Minutes after a gunman killed 10 people in a Boulder, Colorado, grocery store in March 2021, a woman stood in the back of the supermarket where she worked in Denver, about 30 miles away, staring at harrowing images of the scene as she scrolled through her phone.
It was bizarre to see photos of employees running out of the King Soopers in Boulder, wearing their uniforms and aprons – so like those she and her coworkers wore each day, she told CNN. After the massacre, “Every day when I went into work I would think through where the exits are and where I would go if I heard shooting,” said Megan W. CNN agreed to use only the first letter of Megan’s last name, in light of her concerns about privacy.
“Whenever a customer would get verbally abusive, I would wonder, is this going to be it?” the 32-year-old said. “Are they going to pull out a gun or come back with one?”
CNN recently spoke to people about the fear and anxiety they feel amid a surge of gun violence and several high-profile mass shootings, and how those feelings have affected the way they live.
Many, like Megan, described a new, compulsive habit of identifying escape routes or hiding spots in crowded gatherings, or avoiding certain public places altogether. Parents expressed a fear of sending kids to school, or a desire to move abroad. Teachers recounted leaving their chosen career.
For some these raw feelings are new, emerging after mass shootings like those at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. But for others, this anxiety has been building for years as the list of shootings gets ever-longer – and a sense of dread grows along with the death toll.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, as of July 5, there had been 313 mass shootings in the United States since the beginning of the year – including a shooting at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Illinois, where six people were killed and dozens more were injured. There were 329 mass shootings through the July Fourth weekend in 2021, and 258 through the same weekend in 2020. The GVA, like CNN, defines a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are shot, excluding the shooter.
“It feels like a numbers game at this point. Not if, but when,” Megan said.
“When is it going to be my unlucky day?”
He plans escape route from public events
Rian Troth, a 47-year-old father of four in Sacramento, California, recently attended a high school graduation with his family. But sitting in the auditorium, he felt vulnerable, and he couldn’t help but mentally plan his family’s escape if gunfire erupted, identifying exits and potential hiding places.
“It’s one of the first things that now crosses my mind,” he said. “What would we do? Where would we go? How would we hide? … How would I provide shelter? Where would I throw my kids; lay over on top of them so no harm could possibly come to them?”
On the morning he spoke to CNN, Troth was planning on taking his kids to a local Pride parade. He’d already picked a spot to watch from, he said – one with shelter nearby and a park directly behind that would help them escape if his worst nightmare became reality.
“Am I becoming borderline paranoid? No,” he said. “It’s just the world we live in. I have little ones to protect.”
She stopped going to her local grocery store
Glenda Prince stopped going to her local supermarket outside Austin, Texas, fearing the store with a predominantly Black customer base could be a target – like the one where last month’s shooting in Buffalo happened.
“I rarely now go to a supermarket that’s predominantly Black,” said Prince, a 62-year-old Black grandmother. “I just prefer to go to a supermarket where the public is more mixed and not just one nationality, so that I’m not singled out or that specific supermarket is not singled out.”
Prince, a British citizen who has lived in the US since the 1980s, now drives about 20 miles into Austin to go shopping. She goes less often, too, and when she does, she tends to go late at night when it’s less busy. She goes to these extra lengths, she said, because she wants to see her 7-month-old grandson live to reach 18.
“Prior to all of this, you just didn’t think about it. You just lived your life, and you went about and did what you have to do,” Prince said. “Now you’ve got to think about it and just don’t put yourself in harm’s way.”
“But,” she added, “nobody really knows what harm’s way is anymore.”
They’re considering leaving the country
By every measure, Ryan and Sandra Hoover, 38 and 37, live an “idyllic” life in Ashburn, Virginia, with their 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, Ryan Hoover told CNN. But now, the couple is actively looking to move from the United States due to rising gun violence.
The conversation began partially in jest, they said, but has become more sincere after the shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde. Ryan Hoover has already spoken to his boss about working from outside the country, describing a new life outside the US as something that is “squarely on the table.”
“We drive a Volvo XC90 … the safest car in the world. We live in a safe, affluent area. We feed our kids healthy food,” he said. In other words, “we do everything we can to keep ourselves safe. And then we send them out, and every day they get on the bus, I have to mentally suppress those horrible thoughts.”
For the Hoovers, it’s not a question of whether they can raise their kids in the US, but if they want to, Ryan Hoover said.
“How do we live a sustainable, happy, fulfilled life,” Hoover wondered, “with this seeming specter of evil lurking around the corner?”
She dreads sending her kids to school
The day your child first goes to school should be a milestone every parent looks forward to, said Erin Rome, 34. She’s the mother of a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old in Madison, Wisconsin.
“But that feeling is gone for me.”
In the wake of the Uvalde shooting, Rome is “absolutely terrified” of sending her children to school. Next year, her 4-year-old will go to kindergarten, and while she knows “intellectually” the chances her son would face such a shooting are low, “it doesn’t feel that way emotionally, especially because there’s so little you can do,” she said.
“I’ve been to that building before for various events, and every time I go, I just think about an active shooter situation and my tiny 5-year-old in this building,” she said. “It just makes me so sad that that’s the image I have in my mind of sending my child to school for the very first time.”
He’s still too young to have a conversation about what to do in an active shooter situation, Rome said.
“But it’s something I’m already thinking about – how I’m going to have these conversations with a 5-year-old about what to do if there’s, you know, a shooter in your school.”
She feels ‘helpless’ as she hugs her kindergartener goodbye
Other parents are dealing with similar fears, including Toni Leaf-Odette, who told CNN that when she hugs her kindergartener goodbye nowadays, she makes sure her 6-year-old daughter knows her mother loves her.
“Sometimes I think about those parents who had that moment, or maybe didn’t get to have that moment, and lost their children,” the 38-year-old Traverse City, Michigan, mother said. “It’s that fear that she could go to school and live through a horrific experience, or not live through a horrific experience.”
“I feel helpless,” she added, “because all it would take is one person somewhere to have the decision to walk in and end my child’s life for it to happen. And there’s really nothing that I can do about that.”
It’s not a new feeling for Leaf-Odette, who has experienced similar thoughts around her two older children – an 8-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son who just graduated from high school.
He was in elementary school when the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, happened in 2012. Nearly a decade later, she still has vivid memories of picking him up from school after the massacre that claimed the lives of 20 elementary schoolchildren and 6 adults.
“I remember specifically he was wearing a blue puffer coat, and thinking the same thing about him,” she said, “that we’re in a new world now where you apparently can go in and shoot kids while they’re hiding in a closet.”
He bought a gun for the first time in his life
For most of his life, 66-year-old Gary Bixler of Springfield, Ohio, was against owning guns, he said. Growing up all he had ever owned was a BB gun. But that changed about a year ago, when he and his wife bought a handgun each.
“We have an alarm system on our house, and we’ve always had German shepherds. Nobody’s ever tried to break in our home,” Bixler said. “We didn’t buy (the guns) for home security. We bought (them) for our security.”
Bixler’s wife (who has owned a gun in the past) also took the requisite classes to get her concealed carry license – something Bixler still plans to do, he said, despite a new state law that allows eligible adults to carry a concealed handgun without training or a license. They have yet to tell their adult son, Bixler said, because he would be against it.
Today, Bixler’s wife carries her gun with her everywhere she goes. “I even asked her the other day, I said, ‘if we came into a situation like that, where somebody walked into a store and pulled a gun and started shooting people, could you pull the trigger to disarm the person that had a gun?’”
“She said she could,” he said. “But nobody ever knows that until it really happens.”
She stopped going to bars or clubs
Kayla Hyllested loves hanging out with her friends, exploring restaurants and soaking in the culture in Suwanee, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.
But nowadays, the 25-year-old and her friends rarely venture into downtown Atlanta itself, out of concern for their safety, she told CNN – a decision that’s impacted their social lives and even the way they date.
When she and her friends get together, they weigh the “pros and cons” of each outing, she said. They don’t want to be out too late, or too far from home. They don’t want it to be too busy, and they’re cognizant of “what kind of crowd it’s going to pull.”
“When I was in college … before the pandemic hit, I would go out to bars and clubs and not really think twice about if I was going to be out until like three in the morning, or where it was going to be,” she said. “And nowadays, every weekend there’s shootings at these random bars and lounges and clubs.”
“So me and my friends, we just try to avoid going to really popular bars, lounges and clubs because of that,” she said. “We used to go anywhere, try to meet other people, meet guys. It doesn’t happen anymore. We go to restaurants.”
She retired from teaching early
There were many stressors that caused Holly Heilig-Gaul, like other teachers, to recently leave the field and retire to the Twin Cities in Minnesota several years earlier than she’d planned, she told CNN.
But the threat of a school shooter was among those worries, in large part because the regular active shooter drills meant the idea was always top of mind for her and her students.
Teachers at her school had to take many precautions, Heilig-Gaul, 67, said. Only she was allowed to answer the classroom door, for example, and all the windows were to be covered up, so no one could see in or out.
And then there were the drills: A lockdown would be announced, and the class would huddle together in the dark, completely silent. If a student asked why, Heilig-Gaul said she had to explain, “Because there might be someone outside listening for you, because they have bad intentions, possibly with a gun … We have to be careful to stay alive.’ I have to teach this.”
“I feel helpless,” she said. “I used to think, ‘I’ll be able to help these kids. I’ll be able to be the good person and make it okay,’” she said. “And I can’t … It’s just too much.”