An unthinkable horror in some parts of the world, active shooter incidents are sadly becoming more and more common in the United States. Cities such as San Bernardino, Fort Lauderdale, Dallas and many others have been targeted in the past.
You may have your own theories about why people are compelled to arm themselves and take the lives of innocent strangers, but I want to take a more active stance and ask: what can we actually do?
Be prepared for an active shooter
Statistically, it’s not likely you’ll end up confronted with an active shooter. But it’s not unlikely either. The best way, logically, to lessen the impact of an unexpected tragedy is… to expect it.
The FBI has claimed that mass shootings of the kind seen at Charleston and Colorado Springs typically last a couple of minutes at most.
For most people, this is only enough time to wonder, “What the hell just happened?”
The human brain is a wonderful thing, but its usual mechanisms can break down in highly traumatic moments. A brief, intensely frightening moment like a sudden shooting can be so unexpected and shocking that people actually refuse to acknowledge what’s going on in front of them. They may zone out, freeze, and later say how everything seemed unreal.
Well, while their brains are rapidly trying to catch up with the data in front of them, hopefully, yours is more prepared and able to act and act quickly.
- In public places, always be in condition yellow and actively orient to find emergency exits, hiding places or likely sources of danger.
- Stay calm. You can process the trauma later – put it aside in the moment and scan quickly for relevant information, decide on a plan, and act.
- If you hear something that sounds like gunshots, drop everything and act, right there and then. The cost of misjudging a strange noise is so high that you can afford a few false alarms.
Always know where you are
Single shooters bursting onto a scene to gun down innocent people is a frightening prospect because it seems like there’s just so little you can do about it. But there are always warning signs… if you’re looking.
Be aware of your surroundings and anything that doesn’t fit, even if it’s something small. Pay attention. Always be aware of who is standing around you, where the exits are, and whether there are people behaving strangely in your vicinity.
In restaurants or movie theaters, we’ve been socialized to not even think of certain areas of the building because they’re only for staff – but in an emergency these areas are all fair game.
Get a sense of the full layout of the building you’re in, including bathrooms, kitchens, not-open-to-the-public entrances and the like. In an emergency such as an active shooter, a few seconds could mean the difference between living and dying.
Yeah, yeah – but what can you actually DO?
You’ve been scanning your area like a pro. You’ve been tracking strange behavior. You notice some people running and looking alarmed and a few split seconds later you hear the crack of gunshot coming from your two o’clock.
You already know that there is a large crowd blocking the main exit to the café you’re in. Instantly, you understand that yes, a shooting is going on. A few seconds pass and you hear screaming and another shot, this time sounding much closer.
You rapidly make observe-orient-decide-act loops.
Since the shooter is approaching, and since he’ll likely enter through your sole exit point, your mind flicks to other ways to escape. You tell the two children you have with you your secret code word for danger. This word alerts them to stop, pay attention, and quickly do whatever you tell them (because you’re prepared!). You make a dash for the kitchen area and tell them to follow. At this point, the other people in the café are still confusedly looking out the windows, wondering what’s going on.
By the time the gunman enters the café, a measly 8 seconds has elapsed since you heard the first shots. But since you were prepared, you are already well on your way to escaping. Hopefully, this is the end of the story for you and your kids. But let’s be morbid and imagine the worst-case – as, indeed, you should be.
Let’s say you make your way to the kitchen and discover that this exit, too, is blocked for some reason. Let’s say by now you can hear the shooter in the main area of the café and you can hear screaming and more shots.
You are actively forcing yourself to pay attention and be calm – you’re scared to death but that won’t help. The only thing that will help is to stay sharp and make smart decisions.
Stay sharp and make smart decisions
You realize, OK, the shooter may come into the kitchen, and you truly have no hope of leaving that kitchen. Since escape is not a possibility, you need to hide. Look immediately for a way to lock the door to the room you’re in. Turn off lights, and be as quiet as possible. Put as many physical objects between yourself and the shooter as possible to act as a shield.
Every situation will be different, but you may need to hide in a cupboard or underneath something. It doesn’t have to be a perfect place, it only has to remove you from your shooter’s line of vision until the situation is under control.
The best hiding place will allow you to watch the action while you hide, but this is not 100% necessary. As soon as you can, and without endangering your life, call the police and briefly, concisely tell them where the shooting is happening and that you are hiding.
- Run first. Forget about your belongings and get away, fast. If necessary, run in a zigzag pattern to avoid getting hit. You may want to stop and help others, but your first priority is to get yourself and your kids to safety.
- If you really can’t run, hide. Shooters are even more pumped up on adrenaline than you are, but if you can tuck yourself out of the way of their attention until help comes, you’ll be fine.
Plan B: Fighting back against an active shooter
In the overactive imaginations of many gun enthusiasts, this last resort comes first. They imagine un-holstering a weapon, gunning down the bad guy and saving the day before calling for the check. The reason you almost never hear of this kind of thing happening is that it’s quite unrealistic.
Instead, remember that prepared, coordinated defense from civilians can deter shooters or terrorist attacks, but the crucial thing is their tactical thinking, not whether they are armed or not.
But whomever you are, you can sway the situation in your favor:
- Act with conviction. Think of the shooter. He’s already way, way down the road of full-blown, all-out violence. You timidly stepping up halfway is going to do nothing – you need to dig deep and use every last shred of strength and aggression you have in you. This is your animalistic self. Suspend your ordinary respect for human life – be prepared, even, to die yourself if that’s the case. But better you die during sincere action than die after cowering somewhere, too afraid to respond.
- Disarm the attacker. Their weapon is your biggest problem, so your first focus is to get it away from them. How to do that is beyond the scope of this short article, but if you’re committed to being fully prepared, upskill and learn some maneuvers in a self-defense class.
- Use your own weapons. And the best weapons are other people. Combine forces. Work as a team with others, and use whatever’s in your environment as a makeshift weapon like chairs, bottles or bags. Clever thinking can and often does trump brute force – although it’s always nice to have both.
Perhaps it’s a little unsettling to dwell in so much detail on how you’d survive a shooting attack. The thing to remember is, it does happen. In the few seconds it takes for normal everyday life to turn into something bizarre from an action movie, you can draw on everything you know and be prepared for to swing the situation your way.
In these emergencies, the heroes are just people who did what others lacked the presence of mind to do at that moment. Think now about how you can be that person.