Mass Shootings Are Increasing: Are You Prepared?

Today’s guest blog comes from Sarah Peck, co-founder and director of UnitedOnGuns. With the rise of mass shootings across the country, mayors and other city leaders are increasingly called to respond. As a leading national researcher and speaker on the subject, she shares the most effective strategies for a prepared city response in the face of gun violence.

By Sarah Peck  |  UnitedOnGuns

The list of tragedies keeps growing: a mall shooting in Allen, TX. A man shoots his neighbors in Cleveland, TX. A bank shooting in Louisville, KY. A school shooting in Nashville, TN. Back-to-back shootings in Half Moon Bay and Monterey Park, CA. The unsettling fact is that any of these incidents could have happened in your community. You need to prepare for the next one.

The Role of City Leaders During a Mass Shooting

As mayor, you have a significant role that begins the moment the first shots are fired. While law enforcement works to neutralize the threat, your office must meet the urgent needs of the victims, their families, and the community. Your responsibilities will include crisis communications, victim services, and managing your community’s long-term recovery.

As the principal elected representative, you should plan and participate in the press conferences. In consultation with law enforcement, you decide who will speak at press conferences and who should not, about what, and for how long. Law enforcement officials typically provide details about the investigation. The public looks to you for public safety assurances, updates about the victims, referrals to mental health resources, and messages of healing and unity. Remember that in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting, your primary focus should be on comforting the victims and their families. For this reason, political statements are not recommended as they can be traumatizing and divisive.

You will need to ensure the victims and their families receive appropriate trauma-informed services in the aftermath of a shooting. Victim services usually begin at the Family Reception Center—a physical space to unite friends and family, or to provide death notices and grief counseling for those who have lost their loved one. Law enforcement officials typically establish this Center, but you and your staff should plan for victim services in advance. The Office for Victims of Crime-funded Improving Community Preparedness to Assist Victims of Mass Violence and Domestic Terrorism: Training and Technical Assistance (ICP TTA) program can help your city do that.

The Family Assistance Center typically opens when the Reception Center closes, and provides comprehensive services to victims, families, and friends. These services may include referrals to mental health care, legal services, victim compensation, help with funeral costs, and so on. This is a major undertaking for any mayor’s office, and you will need to leverage existing partnerships with community-based organizations and businesses, and request the support of victim advocates, the FBI, and the American Red Cross. It is best to cultivate those relationships before disaster strikes.

As we now recognize, the trauma caused by mass shootings is a significant, lasting public health problem. You will need to find ways to address the trauma, often by organizing vigils and remembrance events to honor the victims, and by establishing a Resilience Center to provide long-term support to survivors and the affected community. The need for this critical support can last for years, long after the nation has moved on.

Mass Shooting Resources for Preparedness, Response, and Recovery

At the suggestion of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who responded to the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in 2018, the Public Health Advocacy Institute has developed resources mayors can use to respond to a mass shooting. We researched six cities that have responded to a mass shooting: El Paso, Dayton, Orlando, Parkland, Pittsburgh, and San Bernardino. We interviewed the mayors, staff, law enforcement officials, representatives of the American Red Cross and the FBI Victims Services Division, and a city attorney.

We used their harrowing experience, combined with public health resources developed by the CDC, the FBI, and other federal agencies, to develop the Mass Shooting Protocol and the Mass Shooting Playbook. The Protocol is a four-page overview of a mayor’s role during the first 24 hours after a mass shooting. The Playbook is a 200-page toolkit that contains best practices on ten critical topics (including communications, emergency management, victim services, legal considerations, and school shootings) to help you prepare for, respond to, and help your community recover from mass violence.

The White House now sends these resources to city leaders responding to a mass shooting. However, the first time you think about how you would respond to a mass shooting shouldn’t be when one is in progress. Please schedule time to review the Protocol and the Playbook, available on our website, Then plan a tabletop exercise with your staff. The Tabletop Template, designed in collaboration with the City of Orlando, provides useful guidance you can adapt to meet your city’s needs.

 Sarah C. Peck is Director of UnitedOnGuns, a nonpartisan initiative of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law. She is the co-author of the Mass Shooting Protocol & Playbook: A Resource for U.S. Mayors and City Managers.