CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! A killing spree has begun. It’s in a high school cafeteria and the freshman homecoming prince has opened fire on his classmates using a 40-caliber handgun.
There’s no time to react; he is calmly shooting. Three students instantly dropped to the floor from head wounds. Some students try to run out of the cafeteria, tripping and falling over one another in the frantic rush. Someone pulls the fire alarm and more chaos erupts as students rush from the building. Others hide in classrooms. Within minutes, the police arrive and find the shooter dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
In October 2014, the freshman homecoming prince at Marysville Pilchuck High School just outside of Seattle did just that.
What is an Active Shooter Situation?
The FBI classifies an active shooter as someone “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” Some of the most common locations that make headlines have been schools, workplaces, public gathering sites, and even houses of worship. And these types of incidents are on the rise.
The FBI has identified 160 active shooter cases in the U.S. taking place between 2000 and 2013. In these incidents, 486 were killed and 557 were wounded. The shooters themselves are not part of those stats. Of those incidents, 64 were considered mass killings— three or more killed, according to a federal definition. The incidents studied happened in both small and large towns, urban and rural areas, and in 40 of 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Through 2016, the highest casualty count happened at a night club in Tampa, FL, where 49 were killed and 53 were wounded. During the movie theater shooting in Aurora, CO, in 2012, 12 were killed and 58 were wounded. In 2007, the shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., saw 32 killed and 17 wounded. In one of the most infamous mass shootings, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, there were 27 deaths, while 2 were wounded.
In all but two incidents the FBI tracked, there was a single shooter. In 64 incidents, the shooter committed suicide. And at least five shooters from four incidents remain at large.
The FBI report A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013 noted, “…the findings also reflect the damage that can occur in a matter of minutes. In 64 incidents where the duration of the incident could be ascertained, 44 (69 percent) of 64 incidents ended in 5 minutes or less, with 23 ending in 2 minutes or less. Even when law enforcement was present or able to respond within minutes, civilians often had to make life and death decisions, and, therefore, should be engaged in training and discussions on decisions they may face.”
Additionally, “The 15 incidents that occurred in open spaces resulted in 45 people killed, including 1 law enforcement officer, and 54 people wounded (including 10 law enforcement officers).”
One pattern the FBI did not see? Similarities in shooter ages; ages have ranged from 17 to 72. Also, victims were “young and old, male and female, family members, and people of all races, cultures, and religions.”
“Active shooter incidents happen for a range of reasons,” explained Jeff Zisner, president and CEO of AEGIS Security & Investigations, whose company offers security training, including a workshop called Tactical Response: How to Survive an Active Shooter. “There are, however, trends and pre-incident indicators that typically lead to such an incident and fall within several categories. Terrorism-related active shooters: attempting to instill fear for the purpose of political or ideological gain. Victim: they were bullied—any kind of environment—domestic dispute, or someone they know was a victim. And mental illness: Typically this in itself isn’t a pre-incident indicator that would result in someone becoming an active shooter; however, mental illness with other environmental pressures may lower the cognitive barrier to someone justifying the act.”
How to Survive
In 2012, Officer Stephen Daniel of the Houston Police Department told The Examiner, of Houston, that he doesn’t like to hear that survivors of active shooters say they didn’t know what to do. He noted a “survivor’s mindset” is required, and “society has progressed to the point where this is not an uncommon event. We want you to know what to do.”
“The best thing to do is get the hell out of the area as fast as possible,” said Matt Klier, owner of Active Shooter Defense School. “So if you work in a large office building explore it, find all the alternative exits and even use the staff maintenance exits and elevators. Do this daily; learn your environment prior to an incident.” Having an escape route in advance is key. If you’re at a mall, where are the nearest exits? If you’re in a hallway, go to a room and lock the door.
“The first thing you should do is look for and get behind “hard cover”—hard cover is anything that will stop a bullet,” Klier continued. “Buildings, concrete, walls, the axle or engine of a car. Stay behind it, get low, and move away if possible. Avoid rooms without an exit.”
According to Pepperdine University’s emergency information on active shooters, “Developing a survival mindset is first and foremost. Take time to understand your surroundings and environment before an emergency. If you hear gunfire, “drop to the ground immediately, face down, flat.” Also, move or crawl away from the gunfire, and stay down. The university also suggests tips like hiding behind furniture or finding a room whose door locks, and block the door with heavy furniture. Close the blinds and shut off the lights, and definitely don’t look out a window to see what’s going on.
The Department of Homeland Security suggests remembering three key words for survival: run, hide, fight. By run, have an escape route. Also, don’t try to move any of the wounded. Evacuate, even if other people don’t want to go with you. In terms of hide, be out of the shooter’s view and stay quiet. This means ensuring your phone or other noisemakers are set to silent.
“If you’re caught in an open area such as a hallway or large room, do what we call run the walls. Staying out of the center of the room allows for some concealment and may allow you to slip out unnoticed, get low, crouch, duck, hide behind desks, leap frogging from one hiding spot to another,” explained Klier. “Do not stay still unless it is absolutely the only option. If you hear shots on the east side, go west! Do not panic, trust your instincts, and get out! Run then run some more until you’re sure you are safe.”
You’ve probably heard various suggestions, such as run in a zigzag or play dead. Zisner of AEGIS noted, “Playing dead may or may not work—especially out in the open. It’s always advisable to find cover/concealment than being in the line the fire.” Added Klier, “Hitting a fast-moving target at a long range is very difficult even for professional shooters, so yes, run, leap, hide, bounce, zigzag and get to cover then repeat.”
Fight or Flight?
Fighting with the shooter is a last resort, such as if the shooter enters the room you’re in. Make plans with others on what to do prior to this possibility. If the situation requires this, you will want to try to seem larger than life and display a lot of physical aggression, have improvised weapons, and throw things at the shooter. “Commit to your actions,” advised the Department of Homeland Security. “If you’re close enough to rush the shooter while he is reloading and, of course, strong enough, do it. There’s great video of the guy shooting through the White House fence and people rush him when he reloads. And yes, they were successful,” said Klier. “Bottom line: Going up against a gun without a gun doesn’t have a high safety rating…but it does have a success rating.”
In fact, the FBI study identified 21 of 160 incidents “where unarmed citizens made the selfless and deeply personal choices to face the danger of an active shooter,” and “In 11 of those 21 incidents, unarmed principals, teachers, other school staff and students confronted the shooters to end the threat. In 10 incidents, citizens, working or shopping when the shootings began, successfully restrained shooters until police could arrive. And in six other incidents, armed off-duty police officers, citizens, and security guards risked their lives to successfully end the threat.”
Pretend to be Dead?
About pretending to already be dead: The situation depends. You may be able to stay motionless or pretend to be unconscious. “Playing dead may or may not work—especially out in the open,” Zisner explained, who also teaches a “Run, Hide, Fight” class. “It’s always advisable to find cover/concealment than being in the line the fire.” Klier added, “Playing dead may be an option, but the last option, and I would only do it if I had another dead person to hide under.”
To help law enforcement or the 911 operator, if possible, take note of the number of shooters, the location and what the shooter looks like, the type of weapons being used and how many, and how many victims there may be. Expect the first officers on scene to not help injured victims; rescue teams and medical personnel will follow in the next wave to do that. Put down any items in your hands, and raise your hands and spread your fingers, keeping them visible to law enforcement at all times.
If you aren’t injured, you may be asked to help move those who are to a more secure location. And know that even if you’re OK, you may be held by law enforcement until the situation is deemed under control and all witnesses have been questioned.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the December 2014 print issue of American Survival Guide.