News of gun violence in the US is terrifyingly common and while schools and police departments are doing what they can to ensure people are prepared for an attack the truth is you can never be ready for life-threatening open fire.
On July 28, three people lost their lives and a dozen more were injured as a 19-year-old gunman fired shots at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California.
Also on July 28, six people died in a mass shooting in Wisconsin; one lost their life in a mass shooting in Pennsylvania; four people were injured by a gunman in the District of Columbia; four more in Illinois and another four in a shooting in Pennyslvania, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
The organisation defines a mass shooting as a single incident in which at least four people are shot, not including the gunman. In just one day, 31 people were injured and 10 were killed in mass shootings across the US.
As if that statistic isn’t horrific enough, the incidents on July 28 are just a small contribution to the 248 mass shootings the site reports have occurred in the US in 2019. To put that in perspective, at the time of writing (August 1) we are 213 days through the year.
Each and every person affected by these attacks will have had a different experience but one survivor of the Gilroy shooting has explained although they were aware a mass shooting was a very real threat, the reality was difficult to comprehend.
18-year-old Matt Pires, a student from Northern Marin County, California, was at the Gilroy Garlic Festival for the first time on Sunday with his brother, sister, parents and his brother’s girlfriend.
Despite the fact there have been more mass shootings than days this year, when the shots began some festival-goers couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Upon hearing the first gunshot, which he described as a ‘loud pop’, Matt told UNILAD he turned to his brother and said ‘Please f*cking tell me that was a balloon’. Another eyewitness told CNN they thought the sound was coming from fireworks at the family festival.
Matt described himself as ‘a pretty hypervigilant person’ who was ‘scared of the idea of a mass shooting’ but admitted ahead of the attack he, like many other people he knows, regarded gun violence with the belief it ‘probably [wouldn’t] ever happen’ to him.
The teen added:
I never felt the need to go out of the way to specifically prepare for an attack. Simply put, I never thought that such unnecessary violence would occur in a community as small as Gilroy, Marin County, or Sonoma County.
After hearing the first ‘pop’ Matt turned to where the sound came from and saw a man with a green bandana around his neck and covering the lower part of his face, though at the time he thought he was ‘just another festival-goer’.
The terrifying reality dawned on the 18-year-old when he saw the man with what he described as an ‘AK-style assault rifle’.
Chief Smithee: Gun shots were heard around 5:41pm and officers engaged #GilroyActiveShooter in less than a minute. Witnesses stated there may be a 2nd shooter, investigation continues.
— Gilroy Police (@GilroyPD) July 29, 2019
Recalling his response to the shocking scene, Matt told UNILAD:
At that moment the fight or flight response kicked in and, being severely outmatched against a man with an assault rifle, I ran for my life after the second or third shot, when the thought that this was a shooting finally sank into my head.
Earlier in the day, the 18-year-old had gone to the bathroom and noted there was a road leading to the festival’s car park, in which he saw an armored car. The sight spurred a memory of his Eagle Scout’s Emergency Preparedness Merit Badge, with which he was taught to think of possible escape routes in the case of an emergency.
Thankfully Matt remembered this as he started running from the shooter; he first sprinted towards the bathrooms as ‘they served at least as some sort of visual cover from the eyes of the gunman’. He then ran towards the armored car, where he hid until police told him to move into a nearby building. He emerged just once before then to make contact with his family.
Matt mapped his escape route in the diagram below:
The scariest part about those first 15-20 seconds of running was having no idea if a stray bullet was going to put a hole in my back, legs, arms.
While I ran, I saw people hopping fences into the forested area around the festival and I considered joining them but I had no idea if there was another shooter on the other side of the festival.
Once in the building, the 18-year-old followed protocols he’d learned in schools and encouraged his family to stay close to the floor and away from windows and doors in case the shooter made his way there. A bus eventually came to transport festival-goers away from the site and thankfully all of Matt’s family came away physically unharmed, aside from a bumps and bruises. Mentally the experience will have taken a toll.
Speaking to UNILAD, the student explained the incident changed his views on gun control and the emotions he felt afterward weren’t at all what he’d expected.
Before, I assumed if I ever was in an attack I would feel either sad or depressed. After this attack, though, I felt none of those emotions for a while.
Mostly, I felt numb and angry, in shock of what had just happened, and wondering why the hell anyone would decide to shoot up a garlic festival filled to the brim with families.
My 💔 hurts for all the people who attended the Gilroy Garlic Festival yesterday, their lives have changed forever. My deepest condolences to the victim’s families & especially to the parents of the 6 year old boy who was shot & killed. Something has to change. #GilroyShooting pic.twitter.com/0VvvnMRcPT
— Nathalie Godoy (@natitasenorita) July 29, 2019
The attack has left Matt afraid of large, open spaces with no cover as well as narrow corridors with no cover, and crowds in general.
You have no idea if anyone is carrying a weapon, or if something bad is going to happen until it’s too late.
When it comes to gun control, even before the attack, Matt believed people should have to go through a lengthy background check as well as gun safety classes and a mental health screening in order to purchase firearms.
He believed gun owners should have to be at least 25 years old, pointing out there is ‘no reason why an 18-year-old should be able to buy a gun, let alone an assault rifle when that same 18-year-old can’t even legally drink alcohol or rent a car.’
This is Stephen Romero
He was 6 years old when he was shot at the Gilroy Garlic Festival
One of 100 people killed by guns every day in America
The House passed gun safety reforms in February
But Mitch McConnell won’t let the Senate vote on it
— Andrew Weinstein (@Weinsteinlaw) July 30, 2019
In the wake of the attack, however, Matt’s outlook altered; the previously listed requirements for purchasing a gun aren’t enough.
I feel like the only guns that should be up for sale are handguns because I see absolutely no reason why any person would need to own an assault rifle, it’s just plain overkill.
I think rifles with magazines should be reserved only for the police and the military.
According to the State of California Department of Justice, a California licensed dealer is prohibited from ‘selling, supplying, delivering, transferring or giving possession or control of any firearm to any person under the age of 21 years, except as specifically exempted’, though in some states guns can be purchased by 18 year olds.
— Lindsey Shenton (@LindseyShenton) July 29, 2019
Admittedly, California has some of the most stringent gun laws in the country and the type of rifle the 19-year-old shooter used at the Garlic Festival was banned, however inconsistencies in gun laws throughout the US allowed the gunman to get his hands on the rifle.
Investigators believe the shooter had legally purchased the firearm from the neighbouring state of Nevada on July 9 before carrying it illegally over state lines into California.
Opinions on gun restrictions differ greatly throughout the US. While many use the horrendous number of mass shootings to support arguments guns should be banned altogether, others are satisfied with current gun legislation, and some simply want more restrictions put in place.
Justin Bates, who was shot through the leg and grazed with numerous bullets at the Gilroy Garlic Festival mass shooting, comforts his mother and sister during a vigil outside of Gilroy City Hall. More photos: https://t.co/YHhiHYLhcU 📷 Kate Munsch pic.twitter.com/wPpYAknDZO
— Reuters Pictures (@reuterspictures) July 30, 2019
Matt admitted he probably woudn’t be able to change everyone’s minds when it comes to gun laws but pointed out ‘people don’t realise what gun violence is like until they’ve become a victim of it.’
The 18-year-old continued:
Until you are running away from a shooter spraying lead at a crowd of men, women and children you probably won’t agree with what I said, but if I can even change the mind of just one person in the fight for gun control, then it would all be worth it.
He went on to express his hopes gun violence will become a thing of the past, adding:
Never before had I been so close to losing a family member because of such senseless violence. My deepest condolences go to those families who were affected, not only physically, but also mentally.
I hope that our generation will be the last for whom mass shootings are just a common occurrence.
It’s fairly normal for people across the US to be taught about gun violence and how to deal with it. While these skills are certainly invaluable, possibly life-saving, it’s clear the idea of an attack is very different to the reality of experiencing it.
Nothing can truly prepare people when it comes to the imminent threat of gun violence. Differing gun laws across the US aren’t helping the problem as they allow for loopholes which can result in fatalities such as those at the Gilroy Garlic Festival.
Citizens across the US may never agree on an acceptable level of gun control, but things can’t carry on as they are. The staggering amount of mass shootings has resulted in thousands of unnecessary deaths and injuries – and that’s just in the last seven months. If the trend continues, thousands more will suffer.
Matt says people can’t fully understand gun violence without experiencing it, but that shouldn’t be the experience that triggers change, listen to those who have already lived it.
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Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.