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People tend to the wounded after the Las Vegas shooting. [David Becker/Getty Images]

Mass Shooting

Heroism and Kindness Amid the Devastation of Mass Shootings

Moments of selflessness, from Orlando to Thousand Oaks.

The gun rampage at a Southern California bar on Wednesday came just 12 days after a hate-motivated shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue and six days after a man with a history of assaulting women opened fire in a yoga studio in Florida, killing two women and wounding five other people.

Yet there were bright spots in the pre-midnight darkness: People who risked their lives to help others when their own safety was threatened. Shortly after gunfire rang out at Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, Matt Wennerstrom grabbed a barstool, smashed a window, and started pushing people out. His efforts reportedly helped save dozens of lives. A mother of a survivor reported that six off-duty police officers saved her daughter’s life by forming a wall between her and the gunman.

Every mass shooting brings fresh horrors, new heartbreak, a jolt of anger that it’s happened again. To focus for a moment on the heroism and small kindnesses that so often emerge from the chaos and carnage is not to deny the suffering and loss. Instead, it can be a source of resolve; a way to absorb yet another American massacre, and not tune out.

Several of the survivors of the Borderline shooting had fled gunfire at another country music venue: last year’s Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas, where 58 people were gunned down and another 422 were wounded — and where countless survivors were guided to safety by Good Samaritans. Sisters Lauren and Lulu Farina were carried off the Strip by a man and his husband. Lauren was using a wheelchair at the time. When one of the men noticed she was barefoot, he gave her his shoes. Then a third stranger, a former Marine, drove the sisters and several others to safety.  

Some of the people who sprang into action that night weren’t able to do much more than offer comfort. Heather Gooze, a bartender at the festival, ushered concertgoers out a back door. But then she ran back to the bar to help the wounded. One of them, a 23-year-old man, died holding her hand. She stayed with his body for hours, she later told the Senate Judiciary Committee, because she didn’t want him to be alone. As they sat together, his phone rang, and she broke the difficult news to his loved ones.

Kindnesses often extend past the scene and into the ensuing weeks and months. In April, James Shaw Jr., rushed a rifle-wielding man who’d killed four people at a Waffle House in Antioch, Tennessee, likely saving many lives. Then he launched a foundation to address mental health and community violence in the Nashville area.

Sometimes people who have no immediate connection to a tragic event or its victims are inspired to lend a hand. Within two hours of last month’s Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, which was motivated by anti-Semitism, Tarek El-Messidi, a Muslim who lives 460 miles away in Chicago, started a fund-raising campaign to help the victims. He convinced two Muslim groups to kick in a total of $25,000; two weeks later, it has raised more than $238,000. “Putting our… differences aside, the core of all of us is that we have a shared humanity,” El-Messidi told The New York Times.

Some strangers are so horrified or anguished or humbled by a shooting that it shapes the rest of their lives. Don Price, the caretaker of Greenwood Cemetery in Orlando, lovingly tends to a plot of graves occupied by four victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre. He also comforts mourners and dispenses free hugs. Price takes his role as protector very seriously, Mike Spies reported last year: Afraid that the funerals would draw protesters from the fervently anti-LGBTQ Westboro Baptist Church, Price acquired a parade permit from the city that allowed him to shut down a lane of the adjacent road, and further obscured the graves by hanging a dark screen on a nearby fence.

“He’s the most amazing, decent guy,” City Commissioner Patty Sheehan told us. “An elegant Southern redneck gentleman.”

Then there are gestures that are small but meaningful, because they raise awareness of the unrelenting daily gun violence that plagues the nation. Every morning, Los Angeles resident and animator Marlon West, who has lost three family members to gun violence, performs a silent tribute to the number of people killed by guns the day before: He picks a scenic location in his city and does a push-up for each of them. West uses Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks gun violence incidents through news reports, to determine how many push-ups he needs to do. So far this year, he’s up to 12,509.

I’m just a guy who makes cartoons for a living,” he told us in July. “To acknowledge these deaths on the daily seems like a reasonable thing to do.”