You think you hear gunshots in a public place. How should you respond?

·8 min read

A chaotic scene unfolded at Durham’s Streets at Southpoint mall on Black Friday, when shoppers were startled by sounds of gunshots and instinctively ran for the exits.

The mall was quickly evacuated by police, who said three people were wounded, The News & Observer previously reported.

It’s a scenario that no one wants to experience, but there are ways to be prepared for an active shooter situation, and it’s important to know how to safely and properly react if you find yourself in such an event.

To learn more about how to react and respond if you hear gunshots in public, The N&O talked with Mike Clumpner, an expert on active shooter situations and the president of Threat Suppression Inc., a Charlotte-based public safety training and consulting organization with clients that include the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill.

Here’s what we learned.

Note: While it’s important to be prepared for scary situations and think through how you would respond, Clumpner said, there’s no need to live in a constant state of fear. You don’t need to “live under a rock,” he said, but you can stay aware and prepared by using these tips.

How to tell if you’re hearing gunshots

If you’re on a normal or routine outing in a public place, such as a mall or grocery store, you might not expect to hear gunshots.

That can lead people to have a sense of distrust or disbelief if they hear a loud noise in those places, Clumpner said. Instead of thinking that you’re hearing gunshots, you might instead think it’s a more “normal,” everyday noise, such as a car backfiring or construction noise.

“Always remember this: We believe what our eyes see, we semi-trust what our nose smells and we tend to not trust what our ears hear,” Clumpner said.

“So, when we hear stuff, we will frequently try — especially if it’s something that doesn’t fit in the norm — we try to justify it into what we would expect to hear in the norm.”

It’s also common for people to confuse the sound of gunshots with fireworks, but Clumpner said that unless it’s the Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve, it’s probably not fireworks that you’re hearing.

Here’s what to do if you think you hear gunshots.

If you hear a noise you think might be gunshots, Clumpner urges people to fight through disbelief quickly.

Clumpner said the average interaction time between an active shooter or assailant and their targets is about 20 seconds, leaving you little time to figure out what the noise is, let alone decide what course of action to take or how to protect yourself.

“Take a deep breath immediately and then from there, start trying to figure out exactly what you need to do,” Clumpner said.

If you’re unsure about what you’re hearing, Clumpner said, it’s always a safe bet to run away or leave.

“If you think you hear gunshots, or even if a fight breaks out in front of you, move. Leave. Get out of there,” Clumpner said. “The safest thing you can ever do in these events is to leave the area.”

While you might be curious about the noise or want to know where it’s coming from — or even film the incident — it’s not safe to run toward the noise.

“Don’t stay and try and figure out what’s going on,” Clumpner said.

And, if the noise does turn out to be something like a car backfiring after all, Clumpner said, at least you took the steps to make sure you were safe.

“If it turned out to be some balloons popping and you ran out the door, guess what? It’s no harm, no foul. That is totally fine. It’s okay,” Clumpner said. “Don’t wait for confirmation that you’re actually in the middle of a mass shooting event, or just a single shooter.”

Be aware of your surroundings and be prepared

To be more sure about what a loud noise is, or whether there’s a safety risk near you, it helps to be prepared and be aware of your surroundings. Clumpner recommends:

Scan the area outside public places before going in. Clumpner recommends looking around outside and following your gut instincts about what could be going on inside.

“We always tell people, follow your gut instinct. If something tells you that it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right,” Clumpner said. “We can always come back and shop on another day. You know, a Black Friday deal isn’t worth your life.”

Regularly scan your surroundings once you’re inside. Even if nothing unusual is happening outside, once you’re inside a public place, Clumpner recommends scanning your surroundings at least every 30 seconds to stay aware of what’s happening around you. Look from side to side, and over both of your shoulders.

“It’s quick. It just takes two or three seconds,” Clumpner said. “It’s just reassuring you that everything is okay.”

Always know where the nearest exit is. Whether there’s an active shooter or another safety risk, such as a fire, it’s best practice to be always aware of the exits around you, so that you can get out quickly if needed. Remember: sometimes, the closest exit to you might actually be behind you.

“Mentally scrimmage” to prepare. The easiest way to work through how to respond to an unsafe situation is to “mentally scrimmage,” Clumpner said. That means thinking through possible scenarios, such as an active shooter, and how you would respond, on regular, routine outings.

For example: If you’re at the mall and eating lunch at the food court, look around. What would you do if someone started shooting near you? Where could you go? What would your options be?

It’s also helpful to think about how your response might differ depending on where you are, or what kind of building or business you’re in. Your response at an open-air amphitheater with lots of open space and few places to hide will likely differ from your response at an airport, or even a grocery store.

Thinking through scenarios at common or routine places you visit can help you be prepared no matter where you are.

“The more you mentally scrimmage an event like that, the better you are to survive it,” Clumpner said.

Run, hide, fight

If you hear or suspect gunshots, you won’t have a lot of time to react. It’s helpful to remember a common saying for how to respond to active shooter situations: “run, hide, fight.”

That means:

Run away, or evacuate, from the assailant or the sound of gunshots. Look for an exit if possible. Note: There could be hundreds or thousands of people also running, depending on where the shooting is taking place, and trampling could be possible.

Hide from the assailant. Clumpner recommends thinking of hiding more as barricading yourself, ensuring you’re in a spot where you can’t be seen or that can’t be penetrated by bullets.

For example: If you’re in a clothing store, don’t hide behind a rack of clothes, which could easily be penetrated by bullets. Hide behind something sturdy or, if possible, hide somewhere like a storage room.

Fight the perpetrator. If you are in close proximity to the assailant, or if they pull a gun on you, you can fight them if needed. If possible, it’s best to attack them with an element of surprise, or with a group of people, Clumpner said.

While these response options are sometimes seen as a hierarchy, with running being the best option and fighting being a last resort, Clumpner encourages people to view them as linear instead — thinking of them as choices you can make that depend on your mobility, location or proximity to the shooter and more.

For example: If you aren’t able to run, or it’s unsafe for you to do so, hiding might be a better option for you.

“You do whichever one is going to give you the best opportunity to survive the worst day of your life,” Clumpner said.

Also note: If you find yourself in an unsafe or active shooter situation at a mall or another type of store, such as a grocery store, it’s helpful to listen to store employees for directions on where to go or what to do.

They’ve likely been trained on how to respond to such events, and could be able to direct you to safe hiding places or hidden exits in the store.

Call 911

In addition to running, hiding and fighting, it’s important to alert emergency services about the unsafe situation by calling 911.

In the case of the shooting at The Streets at Southpoint last week, off-duty officers with the Durham Police Department requested assistance at the mall after hearing gunshots — but Clumpner encouraged people to never assume that someone else has called 911.

“We never want to make the assumption that somebody else would call, because we want to get help coming,” Clumpner said.

When you call 911, keep in mind:

Try to call from a safe location. If you’ve decided to run away from the shooting, call after you’re far away. If you’ve decided to hide, wait to call until you’re in a safe, barricaded location.

Give as many details to the operator as possible. Describe where you are, what you saw and, if possible, what the assailant looks like.

It might be difficult to get your call through. When there’s an emergency, such as an active shooter situation, lots of people can call 911 at the same time, which could overload phone lines. Keep trying, but keep in mind there’s a “very high likely chance” that you won’t get through, Clumpner said.

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