to abate any time soon.
Elected officials at a national level seem to be responding mostly with condolences and prayers, but little by ways of concrete plans or proposals, leaving local authorities and individuals to coordinate their own plans. As Durham said, it is not a matter of “if”, only “when” the next mass casualty attack happens.
If you are interested in active shooter trainings for you or your organization, visit the Virginia Department of Emergency Management website page for information and resources.