By Sarah Peck, director, United on Guns, an initiative of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, Northeastern University School of Law, and Emily Nink, policy associate, Public Health Advocacy Institute, Northeastern University School of Law
When a public mass shooting takes place in the United States, it falls on our nation’s local government officials—especially mayors and city managers—to respond. While supportive state and federal resources are available, there is no coordinated national response. To better understand local governments’ preparation, response, and recovery efforts, we at UnitedOnGuns, a nonpartisan initiative of the Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI) at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, conducted case study research with staff from six cities that have responded to a public mass shooting in the past decade. Based on the results of this research, we developed a comprehensive two-part resource, the Mass Shooting Protocol & Playbook: A Resource for U.S. Mayors and City Managers.
Since 1976, more than 1,000 mass murders have occurred in the United States, averaging nearly 30 incidents per year. However, the public mass shootings that grab national media attention comprise a tiny fraction of the gun-related deaths in the United States: 0.2% of the 14,000 annual gun homicides, on average, that took place between 1978 and 2018. While exceedingly rare, public mass shootings cause widespread community trauma. Exposure to violence induces post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and suicide (the cause of 60% of firearm deaths annually). The public health impact of community trauma inflicted by gun violence—especially by public mass shootings—is significant and cumulative.
We, therefore, set out to ask local government leaders and their staff not only about their law enforcement and first response capabilities for mass casualty incidents, but also about their preparedness to respond to mental health needs and community trauma inflicted by a mass casualty incident.
We spoke with 16 staff members (including mayors, their staff, and other first responders) who responded to mass shootings in Orlando, Dayton, El Paso, Pittsburgh, Parkland, and San Bernardino. We also conducted background interviews with subject matter experts in the field.
We found that crisis communications were a major area of focus for leaders and their staff within the first 24 hours of an incident. They need to be prepared to communicate early and often with the media and should expect national media coverage of the event. The most successful teams clearly delineated roles for mayors, chief administrators, and other elected officials from roles for law enforcement speakers; for example, many of the mayors we interviewed left the details of the investigation to be delivered by their police chiefs, while they focused their own messages on themes of resilience, strength, and unity. Several had to push for law enforcement to release information more quickly and advocate for victims and families that were desperately waiting for new information. To avoid exacerbating the stress and trauma experienced in the aftermath of a shooting, public officials need to communicate frequently and transparently with victims and families, first responders and volunteers, and the general public.
Providing services to victims and families in a timely, organized fashion and through a trauma-informed cadre of partners is an equally important part of the initial response. Though public officials are expert communicators, we found that they do not have as much experience with coordinating the wide array of victim and family services that are needed in the aftermath of a public mass shooting. However, many were able to leverage preexisting partnerships to aid in the response. Having protocols in place ahead of time can reduce the chaos of the response—for example, a key recommendation was to separate the center where victim and family services are received from the Joint Information Center where responders are working and media may gather. Local governments also need to be aware of the long-term needs of victims and families— which may include visitors to the jurisdiction who are not residents—who can continue to receive local services.
Our Mass Shooting Protocol & Playbook also discusses key legal considerations for local government officials responding to a public mass shooting. Issues like public records requests, liability coverage, and emergency declarations are important areas for local officials to understand well ahead of a crisis situation. Further, the mayor or city manager should assemble a “C4 team” to include their chief of staff, city attorney, and chief financial officer (or their functional equivalents) that can be activated in response to a crisis to help to activate mutual aid agreements, establish a fund for donations to victims, and limit the city’s liability from potential lawsuits.
As Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley has said to city officials, “It isn’t if, but when, a mass shooting happens in your community.” Therefore, it is essential to prepare before a mass shooting happens. Those interviewed for this research agreed that the best way is prepare is to organize a tabletop exercise with the appropriate city staff, law enforcement officials, public health experts, and other first responders to understand roles and to plan the city’s response. The Mass Shooting Protocol & Playbook is an essential resource for such planning, and can help mayors, city managers, and their staff develop protocols for key issues such as crisis communications, establishing a family assistance center, and coordinating with law enforcement. Finally, as Heather Fagan, chief of staff to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, noted, the Mass Shooting Protocol & Playbook is also applicable to other mass casualty events, such as terror attacks, wildfires and other natural disasters, and even building collapse, such as happened recently in Surfside, Florida.
The Mass Shooting Protocol provides an overview of a leader’s role during the first 24hours after a mass shooting. It highlights key decisions to make and contains links to the Mass Shooting Playbook that can provide additional information as needed.
The supplemental Mass Shooting Playbook is organized into ten topic areas:
- Emergency management
- Victims and families
- Law enforcement
- School shootings
- Community partnerships
- Legal considerations
- Mental health.
Each chapter includes the actions and training that a mayor or city manager can take in advance of a mass shooting; actions during the response phase; and guidance for providing services to victims, family members, and the community as they recover. It also includes appendices to help plan training exercises, seek reimbursement for the cost of responding to a mass shooting, organize VIP visits, and prevent urban gun violence and deaths by suicide.
Finally, the Mass Shooting Playbook includes case briefs of the six mass shootings researched for the project. Each case brief contains key takeaways. These case briefs and their key takeaways may be useful to local government leaders for planning and training purposes, as well as to researchers and law enforcement officials.
The Mass Shooting Playbook & Protocol can be downloaded by city officials without charge at UnitedOnGuns.org. It is also possible to order a printed copy.
UnitedOnGuns is a nonpartisan initiative of the Public Health Advisory Institute (PHAI), a 501(c)(3) located at Northeastern University School of Law. UnitedOnGuns promotes public health approaches to reducing gun violence, while respecting the rights of responsible gun owners. For more information, contact Sarah C. Peck, email@example.com, or visit the website.
Voices in Local Government Podcast
Listen to Sarah Peck and Emily Nink discuss the Mass Shooting Playbook in more detail on ICMA's podcast, Voices in Local Government.
 Grant Duwe, The Patterns and Prevalence of Mass Public Shootings in the United States, 1915–2013, in The Wiley Handbook of the Psychology of Mass Shootings 20–35, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781119048015.ch2 (last visited Aug 18, 2021).
 Frederick Rivara et al., The Effects Of Violence On Health, 38 Health Affairs 1622–1629 (2019).