Addressing Mass Shootings Through The Built Environment

He didn’t care that they were only grade schoolers.

When Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, his intensions were clear. He was going to kill as many people as possible.

Teachers scrambled to secure their classrooms, to protect their students. But their efforts were futile. They couldn’t even lock the doors to their own classrooms. These doors would only lock from the outside, meaning that to secure them all, someone would have to walk down the hallway and lock each door one by one.

Lanza moved too quickly for that. He killed twenty-six students and teachers: twenty of his victims, ages six to seven; twenty-three of his victims in the nearly indefensible classrooms. The layout of the building helped the killer. The layout of the building stood in the way of those who were trying to escape. The Sandy Hook tragedy still shocks us. But it’s part of a larger set of problems.

It’s striking to compare mass shooting figures in the U.S. today with those we confronted two decades ago. In 1997-98, 37 American lives were lost in mass shootings. By 2017-18, that figure had risen to over 800. And even the pandemic hasn’t stood in the way of mass shootings continuing to cause tragedy. According to a publicly searchable database that I looked at in August 2020, since the beginning of coronavirus restrictions, there have been 315 mass shootings in the United States. Over 250 people killed, over 1,400 injured. And those numbers have risen even since I did this search.

Look, I know mass shootings are hard to hear about, an extraordinarily difficult topic. But please bear with me, because my message isn’t one of gloom and despair. Instead, it’s a message of hope. You might ask: Daveed, how can you be hopeful in light of the magnitude of this problem? In light of the statistics that you just showed us? The answer is that, looking across a range of mass shootings, particularly those that have inflicted the most death, we can see a common thread—a common thread that convinces me that we don’t have to wait. We don’t have to wait for society to resolve its wrenching debates—about gun control, about the root causes of violence—for us to be able to take action. To save lives.

I’m a national-security professional. I’ve been studying terrorist groups—how they think, how they act, how they strike—since 2004. In 2014, I founded a private firm in the national security space that I continue to run to this day. And as mass shootings became a larger part of the American landscape, I was struck by a commonality they had with the terrorist attacks that I knew too well.

The commonality is this: whether they’re carried out by an ideological zealot or a nihilistic loner, mass shooting attacks end quickly. Looking at the five deadliest indoor mass shootings in U.S. history, they lasted an average of 9 minutes and 48 seconds. 154 lives were lost in these attacks, meaning that one life was taken every 19 seconds.

When lives are taken so quickly, a rapid response is essential. We can’t wait for the police to show up. We can’t depend on individual heroics. What we completely lose sight of is the physical architecture of the spaces where mass shootings might occur. Think of Sandy Hook and the classroom doors that would only lock from the outside. They represent a missed chance. If we change how we think about our architecture, we can save lives.

I call this approach, which I’ve been researching and developing for the past five years, crisis architecture. It brings to bear tactical, psychological, and also technological measures. Importantly, it’s also an alternative to that jarring securitized architecture that I’m sure you know all too well.

Envision a school. It’s surrounded entirely by barbed wire. Every single entrance has a metal detector. Would you want to send your kids there? At some point it stops looking like a school. It looks like a fortress. It looks like a prison.

Crisis architecture is meant to preserve the form, the function, and yes, the beauty, that we expect of our buildings, of our public spaces—while also, if tragedy strikes, it works to protect lives.

Is the idea of using architecture to address social challenges a new thing? The answer is, it’s not new. And, in fact, this idea goes back for centuries. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, let’s take a quick look at the landmarks of Europe. In the pre-medieval era, the threat of raiding parties led to the development of primitive hill forts. As we moved into the Middle Ages, land barons and other royals, who confronted conditions like warfare and rebellions, built castles.

In the modern era, the best-known example of addressing social challenges through architecture is known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. It’s meant to use the built environment to reduce the prevalence of fear, to reduce the prevalence of crime, at places like housing complexes.

When the 9/11 attacks struck America, one of our responses was architectural. Immediately after the attack, cities that feared follow-on attacks erected ad hoc barriers—concrete barriers that surrounded their buildings, their landmarks, their public spaces. This could be glimpsed in places like New York, Los Angeles, and D.C. This, of course has the jarring look of securitized architecture. But it also wasn’t even effective. A concrete barrier that’s not moored to the ground isn’t going to stop a moving vehicle.

These flaws led to a new architectural paradigm called external area defense. At its best, external area defense can make the barriers that protect monuments and public spaces look more aesthetic. As Washington, D.C.’s Washington Monument got a permanent barrier surrounding it, it looked like a more natural part of that landscape. A very good example of how beautiful architecture can quietly serve a security purpose is the Arsenal Football Club’s Emirates Stadium, which was built in north London back in 2006. Outside the Drayton Park entrance, you can see large, sculpted letters that spell out the word Arsenal. On one side of the letters, a public road. On the other side, a bridge for the team’s fans. These large letters look beautiful, a natural part of the stadium. They’re also there to stop cars on that road from ramming the team’s fans.

So what’s the problem with external area defense? It’s right there in the name. It’s not going to protect you once an attacker gets inside. And we all know that attackers have gotten inside on too many occasions.

But if we overload our schools, our places of worship, with security features, isn’t that at cross purposes with why we have them? Don’t we want these buildings to be welcoming rather than reflecting the presence of a danger?

There’s reason for hope. Through crisis architecture’s principles, we can preserve the form and the function of these spaces while also letting the spaces work to protect lives.

Here are three of crisis architecture’s core principles.

The first is: Allow safe exit from many points. You probably don’t know who this gentleman is, but he saved at least ten lives. Liviu Librescu was an engineering professor at Virginia Tech. In April 2007, he was delivering a lecture on the second floor of Virginia Tech’s Norris Hall when a disgruntled senior entered into a shooting rampage. The shooter tried to enter Dr. Librescu’s classroom. The 76-year-old Librescu physically held the door shut. He yelled for his students to escape and he bought them vital time. Ten of them escaped through the window. Eventually, though, a hail of bullets ripped through the door.

Dr. Librescu was a Jewish man of Romanian descent. As a child, he survived the Holocaust. As an adult, he survived Romania’s brutal Communist regime. He did not survive gun violence in America.

Escape could have been faster, easier. How can we do better? Buildings should have many exits, and not just standard exits, but non-standard exits as well. Dr. Librescu’s students and others like them could get out faster with pop-out windows. For upper stories, emergency rope ladders can be deployed, allowing potential victims to get closer to the ground, and closer to safety.

The second principle of crisis architecture is: Incorporate angles. In the six minutes of the now notorious high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the shooter killed 17 people and injured another 17 without ever leaving the main hallway of the school. He never entered a classroom because he didn’t have to. He was able to see and engage every single victim from the main hallway.

How can we do better? Long straight hallways where you can’t avoid being seen are dangerous in an attack. So too are rooms where the majority of the floor space can be seen from the doorway. But you can incorporate angles, visually appealing barriers, and turns that limit a shooter’s line of sight and limit the number of targets that a shooter has.

Speaking of barriers, this brings us to the third principle of crisis architecture: Provide adequate cover and concealment. In the December 2015 attack in San Bernardino, at least one victim was shot when bullets passed through a non-resistant wall. Another was hit when bullets ripped through a non-ballistic glass door.

How can we do better? Cover can stop a bullet. Concealment can stop you from being seen. There are a lot of options for both. For cover, hardened structural elements and design elements—similar to those Arsenal letters you met earlier—could provide people a way to get away from a shooter. Resistant walls, ballistic doors, ballistic windows can become standard for architects who believe that their building could be subject to an attack.

For concealment, both furnishings and also large plants can obscure a shooter’s line of sight.  Another idea for concealment? Smoke emitters. They can be triggered either by a gunshot or a person pressing an alarm. They’re already in place at a number of American schools.

These are just three of the principles of crisis architecture. While there are more, they give you an idea of the point I’m making: that if we think about the built environment differently, it can help protect if an attack strikes. It also gives you a sense that different measures of crisis architecture—for example, more exits and more cover and concealment—could add value to one another and increase survivability.

This is important because each of us has spaces that we value, spaces that our loved ones go to, and each of us has a voice. At the least, each of us has a voice that can ask questions. I love this building. My kids go there every day. If there’s an attack, can the building protect them?

Right now, discussions about how to reduce the threat of mass shooters focus on the most contentious policy debates. That’s not wrong, but it’s also not the full picture. At its worst, this dynamic can bring about a kind of paralysis, where we wait for society to resolve its debates about gun control or root causes of violence before we take action. Crisis architecture, I believe, can represent an alternative to this paralysis.

The idea of crisis architecture, the idea that the spaces we value should be able to protect us if a disaster strikes, should resonate across partisan and ideological lines. But more importantly, it should resonate at the local level, in those communities that would have to absorb an attack.

Mass shootings are a scourge on our society. I believe that can find part of the solution in our architecture. And I believe that we can work to save lives now.

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