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‘I Wish We Could Stop Teaching This.’ What It’s Like to Attend an Active-Shooter Training After the El Paso and Dayton Attacks

5 minute read

It’s the first weekend since school began here in central Virginia, and approximately 10 children and 15 adults are spending their Saturday in a 900-square foot room with bright yellow walls and foam floor tiles, learning how to survive an active-shooter situation.

“We’re going to have some loud noises,” Sidney Burns, the owner of COBRA Self Defense Virginia, warns the attendees two minutes into the class. A moment later, an instructor behind the wall in the back of the training room simulates the sound of an assault rifle with an Airsoft gun. Another instructor lets out a loud shriek. Several of the students sink lower into their metal folding chairs.

“It’s unsettling, right?” Burns says to the class. “The screaming, the gunfire.”

Over the course of the next 90 minutes, Burns, a muscular 51-year-old with more than 20 years of martial arts and self-defense teaching experience, provides tactical tips on surviving a run-in with a gunman. Among his advice: Crouch low to make yourself a smaller target. Silence your cellphone to avoid alerting a shooter to your location. Cover your stomach and chest with hard objects to shield your vital organs. Make use of the time it takes a shooter to reload their weapon. Form a “stack team” of people willing to charge the shooter in case they enter the room where you’re hiding. Ensure that children understand to keep running should their parent or teacher fall wounded.

It’s a morbid assortment of pointers, but ones that many believe are necessary to learn amid the U.S.’s mass-shooting epidemic. So far in 2019, there’s been an average of more than one mass shooting per day, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a widely cited nonprofit that counts incidents in which at least four people other than the shooter were injured or killed.

The succession of tragedies has prompted more and more Americans to take special precautions, for themselves as well as their children. Sales of certain bullet-resistant backpacks spiked 200% to 300% following the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio this month, according to CNN. And the popularity of active-shooter training classes like this one outside Lynchburg, Va., has surged too.

Though Burns teaches active-shooter classes year-round, he says interest tends to go up after large-scale shootings are in the news. Occasionally, interest is so high that he adds another class to his docket. When that happens, COBRA usually makes those classes free. “We’re never here to capitalize on a terrible event,” he says. The number of parents who bring their children to these classes is also rising. “As we see more events happen in schools, I think [parents] are concerned that maybe schools aren’t doing enough,” Burns says.

Still, the odds of dying in a mass shooting remain low. Though 39,773 people in the U.S. died from gun-related injuries in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease and Control, about 24,000 of those were suicides. Based on the Gun Violence Archive’s methodology, only 437 died as a result of mass shootings that same year.

But the attendees at Burns’s training are determined to prepare for the worst. Allison Szuba, the director of an adult care center in central Virginia, says gun violence is a problem that’s always on her mind. She says she’s seen situations in which disgruntled family members come into nursing facilities with the intention of hurting others. “I am sad about it, but I’m also not gonna put my head in the sand,” she says of her decision to attend this and other COBRA classes. “I would much rather be on the front line protecting folks than saying, ‘Oh, I hope it doesn’t happen to us.'”

Although Szuba thinks individuals should take steps to protect themselves, she’d also like politicians to enact sensible background-check laws. “It’s our responsibility to talk to politicians, voice our concerns, and vote them out if they’re not doing the job that they’re hired to do,” she says, adding that she’s a firm believer in the Second Amendment. “I have no problem with somebody background-checking me. If you have a problem with that, you probably shouldn’t have a gun.”

Denise Kennedy brought her two young sons, Carl, 6, and Louis, 5, with her to Burns’s lesson. Kennedy has been bringing Carl to such classes since he was 4. Though he has autism, and sometimes reacts negatively in the presence of loud noises, Kennedy said the risk of discomfort during gunfire simulations was worth it.

“My thought process was that we could work through this now, in a safe setting, versus if he were to totally freeze in a bad setting,” she says. Luckily, the noises did not upset Carl, and Kennedy says he has been able to use what he’s learned in Burns’s classes to stay safe on the playground and when a stranger approached him in their neighborhood.

Though Kennedy says gun violence is a problem, she doesn’t believe legislative action is the answer. “You can hide all the weapons you want,” she says. “They’re still going to get their hands on something.”

Like Kennedy, Burns says he thinks violence will happen whether or not new gun laws are enacted. But in the absence of any other solution to a problem that has already killed 279 people this year in the U.S., he hopes his classes will help.

“I wish we could stop teaching this,” he told TIME. “Anybody that teaches active-shooter response training should wish to say it’s not an industry that we want to be in. But if we don’t give [people] the best tools, then we’re not doing what we should be doing either.”

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Write to Abby Vesoulis / Lynchburg, Va. at abby.vesoulis@time.com