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How to survive a mass public (“active”) shooting – tips for avoiding the shooter’s sights and getting out alive

Random Mass Public Shootings

Columbine shooters on surveillance videoDespite what many believe, random mass public shootings are becoming fairly common. For instance, during six months in 2012, there were at least six random, active shooter incidents (one in a drive by shooting spree killing 3 people, two in schools killing a total of 10 people, and three in public venues killing a total of 20 people). In October 2014, Harvard Research showed the rate of active shooter incidents has tripled since 2012.  Mass shootings accelerated each year since (due to the “media contagion effect’). In the event that you are caught in or near a public shooting rampage, there are steps you can take to survive.

Preliminary step – Be aware

Many organizations have procedures in place that they are to follow if a shooting occurs. If practical and possible, you should understand and be familiar with the policy and procedures of the organization you are visiting. These “lockdown” procedures are almost always in place for schools. Most educational institution policies instruct students to stay away from doors and windows, lock the doors, and turn off the classroom lights.

Always be alert and conscientious about monitoring abnormal behavior. In many instances there were preliminary signs that the shooter was mentally ill and that they had contemplated a public mass shooting before committing the act. Often they had mentioned their “idea” to others beforehand. An individual who publicly mentions their desire to randomly kill or brings a weapon (or weapons) to a place where they are not allowed, should be reported to the authorities (police, supervisor, etc.) without hesitation.

In addition, be aware of anyone that does not “fit in”.  Challenge people who do not have a name tag when they should or who are carrying suspicious packages.  Profiling is often considered socially incorrect but everyone, including authorities, use profiling quite effectively to identify persons who stand out as “red flags” (research profiling shows mass shooters share three traits: rampant depression, social isolation, and pathological narcissism).

And of course, always be aware of your surroundings.  The best survivalists will always scan an area when they first enter, making mental notes of hallways, narrow paths, and exits.

When you are near the shooter

If you are in the immediate area of the shooter, attempt to remain calm and follow these steps.

Take cover

Your first action should be to take cover behind the most solid, nearby object you can find. Then continue with the following steps.

Discretely find an exit

If there is an exit or window nearby, and you are reasonably sure you will not be noticed, exit the area immediately. If you do not see an exit or escape route, ask someone familiar with the area if there is a way out (or watch their actions) and then evaluate whether or not to take this route of escape.

If exiting an upper floor area, be prepared to brace yourself for a fall (roll when you hit the ground). Experts note that persons who discreetly remove themselves from the situation have the highest rates of survival. Make sure you are not seen by the shooter though. You do not want to draw attention to yourself in a mass public shooting situation.

Flee with a purposeful pattern of escape

Surveillance video showing shooterIf an exit is identified, flee in a zig-zag manner or at an angle to the shooter’s forward position (i.e. do not fleet straight away from the shooter which makes you much easier to target).

Stay low, horizontal, and face down

If there is no exit and no cover, stay hidden, low, and horizontal. Lie flat on the floor, face down with your arms near your head (but not covering your head). The facedown position protects your internal organs and may trick the shooter into thinking you are already dead. The flat profile also presents a smaller target profile for the shooter and may even cause the shooter to overlook you entirely. A low profile is also less likely to be struck by stray bullets.

Stay away from others – spread out. Congregating in a tight group helps the shooter achieve his objective – to kill as many people as possible.

Try to control your breathing. Shooters often shoot at the most excited persons and lying in a prone position while maintaining a slow, shallow breathing pattern may make the shooter think you are already dead.

Note that people in a survival (fight or flee) situation will stop at nothing to escape the situation and thus, the risk of being trampled by others is always present. If possible, lie close to a fixed, unmovable object that fleeing persons will have to avoid when making their escape attempt.

Remember, if the shooter is about to shoot you and you are already fleeing, run in a zig-zag pattern to make it more difficult for the shooter to hit you. The shooter may still shoot at you but you will not be an easy target.

Talk them down or take them down

Police investigate and gather evidence after a public shootingIf the shooter is about to shoot you at point blank range, *briefly* try talking to the shooter while complying to their demands (“passive compliance” is proven to be effective). Talking will typically not work with a mentally deranged shooter so do not spend too much time pleading for compassion. Although we may want to believe otherwise, it is highly unlikely that they will care.

If you are certain you are about to be shot, shift into “attack mode”.  Try throwing objects at the shooter to distract or disarm him. If there is a fairly sizable solid object nearby, you may hold it in front of you to deflect the shots or to shield yourself as you charge the shooter in an attempt to disarm him.

If you are within arm’s reach of the shooter, you may be able to disarm him. If the shooter is using a rifle, grab the barrel and turn it away from you while striking the assailant with your other hand or kicking them with your feet. As the assailant instinctively pulls the weapon’s barrel away from you, follow their movement to put them off balance and attempt to grab the butt end of the rifle while moving quickly towards them. With both ends secured in your hands, you can use the weapon as leverage as you knee or kick the assailant in the body. If the weapon is a pistol, try to quickly grab it from the top. With many pistol models, grabbing the weapon from the top will prevent the firing action from completing as you attempt to wrench the weapon from the shooter’s hand.

Understand that most random shooters will have multiple weapons on hand. If you disarm the shooter, you must still evaluate the situation and follow the above-mentioned survival attempts as the shooter rearms themselves.

If safe from the shooter, attempt to help others around you. Control bleeding quickly.

When you are not near the shooter but hear the shots

Location: not in the immediate area

If you are not in the immediate area but hear shots being fired, get away from the area as quickly as possible. It seems counter to common sense but often a sense of wonder or shock occurs which causes people to freeze in place, often watching (or shooting video) as the shooting unfolds.  Do not stay around to watch but rather, put as much distance between you and the shooter as possible. The further you are from the area, the more difficult it is for the shooter to obtain a mark on you (and the less likely you’ll be hit by a random shot).  If you are aware of the shooter’s position, flee away from the shooter with a purpose (e.g. zig-zag escape route – see “Flee with a purposeful patter” above).  If you are unaware of the shooter’s position, try to deduce the shooter’s vantage point – often a high point with good visibility.  Check this article for details on sniper tactics and avoidance.

After you have put sufficient distance between you and the shooter, call emergency services and report the incident.

Location: inside the building

If you are in a separate room, turn off the lights and if possible, lock or barricade the door with heavy objects (inward moving doors are ideal for blockades). Try to discretely cover any windows or other openings so the shooter cannot see into the room. Move away from the door. In some instances, the shooters have chosen to simply shoot through the door rather than enter the room. If there are other people in the room with you, tell them to spread apart (people tend to huddle together during a crisis). If there is a phone in the room, call the police and leave the phone off the hook while you seek cover inside the room or escape through an exit or window.

If you are shot

Gunshot wounds are survivable. If you have been shot, commit to yourself that you will survive and begin taking the necessary actions to ensure survival. Firstly, seek medical assistance immediately. Try to stay calm and concentrate on slowing down your breathing. This will decrease the bleeding and help prevent shock. Do not examine the wound too much (this can lead to panic). Cover the wound and apply direct pressure. If the wound is a sucking chest wound, you can use a credit card or other hard, flat object to cover the area. If there are persons nearby to assist, ask them to help apply pressure to the wound.  Seek some sort of body covering to help retain body heat.

What to expect following a public shoot-out

Police surround the bulding in the 2012 Aurora Colorado public shootingFollowing a public shoot-out, wait for help to arrive. If you are hiding, be cautious about exposing yourself to the police. In some instances, the shooters have impersonated the police in an attempt to trick the victims into exposing themselves. Have the person clearly identify themselves as the police.

When the police arrive, they will most likely treat everyone as a suspect. Tension will be high.  Do not approach them – let them come to you. Keep your hands visible at all times. Listen for their instructions and follow them quickly with no argument or conversation.

Note that emergency services are trained to understand the situation before entering it. Do not be surprised if emergency personnel stay some distance from the area and approach slowly, in a controlled and cautious manner, rather than rushing in to assist the injured.

If the shooting is still going on, stay calm and remain at a safe distance away from the situation. Police (God bless them) are also taught to bypass what they first encounter and go straight towards the sound of gunfire so do not be surprised if they pass you up on their way to the danger zone.

Additional information

The five stages of an active shooter

There are typically five stages of an active shooter (the best time to stop the shooter is in stages one through three).  They are:

  1. Fantasy stage: The shooter daydreams of shooting and fantasizes about news coverage resulting from his “heroics”.  He idolizes other shooters and may post his fantasies on the Internet.
  2. Planning stage: The shooter begins to decide who, what, when, where, and how, likely putting his plans in writing. He may discuss his plan with others and seek an accomplice.
  3. Preparation stage: The shooter will begin to stockpile weapons and explosives while training with the weapons.  He will likely begin surveillance of the target.
  4. Approach stage: The shooter has made his plans and has decided to act.  He is making his way towards the target.  He may call people he knows that could be in the target area and suggest the avoid the area.
  5. Implementation stage: The shooters opens fire.  Once he begins his attack, he will continue to kill and injure until he runs out of victims or ammunition.  He will often commit suicide, ending his rampage.

Mass Shootings history

The following is a brief history of mass shootings through 2013. Note the general increase in frequency through teach decade.

The 80’s (8 shootings)

1982: Welding shop shooting: Junior high school teacher Carl Robert Brown, 51, opened fire inside a welding shop and was later shot dead by a witness as he fled the scene: 8

1984: Dallas Nightclub Shooting: Abdelkrim Belachheb, 39, opened fire at an upscale nightclub after a woman rejected his advances. He was later arrested: 6

1984: San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre: James Oliver Huberty, 41, opened fire in a McDonald’s restaurant before he was shot dead by a police officer: 22

1986: United States Postal Service shooting: Postal worker Patrick Sherrill, 44, opened fire at a post office before committing suicide: 15

1987: Shopping centers spree killings: Retired librarian William Cruse, 59, was paranoid neighbors gossiped that he was gay. He drove to several supermarkets, killing as he went before being captured by police and placed on death row: 6

1988: ESL shooting: Former ESL Incorporated employee Richard Farley, 39, gunned down seven people at his former workplace. He was later arrested and now sits on death row at San Quentin: 7

1989: Stockton Schoolyard Shooting: Patrick Purdy, 26, an alcoholic with a police record, launched an assault at Cleveland Elementary School, where many young Southeast Asian immigrants were enrolled. Purdy killed himself with a shot to the head: 6

1989: Standard Gravure Shooting: Joseph T. Wesbecker, 47, gunned down eight people at his former workplace before committing suicide: 9

The 90’s (23 shootings)

1990: GMAC Massacre: James Edward Pough, 42, opened fire at a General Motors Acceptance Corporation office before committing suicide. The day prior he shot a pimp and prostitute: 10

1991: Luby’s Massacre: George Hennard, 35, drove his pickup truck into a Luby’s cafeteria and opened fire before committing suicide: 24

1991: University of Iowa Shooting: Former graduate student Gang Lu, 28, went on a rampage on campus and then committed suicide at the scene: 6

1991: Royal Oak Postal Shootings: Laid-off postal worker Thomas McIlvane, 31, opened fire at his former workplace before committing suicide: 5

1992: Lindhurst High School Shooting: Former Lindhurst High School student Eric Houston, 20, angry about various personal failings, killed students and a teacher at school. After an eight-hour standoff he was captured then later sentenced to death: 4

1992: Watkins Glen Killings: John T. Miller, 50, killed four child-support workers in a county office building before turning the gun on himself. Miller was upset about a court order garnishing his paycheck to cover overdue child-support payments:  5

1993: 101 California Street Shootings: Failed businessman Gian Luigi Ferri, 55, opened fire throughout an office building before he committed suicide inside as police pursued him: 9

1993:  Luigi’s Shooting: Army Sgt. Kenneth Junior French, 22, opened fire inside Luigi’s Italian restaurant while ranting about gays in the military. He was shot then arrested: 4

1993: Long Island Railroad Massacre: Colin Ferguson, 35, opened fire on an eastbound Long Island Rail Road train as it approached a Garden City station. He was later arrested: 6

1993: Chuck-E-Cheese Shootings: Nathan Dunlap, 19, a recently fired Chuck E. Cheese’s employee, went on a rampage through his former workplace and was arrested the following day. He now awaits execution on death row: 4

1994: Air Force Base Shooting: Former airman Dean Allen Mellberg, 20, open fired inside a hospital at the Fairchild Air Force Base before he was shot dead by a military police officer: 5

1995: Walter Rossler Company Massacre: Disgruntled former metallurgist James Daniel Simpson, 28, open fired throughout the Walter Rossler Company where he had worked. He then exited the building and committing suicide: 6

1996: Fort lauderdale Revenge Shootings: Fired city park employee Clifton McCree, 41, opened fire on former coworkers he called “racist devils” inside their municipal trailer in an act of revenge after failing a drug test. He then committed suicide: 6

1997: R.E. Phelon Company Shooting: Ex-con Hastings Arthur Wise, 43, opened fire at the R.E. Phelon Company in retaliation for being fired after an argument with a supervisor. He attempted suicide by ingesting insecticide, failed, and was executed by the state of South Carolina eight years later: 4

1997: Caltrans Maintenance Yard Shooting: Former Caltrans employee Arturo Reyes Torres, 41, opened fire at a maintenance yard after he was fired for allegedly selling government materials he’d stolen from work. He was shot dead by police: 5

1998: Connecticut Lottery Shooting: Lottery worker Matthew Beck, 35, gunned down four bosses over a salary dispute before committing suicide.: 5

1998: Westside Middle Side Shootings: Mitchell Scott Johnson, 13, and Andrew Douglas Golden, 11, two juveniles, ambushed students and teachers as they left the school; they were apprehended by police at the scene: 5

1998: Hurston High School Shooting: After he was expelled for having a gun in his locker, Kipland P. Kinkel, 15, a freshman at Thurston High, went on a shooting spree, killing his parents at home and two students at school. Five classmates wrestled Kipland to the ground before he was arrested: 4

1999: Columbine: Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, opened fire throughout Columbine High School before committing suicide: 15

1999: Atlanta Day Trading Spree Killings: Day trader Mark O. Barton, 44, who had recently lost a substantial sum of money, went on a shooting spree through two day-trading firms. He started at the All-Tech Investment Group, where he worked, then went on to Momentum Securities. He fled and hours later, after being cornered by police outside a gas station, committed suicide. (Two days before the spree, he killed his wife and two children with a hammer): 9

1999: Wedgewood Baptist Church Shootings: Larry Gene Ashbrook, 47, opened fire inside the Wedgwood Baptist Church during a prayer rally before committing suicide: 8

1999: Xerox Killings: Byran Koji Uyesugi, 40, a Xerox service technician, opened fire inside the building with a 9mm Glock. He fled and was later apprehended by police: 7

1999: Hotel Shooting: Hotel employee Silvio Leyva, 36, gunned down four coworkers at the Radisson Bay Harbor Inn before killing a woman outside who refused to give him her car. He was arrested shortly after the shootings: 5

The 2000’s (19 shootings)

2000: Wakefield Massacre: Michael McDermott, 42, opened fire on co-workers at Edgewater Technology and was later arrested: 7

2001: Navistar Shooting: Fired employee William D. Baker, 66, opened fire at his former Navistar workplace before committing suicide: 5

2003: Lockheed Martin Shooting: Assembly line worker Douglas Williams, 48, opened fire at his Lockheed Martin workplace in a racially motivated attack before committing suicide: 7

2004: Damageplan Show Shooting: Nathan Gale, 25, possibly upset about the breakup of Pantera, gunned down former Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell and three others at a Damageplan show before a police officer fatally shot Gale: 5

2005: Living Church of God Shooting: Living Church of God member Terry Michael Ratzmann, 44, opened fire at a church meeting at a Sheraton hotel before committing suicide: 7

2006: Goleta Postal Shootings: Former postal worker Jennifer Sanmarco, 44, shot dead a former neighbor then drove to the mail processing plant where she used to work. Inside, she opened fire, then committed suicide: 8

2006: Capital Hill Massacre: Kyle Aaron Huff, 28, opened fire at a rave after-party in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle before committing suicide: 7

2006: Amish School Shooting: Charles Carl Roberts, 32, shot 10 young girls in a one-room schoolhouse in Bart Township, killing 5, before taking his own life: 6

2007: Trolley Square Shooting: Sulejman Talović‡, 18, rampaged through the shopping center until he was shot dead by police: 6

2007: VA Tech Massacre: Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho, 23, opened fire on his school’s campus before committing suicide: 33

2007: Crandon Shooting: Off-duty sheriff’s deputy Tyler Peterson, 20, opened fire inside an apartment after an argument at a homecoming party. He fled the scene and later committed suicide: 6

2007: Westroads Mall Shooting: Robert A. Hawkins, 19, opened fire inside Westroads Mall before committing suicide: 9

2008: Kirkwood City Council Shooting: Charles “Cookie” Lee Thornton, 52, went on a rampage at the city hall before being shot and killed by police: 6

2008: Northern Illinois University Shooting: Steven Kazmierczak, 27, opened fire in a lecture hall, then shot and killed himself before police arrived: 6

2008: Atlantis Plastics Shooting: Disgruntled employee Wesley Neal Higdon, 25, shot up an Atlantis Plastics factory after he was escorted out of his workplace for an argument with a supervisor. Higdon shot the supervisor outside the factory before opening fire on coworkers inside. He then committed suicide: 6

2009: Carthage Nursing Home shooting: Robert Stewart, 45, opened fire at a nursing home where his estranged wife worked before he was shot and arrested by a police officer: 8

2009: Binghamton Shootings: Jiverly Wong, 41, opened fire at an American Civic Association center for immigrants before committing suicide: 14

2009: Ford Hood Massacre: Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan, 39, opened fire on an Army base in an attack linked to Islamist extremism. Hasan was injured during the attack and later arrested: 13

2009: Coffee Shop Police Killings: Maurice Clemmons, 37, a felon who was out on bail for child-rape charges, entered a coffee shop and shot four police officers. Clemmons, who was wounded fleeing the scene, was later shot dead after a two-day manhunt: 4

2010-2013 (16 shootings)

2010: Hartford Beer Distributor Shootings: Omar S. Thornton, 34, shot up his Hartford Beer Distributor workplace after facing disciplinary issues, then committed suicide: 9

2011: Tuscon Shooting: Jared Loughner, 22, opened fire outside a Safeway during a constituent meeting with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) before he was subdued by bystanders and arrested: 6

2011: Ihop Shooting: Eduardo Sencion, 32, opened fire at an International House of Pancakes restaurant and later died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound: 5

2011: Seal Beach Shooting: Scott Evans Dekraai, 42, opened fire inside a hair salon and was later arrested: 8

2012: Su Jung Health Sauna Shooting: Jeong Soo Paek, 59, returned to a Korean spa from which he’d been kicked out after an altercation. He gunned down two of his sisters and their husbands before committing suicide: 5

2012: Oikos University killings: One L. Goh, 43, a former student, opened fire in a nursing classroom. He fled the scene by car and was arrested nearby a few hours later: 7

2012: Seattle Cafe Shooting: Ian Stawicki, 40, gunned down four patrons at a cafe, and another person during a carjacking nearby, then shot himself as police closed in. (He died later that day in a Seattle hospital: 6

2012: Aurora THeater Shooting: James Holmes, 24, opened fire in a movie theater during the opening night of “The Dark Night Rises” and was later arrested outside: 12

2012: Sikh Temple Shooting: U.S. Army veteran Wade Michael Page, 40, opened fire in a Sikh gurdwara before he died from a self-inflicted gunshot would during a shootout with police: 7

2012: Accent Signage Systems Shooting: Andrew Engeldinger, 36, upon learning he was being fired, went on a shooting rampage, killing the business owner, three fellow employees, and a UPS driver. He then killed himself: 7

2012:  Newtown Shooting: Adam Lanza, 20, shot his mother dead at their home then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary school. He forced his way inside and opened fire, killing 20 children and six adults before committing suicide: 28

2013: Mohawk Valley Shootings: Kurt Myers, 64, shot six people in neighboring towns, killing two in a barbershop and two at a car care business, before being killed by officers in a shootout after a nearly 19-hour standoff: 5

2013: Pinewood Village Apartment Shootings: Dennis Clark III, 27, shot and killed his girlfriend in their shared apartment, and then shot two witnesses in the building’s parking lot and a third victim in another apartment, before being killed by police: 5

2013: Santa Monica Rampage: John Zawahri, 23, armed with a homemade assault rifle and high-capacity magazines, killed his brother and father at home and then headed to Santa Monica College, where he was eventually killed by police: 6

2013: Hialeah apartment shooting: Pedro Vargas, 42, set fire to his apartment, killed six people in the complex, and held another two hostages at gunpoint before a SWAT team stormed the building and fatally shot him: 7

2013: Washington Navy yard Shooting: Aaron Alexis, 34, a military veteran and contractor from Texas, opened fire in the Navy installation, killing 12 people and wounding 8 before being shot dead by police: 13

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