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Officers take part in active shooter training at Bella Mente Montessori Academy in Vista. / Photo courtesy of Morgan Ballis

I am realizing, at no small cost to the image I keep of myself, that the more regular mass shootings become, the more I disengage.

I obviously knew the shootings in El Paso and Dayton happened. And I had a vague idea I should address them in this space – since it is all too clear that among the many future mass killings we will endure, some will occur in schools.

Just last week, a Department of Homeland Security-funded training took place at Bella Mente Montessori Academy in Vista. Twenty officers from around the region took part in active shooter simulations inside the school. The simulations used Marines from Camp Pendleton as role-players who acted as potential victims, casualties and even the shooter. Participants fired blanks from real guns.

I called Morgan Ballis, a security consultant and combat veteran who helped organize the event, to give me a window into how cops train to stop well-armed gunmen from mowing down scores of unarmed children.

Since Columbine, law enforcement has been forced to reckon with the best way to deal with mass shootings, Ballis said. Rather quickly, people realized mass shootings can’t be handled like hostage situations. Too many people die while cops and emergency workers wait outside to assemble their teams.

The next strategy was to assemble teams of four before engaging a shooter, Ballis said. But that didn’t work either. The killing happens so fast.

These days, cops – at least the ones who get training – are taught to enter active shooter situations by themselves or in teams of two, Ballis told me.

Ballis took part in the training himself and described a scene in which he and an officer were trying to “neutralize” an active shooter. I lightly edited his description.

So for one of the final scenarios, we’re going down a long hallway with doors on either side. Some doors are open. Some are closed and locked. Some are closed and unlocked. You know that a shooting has occurred. Reports are that it’s a single male. That’s all the information you have.

The scenario starts out in what’s known as “search to contact.” There is no stimulus. You begin the search, but you don’t know where the shooter is. But then you hear a yell and gunshots. Now you quickly try to ascertain where the person is.

I’m a combat veteran. I’ve done multiple tours in Iraq, clearing houses and all that. The biggest thing that stood out to me: When you hear those gunshots echo inside the school it’s almost impossible to identify the location.

I just happened to see the muzzle flash in the hallway. If not for that I would’ve never known the room.

When we entered, the suspect was in the deep corner on the far side of the room. There were two or three potential victims. Some shot, some not. We successfully neutralized the threat. But the scenario doesn’t end. It’s much deeper than just going in and getting someone. Next, we identify who is a good guy and if anyone is bad. We provide medical assistance to whoever is wounded. We triage. We communicate with other officers arriving to the scene.

Even though it was not a real scenario, I could see that hallway and I could see the school. What was a fake drill in Vista also happens to be a very real situation that very real students in the United States of America face.

Officers take part in active shooter training at Bella Mente Montessori Academy in Vista. / Photo courtesy of Morgan Ballis

That was enough to break through the numbness I’ve cultivated about large-scale gun violence. I actually teared up a little bit listening to Ballis.

I felt struck by people’s bravery. Not just cops, but even more so the students and teachers who fight back against an inconceivable terror. And I especially felt struck by helplessness and shame – this is a reality we’ve created and it seems to be moving so fast we cannot control its direction.

Then I started reading about El Paso and Dayton. I read about Dayton’s historic district, where the shooting took place. I read about how the shooter was there in a bar with friends hours before the shooting. Officers engaged the man within just 20 seconds. He was dead within 30 and even still he killed 10 people and fired 41 shots.

When you create a detailed picture of all that in your head, it is tragic, sad and fully enraging. It requires more than most of us want, or have, to give on a week-to-week basis.

But that is exactly the first thing to give. The terror-inducing nature of mass shootings is one of the ugliest monsters in the American dream. It is stitched together from personal mental illness, national psychosis and the unbending desire of some not to limit the types of guns available on the street. Maybe that’s something to march about or a reason to write your congressman. Maybe it’s a reason to train more police.

I don’t know what comes next, but nothing comes next if we refuse to face the monster.

What I’m Reading

More and more teachers are training students to spot fake news. But David Morse wrote about a much better approach in the Washington Post. He teaches his students to tell really big, politically motivated lies – the kind of lies that become more potent because they are sprinkled with the truth. As they learn to lie, the students learn to spot a lie when they see it.

What We’re Writing

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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