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False Reports Of Gunmen In N.Y.C. And Virginia Cause Jitters Following Mass Shootings

Law enforcement officers search one of the buildings that house Gannett and <em>USA Today</em> on Wednesday. No gunman was found.
Alex Brandon
Law enforcement officers search one of the buildings that house Gannett and USA Today on Wednesday. No gunman was found.

The headquarters of USA Todayin the suburbs of Washington, D.C., was evacuated on Wednesday after authorities received an unconfirmed report of a gunman in the building. Police did not find an armed person and no shots were fired.

Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler told reporters that his department received a 911 call shortly before noon from someone claiming to be inside the news organization's McLean, Va., location, and saying an armed "former employee" was in the building.

"I'm very grateful to report that this was a nonevent," Roessler said. "Right now, we do not have any evidence that a crime has occurred."

That realization came after officers with rifles and body armorswept through the site and a helicopter hovered overhead, as loud alarms sounded through the building.

The apparently mistaken report follows another scare in New York on Tuesday night, when hundreds of people fled down sidewalks in Times Square after a backfiring motorcycle engine was mistaken for gunfire. The New York Police Department assured residents it was a false alarm.

The incidents follow a weekend in which mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, killed a total of 31 people and injured dozens of others.

To some experts who research the psychological impact of mass shootings, the two episodes have a connection: They both reveal the panicked reactions of a nation on edge, with many people still reeling from the mass violence, which has anxieties running high.

"The narrative we hear in these impacted communities is, 'I never thought it would happen here,' and so I think that gets people thinking, 'Well then, that can happen to me too,' " said Laura Wilson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia who studies how post-traumatic stress disorder develops after mass shootings.

A typical response to violent trauma, including consuming news coverage of the event from afar, is to fear that it will happen again, Wilson told NPR.

"The immediate aftermath is the greatest level of risk for that type of reaction and then we tend to see it decrease over time," she said.

Wilson said people who have preexisting mental health conditions like depression and anxiety are more likely to have a heightened reaction to mass violence and feel stressed for longer periods of time.

"It feeds into and confirms their concerns," Wilson said. "Seeing this happen in Walmarts, in churches and concerts and festivals is going to confirm their fear."

Even Wilson, someone who studies the impact mass shooting events have on others, finds herself looking for her own coping mechanisms when feeling rattled after a high-profile shooting.

"For people who are experts on this, including myself, it can also get to you," Wilson said. "The news coverage heightens our fears and heightens our concerns."

Something that Wilson recommends to people trying to manage apprehensive jitters after a highly publicized killing spree is to emphasize the data on mass shootings.

According to the National Council for Behavior Health, mass shootings account for less than 1 percent of gun homicides in the U.S.

"We are safe in comparison to other forms of threats," Wilson said. "Focusing on those statistics can be helpful."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.