Initially, Brandon Tsay froze when a gunman pointed a firearm at him, he said. He was sure that these would be his last moments.
But then something came about Tsay, who worked the counter in the lobby of his family’s Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio, a dance hall in Alhambra, California.
He lunged at the gunman and struggled through getting hit several times to wrestle the gun away, he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper Monday night.
The gunman had already killed 11 people and wounded 10 others before arriving at Tsay’s workplace.
Tsay’s bravery saved his life that day, but likely saved countless others, said Ronald Tunkel, a former special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who trained as a criminal profiler.
While Tsay’s actions demonstrate heroism and courage, what he did is more possible than people think, said Dr. Ragy Girgis, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University in New York City.
“People have a great capacity to respond to tragedies like this. People wouldn’t realize how heroic they could respond,” he said.
Fortunately, most people won’t find themselves in a situation where they have to respond to a mass shooter, Girgis said. But incidents like this are all too common and on the rise in the US, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
Not much research has been done on intervention in mass shootings by civilians, Girgis said.
But as the US regularly sees mass shootings, companies, nonprofits and schools are training people on how to respond. Tunkel and Jon Pascal, an instructor for both Krav Maga Worldwide and the Force Training Institute, say they see more training and protocols around active shooting situations for everyday people.
A word of caution: If your awareness around safety begins to contribute to anxiety or interfere with life in meaningful ways, it may be time to see a mental health expert, said psychiatrist Dr. Keith Stowell, chief medical officer of behavioral health and addictions for Rutgers Health and RWJ Barnabas Health.
Tunkel said responding effectively to emergencies requires two things: awareness and preparation.
Make “a habit of safety,” Pascal recommended. That means people should routinely note the mood of the crowd they’re in, the exits and entrances, and what resources are available around them in case they need to respond to a scary event.
“We don’t want to run around paranoid and not live our lives, but I think if we make personal safety a habit, it becomes something normal,” he said.
Your worst-case scenario will probably never happen, but being prepared means you have ways to take care of yourself and those around you if it does, Pascal added.
In addition to implementing awareness of your surroundings, Pascal recommends creating a plan for how you will respond in the event of medical, fire, or violent emergencies.
It’s always important to look for two ways to exit a building in case danger or an obstacle blocks one, he said. And at home or in the workplace, he recommended keeping an eye out for doors that can be locked and things that can be used to barricade.
Once you have the plan, practice it, he added. That bookcase may look like the perfect barricade in your head, but then it’s impossible to move in an emergency, Pascal said. And you want to make sure your escape routes don’t have locked doors that you can’t open.
But preparation can also take the form of training — and it doesn’t have to be lengthy, intensive and specific to the situation, Tunkel said.
Self-defense or active shooting training can help you gain knowledge and strategies that you can use quickly if they’re ever needed, Pascal said. But even more general training can help give you the mental and physical responses needed in an emergency, Tunkel said.
Lifting weights and team sports can show you that you’re physically capable of responding, he said. Yoga and meditation can train your breathing and brain to stay calm and make good decisions in crisis situations, he said.
And in a dangerous situation, quick and decisive action is often the safest, according to Pascal.
It’s hard to be decisive when the bullets are flying. Many victims of mass shootings have reported that the events were confusing and it was hard to tell what happened, Girgis said.
And when people don’t know what’s happening, they often rely on their instincts to make decisions about what to do next, which can be scary, Pascal said.
The human brain likes categories to make things simpler, so it will often default to relate new things to things we’ve been exposed to before, Stowell said. When a person hears a popping sound, they can probably assume the sound is something familiar, such as a firecracker, he added.
Instead, Pascal advised people — whether they think they hear balloons popping or gunfire — to stop, look around to gather as much information as possible about what’s going on around them, listen to see if they can learn something of the sound, and smell the air.
Because where there are gunshots, there is often gunpowder, Pascal said.
Once someone has gathered all the information possible, it’s important to trust your perception of danger, Tunkel said.
Knowing there is danger activates a fight-or-flight response, which humans have honed over thousands of years to respond to predators, Stowell said.
But when a person is in a dangerous situation that is so far removed from anything they’ve experienced before, it’s not uncommon for them to freeze, he added.
That’s where training of any kind comes in. Even if it doesn’t teach you every detail of how to respond, it gives your brain a set of knowledge to fall back on in a frightening situation, Stowell said.
Wrestling a weapon away isn’t the only course of action when there’s a mass shooter, Pascal said.
The US Department of Homeland Security has developed a protocol called “Run, hide, fight”.
“Run” refers to the first line of defense — getting yourself out of a dangerous situation as quickly as possible, Pascal said. You can encourage others to run too, but don’t get left behind if they don’t want to go with you.
If running away isn’t possible, the next best option is to hide, which will somehow make it harder for the perpetrator to get to you, he said.
If none of these options are an option, you can fight.
“You don’t have to be the biggest and strongest person in the room,” Pascal said. “You just have to have the mindset that no one is going to do this to me and I’m going home safe.”
While most people are capable of responding to danger in some way, it’s important not to judge how much or how little a bystander or victim acts, Tunkel said.
“What is reasonable for one person in one situation may not be reasonable for another in another,” Pascal said.
Regardless of how well educated a person is, mass shootings are “beyond the realm of anything we’ve experienced in our daily lives,” Stowell said. “There is no real expectation of a correct response, despite training.”