Eyewitnesses Thought The Las Vegas Shooting Was Fireworks. Here's Why Gunfire Sounds Like “Popping”

by Lani Seelinger
Ethan Miller/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The deadliest mass shooting in American history occurred on Sunday night in Las Vegas, and one of the many reasons why it was so deadly is that many of the victims likely didn't know what was going on at first. The Las Vegas gunshots sounded like "popping," and the reason why is one that you should definitely familiarize yourself with.

Several witnesses have described that they heard what they thought was fireworks, before the realized that it was actually gunshots from an automatic weapon. Country singer Jason Aldean, who was performing at the time, didn't run off the stage until well after the first round of gunshots, and witness videos show people standing around through multiple rounds of shooting, seemingly unaware that what they're hearing is actually gunshots.

There's actually science behind this phenomenon. For people fortunate enough to never have been around it, recognizing the sound of gunfire can be surprisingly difficult. Witnesses from many mass shooting events later recount having initially rationalized the sounds as something far more mundane — construction noises, bags popping, or in this case, fireworks. Fireworks in particular sound very similar to gunfire — so it's not at all surprising that at a big country music festival, thousands of concertgoers assumed they were merely hearing evidence of the event's celebratory nature.

It's natural that your mind wouldn't immediately jump to the worst case scenario, but when it comes to recognizing gunshots, maybe you should. Greg Ellifritz of Active Response Training writes in his article on the subject that being able to quickly recognize the sound of gunfire and then react to it can increase your chance of survival in an active shooter situation, so it's worth knowing. Although it may sound paranoid and it's not a great thing to consider if you have anxiety, Ellifritz emphasizes that it's important to remember that a shooting could really occur anywhere in this day and age. He even recommends a trip to indoor and outdoor shooting ranges to hear what actual gunshots sound like in real life.

If that's not an option for you for whatever reason, The Eastsider of Los Angeles spoke with a number of experts about how to distinguish between fireworks and gunfire. "Some fireworks are more rapid – think of firecrackers, very fast and random – as opposed to gun fire, which can be a consistent sound," said Capt. Bill Murphy of the LAPD, a statement that makes a lot of sense after you watch video footage of the Las Vegas attack.

"My best explanation is that gunshots are usually heard in a distinct sequence, or a steady pattern ... Firecrackers usually don't have any pattern especially when a whole package is lit," Senior Lead Officer Albert Polehonki, also of the LAPD, told The Eastsider. Another LAPD officer, Lt. Wes Buhrmester, said that one quick way to tell if you're hearing fireworks is to look at the sky — because if you can hear the sound that closely, it's very likely that you'll also be able to see the light that the fireworks are producing.

If you're looking for the exact science behind the sound of a gunshot, the answer lies in how fast the bullet travels. Quora user Gregg MacDonald explains that because a bullet breaks the sound barrier, the "flat" gunshot sound you're hearing is actually a miniature sonic boom combined with the explosion of gas and gunfire surrounding the shot. He also describes it as "higher pitched" than the sound of fireworks, and says that it's similar to a "crack."

Hopefully, you'll never be in a position to have to distinguish between gunshots and fireworks — but it's still worth understanding the difference anyway.

Here are some ways you can help the victims in Las Vegas.