The man accused of shooting up a Midtown doctor’s office on Wednesday, killing a 38-year-old public health official and mother of two, and wounding four other women, strode past a sign on the building’s front door stating that weapons and drugs were prohibited on site.
Not that anyone believes a sign on its own could stop a person intent on doing harm.
There are no easy answers to what might have prevented that tragedy and many others over the years in a nation where political divisions have rendered steps to curtail access to guns largely fruitless.
The 12-story Northside Hospital office building has security personnel. But, like shopping centers, restaurants and most other buildings Americans enter every day, it is not a high-security zone, such as an airport or courthouse. And experts say it’s unlikely Americans would put up with the hindrance or cost of implementing tight security screening every place they go.
In Wednesday’s spasm of violence, which lasted mere moments, police say 24-year-old Deion Patterson shot the five women before leading law enforcement agencies on an eight-hour manhunt that ended in the former Coast Guard veteran’s capture near Truist Park.
In Atlanta and Washington, D.C., officials are grappling with unsettling questions about the safety of workers and customers in a state where the prevalence of guns is high and laws governing their carry are permissive.
As of Friday afternoon, Atlanta police had not said how Patterson — who suffers from mental health issues, according to his mother and lawyer — obtained the pistol and whether he could legally possess a firearm. It’s also unclear what laws, if any, might have helped prevent Wednesday’s violence.
Medical offices, retail establishments and many other spaces are designed to afford free movement.
“The employer cannot guarantee your safety when there is the availability of guns that we have. And we are going to find ourselves in this situation until our government takes action against those loose gun laws,” said Cedric Alexander, former head of public safety for DeKalb County and now a safety commissioner in Minnesota.
Whether it was school shootings in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, or Uvalde, Texas, or hate-fueled attacks like the one that killed 10 at a New York grocery store, lawmakers have taken few meaningful steps to beef up permissive gun laws at the state or federal level. In fact, many states, including Georgia, have made their gun laws more permissive, arguing that law-abiding citizens should be allowed to carry weapons in more places to protect themselves.
In the wake of the Midtown shooting, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said that allowing more guns in more places isn’t the answer.
“While we respect the rights conveyed by the Second Amendment, we also need more actions to protect the rights of our citizens to go about their lives — to go to a doctor’s office, a supermarket, a gas station, their school — without the threat of being gunned down,” Dickens wrote in a Thursday open letter to the city.
One of the ways to do that is to encourage more residents to legally carry, said Jerry Henry, executive director of gun rights group Georgia Carry. Gun-free zones should be abolished, Henry said, as would-be shooters will avoid targeting places that are known to have armed people.
“As long as there are people with bad intent, they will find a way to break the law, no matter what the law says,” he said. “This is a society problem. This is not a gun problem.”
Gov. Brian Kemp’s office did not respond to requests for comment about any legislation the governor might support to help address such violence. House Speaker Jon Burns declined to comment.
In recent years, businesses, government agencies and schools have enacted mass shooter drills, lockdowns and other defensive postures to mitigate violent acts. Atlanta Public Schools and buildings across Midtown went into lockdown within minutes of Wednesday’s shooting. A web of security cameras, license plate readers and other technology helped law enforcement agencies track and ultimately capture Patterson without any other injuries or loss of life.
Every company should have a workplace violence policy for dealing with outsiders — whether customers, clients or visitors — that threaten harm, as well as a process for handling threats that come from employees, said Benjamin Briggs, law partner at Seyfarth Shaw and co-chair of its workplace safety and environment group.
There should also be plans for handling a crisis — plans that employees are aware of that can be carried out in an emergency, said Briggs, whose Midtown office executed its plan as police sought the suspect.
“When it happened Wednesday, we were locked down immediately, and we stayed locked down for four hours,” Briggs said.
Northside Hospital did not respond to repeated requests for comment about its security protocols. Offices within the Midtown tower locked down and staff barricaded doors until law enforcement arrived.
A doctor at Laureate Medical Group, the Northside practice where the shooting took place, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution a nurse alerted him to an active shooter and ran for cover as he pushed an exam bed against a door to block it. Other Northside staff evacuated patients to safety, as security and emergency services responded.
Experts say building owners and employers must balance their duty to protect workers and customers against the burden imposed by taking strict safety precautions.
“We call it risk appetite. You have to decide what is reasonable and acceptable,” Henry Miller, a risk consultant with global security firm Allied Universal.
As awful as Wednesday’s shooting was, it did nothing to change the calculations employers have to make, he said. “It’s not new. It’s just a sad repetition.”
While details about the shooting are still emerging, there has long been a legal duty of employers to take “reasonable action” to keep workers safe, said attorney Charles Bridgers, who specializes in employment law.
There are a lot of choices, from controlling access through doors to hiring armed guards and installing metal detectors. What is reasonable may vary, said Bridgers, a partner in DeLong, Caldwell, Bridgers, Fitzpatrick & Benjamin.
“There may be a difference in what’s needed for someone working as a clerk in a convenience store in the middle of the night in a bad part of town and someone answering phones on the 31st floor of a downtown office building,” he said.
It is not reasonable to “harden” every business with “airport level security,” he said. “I’m not sure people would put up with it.”
Colony Square, the 6-acre mixed-use development in Midtown with more than a million square feet of office space, was also locked down Wednesday. Elevators were shut off; garage doors at parking decks were closed; and access codes were disabled.
Tim Perry, managing partner at Colony Square’s owner and operator North American Properties, said security is paramount.
In the past, security has often been the target for cost-cutting, he said, but not anymore.
“It’s an expense you don’t really want to spend, because no one can see it,” he said. “But you just can’t cut it back.”
Credit: John Spink
Credit: John Spink
Employees should be trained to escape, hide, and deny an attacker entry, said Chander Jayaraman, president of Washington, D.C.-based Strategic Educational Consulting, which runs active shooter exercises for businesses, schools and government.
“I don’t ask people to be a hero, but the response time for a 911 call is seven to 13 minutes. You need to buy yourself time,” he said.
But the best security measure is to stop trouble from happening in the first place, he said. “The number one thing to do is to control access.”
Some offices require the swiping of an ID badge or a conversation with a security guard for entry.
Others, especially social service or medical offices, resist measures that might intimidate or alienate their clientele. And many organizations are tenants that have no say in how visitors enter the building.
“When you get into multi-tenant buildings, it’s a little more difficult to screen everybody,” said A.J. Robinson, president of downtown Atlanta civic organization Central Atlanta Progress. “You can mitigate. You can deter. But you have to keep in mind that there’s a cost of being a friendly place to do business.”
Gun laws loosened
Georgia allows a ban on guns on private property and certain public sites, like courthouses, schools and some other government buildings, but carrying of guns is permitted in public parks and on the grounds of state universities.
Last year, Kemp signed legislation that removed the requirement for Georgians to first apply for a license before carrying a concealed handgun.
That law also allowed people who have licenses to carry guns in other states to carry them legally in Georgia. The legislation was a priority for Kemp, who at the time was facing a Republican primary challenger for his reelection bid.
Federally licensed dealers are still required to run background checks at stores or gun shows. But background checks are not required for the private sale of guns. Georgia law also does not allow law enforcement officers to ask someone carrying a gun whether he or she has a license to carry it.
On top of that, Georgia does not have a red flag law, like many states, that would allow a judge to order the confiscation of a person’s firearms if that person is deemed a danger to himself or others.
This year, Democrats introduced a slate of gun control bills that gained no traction. It’s unclear if any of the bills would have prevented Wednesday’s shooting.
Johns Creek Democratic state Rep. Michelle Au, an anesthesiologist, has approached gun violence as a public health issue, authoring bills to address firearm safety from several angles that polls show have broad public support.
“We’re using such logic-based, data-driven, reasonable arguments that the arguments against it start to sound increasingly more unreasonable,” she said. “When they feel that they’re on the wrong side of this issue with their voters is when this is going to change.”
Yet, gun supporters say the loosened law hasn’t made the state less safe.
Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC
Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC
Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Jason Anavitarte, of Dallas, sponsored the permit-less carry legislation. He said he’s heard no complaints since the law went into effect. “Everyone who was prohibited from carrying firearms before we passed (the law) last year is still prohibited from carrying firearms now.”
Whatever checks remain, it’s still too easy to obtain guns, legally or otherwise, said Jeff Binkley, a Dunwoody resident, who founded a nonprofit to support gun violence research in honor of his daughter Maura, who was shot and killed in a Florida yoga studio in 2018.
“We’ve simply made it all too easy to kill in this country,” he said.
Recent major changes to Georgia’s gun laws in the last decade
2022: Permit-less carry – Georgians who are legally allowed to own guns no longer are required to purchase a license to carry a concealed weapon. However, the state permitting process remains for Georgians who need a permit to take advantage of gun carry “reciprocity” with other states. That agreement allows gun owners to carry concealed handguns in states that offer the same permissions.
2017: Campus carry – Those who have concealed carry licenses can have their weapons on them in most areas of Georgia’s public colleges and universities, with exceptions that include dormitories, fraternity and sorority houses, and buildings used for athletic events. On-campus child-care centers are also excluded, as are areas on campus where high school students attend class. While firearms cannot be carried inside athletics venues, people can carry them when tailgating before a game.
2014: “Guns everywhere” – Expanded where Georgians can carry guns – such as church sanctuaries, if permitted by individual places of worship, and parts of courthouses, where there is no security at the entrance. It also banned law enforcement from demanding to see a weapons permit of someone carrying a gun.
Sources: Georgia state law and AJC archives.
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com