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A handbook aims to help local officials with the first 24 hours after a mass shooting


After this week's mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, if the pattern continues, as it almost certainly will, the United States will have another mass shooting and another and then another. That means yet more communities will be reeling, trying to figure out what to do in the aftermath. This repetitive, tragic reality is why UnitedOnGuns at Northeastern University School of Law created what it calls a mass shooting protocol. It's a checklist that prepares mayors and city managers for what to do in the first 24 hours after one of these incidents.

Just last weekend, after the mass shooting in Buffalo, we had Sarah Peck, the director of UnitedOnGuns, on the air to tell us about it. And we have called her again today to talk about this latest tragedy. Sarah, thanks for coming back.

SARAH PECK: I'm sorry to be back so soon.

PFEIFFER: Well, I'm sorry, too. And I think the fact that we even have to talk about this again shows why you created this and why there's an importance that it exists. So tell us, this checklist is designed to help mayors and city managers if they have their own mass shooting. But police officers, law enforcement, first responders, they also have to know what to do. Why did you focus on mayors and city managers?

PECK: Mayors often don't realize what their role is until a shooting happens in their community. What we're trying to do is give them the tools they need to understand the magnitude of their role, which starts when the shooting starts and can continue for years.

PFEIFFER: I understand that some mayors who have been through mass shootings in their own communities are now taking it upon themselves to share this checklist with other mayors going through mass shootings. Do you know if someone on that list has reached out to the mayor of Uvalde, Don McLaughlin?

PECK: Yes, we have an informal network of mayors and law enforcement officials that reach out to offer their condolences and their experience, as well as the protocol, whenever a mass shooting takes place. And in the case of this shooting, all of our mayors and several law enforcement officials did reach out.

PFEIFFER: Let's talk about some of the items on the checklist. For example, they're setting up a family reunification center, finding a place to try to get parents back together with their kids or family members back together. What advice do you give about family reunification centers?

PECK: It needs to be secured so that the press and other people can't enter. And immediate services that are provided include death notifications and helping people get through those first, awful hours. But then the next thing that happens is a family assistance center needs to be stood up. And this is where longer-term services, connection to mental health resources, legal resources and victims' compensation experts, all of these things need to be provided. And it's a huge undertaking.

PFEIFFER: When a mass shooting happens, vigils are often arranged. What are the recommendations for how to handle those?

PECK: It's really important that these events do not become politicized because that can further traumatize the families, and police support will be necessary as well.

PFEIFFER: This mass shooting protocol checklist covers just the first 24 hours, but I understand that your group has also created a much more detailed document that you call the playbook that's meant to cover far beyond the first 24 hours.

PECK: That's right. And one of the things I'd like to say here is that if you visit our website, you can see all of these resources. I spoke to one city official today whose city did use the resource in response to a school shooting. And he said everywhere they went, to the emergency operations center and to city hall, people had printed off the playbook, and they were sitting around on desks being used. So I encourage people to take a look at the resources there so that they can understand what's available should they have need to use them.

PFEIFFER: That's Sarah Peck. She's director of UnitedOnGuns, an initiative of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law. Sarah, thank you.

PECK: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Kathryn Fox