How to Survive a Mass Shooting by Wes Siler

How To Survive A Mass Shooting 

As a kid, fire drills taught you fire safety. And you haven’t been killed by a fire. Your parents trained similarly for nuclear war. With 248 mass shootings in US in the 238 days of 2015, it’s time we began treating those the same way. This is how. 

That statistic is drawn from, a community-sourced tracking tool. “The old FBI definition of Mass Murder (not even the most recent one) is four or more people murdered in one event,” the site’s creators explain of what makes it different from law enforcement-sourced numbers. “It is only logical that a Mass Shooting is four or more people shot in one event.”

This is not just another article meant to scare you. I write about adventure travel in the outdoors and, through that, I live a life of managed risk. I’ve rescued myself and saved the lives of others. I’m able to do all that because I try to learn everything I can about the risks I face, learn how to overcome them, and then approach any potentially dangerous situation prepared for it both mentally and physically. And that’s why I’m writing this article. Like any reasonable person, the prospect of being caught up in a mass shooting terrifies me. It’s not how I want to go out, personally, and I’d also like to find substantial advice to give to my loved ones.

This article isn’t going to focus on shooting back or the politics around guns. Most people don’t carry them every day, and that’s who this article is for: most people. Neither will we consider the implications of why these shootings occur; instead we’ll simply focus on what you and I can do to survive them. This is a practical guide, not an attempt to cover the mass shooting topic comprehensively. 

To compile it, I conducted my own research, then interviewed an expert in the field. Chris — we’ll leave the last name off — is a former Marine, former SWAT team member and is now a specialist in “Active Shooter” events. He traveled to and studied the shootings at, “Columbine, Virginia Tech, Ft. Hood and about 20 others.” His expertise will be woven in, throughout the article.

Mass Shooting Prevention

“Prevention is the best cure,” goes the old saying. Prompted by Columbine and other high profile school shootings, the Secret Service and Department of Education embarked on a collaborative study of “targeted violence” in schools back in the late ‘90s. Examining 37 incidents spanning 1974 to 2000, the study made the following conclusions:
  • Incidents of targeted violence at schools rarely were sudden impulsive acts.
  • Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack.
  • There was no useful or accurate “profile” of students who engaged in targeted school violence.
  • Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures.
  • Moreover many had considered or attempted suicide.
  • Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted or injured by others prior to the attack.
  • Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack.
  • Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement interventions.
  • In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity.
  • Most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help.
  • Prior to the incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack.
While each of these findings is important and may be useful in detecting and preventing future attacks, the final two findings in particular highlight further areas of inquiry. First, the perpetrators exhibited concerning behavior prior to the attack in 93% of the incidents. This suggests that attacks might have been avoided with proper observation techniques and more open sharing of information. Second, and more significant, at least one other person had some type of knowledge of the attacker’s plan in 81% of the incidents and more than one person had such knowledge in 59% of the incidents. Of those individuals who had prior knowledge, 93% were peers of the perpetrators – friends, schoolmates, or siblings.
Despite the frequency of advanced knowledge of the attacks, they still occurred. Why? The study interviewed people around the shootings to find out, drawing six conclusions from their answers:
  1. The relationships between the bystanders and the attackers, as well as when and how the bystanders came upon information about the planned attacks, varied.
  2. Bystanders shared information related to a threat along a continuum that ranged from bystanders who took no action to those who actively conveyed the information.
  3. School climate affected whether bystanders came forward with information related to the threats.
  4. Some bystanders disbelieved that the attacks would occur and thus did not report them.
  5. Bystanders often misjudged the likelihood and immediacy of the planned attack.
  6. In some situations, parents and parental figures influenced whether the bystander reported the information related to the potential attack to school staff or other adults in positions of authority
So what can we do as a society to facilitate the sharing of information and thus prevent future “targeted violence”? The study makes three recommendations. They apply to schools, but could just as easily be adapted to businesses, local governments, communities and similar. Heck, even police departments themselves. Does your local cop shop provide a welcoming environment?
  1. Schools should ensure a climate in which students feel comfortable sharing information they have regarding a potentially threatening situation with a responsible adult.
  2. School districts are encouraged to develop policies that address the many aspects of reporting a threat.
  3. Teachers, administrators, and other faculty should be trained on how to properly respond to students who provide them with information about a threatening or disturbing situation, as well as how to deal with actual threats.
You’ve seen the posters and heard the announcements in train stations: If you see something, say something. And, if you’re in a position of authority, create the kind of environment where people feel safe to do so. And, if you receive such information, whether you’re in a formal position of authority or not, consider it your duty to make sure that information is collected, processed and, if necessary, acted on.

The Active Shooter

Law enforcement has a name for the person(s) committing mass shootings, they call them “Active Shooters.”
The Department of Homeland Security defines that term:
An Active Shooter is an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area; in most cases, active shooters use firearms(s) and there is no pattern or method to their selection of victims.
Active shooter situations are unpredictable and evolve quickly. Typically, the immediate deployment of law enforcement is required to stop the shooting and mitigate harm to victims.
Because active shooter situations are often over within 10 to 15 minutes, before law enforcement arrives on the scene, individuals must be prepared both mentally and physically to deal with an active shooter situation.
Active shooter situations are becoming more frequent.

Where Mass Shootings Occur

There seem to be two types of target: a business or organization targeted specifically for its beliefs, actions or role in the perpetrator’s life, or a place where large numbers of people gather.
That’s vague! And likely unhelpful, but you can probably use common sense to determine the (still slim) likelihood that an event, venue or organization you’re visiting could potentially be a target. And to exercise basic vigilance and preparedness when you’re visiting them; we’ll cover that below.
Mass shootings in America have taken place at schools, movie theaters, shopping malls, offices, and essentially any sort of public venue full of people you can imagine. Many of these places — airports for example — now employ incredible amounts of security to prevent those and other crimes, but even within those otherwise secure locations, vulnerabilities exist. The Department of Homeland Security identified airport baggage claim areas as one such area in a presentation I listened to from 2008. But I’m aware of no additional security precautions that have been taken to secure them since. Surveillance isn’t enough, one common attribute of mass shooters is a willingness to end their own lives. 

“We’re soft targets,” laments Chris. “A shooter’s goal is to kill as many people as possible in the shortest time possible.”

I’m trying not to sound alarmist here, it’s just that there really is no identifiable pattern presented in any literature or that can be determined by looking at the location of shootings. If you’re somewhere with a lot of people and minimal security or somewhere that’s been pissing people off — the military recruitment center in Tennessee comes to mind — I’d just exercise basic levels of paying attention and smart decision making.

What You Can Do To Prepare

“57 years ago, we implemented fire drills in schools,” says Chris. “Since then, we’ve had remarkably few people killed in school fires.” 

Let’s start with basic survival advice for anything.

In general, it’s a good idea to wear shoes and clothes you can run, jump and move in. That’s as applicable to fires, earthquakes and other disasters as it is to mass shootings. High heels make your butt look great, I’ll give you that, but keeping a pair of running shoes under your desk or being prepared to kick the heels off could save your life. 

Guys can either buy dress shoes with grippy soles or have those added by a cobbler. Or just prioritize the ability to move if you’re dressing casually. 

Imagine an act as simple as using the emergency exit stairs in a high-rise office building in Manhattan. Will you be able to quickly and safely move down dozens of floors in the stuff you wear to work? What about what you wear out on a Friday night? 

In Boy Scouts, I had that whole Be Prepared thing drilled into my head and I’ve never been let down by it. They also created a life long fascination with knives. The ones I carry every day include a carbide glass breaker on the pommel. I’ve used that to pull a guy out of a car wreck, but in this scenario it sure would do a good job of eliminating a barrier to flight presented by a locked glass door or window. And how many of those are there in public places?

It’s also a good, general idea, to dress in an inconspicuous manner. In all the government and law enforcement literature I’ve read researching this piece, there’s a strong emphasis that no pattern of victims can be established — they seem to be chosen at random, simply the easiest available targets. But if I was running through a crowd as someone was shooting at us, I wouldn’t want to be the one guy wearing dayglo orange in a sea of grey and black.

As with all other emergencies, a practical knowledge of first aid and the equipment to perform it are also vital. Treat any immediately important wounds you have yourself before assisting others. Pressure is your friend for stopping blood pumping out of a big wound and this is one scenario where modern tourniquets, as used by the military, may be a good thing to have.

What specific preparedness advice for shootings do the authorities have? As is good practice already, be constantly identifying emergency exits and routes as you move through public areas. In your office and along your regular commuting route, take the time to catalog exits in your head, know where they go and how to use them. Experts say you should have two escape routes in your mind at all times, which gives you options depending on the direction and movement of the threat or any impact it may have on the environment.

In a fixed environment, where you work regularly or are spending an extended period of time, also have a plan on where you can find concealment (a hiding place that protects you from sight, but not from bullets) and/or cover (a hiding place that protects you from bullets, if not sight also).
Such an environment should restrict access already. This is why a visitor’s pass to a big office building will only let you take the elevator to certain floors or only open certain doors. But, gaining the ability to further limit access to your personal space is even better. Does you office door have a lock? If so, how strong is it? A cheap rubber door stop can provide reasonable security, instantly. Take one with you when you’re staying in hotels in shitty parts of the world, and, if you have a door to use it on, keep one in your desk, too. 

You’ll find more practical survival advice like that in Robert Young Pelton’s excellent book, Come Back Alive

Authorities also suggest you familiarize yourself with what gunfire sounds like. Note that a small caliber pistol may sound very different from a shotgun or high-velocity rifle. And will also likely sound a lot different to what you hear in the movies. Knowing what gunfire sounds like will give your response that much more lead time. 

According to this FBI analysis of mass shootings, the median response time for law enforcement is just three minutes. I guess that’s the benefit of these things occurring in public places full of people — there already tend to be cops in the area. Interestingly, that and other reports also identify the humble patrolman as the first and most important responder in these incidents; it simply takes SWAT and other heavily armed units too long to get there. 

But, that’s not to say you’ll be safe once the first cop arrives on the scene. Another key hallmark of these events is the act of shooters barricading themselves in and taking hostages — remember, many are suicidal already, or at least prepared to take their own lives in pursuit of their goal of taking yours.
Preparedness of workplaces, businesses and public places is also vital. FEMA recommends things like removable building plans, so first responders can grab a map on the way in, practice drills and even safe rooms. You can read more about that here, but hopefully the business or entity in question has already implemented those recommendations.

Responding To A Mass Shooting

Think you’re a hero? While examples of members of the public overcoming and disarming armed assailants exist — the Americans on the French train last week — so do instances of even armed citizens being killed by mass shooters.

Such was the case in Las Vegas, last June, when Jerad and Amanda Miller opened fire in a WalMart. A customer carrying a concealed handgun drew it on Jerad, only to be shot from behind by Amanda.
Another characterization made evident by research on the topic shows that most mass shooters are very heavily armed, typically employing assault rifles, shotguns and large caliber pistols, as well as body armor. The limited stopping power of a concealed carry pistol would likely be no match, particularly if there’s more than one shooter. 

In January, our friends at The Truth About Guns staged a recreation of the Charlie Hebdo attacks (above video) in an attempt to see what would happen had anyone in that office been armed. They ran the scenario nine different times, with different variables, but the terrorists won each time. Their reluctant conclusion? “Run.”

And that is universally the guidance provided by government and law enforcement agencies too: If you want to survive a mass shooting, run away, run away fast, and don’t let anyone or anything slow you down. 

The first item in the Department of Homeland Security’s “Active Shooter: How To Respond” pamphlet is, “RUN.” It continues:
  • If there is an accessible escape path, attempt to evacuate the premises. Be sure to:
  • Have an escape route and plan in mind
  • Evacuate regardless of whether others agree to follow
  • Leave your belongings behind
  • Help others escape, if possible
  • Prevent individuals from entering an area where the active shooter may be
  • Keep your hands visible
  • Follow the instructions of any police officers
  • Do not attempt to move wounded people
  • Call 911 when you are safe
Item number two is, “HIDE. If evacuation is not possible, find a place to hide where the active shooter is less likely to find you.”
Your hiding place should:
  • Be out of the active shooter’s view
  • Provide protection if shots are fired in your direction (i.e., an office with a closed and locked door)
  • Not trap you or restrict your options for movement
  • To prevent an active shooter from entering your hiding place:
  • Lock the door
  • Blockade the door with heavy furniture
  • Silence your cell phone and/or pager
  • Turn off any source of noise (i.e., radios, televisions)
  • Hide behind large items (i.e., cabinets, desks)
  • Remain quiet
Finally, if you have no other options, you’ll have to defend yourself. DHS’s advice is:
“As a last resort, and only when your life is in imminent danger, attempt to disrupt and/or incapacitate the active shooter by:”
  • Acting as aggressively as possible against him/her
  • Throwing items and improvising weapons
  • Yelling
  • Committing to your actions
That’s pretty weak self-defense advice, so allow me to provide something a little more substantial. You’re obviously best off taking self-defense training (classes dedicated to active shooters are even available), but not everyone is prepared to do that. Your priorities should be to control the shooter’s weapon, pushing or pulling it so it can’t fire on you, then attacking vulnerable parts of his body, like the knees, eyes, ears, throat and groin. An improvised weapon like a pair of scissors held like a knife might help and a group will be more powerful than an individual. 

But seriously, run away if you can. 

“Think of a herd of gazelles in the wild,” adds Chris, our law enforcement expert. “They’ll get attacked by one or two or three lions and what is their immediate response? They run away. A lion may get one of them, but the herd escapes. Every second that you’re moving away from a shooter you’re making it harder for him to shoot you. Anything you can do to get away and increase that distance will help. Also consider the effect a crowd of fleeing people has on an attacker: confusion and bewilderment. Running away is your best defense.”

“We used to teach people their first priority was to hide,” continues Chris. “But, further experience with these events has shown us that hiding and barricading yourself in is not as effective as running away. To hide is to effectively be trapped.” 

“People ask me, ‘What if the shooter is outside the door?’ Well, what would you do if a fire was outside your door? You find another way out. This happened to a professor during the Virginia Tech shooting. He broke a window and told his students to jump out while he barricaded the door. He was killed, but all of his students survived.” 

“And this is survival,” emphasizes Chris. “Even if you break a leg, even if you are cut by broken glass, you are alive. Get out in any way you can.” 

“If you have to fight?” Chris is honest about your chances. “Well, sometimes that gazelle can beat a lion, but it’s not often.”

I’d also like to add how important actually dialing 911 yourself is. Once it’s safe to do so, make sure that happens. Often, in a crowd, people have the tendency to assume someone else has or is doing this, then it doesn’t happen soon enough. And, the sooner you call for help, the sooner it will be on the way. 

“Statistically speaking, we arrive about eight minutes after a shooting begins,” says Chris. “That 3-minute response time is true, but on average it also takes 5 minutes for someone to call us and report the shooting. The second we get that call, I’m going to break every traffic law in the book to get to you — there’s no time to be saved there — so anything you can do to alert us sooner is how the situation gets resolved sooner.” 

If you have your senses about you enough to handle this, DHS says the following information will be most helpful when you call:
  • Location of the active shooter
  • Number of shooters, if more than one
  • Physical description of shooter/s
  • Number and type of weapons held by the shooter/s
  • Number of potential victims at the location

How To Deal With The Police

So you’ve gotten away from the armed madman. But now, a bunch of really hyped-up dudes carrying really big guns are going to come running through the doors, looking for something to shoot. Knowing what to expect from them will make the experience a lot less traumatic. 

The first thing you need to understand is that the first guys through that door won’t be there to help you. They’re there to drill holes in the armed madman. Your job is to make sure they don’t think that’s you, and to get out of their way, nothing more. 

“Law enforcement’s purpose is to stop the active shooter as soon as possible,” explains DHS. “Officers will proceed directly to the area in which the last shots were heard.”
  • Officers usually arrive in teams of four (4)
  • Officers may wear regular patrol uniforms or external bulletproof vests, Kevlar helmets, and other tactical equipment
  • Officers may be armed with rifles, shotguns, handguns
  • Officers may use pepper spray or tear gas to control the situation
  • Officers may shout commands, and may push individuals to the ground for their safety
How you behave when you first see them is key.
  • Remain calm, and follow officers’ instructions
  • Put down any items in your hands (i.e., bags, jackets)
  • Immediately raise hands and spread fingers
  • Keep hands visible at all times
  • Avoid making quick movements toward officers such as holding on to them for safety
  • Avoid pointing, screaming and/or yelling
  • Do not stop to ask officers for help or direction when evacuating, just proceed in the direction from which officers are entering the premises
“The first officers to arrive to the scene will not stop to help injured persons,” continues DHS. “Expect rescue teams comprised of additional officers and emergency medical personnel to follow the initial officers. These rescue teams will treat and remove any injured persons. They may also call upon able-bodied individuals to assist in removing the wounded from the premises.”

At this point, you’re going to be fairly traumatized, but it may not be time to go home yet. Law enforcement will direct you to an assembly point or holding area and keep you there until the situation is resolved and all the witnesses have been identified and possibly even questioned.

The DHS concludes, “Do not leave until law enforcement authorities have instructed you to do so.”
Learn by dramatically narrated stock footage videos? Luckily for you, DHS has summed much of this up thusly.

Post written by Wes Siler

Department of Homeland Security: Active Shooter Preparedness
United States Secret Service and Department of Education: Prior Knowledge of Potential School-Based Violence
Department of Homeland Security: Active Shooter Virtual Roundtable
Department of Homeland Security: Active Shooter: How To Respond
Federal Emergency Management Agency: Active Shooter: What You Can Do
Federal Bureau of Intelligence: Active Shooter Events from 2000 to 2012
Homicide Studies: Mass Shootings in America
Congressional Research Service: Mass Murder with Firearms
Robert Young Pelton: Come Back Alive


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