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Hard-Fought Lessons Learned: The Pulse Attack Debrief


In the early morning hours of Sunday, June 12, 2016, my girlfriend’s phone awoke her. After reading the messages, she quickly turned on the news. A gunman was attacking Pulse, a nightclub in Orlando, just 15 minutes from our home.

Pulse was well-known for being a popular LGBTQ hangout. My girlfriend, who is a teacher, was very concerned for many of her friends, including one who went to Pulse regularly.

“Could my friend be in there?” she wondered. Our eyes were glued to the television as we watched the event unfold. Her friend was not returning texts.

“You know there are going to be people we know in there,” she worried.

Fortunately, her friend was not in the club that night, but many of his friends were. One of those friends, Jeff Rodriguez, was shot seven times inside the nightclub bathroom but lived.

More than three hours after the shooting began, the attacker was killed by Orlando PD SWAT officers. Before he was stopped, he had murdered 49 people and wounded 53 more. It was the deadliest rapid mass murder in U.S. history.

What Can We Learn?

I attended the debrief of the Orlando SWAT Team leaders at the International Orlando SWAT Round-Up and had a conversation with Rodriguez in his hospital room weeks after the shooting. He was one of the last victims rescued by Orlando SWAT.

While there are many schools of training on active shooters as well as books on the subject, we can always learn more. There are lessons to be taken away from any rapid mass murder attack, and the Pulse attack is no exception.

First Hard Lesson

Nothing can prepare someone for the carnage of a rapid mass murder. (Count from 1 to 30, because that is how quickly the Pulse murderer unloaded his rifle.) But having some background knowledge before you find yourself in such a situation can help.

First, be able to identify what gunshots actually sound like. Inside Pulse, victims initially thought the gunshots were firecrackers.

Next, be prepared for the heart-wrenching screams of victims as they are shot and murdered. People will be running hysterically from the crime scene. Are they victims or are they attackers?

Do you engage the shooter? You have around three seconds to respond — 3, 2, 1. That quick. Whatever your actions are in those precious seconds, you will own them for the rest of your life.

Your body will kick in with an adrenaline dump. Your breathing will deepen as your pulse rate increases dramatically. Your eyes will experience visual degradation as you undergo a loss of muscular dexterity. You’ll have reduced auditory sensitivity and you might feel dizzy or get a headache.

Pulse was filled with bodies scattered all over the main building floor. With large amounts of blood splashed in every direction, there was nothing to prepare someone for the pungent odor of iron and the foul stench of urine and feces.

The closest thing we can do to prepare for such horror is include actual crime photos of severely wounded and dead men, women and children in our firearms training. We can use props to simulate “victims” in a staged crime scene to make our force-on-force training as real as possible.

The attacker at Pulse was a supporter of ISIS who studied the tactics used in the Bataclan Theater attack.

The attacker at Pulse was a supporter of ISIS who studied the tactics used in the Bataclan Theater attack.

Second Hard Lesson

Many of us will lament, “If there was just one gun there, it could have made a difference.” The truth of the matter is there was actually another gun at Pulse, as an off-duty police officer who was there working security got into a brief gun battle with the mass murderer. Stunningly, he missed his target at short range.

Sadly, many police officers are not proficient with their weapons. The average citizen who carries a concealed weapon is not proficient either.

“Under conditions of stress, the best a shooter can hope to achieve is 50 percent of the inherent accuracy of the weapon, but often it is much worse,” said my good friend Larry Vickers, a trainer and former Delta Force Operator.

Let that sink in for a moment.

“Your gun, self-defense ammo and your shooting skills should be able to hit head shots at 25 yards,” Vickers said.

Why is it of great importance to have that kind of skillset with the firearm you carry? The Pulse terrorist, the Curtis Culwell Center attackers in Texas and the San Bernardino terrorists were all thought to be strapped with explosives. And why shouldn’t we assume an attacker has explosives? After all, terrorists in Russia, India, Manchester and Paris all used explosives too.

I was honored to speak to Captain Jeremy Menahem at the National Tactical Officers Association Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, this past year. He was the France Counter Terrorist Assault Commander during the Bataclan Theater assault and Belle Equipe Restaurant attack in Paris. I asked him if he and his team knew if terrorists were wearing bombs.

“Yes,” he said.

“Did you and your team know if shooting the terrorists in the chest would detonate those bombs?” I wondered.

His response was chilling:

“EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] told us after we killed the terrorists that that could happen.”

More than three hours after the first shots were fired at Pulse, the Orlando Police Department SWAT team breached the wall and killed the attacker.

More than three hours after the first shots were fired at Pulse, the Orlando Police Department SWAT team breached the wall and killed the attacker.

Lesson Learned: Practice Headshots!

One sheriff in Florida was so concerned about his officers’ inability to hit their targets that he did a surprise range qualification for every officer in his department. To the sheriff’s astonishment, 80 percent of his department failed the surprise qualification test. The results were retraining and requalifying. If you failed, you got one more try. If you failed that, you turned in your badge.

Now it is pretty easy to be an armchair quarterback and criticize people for their shooting experience or lack thereof, but be honest with yourself: What documentation do you have as proof that you are a proficient shooter while under stress?

Can you shoot and hit your target with two rounds to the body and one to the head at 10 feet in less than four seconds from the holster? Honestly, can you shoot four rounds right-handed and then four rounds left-handed, hitting your target at 12 feet in under 10 seconds? How about three rounds in five seconds at 30 feet? How about two rounds in five seconds at 50 feet?

These are gut-check questions that we need to address. Lives could depend on our ability and proficiency with firearms. This is especially true for those of us who are police officers.

Third Hard Lesson

Fight, damn it!

One large government law enforcement agency recommended that their officers run and hide from rampage killers. Some experts go so far as to advise people to play dead as a strategy.

I will address the latter first. In the case of Pulse, as mangled bodies laid across the main dance floor, some screaming in agonizing pain from being hit at close range with rifle rounds while others were already deceased, the Pulse murderer saw fit to put his rifle at contact distance to the downed victims’ heads before pulling the trigger.

Some people in Pulse were able to initially hide successfully — behind the bar, in the DJ booth and in the bathrooms — although there was really nowhere to run because the attacker blocked the only exit. Most had little chance of escaping. Many of the victims in Pulse tried in vain to hide in the bathrooms, but the assailant shot through the privacy walls and stalls, murdering many more.

There were about 300 people in Pulse that night. Sadly, not a single one resisted or fought. We have to have a real discussion about why that was.

This is not a new subject. The same questions were asked after the Virginia Tech incident. The narrative seems to be the same: Many of today’s youth seem to have been socialized by educators to obey orders and avoid conflict at all costs.

“Instead of teaching students to defend their beliefs, American educators shield them from vigorous intellectual debate,” conservative columnist Michelle Malkin once wrote. “Instead of encouraging autonomy, our higher institutions of learning stoke passivity and conflict-avoidance. And as the erosion of intellectual self-defense goes, so goes the erosion of physical self-defense.”

The author visits one of the memorials to the murder victims of the Pulse attack in Orlando, Florida.

The author visits one of the memorials to the murder victims of the Pulse attack in Orlando, Florida.

In the concealed carry community, we are just as guilty. We tend to rely on our carry guns as the end-all, be-all for all life-threatening situations. But what if you find yourself behind the power curve, staring down the barrel of a gun before you’re able to draw your gun? It is not a good idea to try to draw your weapon in that circumstance, so ask yourself this: Do you have any training in disarming an attacker? How about any training in hand-to-hand combat?

There are many different self-defense training companies that use padded suits — RedMan, Fist Gear, Model Mugging, S.P.E.A.R. and Spartan. Find a class and get to it.

How many of us carry a folding pocket knife as a backup to our guns? Are you trained with the knife? If not, why not?

To say no one can ever win a fight while unarmed and facing a gun is nonsense. For example, during the Paris train attack in 2015, three Americans tackled and fought a terrorist armed with an AK and won. In the Long Island Train Rampage in 1993, after the gunman shot his gun dry, ordinary passengers on the train tackled, beat and restrained the suspect. Lastly, in the ultimate case of self-sacrifice for the greater good, how could anyone forget the mantra of “Let’s roll!” as the passengers aboard Flight 93 took on the terrorist hijackers, sacrificing their own lives so others would live? There are many more documented cases of unarmed people defeating armed people who were terrorizing others.

Of course, we’d prefer to fight with a gun if at all possible, so Rule No. 1 of gunfighting still applies: Always have a gun. If you can legally do so, carry your gun.

Fourth Hard Lesson

While this is usually one of the first topics discussed, I saved it for last to make a point. How many times is situational awareness discussed, if not preached, especially in the concealed carry community? Situational awareness is often described as general alertness, which is supposed to take the element of surprise away from the threat to your personal security.

“It is not enough to tell someone to be alert and stay safe,” former CIA Operator Ed Lovette said. “You must tell him or her how to be alert and how to recognize the danger signs.”

While we talk about pre-danger indicators and clues all the time, a very big one is when you see a man walking into a building with a rifle at port arms wearing a chest rig loaded with magazines. This not only happened at Pulse but also in San Bernardino, Garland, Mumbai, Beslan, Paris and in many other documented cases.

Where Do We Go From Here?

We just won the biggest election for pro-gun rights since the Constitution was written. We need to insist that our newly elected officials advocate for national reciprocity — concealed carry nationwide.

Secondly, we need to get rid of gun-free zones. Of course, obeying the law is always the first order of business, so don’t carry guns on federal- or state-regulated properties that forbid firearms in private hands. But, if an anti-gun business, such as a movie theater, toy store or restaurant, forbids your right to carry, do you really want to take the chance and be a victim?

Suzanna Gratia lost her father and mother in Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, in 1991 when a mass murderer killed 23 and wounded another 33. Gratia had a concealed carry permit but left her gun in her purse in her car because the cafeteria forbid permit-holders the right to carry on its property.

Research the laws in your state. “Gun-free zone” signs have varying legal weight depending on jurisdiction. And if you do find that you can’t legally carry in a business with a gun-free zone sign, is there a similar business that allows concealed carry that you could support instead? If you can avoid going into a gun-free zone, do so.

Moving Forward

By the time this story is published, a year will have passed since that horrible day. For Rodriguez and other survivors, the nightmares are with them every night. Some lay awake at night thinking of the memories of friends who are no longer with them. Some anguish in painful rehabilitation from the horrible injuries they sustained. Rodriguez has had multiple surgeries to repair the damage from the seven bullets with which he was hit, and he is not done yet. As the survivors deal with that pain and suffering, many feel guilt that they survived while others did not.

It’s too late to stop that tragedy, but maybe we can learn from it before another madman strikes.

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