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How to Respond to an Active Shooter Event

Active shooter events have taken the news media by storm and captured both the imagination and the terror of people all over the world. As a result, we sometimes get questions about how (or whether) self-defense principles can keep you safe in such a terrifying context. Here are some of the facts to know and steps to take to protect yourself if such an event should occur.

How Common Are Active Shooter Events?

Mass shooting events obviously cause tremendous fear, for victims and those just hearing the news of a shooting event. A history of shooting events throughout the past twenty years has offered a number of patterns we can analyze so we can at least understand them better. Events were perpetrated with a variety of weapons, including shotguns, handguns, and rifles, with handguns being used the most. While one or two firearm types is common in any given shooting, using all three kinds of weapons at once is very uncommon. Before Columbine, most publicized mass public shooting events were incidents of workplace violence. These incidents are not unheard of today, either.

Most shooter events today take place in schools, while the second most common location type is other public buildings such as malls or community centers. This suggests that mass shooters are motivated by a desire to maximize their destructive impact by choosing target-rich environments with lax security. These "soft targets" appear to be the most attractive targets, with nearly 90% of attacks happening in so-called gun free zones. The past ten years had shooting deaths increase, with 2017 having the highest number of deaths. A majority of shooters are usually either teenagers or young adults. Almost all active shooters are male, though racial demographics are roughly proportional to the racial demographics of the US, with Whites and Hispanics under-represented, African-Americans slightly over-represented, and Middle-Easterners significantly over-represented.

These demographics come with one huge caviat, though, from which we may learn our most important lesson about mass shootings: the sample size we have to analyze is exceptionally small. Since 1998, the CPRC records an average of 3 events per year in the United States (though the casualties per event appears to be increasing). I'm conducting my own independent analysis (still forthcoming), and even using loser definitions, my results are the same.

Now you might say, "Well, that's 3 too many!" And you'd be right, of course. But what this means is that there is almost no chance of you ever being in a mass shooting. Even if we used the worst year of mass shooting deaths in history as our basis, you're still at least 20x more likely to be struck by lightning. Twice. You're 60x more likely to end up in the ER putting up your Christmas lights. This is not a very likely scenario. That said, as I often say, it's not the odds; it's the stakes. So despite the statistical reality, here are two frameworks to help you defend yourself in the event of a mass shooting.

Run, Hide, Fight

Public shooting events happen very quickly and without warning, so situational awareness is key. Planning ahead of time can increase your chances of surviving the event and making getting out of the aftermath safely. A response plan involves making a mental list of exits and escape routes, and sources of cover and concealment. There are three things to do whenever the shooting events take place:

  • Run: Never stay in the middle of shooting events; escape quickly and always encourage other people near you to do the same.

  • Hide: If you can't safely escape, look for a safe environment to hunker down in, so you're out of the shooter's sight. Keep any doors locked and remain silent. And please silence your cell phone!

  • Fight: This is by far the most dangerous option! But if you are unable to flee to safety or to hide effectively, then you're out of options. The best defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, which is why I'm a big fan of concealed carry laws. But if you don't have access to a firearm, your next best bet is to disarm the shooter. This involves closing the distance as fast as possible, ideally when you're not downrange or in immediate sight.

Caviat: The moment the police arrive, they're going to comb the building or the area looking for someone with a gun. If you're standing there with a gun in your hand, they'll have every reason to suspect that you are the shooter. Even holstered, they may discover the weapon and assume you're the bad guy. If you have successfully engaged the shooter, you need to IMMEDIATELY lay down on your stomach spread eagle, with the gun at least 8-10 feet away from you. If you can, call 911 and ask dispatch to inform the officers that a man matching your description has engaged and neutralized one shooter, and is now laying down as I've described.


Another framework for mass public shooting events, ALICE trains people in knowing how to respond to these deadly events. I don't like this one nearly as much, but I'll give it to you anyway. The steps are as follows:

  • A is for alert, which is the first notification of danger. The sooner you can notify all potential victims of the threat, the sooner they can respond.

  • L is for lockdown, which requires all doors to be locked and remain silent when evacuating is impossible.

  • I is for inform, where you must communicate with any officials about the shooter's location. Dialing 911 is the best way to do this.

  • C is for counter, meaning that distractions must be made to prevent the shooter from getting towards you

  • E is for evacuate, important for the safety of anyone avoiding the shooter.

No one wants to have an active shooter in their workplace or school or shopping center, but it's happened before and we have no reason to suspect that it can't happen again. Gun control hasn't stopped shooters in California or Paris. Gun-free zone signs haven't stopped them here. But by training in the basics of self-defense, including situational awareness, you can help your mind be at peace, and it might just save your life.

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