What Do We Know About an Active Shooter?

NBC News Article About the Tragic Loss of Life at UNC Charlotte, CPPS Founder Randy Spivey Weighs In

“My heart goes out to the families affected by the senseless shootings at UNC Charlotte. I would like to take this opportunity to re-emphasize what I said to the NBC reporter. People need to learn the “red flags” that can offer clues that someone could become violent against others or themselves. People don’t just “snap”. Active shooters are a growing problem. The public must become aware of the signs, so they can help authorities identify people in crisis and save them before they pick up that gun. Before first responders arrive, students are immediate responders, and they are in what we call the “extreme danger gap”, the timeframe before police or other law enforcement arrive. Many times, it’s what they do in those few minutes that determines the outcome.” – Randy Spivey, Founder CPPS

What Do We Know About an Active Shooter? – Bruce Gillooly

*A brief note: I use the term “shooter” in the singular, however, the same applies if you are confronted with multiple shooters. I also use the pronoun “he” because a majority of active shooters are male.

There is an active shooter in your building. Hopefully, you’ve completed some training and planning to help you survive the event. That training, of course, would have had to happen well in advance of the event to be effective. During your training, you probably learned about “run, hide or fight” as a guideline for surviving an active shooter, which is part of what we teach at the Center for Personal Protection and Safety (CPPS).

We also teach how to determine which of the three to choose based on your circumstances. Much of that decision is determined by the shooter; particularly, where he is located relative to your location. Ideally, you want to put as much distance between you and the shooter as quickly as possible, but only if doing so does not put you in the shooter’s crosshairs along the way.

If you determine that you cannot run because the shooter’s location blocks your escape, or you don’t know where the shooter is located, then you will likely opt to hide instead of run. In either case, run or hide, you do not want to gain the shooter’s attention because all shooters have something in common: they depend principally on their senses of sight and sound during the event to select their targets.

The Taoist philosopher Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, paraphrased Chinese proverb as follows: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” So, by knowing the things all shooters have in common, you gain a slight advantage over the shooter. All active shooters depend on sight and sound. This information might seem anti-climactic; however, it might surprise you to find out that a vast majority of victims failed to consider it. Many died because of it. I reached some obvious conclusions in my research Although obvious, they are still very worthy of publishing:

  1. Most people running from an active shooter were yelling, in many cases to warn others.
  2. Although warning others is the right thing to do, most of those people were yelling far louder than necessary, thus drawing undesirable attention to themselves and others.
  3. Those who chose to hide instead of run, made unproductive movements at unfortunate times.
  4. Although improving your hiding spot or re-positioning to better prepare for a possible fight with the shooter are smart decisions, doing so when you are not certain if the shooter is observing you is counterproductive.
  5. It is nearly impossible to prevent crying during a crisis, however, it can get you killed. Think through how you would try to control yourself under extreme duress. Take time now to do it. Discuss it at the dinner table. It’s a tough topic but worth the minor discomfort if it someday saves a life.

Like Sun Tzu professed, we must know our enemy. In this case our enemy is the shooter. So, what do we know about him?

  1. We can surmise that he has probably planned the event. Dr. Scott Thornsley, of Mansfield University in Pennsylvania believes that most shooters have a plan, although some plans are far more detailed than others. He will probably have plenty of killing power on hand, which means he probably has more than one weapon.
  2. According to Steve Cocco of SEC Centric, the plan is most likely “copy catted”, so it will resemble previous active shooter events. “Active shooters are studying and learning from past events … to learn about how to have a bigger shooting with more casualties. They want their events to be deadlier.”
  3. AIG’s Five Stages of an Active Shooter states; “The Active Shooter will continue to kill until he runs out of victims, ammunition, or is stopped…he is fully dedicated to going for the “top score,” which is measured in kills.”
  4. The attacker is accustomed to being the victim and is unwilling to remain one. Once he decides to start his attack, he leaves behind his past as a victim and welcomes his new role as victimizer, and he has no intention to go back. This is paraphrased from Vaughn Baker of Strategos International and corroborated by a 1999 study conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Sun Tzu also professed simplicity, so for his sake, I will summarize what we likely know about the active shooter. He’s an extremely angry male who is thoroughly convinced he has been unfairly victimized, so he planned his attack to maximally victimize someone else. On one hand, this is a generalization and will not help very much when you are confronted by the shooter. On the other hand, based on this information, it is helpful to know the shooter is in constant motion and in constant search of new targets. Hence, we know his body is full of adrenaline and his senses are heightened, especially his sight and hearing.

Knowing he’s male and angry is only mildly helpful during the event. Knowing you must be keenly aware of any movement you make or sound you emit during the event is critically helpful. The take away from this article, more than anything else, is to gain full control of your body and actions during an active shooter event and only move or make sound when it is advantageous, and only at a level that will produce your desired results without unnecessarily alerting the shooter. This is hard to do, especially if you don’t have a background in the military or law enforcement, but it is trainable and should be emphasized during training. Incorporating this information into your training and planning could save lives during an event.