Mass shootings: Long odds in a violent lottery

It has come to this — concerned citizens across metro Atlanta, and the nation, are filling auditoriums to learn how to survive when a deranged gunman or terrorist goes on a killing spree.

And perhaps it was fitting that the latest “active shooter seminar” in Cherokee County took place during National Lottery Lunacy Week.

The odds seem to be similar.

In fact, million-dollar lottery winners are far more common than victims of such crimes.

A couple years ago, the FBI studied active shooter incidents between 2000 and 2013. The agency said there were 160 such incidents, with 1,043 casualties — 486 of those being deaths.

But in just two years ending January 2014, 1,013 people won at least $1 million from the Powerball. And Georgia’s own lottery has minted an average of 35 millionaires a year for two decades, as have numerous other states.

Both the hope of winning the lottery and fear of random death are deeply visceral. People line up to buy tickets on the microscopic possibility that their number will come up. Meanwhile, infamous mass shootings — Sandy Hook, Charleston, San Bernardino — are the inverse lottery, nightmarish events in which regular folks doing ordinary things are suddenly scrambling in terror, pleading for their lives and dying horribly.

The odds, of course, are remote that someone will be such a victim. But it makes sense in some irrational, reptilian-brain kind of way. A Gallup poll last year found that 49 percent of those surveyed were “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” that they or someone in their family would be a victim of terror. This was the highest number since right after 9/11.

To repeat, half of Americans worried that they or a family member — not some stranger in their city or even the guy down the block — will become a victim of terrorism. And this poll was taken before terrorists slaughtered people in Paris and San Bernardino.

Until recent years, people worried little about their chances of being victimized in random shootings. There were, after all, only a limited number of mean, sick, deranged nuts with guns who would enter a theater/shopping mall/school and randomly kill people. It was somewhat akin to getting hit by lightning.

The realization that Islamic terrorists have now undertaken this method of killing has just increased the frequency of the lightning.

It’s like the feeling I always get whenever I’m hip-deep in salt water, the nagging worry of, “Where’s that shark?”

Rational? No. But it’s there.

The question of how many sharks are out there is a moving target. The FBI study, noted above, said that the number of such incidents, while relatively small, is increasing. And the terrible cases occurring in the past year have ratcheted up those fears.

What, exactly, is a mass shooting?

Many media sources have noted breathlessly in recent months that there is a mass shooting each day in the U.S.

The source of much of that is the online site which determines a “mass shooting” as any time four or more people are shot. The site listed 19 “mass shootings” in Georgia last year that left 26 people dead and 68 wounded.

That’s truly frightening. But a review of the list shows very few cases, if any, that would have brought people flocking to active shooting class.

Most were domestic disputes, late-night fights, robberies or drug-related feuds.

In 2013, the Pew Research Center found that 56 percent of Americans surveyed said they believed gun crimes had increased over the past 20 years ago. Another 26 percent said the number had remained the same. And just 12 percent said gun crimes had declined.

The 12 percent were right. Gun homicide rates are about half what they were compared to the early 1990s. Yes, half.

But fear is a hard thing to overcome, especially with cable news and social media pumping it into our lives.

And that’s what’s filling the auditoriums, a shared sense of creeping dread and a search for empowerment.

‘Hiding and hoping is not an option’

Last month, 800 people packed the Marietta High School auditorium to hear police tell them how to survive when the gunmen come hunting. Two weeks later, the same officers educated 600 more at the middle school. Douglasville had a seminar and more are coming elsewhere.

The Cherokee effort this week was similar to Marietta’s and was held at Etowah High, where about 150 people attended. The crowd skewed a bit older than I thought it would be.

When I got there, the presenters were playing a video about the Virginia Tech slaughter where a single gunman killed 32 people. More than half of the victims were shot lying down.

“So hiding and hoping is not an option,” Deputy Chief Joe Perkins told the crowd. “You are not helpless. You have to do something.”

Perkins, like his counterparts in Marietta, espoused an “Avoid, Deny and Defend” strategy, which sounds a bit more manly and thought-out than the Department of Homeland Security’s “Run, Hide, Fight,” although the latter is in plain English.

The running part seems obvious, but people are creatures of habit and don’t react even when something bad is going down right in front of them.

If you can’t avoid or deny …

Perkins played a real-life video of a gunman walking into a school board meeting, spray-painting a wall, pulling out a pistol and threatening the board members before turning and suggesting the crowd should leave. People stood silently or remained seated for a few seconds, then grabbed their purses and other belongings before scurrying off.

Perkins said people must become more situationally aware. They should know where exits are and be ready to act if something ever happens.

If the running part doesn’t get you out of the building, he said, then hide in a room and lock it if you can, or go to some faraway place in the building or behind something sturdy. And, if all else fails, if the gunman has you cornered, then attack, quickly, violently and loudly

It’s now another new normal, I suppose.

So take the chief’s lessons to heart and then get on with your life. Worry-free, preferably.