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What It’s Like to Be a Dad During a Mass Shooting

Protecting your family from a massacre is nothing like a Hollywood movie

Blurry shadow of a little boy and a girl walking with adults on park pavement in black and white
Getty Images

Who hasn’t played out this scenario in their head? You’re someplace with your family, someplace you assumed was safe, and the shots start ringing out. What do you do? Do you panic and fall into a heap? Are you the hero in the action movie that is your life?

At this year’s Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois, I found out the answer firsthand. 

I never heard gunfire. The applause and nonstop sirens coming from the parade’s fire trucks must have drowned out the weapon’s report. All I saw was the Highland Park High School marching band rushing down the sidewalk in a fury of blue polo shirts and bright brass instruments. I gave them a wide berth, yelling, “Lookout, band coming through!” thinking they were running because they had missed their place in the lineup. 

Then I noticed their faces, tear-streaked and twisted red in terror. One young girl, seemingly on the verge of hyperventilating, met my gaze and gasped, “Run! Gunshots! Gunshots!”

At first, I was annoyed, steadying my coffee against the scrum of kids, snare drums and trombones. I figured some idiot had set off a belt of Black Cats. “Jesus,” I thought. “People should know better.”

Then I turned and locked eyes with a police officer, sprinting against the current of kids, one hand on his holster, the other arm waving people off the sidewalk and shouting, simply, “Go! Go!”

I spotted my wife across the crowd, scurrying to hide behind the brick wall of a nearby post office with her sister and brother-in-law and their infant daughter and three-year-old son. My own kids were out of the country, traveling through Europe.

With nobody left to protect, I felt strangely unsettled. What was I supposed to do? Run for cover? Grab some kid at random and drag him away from the line of fire?

This was my moment, my action hero spotlight. And I didn’t know what to do with my hands.

I saw a dad running in flip-flops, shouldering two toddlers like sacks of landscaping stone, his face purple with anger and terror. Another dad, tall above the crowd, was locked along with a mass of people hurrying away from the site of the shooting. His eyes were scanning hysterically, then a flash of recognition. Unable to raise his arms in the press of people, he bellowed what must have been his children’s names, urging them: “Follow Mom! Follow Mom!”

The most arresting scene for me was a father who was carrying a small child like a football under his right arm while holding another outstretched in his left. He had the kid upside down by the ankle, her long blond hair brushing the street. 

How long he ran carrying his kids like that, I couldn’t tell, but the combination of fight and flight he must have dialed in to go even ten yards looked superhuman.

Weirdly, the one thing I wasn’t worried about was my own safety. I wasn’t ducking for cover, looking to see if bullets were ricocheting near me. Don’t confuse this for bravery. I hadn’t suddenly transformed into some Chuck Norris movie character. It was my dad instinct that had kicked into high gear. Even with nobody to save, every cell in my body wants to save somebody.

Heroism is often framed against a backdrop of understood danger — a house fire, a car crash. Nobody is expecting he’ll have to leap up from a picnic blanket on an idyllic summer morning to literally drag his children to safety, but that’s what so many dads did. And one dad, we now know, lost his life shielding his 2-year-old son from the bullets.

For those dads on that day, being a hero was about making sure their most important people got to safety and stayed healthy. That’s the very least a man should ask of himself, and also the very most.