Tensions were high in Oak Lawn on Sunday night. Afternoon thunderstorms had left the skies overcast and bleak, and all along the streets and in the doorways of the clubs there was a hard-to-miss police presence. Only hours before, a shooter had opened fire inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 50 people.
For clubs and concert venues across the country, including here in Dallas, the world suddenly feels different. Oak Lawn, with its high concentration of gay bars, is under particularly close watch. Police had already been on the street Sunday to monitor a neighborhood march commemorating the Pulse victims. But at clubs like J.R.'s — which observed a moment of silence for the Orlando victims on Sunday — the venues took it upon themselves to have extra security, as well, placing an extra guard at the doors.
"I think any gay club across the country, their senses are heightened and I think there's the worry of copycat people," says Chris Bengsten, the on-site coordinator of Caven Enterprises, which owns J.R.'s, Sue Ellen's, Station 4 and TMZ. "We brought a security officer to be at the door of each club, so that was four extra security guards. ...We don't want to scare people, we don't want to intimidate them, but we want them to know we are concerned and will have a presence."
Security at venues is a constant concern for owners. "I wasn't surprised by either event," says Don Nedler, the owner of Lizard Lounge and Red Light Lounge, of the Orlando killings at Pulse and the one the night before that claimed the life of singer Christina Grimmie. "I figured it was inevitable that one or the other could happen. We've already seen it happen with [slain Texas musician] Dimebag Darrell. It's a concern that keeps me awake at night."
His clubs have continued to search purses at the door and don't allow backpacks inside. But Nedler suggests that more extreme measures, like metal detectors, could be in the cards. "We don't use metal detectors; most night clubs don't," he says. "We used to use them back in the late '90s. We haven't since before 2000. We've discussed the possibility of going back to using metal detectors again."
Customers are often turned off by metal detectors. "Frankly, when I'm in a place and I know everyone has been screened and no one has a gun, I feel safer," Nedler says. "But for some reason, it seems to have a negative effect on the customer perception of safety."
Walking that line between safety and paranoia is difficult, Bengsten says. "I've been with the company 31 years this year, and there was not a time when we haven't had security. Ours goes back a very, very, very, very long ways," she says. "Our clubs through the years have gone through procedures with employees, making sure they know where the exits are, making sure they know where the emergency lights are and everything of that nature."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Emergency evacuation procedures, primarily intended for fire safety, might need to change to account for violent people. "The security guys are assigned zones and know where the fire exits are in their zones," Nedler says. "But I think we're going to have to discuss live shooter drills. We've discussed it, but haven't done live shooter drills."
But as Kevin Dunlap, the talent buyer and co-owner of Fort Worth concert venue The Rail Club, admits, there may only be so much you can do to prepare for the event of a shooting. "Typically, depending on the crowd we're expecting, we'll have one security guard to every 50 to 75 people," Dunlap says. "But if someone shows up with that on their mind to accomplish, it's difficult to do anything to prevent or anticipate it."
It's enough to keep him — and his mother — awake at night as well, though. "My mom called me and was like, knowing what you do for a living, you'd better think about getting life insurance," Dunlap says. "That really hit close to home."
Nedler, however, is determined to do everything he can to keep his clubs safe. "It's pretty simple. It requires us to do what we [do] already, we just need to do what we do more effectively," he says. "The question is whether we have metal detectors or not. Either we have to pat them down or we have metal detectors, one or the other."