Have you seen the security camera video of Brandon Tsay in the lobby of Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio, in Alhambra, California, on Saturday night? The twentysomething coder-by-day is in track pants, a hoodie, and a plaid jacket, partway through a nighttime ticket-taking shift at his family’s longtime business. When the shooter—who had just, unbeknownst to Tsay, killed 11 people nearby—enters the lobby, Tsay scuffles with him for about a minute and a half before gaining control of the gun, pointing it at the shooter, and forcing him out of frame. This video produces the exact opposite of the rage generated by watching the hand sanitizer cop and his colleagues linger in the hallway of Robb Elementary. Here is someone doing something in the face of a problem that feels insurmountable. “Yes!” you think. “Fuckin’ get him! Yes!” Watching it, I was surprised and confused to find myself on the verge of tears.
News coverage of mass shootings, in recent years, has been stuck in a loop. Media Matters, which issued a report on the aftermath of the Las Vegas shootings in October of 2017, found that television news and talk shows covered that event for about a week, with very few discussions of solutions to gun violence. In November 2018, after the shootings in a bar in Thousand Oaks, California (13 dead, including the shooter), the Atlantic’s Adam Harris wrote a piece about the typical mass-shooting news cycle. The expert he interviewed, Erica Goode, described it like this: “You do the day story, then you do the victim stories, then you profile the shooter.” Harris noted that many were starting to wonder whether profiling the shooter is something we should even be doing at all, for fear of a contagion effect.
Now, with the recent increase in stories about bystanders who stop shooters, we have a new, and much more satisfying, cap to this cycle. We get the first-day story; stories about the community and the victims; maybe a profile of the shooter and his (mostly his) motives; then a wave of pieces about the bystander hero, with as many details as possible, because for the love of God, please tell me something good. A three-days-on story about Abigail Zwerner, the teacher shot by a 6-year-old student in Virginia early this month, describes her as “a hero who saved lives by escorting her students out of the classroom even as she was wounded.” Stories about Thomas James and Richard M. Fierro, who subdued the attacker at Club Q in Colorado Springs on Nov. 19 of last year, provided some of the only moments of catharsis I’ve ever experienced in the course of a shooting-related news cycle. Whoever wrote the slug—the string of words websites use to form the last part of the URL for a piece, hoping to connect with searchers by guessing what keywords they will type into Google—for the New York Times’ articles on James, Fierro, and Tsay included the word “hero.” People are searching for this—literally, it turns out. I mean, who wouldn’t be?
In the past decade, certain American men have harbored a growing belief that participating in everyday life requires tactical knowledge, that inside every suburban father of toddlers lurks a seasoned operator ready to strike. Tacticool diaper bags and overbuilt trucks are a joke, but these stories about bystanders seem to suggest that maybe these people have a point. Bystander Elisjsha Dicken killed a shooter with a handgun he had concealed-carried into an Indiana mall in July of last year. “He engaged the gunman from quite a distance with a handgun, he was very proficient in that, very tactically sound,” admired the local police chief in a news conference. Brandon Tsay said he had to make a split-second evaluation of the shooter last weekend, sizing up his weapon like a born gamer: “How it was built and customized, I knew it wasn’t for robbing money … From his body language, his facial expression, his eyes, he was looking for people.” In some bystander stories, the military experience of the hero in question strengthens the narrative: “The sudden flash of gunfire ripped across the nightclub and instincts forged during four combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan instantly kicked in,” wrote the New York Times’ Dave Philipps, who usually specializes in writing about actual operators, in his piece about Richard Fierro.
But there’s a deeper, more troubling layer to these stories. Our use of the hero bystander as narrative leavening for the horror of the American mass shooting shares DNA with our reliance on GoFundMe as the solution to health care gaps, or our cheerful pitching in for teachers crowdfunding school supplies. “Hero” is a great narrative, but it’s also an individualist nation’s favorite solution to a difficult problem. “I feel like people are starting to come to the realization that the only one who’s going to protect you is you,” a county commissioner in Texas, who teaches concealed-carry classes and who killed a shooter in his church in 2019, told the Times this week. “That’s not a slam against law enforcement. They can’t be everywhere.” At some point in one of these news cycles around guns, I followed a few pro–Second Amendment accounts on Instagram, interested in seeing how they represented the events unfolding. One, run by a Georgia man who offers training in hand-to-hand combat and weapons handling, often posts news stories about bystanders or would-be victims who disarm perpetrators—pointing out that this could be me, the follower, if I’d sign up for a course.
Every time I see such a post, I have to admit, I think about it. But then I remember: This can’t be our life. We didn’t, as veteran Richard Fierro said after the Q shootings, sign up to live in a combat zone. And while bystanders save people, sometimes they die, too. Riley Howell, a student who tackled a gunman at UNC–Charlotte in 2019, died. Six-year-old Jesse Lewis, killed at Sandy Hook, told his classmates to run when the shooter’s gun jammed; for that, he has a profile on the Fallen Heroes Project, a website where Gold Star families can request a portrait of their loved ones from an artist. Scarlett Lewis, his mother, has said she clings to the story of that moment, getting solace from remembering how Jesse made an impact on the world. I cry thinking about that, just like I do watching Brandon Tsay best the gunman in that lobby. But they’re not, at all, the same kind of tears.