Houston Chronicle

What is the new normal? Start with staying alive when bullets begin flying - not in a combat zone but a shopping mall, a coffee shop, a government office.

Start with Stephen Daniel, who trains people how to survive in modern America. As the Houston Police Department’s Senior Community Liaison, Daniel has taught 542 “active shooter survival trainings.” The idea, he said, is to teach people to create a “unique survival mindset.”

Not so long ago, such a notion would have seemed silly. But in 2015, mass shootings have taken place more than once a day in the U.S. Though some have ended with no one being killed, the yearlong tally of the dead is approaching 500, with more than twice that number injured. Those numbers include those killed and wounded in Wednesday’s attack in San Bernardino, Calif.

For most of the 20th century, the inexplicably violent act - a bombing here, a mass shooting there - typically had a foreign dateline. There was the comfort of distance, a literal ocean of separation.

No more. While pundits were still discerning the meaning of a Colorado abortion clinic shooting, another horrific incident less than a week later quickly claimed national attention. Was it terrorism, this killing at a facility that serves people with developmental disabilities? Or just another crazed gunman?

In years past, when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict overheated, Americans often wondered how people there lived in a climate of ongoing violence and death. Now it’s an American question, with city after city serving as a venue for headlines that have become numbing in their similarity. Only the numbers change.

Lessons from Columbine

When two students in Columbine, Colo., gunned down fellow students and teachers in a 1999 rampage, police across the country began to change their tactical approach to such incidents. Time became the key element. It became apparent to all of the need for the first officers to rush in and not wait for a SWAT team or reinforcements. The only way to save lives was to end those of the shooters as fast as possible.

But it was not enough to retrain police. Experts say the average post-Columbine active shooting lasts about eight minutes, meaning that by the time officers arrive, the incident is often already over. People needed instruction as well. So HPD’s Daniel, reasonably, asks his students to imagine being in “all the places they go on a regular basis,” like the grocery store, or at church. “You visualize a gunman coming in, shooting and killing people, and applying the ‘run, hide, fight’ training,” he said. If a shooting actually happens, there is a better chance you won’t freeze, he added.

Since the Wednesday shooting in San Bernardino, Daniel has received 10 calls from businesses and organizations asking for the training. For some reason - perhaps sheer luck more than anything - Houston has been spared the gruesome headlines that have gripped towns north and south, east and west. It may simply be a matter of time.

18 mass killings in Texas

Texas, of course, has not been spared. There have been 18 mass killings involving firearms in Texas since 2006, according to data compiled by USA Today. (The FBI defines mass killings as four or more fatalities in one event and location.) That represents eight percent of all mass shootings nationwide, second only to California, and accounts for 99 deaths.

Publicly accessible facilities, from stadiums to concert venues, shopping malls to churches, have ramped up security efforts significantly in recent years.

The Toyota Center installed metal detectors at each entry at the beginning of the Rockets’ season in October, complying with new NBA requirements. Minute Maid Park installed walk-through metal detectors at all gates at the beginning of the 2014 baseball season, supplementing them with hand-held detectors. The stadium also capped the size of bags brought to the park. Across town, fans attending Texans games at NRG Stadium have limits on bag and purse sizes.

“We’ve been through 9/11, and we’ve been through a number of other issues,” said Jamey Rootes, president of the Houston Texans. “When something does happen, you dive in and learn what happened there, and how do we apply what we learned in our own environment.”

Like the Texans, the Galleria is tight-lipped about specific security details. “Many of our security measures are visible to the public, including a robust security force and continuous patrol routes on property and the deployment of law enforcement personnel,” general manager Greg Noble said in an email.

But there’s only so much that can be done.

“We can do what we can do to be safe, and pray for safety,” said Steven Murray, director of communications for Houston’s First Baptist Church. “As people of faith, we know the Lord’s in control.” The church already has safety precautions for large gatherings, and its staff received “active shooter” training last year, Murray said. One day after the San Bernardino shooting, the church’s head of security sent out a reminder email with a link to rewatch the training.

“Churches are an interesting dynamic,” he said. “We’re open, anyone can come. It’s a large public space, even though it’s a private building. We don’t have security access codes at every building.”

And certainly churches have no reason to think of themselves as immune. Earlier this year, nine people were murdered by a white supremacist at an African- American church in Charleston, S.C. In Fort Worth, seven people died when a shooter opened fire at Wedgewood Baptist Church.

The world that Americans knew, or thought they knew, began to change a half-century ago, on a typically sweaty summer morning in the Texas capital of Austin. Word began to spread across the country of something awful - beyond understanding - was taking place on a university campus.

There was no 24-hour news cycle, but so astonishing was a sniper killing strangers from an unseen perch that radio and television stations interrupted programming to describe it. America was not immune to violence, of course, but an episode like this, utterly random and without context, was without apparent precedent.

When Charles Whitman, the ex-Marine, gunned down four dozen people from atop the University of Texas’ iconic tower, a vigorous search for motive began at once. Such a singular event had to have a singular explanation, with investigators ultimately deciding that a brain tumor along with a dodgy mental health history likely were at the root of it.

Now the search for explanation, for some sort of meaning, occurs as a matter of routine, a box to be checked off before the event is filed away and mostly forgotten, save by those left to grieve the loss of parents, children, and siblings. The unifying thread is hatred, but of which variation? Terrorism? That’s the first impulse, especially if the assailant has a foreign name, and it offers the perverse comfort of separation. Terrorists are them, not us.

Crazy comes a close second. As with Whitman, a deranged perpetrator is definitionally different. A sad case, perhaps, but again, not us.

Even zealous ideologues who put no brakes on their eager agendas are far beyond the mainstream. We may recognize in them familiar sentiments, a shared belief or opinion, but not their anger, their loss of connection. Timothy McVeigh, we recall, did not have many friends.

Whitman’s actions on Aug. 1, 1966, showed us what could happen, especially in a nation that allows easy access to guns, exalts the notion of personal freedom, and lives awash in violent entertainment and imagery. It was not until decades later that the tower killings’ value as a cautionary tale became clear. Again and again, gunmen with a grievance or obsession showed how easily it was to inflict great damage in just a few minutes, knowing that publicity they could never get otherwise would shower down even if they were dead.
“The violence is continually ramped up, with that desire to present oneself as more skilled and more lethal than the person who went before,” said J. Reid Meloy, a San Diego forensic psychologist who consults on threat assessment for schools and corporations. “We can become more fearful, take greater precautions and be even more frightened than we need to be. Or we get habituated. That is, it becomes the new normal and we get so desensitized we don’t have much of an emotional reaction.”

The new normal - no other phrase has gained as much currency in the discussions of mass shootings in America. President Barack Obama has argued that as a people we cannot accept it, that there must be a way out. Then come well-traveled arguments about gun control and background checks. Police buy new equipment and train in different ways. But no one expects the shootings to stop.

“It’s new, I hope it’s not normal,” said Rabbi Oren Hayon, senior rabbi at Congregation Emanu El. “We’re not used to living in a world where you have to worry about kids in Sunday School getting shot, or you have to worry about the retiree coming to a lecture at synagogue carrying something in his briefcase. I hope we have sensible, compassionate answers.”

Answers, in truth, are not in short supply. Any routine sampling of Americans, such as those enjoying a sunny, pleasant afternoon around Houston on Thursday, provides plenty of them.

As Oscar Resendez and Rosalinda Catacora pushed a baby stroller down a path in Bear Creek Park, some obvious ones sprang to mind. It’s about frustration, Resendez said, people whose lives aren’t working out as they had hoped. Neighbors need to look after each other, Catacora added, to make a greater effort in building community, as happens after a big storm or other natural disaster.

“We need to live in peace and harmony,” she said, recalling how her son, an eighth-grader, had asked her if he could give a friend in need a pair of new shoes he had gotten for himself. “Those things matter. Why waste your energy on hate when it’s easier to love each other?”

Many say we need less access to weapons. Some insist we need more. “Issue a gun to every citizen who is able to pass a background check and start educating them in the safety of using guns in grade school,” said Kat Joel-Reich, who was doing some shopping at a Galveston clothing store.

Answers are easy. Solutions, less so.


St. John Barnard-Smith, Claudia Feldman, Emily Foxhall, Bridget Balch, Harvey Rice, Fauzeya Rahman, Maggie Gordon and Matt Dempsey contributed to this story.