Monday, August 6, 2012

What to do When Bullets Start Flying (Responding to an Active Shooter)

By Gamal Hennessy
Most of my writing deals with crime fiction, but I often come across things in my research that can be helpful in real life, especially when you consider recent events.
The news over the past year has emphasized the idea that brutal massacres are not limited to war zones or ghettos. They are happening in summer camps (Norway), movies theaters (Colorado) and now churches (Wisconsin).
While the mainstream media will trot out the usual suspects from the pro and anti gun lobby, it is unlikely that meaningful debate or change will come out of the latest crime. There will be no major change in American gun laws because there is no political will to enact such a law. Even if a more stringent law could be passed, there is no practical way to collect and manage all the firearms in circulation. It would be easier to find and confiscate everyone’s iPhone at this point than take away their gun.
US society is not moving toward a period of fewer guns. If anything, recent events will inspire more amateurs to arm themselves in the naïve belief that a weapon alone will make them safer. This means more people will be armed on a regular basis. The standard response by government authorities and corporations is to implement armed security to respond to future threats. But armed security is only a deterrent to a rational actor. Many of the lone domestic terrorists among us are not rational and will not be deterred by security. They will simply find a new less secure target.
As members of an armed society with potential murderers who could strike at anytime, we are faced with two choices; hide in our homes or adopt principles that can help us avoid danger that might occur. This essay is meant to be an introduction to concepts of escaping an active shooter and increasing your chance of survival.
Defining an Active Shooter
In this essay, an active shooter is any individual firing repeatedly into a crowd. He is not threatening to shoot. He has already started shooting. He is not shooting at someone specific (as far as anyone can tell). He is simply trying to kill as many people as possible. There are other concepts that are applicable with other scenarios, but I’m going to focus on the scenario that has popped up with more and more frequency.
Preparing for an Active Shooter
If a gunman can appear at anytime in any location then it is impossible to be completely safe at all times. But there are preparations you can take to increase your ability to get out of danger.
  1. Get your body used to moving: If you never run you can’t expect to instantly become Usain Bolt if bullets start flying. There is a certain amount of energy that comes from fear but the more you learn how to use that energy before hand, the better off you will be. The type of running I’m referring to isn’t the jogging you do in the park to fit into your skinny jeans. This is running as if someone is shooting at you. Periodically sprinting (and not in a straight line) will give your body more exposure to the type of movement it has to do in an active shooter situation.
  2. Dressing for a retreat: The lady in the super tight skirt with the six inch heels and two purses isn’t going to be able to move very fast. The guy with the heavy backpack and the gym bag strapped to him on the train is in the same boat. I’m not suggesting that you only leave the house in Under Armor and track shoes, but you have to balance your wardrobe and luggage with the reality that you might have to leave it behind, assuming you actually have a chance to get rid of it. Lighter is faster and faster is better.
  3. Decide where you are going: Being able to move isn’t very helpful if you don’t know where you’re going. Trying to find the exits in the chaos of a human stampede trying to escape an active shooter is challenging at best. Whenever possible, it is prudent to locate the exits in your surroundings before you settle into whatever activity is on the agenda. This is also a good time to figure out if there are multiple exits or just one. If trouble occurs you can move yourself and your loved ones to the exits without any discussion or thought.
Reacting to the Active Shooter
The best writing I have found on this subject comes from a site called No Nonsense Self Defense. Violence expert Marc MacYoung has identified three main steps in avoiding an active shooter.
  1. Get out of the line of fire: move to a place where the barrel of the gun isn’t pointing
  2. Get out of the shooter’s field of vision: move to a place where the shooter can’t see you and will be less likely to aim at you and put you back in the line of fire
  3. Get out of the area where the shooter is located: move so far away from the shooter that he cannot continue shooting at you.
Becoming the Rabbit
In their seminal book On Combat, Dave Grossman and Loren Christensen divide the world into three types of people using the analogy of a sheep herd. The civilians who are potential victims are sheep. The criminals who prey on society are wolves. The police, military and first responders who have to deal with the criminals are sheep dogs.
It is difficult to determine where the wolves will strike next. The sheep dogs can’t be expected to be every where we need protection so we need a new script. I’m not suggesting increasing the number of armed civilians and creating a society of wolves. I am advocating a different model all together. Instead of lying down like sheep waiting for the slaughter, we can choose to be come rabbits. We are not involved in committing or stopping crime. We are only interested in getting out. Hopefully it is a set of skills we will never have to use.
Of course, following these steps cannot guarantee your safety if you encounter an active shooter. There are many variables that could hinder your escape including your own paralysis, a lack of exits, a lack of warning or a combination of all these factors. But consciously deciding how you will react and preparing for that reaction increases your chances of living through a horrible incident.

Gamal Hennessy


  1. The pundits can parse forever, people can wring their hands & pray but until there is political will to enact more stringent laws nothing will happen. It's madness & innocent people pay the price.

  2. Came here after seeing your remarks in the Crime writers' section on LinkedIn. This is indeed good food for thought.

    I returned home from Vietnam more than a little hyper-vigilant and have been that way for most of the past 40 years. Having been a motorcycle rider for many years also contributes to this heightened sense of awareness - carrying on tasks of the day while remaining aware of the many slight things that could spell disaster.

    The question is: How do ordinary people achieve this steady state of awareness without having PTSD or some other steady current to help them maintain a healthy sense of environmental awareness?

    Awareness among individuals won't keep somebody from having a violent psychotic break with reality, but having even a small advantage over the survival odds is a good thing in this crazy world.

  3. I think that you're right about the importance of awareness in daily life (not just to watch out for mass murderers). When I was training, I was taught that spatial and situational awareness are much more powerful tools than a good punch or kick.

    I also think it is difficult to expect teachers, students and other at risk groups to have or maintain this kind of awareness. That is why I wrote a piece that I think deals with the issue in a way that takes reality into account. Please let me know what you think if you get a chance to read it.


  4. Heading over there. I did martial arts training as well and awareness was/is the key. When we were testing for senior belts, you sparred simultaneously with four or five or more senior students and, eventually, against multiple instructors. The purpose was not victory, but survival. Knowing without thinking what needed to happen next. People who are good in crisis are people who have been in crisis. Military training is the same.

    But unless you make martial arts training part of all school physical fitness curricula, how to accomplish that?

    Frankly, I think martial arts training and thinking wouldn't be a bad thing in this world we are now in.