Active shooters come in all sorts of twisted shapes and sizes. An active shooter is what responding police refer to when someone is actively in the act of shooting and taking lives in contrast to one who is merely holding hostages and threatening violence.
But where do these murderers come from? What drives them to embark on these killing sprees, and how can we survive one of these tragedies if we’re caught in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Sometimes an active shooter is a social misfit, largely ignored and insignificant, who wishes to lash out against society with one grandiose statement of hate in the form of a mass shooting of defenseless innocents.
Sometimes multiple shooters act together as part of a terrorist cell trained to carry out their grisly events as part of a planned, coordinated attack.
Other times an undetected lone wolf goes on a murderous rampage after having been indoctrinated to serving a misguided “cause” in the name of jihad. Still other times, an active shooter is merely someone with a grudge, a disgruntled employee or jilted lover who in his final act of vengeance might have specific targets in mind, but will also kill anyone else who happens to be in his way.
What they all have in common is that they don’t care if they die. Many expect to die.
BEFORE THE SHOOTING STARTS
You have to adopt a vigilant mindset before you’re caught in a mass shooting event. Get your face out of your cell phone screen and look at what’s going on around you.
Get in the habit of noticing exits and potential escape routes. You’re not being paranoid. With a little practice, you’ll make a mental note of escape routes without otherwise disrupting your carefree lifestyle.
Be observant of suspicious people and suspicious behavior. Why is that person wearing a long coat on such a hot day? Why did he just set that backpack down and walk away?
TIME TO MOVE QUICKLY
When the shooting begins, you might have only moments to act. Move quickly away from the sound of gunfire. Don’t wait to see what the commotion is all about. Escape through a doorway or through a window. If you’re too high, tie clothing together and climb down. If you’re outside, avoid expanses of open terrain. Move from one position of cover to another.
NO WAY OUT
If there is no path of escape, try to barricade yourself away from a shooter. Lock doors, move furniture. Hide from view behind something that is likely to stop a bullet. Signal your whereabouts to responding law enforcement personnel if possible.
THE POLICE RESPONSE
Years ago, the police were trained to respond to a critical incident by waiting for backup to arrive, setting up a perimeter and then negotiating with the bad guys as long as that might take for a peaceful resolution. Law enforcement finally woke up to the fact that while they were busy waiting outside, active shooters were killing more people inside.
Now the police are trained to go in and toward the sound of the shooting right away. These are confusing, chaotic situations. Screaming people fleeing the shooter might be running toward the officers. Who’s a friend and who’s a foe?
There might be wounded and dying victims they have to step over. It might sound insensitive, but the officers won’t stop to assist the wounded at that time. They will radio back information about the location of victims, but their first job is to get to the shooter and stop him before he kills more people. Often, when cornered by police, a shooter will turn the gun on himself.
At one time, the conventional wisdom was that if you were confronted by an armed threat, you should just comply with the bad guy’s demands. Don’t be a hero. Don’t get hurt. Those were the days when the only thing the gunman wanted was your cash. Now it’s just as likely that the gunman wants your life.
When escaping or barricading yourself away from a shooter is not possible, when you are face to face with the attacker, there will be no negotiating. You will have to fight for your life.
Despite the fact that I’m now retired from my law enforcement career, I still go armed most times I can do so legally. A firearm is like a seat belt. It’s for “just in case” and you never know when “just in case” might become “just in time.” Earlier this year in Taunton, Massachusetts, an off-duty officer shot and killed a mentally ill subject in a store who was on a stabbing spree with a knife. There are many other incidents in which armed civilians stopped mass shootings.
The trouble is that most shootings occur in locations that are gun-free zones—schools, government offices, places of employment. Those who advocate banning guns fail to admit that those who are planning mass shootings purposely target gun-free locations because that’s where they know their potential victims will be defenseless.
If you are confronted by an active shooter and you are armed, take your best shot. You might save lives. What you don’t want to do is grab your gun and go racing to the scene of a mass shooting or wander the hallways in search of the shooter. Those are the best ways to be mistaken as one of the shooters and to get yourself shot by responding law enforcement personnel.
If you are not armed, try to find an improvised weapon. A letter opener, screwdriver, hammer, wrench, chair or table leg—anything sharp or solid that can inflict pain or incapacitation—is better than your bare hands.
Do you think facing a gunman unarmed is impossible? It was just last year when passengers, including three U.S. citizens, subdued a gunman with an AK-47 on a train in France and most likely saved many lives in the process.
PREVENTING FUTURE INCIDENTS
How can we prevent future incidents? It won’t be easy. Bad people can always get their hands on weapons, no matter how many laws we enact. Improved intelligence gathering, tighter controls at our borders, increased surveillance of suspected terrorists and better monitoring of the mentally ill might help.
Civilians—that’s you and me—can help with increased situational awareness along with the willingness to get involved and to contact authorities when suspicious activity is observed. As a society, we need to be more accepting of those who are different so that fewer will be considered as outcasts and loners.
We might not be able to eliminate all future mass shootings, but with the right knowledge, training and access to arms, we might have a better chance at surviving the next one.
1. Be observant. Know where your exits are in advance. Be aware of suspicious people and unnatural actions.
2. Retreat and escape. Once the shooting starts, quickly put distance between yourself and the sound of gunfire. Keep moving until you are safe.
3. Barricade and hide. If escape is not possible, barricade yourself from the shooter as best you can, find bulletproof cover and hide from view.
4. Communicate. If you have a cell phone use it to provide information to responding police. Wave a cloth or otherwise signal from a window to let those outside know where barricaded survivors are located.
5. Fight for your life. Negotiation is most likely futile. When a shooter gets to your location, fight back with whatever improvised weapon you can find.
1. Don’t doubt. If you take an attitude that, “this really can’t be happening,” you might lose your chance to escape.
2. Don’t go toward the noise or commotion. When you are uncertain what the sound of gunfire or disturbance actually is, you have to fight curiosity and the desire to be a spectator.
3. Don’t negotiate. Trying to reason with someone who has mental problems or is under the influence of drugs, alcohol or religious fervor is dangerous and most times ineffective.
4. Don’t underestimate the threat. Shooters often have multiple weapons. Because one gun is discarded or one shooter is down, that doesn’t mean the event is over. Bombs, booby traps, more guns and more shooters are possibilities.
5. Don’t grab your gun and go running to the scene. Active shooting events are chaotic and you’re apt to be mistaken for a suspect and shot by responding law enforcement personnel.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Doomsday 2016 issue of American Survival Guide.