With the terror of mass shootings happening around the country and the globe, people all over the country are reevaluating survival tactics for such events. The general consensus is that the decisions you make in that first few minutes will largely determine whether you live or die.
It is easy to mourn the dead and tell yourself that victims were trapped and had no choices.
But while such events are terrifying and can be extremely lethal for people stuck in an area with a psychopath bent on massacring as many innocents as possible, you still get a vote in the outcome.
Your survival is largely dependent on correctly assessing the initial attack, orienting yourself as to the location and probable heading of the assailant and then making the correct decision when it comes to your response.
No matter what you do, it is going to be high stakes with no room for error. But, if you act correctly and have just a little bit of luck on your side it is entirely possible, even likely that you will survive a mass shooter’s rampage.
In today’s article will be presenting you with tips, procedures and advice to help you accomplish that.
Table of Contents
What is a Mass Shooting?
There is no completely conclusive and widely accepted definition for mass shooting, and if asked the answer you will receive varies from person to person and organization to organization.
Perhaps the best definition in modern times is one codified by a law passed by the United States Congress, the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act of 2012. This act defines a mass killing as one in which three victims died, excluding the perpetrator.
But this is not entirely firearm specific. We can also look to the Congressional Research Service which defines a “public mass shooting”- as opposed to domestic violence, gang related shootouts or some other similar form of mass murder- as a “multiple homicide in which four or more victims died by gunshot in one or multiple locations inside the scope of a single event.”
This is informative, but for our purposes a mass shooting is any event where single or multiple attackers decide to light up a crowd of people at any given venue with gunfire.
Nothing else matters as far as specifics, and although most agencies make a clear distinction between terrorism perpetrated with guns and a mass shooting, your initial response does not change much no matter who is pulling the trigger or why.
The varying definition of mass shooting makes record-keeping somewhat foggy, but no matter how you square it instances of mass shooting occur more and more frequently in the United States and other populous, prosperous parts of the world. In the United States alone, using the broadest definition of mass shooting, there have been over 2,000 recorded since 2013.
Putting aside all the administrative record keeping, all you need to know is that someone wants to rack up a high body count for some purpose, be it their own infamy or to further a warped ideology.
Your response to either or some other reason will be largely the same.
Dealing With a Mass Shooting
Mass shootings are terrifying. One moment you’re enjoying some peaceful, fun activity surrounded by your friends and family and all the other people that have gathered together for the occasion and the very next second the staccato ripping of gunfire and screams fill the air in a hellish cacophony.
The stench of burnt propellant, blood and excrement will assault your nostrils as your mind whirls searching for the source of the danger and simultaneously tries desperately to plot your own escape.
What do you do? Where do you go? Are all of your people accounted for? Should you try to help anyone else, can you help anyone else? As you are probably thinking, it is definitely not the time for “I’ll figure it out” once the shooting starts and the bodies start to hit the floor.
It is extremely difficult to predict specifically how any given mass shooting will go down, but most contain largely similar elements that are more or less well understood in our era. We can use this information to our advantage and let it inform our responses to these events.
In general the three options you have for dealing with a mass shooter are run, hide or fight. You need to know how to do each one well and indeed you might have to employ all three in the course of your survival.
We will get into the nitty-gritty of each just below. But first, we will delve a little more deeply into the actual, grisly statistics gleaned from intensive study of active shooter incidents in the 21st century.
Understanding the Active Shooter
So many of these mass casualty events are perpetrated by what has come to be defined active shooters. This definition is somewhat tenuous even today, as everybody has their own spin on what is or is not an active shooter.
But there is one definition that serves as a sort of benchmark for the term, and it is the one used by multiple US government agencies, not the least among them the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, FEMA and even the White House.
They all define an active shooter as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” Probably exactly what you were already thinking, or pretty close to it.
Why take the time to define an active shooter so precisely? As it turns out, the typical active shooter exhibits several common characteristics, and many of the mass shooting events we are preparing for play out in a disturbingly similar fashion.
Anytime there is a pattern, anytime we can recognize heightened probability we can use that information to study the threat and formulate better countermeasures.
One of those agencies mentioned above, the venerable Federal Bureau of Investigation, did exactly that, conducting an extensive study active shooter events running from the year 2000 on the way to the year 2013, and they published a comprehensive overview in 2014 called, unimaginatively, “A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013” (Blair, J. Pete, and Schweit, Katherine W., 2014).
This study is highly illuminating, and I suggest you read it, but I will share with you some of the most salient findings below, condensed for easy consumption.
One disclaimer: Though it is very informative for our purposes, the study is not perfect, and the authors even made a special mention in the preface that the study constrains itself to a very specific kind of shooter, as defined above.
Specifically excluded from the 160 incidents there were analyzed in the study was any incident where a shooting, even a mass shooting, occurred as a result of organized gang or drug activity, accidental discharges, suicides and some other special incidents. Nonetheless, though the study is highly targeted the conclusions it reaches should inform your own preparation and decision-making.
Read through the fast facts of the study and the conclusions just below. Let this shape your assessments when reading the rest of this article.
- Timeline of Study: 2000 through 2013
- Active Shooter Events Included in Study: 160 (according to FBI accepted definition of “active shooter” above)
- Total Casualties: 1,043 (shooters not included)
- Total Deaths: 486
- Incidents per Year, Avg.: 11.4
- Average Time of Incident: Less than 5 min.
- Most Likely Venue for Shooting: Commercial Structure or School
- Number of Events Stopped by Armed Intervention: 4% (Police or Civilian)
- Number of Events Stopped by Active Shooter Decision: 56% (Suicide or Fled)
Most Active Shootings Take Place at Business and Schools
The vast majority of active shooters choose a commercial building or business, or a school structure as the venue of the attack. Together these locations represent the most popular for these killers, tallying fully 70% of all active shooter incidents.
It is no coincidence that these places are also commonly encountered as a gun-free zone, meaning that potential victims are even less likely to be armed and able to put up meaningful resistance.
If you spend a lot of time in a commercial building or educational institution you will have to be even more on guard for a mass shooting event than other people.
If you get practice or training to deal with an active shooter, you should be practicing in and around buildings that closely replicate typical commercial and educational spaces.
Active Shooters are Almost Always “Lone Wolves”
It is extremely rare for an active shooting event to have more than one shooter. These guys (and girls) almost never go in as a cooperative duo with another of their ilk, instead acting out their evil plans alone.
Generally speaking, less than 2% of the time will an active shooting be perpetrated by more than one shooter. You can use this information to your advantage to make quick decisions.
If you know exactly where the shooting is taking place you can move away from it at best speed and under cover, generally free from the fear that you will run into an accomplice.
This information can also inform your decision to fight, as enlisting multiple people to help you means you will have a major advantage over the gunman once you come to grips with him. He most likely will not have any backup in the area that will swoop in and help him out.
Time is of the Essence
Most active shooter incidents are over and done with within 5 minutes, with all the death and mayhem that will be inflicted completely meted out within that period of time. A smaller but significant fraction are concluded within 3 minutes.
This means you have to act fast to improve your situation if you want to avoid getting hurt or killed. Run, hide or fight, your fate will be decided in just a couple of minutes. The brisk tempo of these events can also inform other decisions we make.
Typically we cannot count on police arriving in time to make any meaningful difference. Also the notion that you can retreat to your vehicle, grab gear or weapons, and then return to save the day is fairly laughable, though well-intentioned.
There have been scarce few instances where civilians have been able to do exactly that, but a toll in blood and lives is being reaped the entire time.
Chances are if you are going to make a difference in the outcome yourself you will only have time to access what is already on your body or close at hand before it is all over.
The Active Shooter Usually Decides When it Stops
A little more than half the time the active shooter will decide when the event is over. Not the police, and not citizens, be they armed or unarmed. This will usually take place in one of two ways.
The shooter either kills himself at the scene when confronted or cornered, or they simply finish shooting and leave. Only 4% of the time is the active shooter stopped by an armed citizen or a police officer.
Perhaps most surprisingly, unarmed citizens enact more successful stops than armed citizens, halting the attack in 13% of active shooter incidents. This is likely because, again, many of them take place in gun-free zones, and most citizens do not carry a gun at any rate.
The latter eventuality is a particular interest if the shooter decides to stop killing at one location. There is an increasing trend among people that perpetrate these heinous crimes where they leave one location only to travel a short distance to another one and resume the slaughter.
For switched on citizens, this means you must be on your toes if you hear about a shooting taking place anywhere nearby, as it could be a matter of only a few minutes before the shooter potentially shows up at your location.
Active Shootings are on the Rise
I am sad to say that based on the FBI’s findings the number of active shooter events is increasing yearly.
More than most other findings in the study, this particular point is contentious due to the way that they both define active shooter and which categories of shootings they chose to include. I would suggest you read the dissenting opinion to get a more complete picture of the situation.
At any rate, at the beginning of the FBI study, the earlier years, there were around 6 active shooter events annually. By the closing years of the study that number had nearly tripled.
Regardless of which side of the argument you fall on it would be prudent if you prepared for these types of events as if they were becoming more common every day.
The skills you learn and the preparations you put in place will serve you in many emergencies, not just active shooter ones.
Mass Shooting Survival Tips
Always maintain a relaxed state of awareness, especially when you were in any large gathering, crowded venue or high-profile event.
“Generic” mass shooters desire infamy above all else, and routinely attempt to outdo the body count of mass shooters from past events in order to get what might, however evilly, be called the high score.
Violence can obviously occur anywhere but typical mass shootings will usually occur at some place packed with defenseless civilians; think shopping malls, theaters, schools, etc.
Don’t fall victim to normalcy bias! Normalcy bias is essentially your brain betraying you by telling you that what you are seeing is actually something other than what is really happening.
It explains why some people watch a madman walk into a department store with a rifle at port arms (well ahead of the shooting actually starting), and take no action to save themselves or others.
They might think the gun is a toy, the person is in costume or is somehow involved in security or law enforcement- a fatal error. If you see anything that looks suspicious or dangerous act on it immediately!
Learn to recognize pre-attack indicators. Pre-attack indicators are a set of behavioral cues, tics and actions that might tip you off if someone is in a heightened state of anxiety or excitement, and are typically exhibited by people who are preparing to commit violence against others.
Noticing these, and correctly assessing them in the context of the environment, can tip you off that a mass shooting is about to occur, and reward you with a few seconds head start on the proceedings which could mean the difference between you escaping unharmed and bleeding out on the ground.
Do not pull a fire alarm or set off fire sprinklers during a mass shooting! This is very important, as doing so might give other potential victims a false sense of security about the situation, and can see the fire department dispatched as first responders not knowing exactly what they are walking into.
At best, this creates chaos and confusion among command-and-control elements of police and other emergency services.
Keep these things in mind as we go through the various options below.
Option #1: Run
You’ll have the best chances of surviving a mass shooting if you can put a lot of distance between you and the shooter. The reason why is simple: Hitting a target farther away is exponentially more difficult than hitting one at close range, especially a defenseless one that is cowering ineffectually behind something that will not stop bullets.
The more distance you can put between you and the bad guy, the better off you will be and not for nothing the more opportunities you will have typically to put cover between you and the source of danger.
In fact, the vast majority of those that survive a shooting do so because they run at the first sign of danger. Any time you enter a building that might be targeted, make sure you note where all exits are located.
Think about exits that may not be obvious. For example, in a shopping mall there are exits at the rear of most stores typically used for bringing in shipments of merchandise.
There are also, oftentimes, tunnels and employee-only areas behind the storefronts that might offer a quicker, safer way out than those used by customers.
But while your every instinct might be telling you to run, and you should, you must do so intelligently and when the time is right.
It would not do to “outrun your headlights” and blunder into a gunman’s sights or into a secondary ambush laid in wait for escaping survivors. And there is always the possibility of a secondary attack or ambush point manned by the primary shooters accomplices.
This is a rarity, but far from an impossibility, and likely to become more common as the bad guys use increasingly sophisticated techniques.
I suggest heading towards the closest exit that is not the main entrance into a space, unless the source of danger is opposite that.
Primary entrances create a chokepoint, slowing down escapees, and force masses of people into huge clumps that make for an easy target for shooters, one must also consider the hazard created by your fellow human beings, stampeding as they invariably will be in a mad panic to escape and save their lives.
One need only look at any of the dozens of incidents throughout the past decade as well as related events where people stampeded in a frenzy, wounding or killing other hapless people who could not keep up or get up and out of the way.
One such example of this is the Station Nightclub fire in of 2003 in Rhode Island. Roughly a quarter of all the deaths in that fire occurred right at the primary entrance.
The fire created a stampede as everybody ran for exactly the same exit. This clogged the flow of people and most did not turn back until it was too late. You must act quickly at the first point of danger, but you must always think!
Tips when Fleeing
Generally, when it is time to run you want to run away from the sound of gunfire, but this might not be as easy or as certain as it sounds on paper.
Gunfire can echo strangely inside a building, especially a large structure like a mall, warehouse or big box department store. Urban areas too make sourcing gunshots a nightmare as they reverberate strangely and seem to come from all directions.
You should be alert to other signs and indicators of gunfire, such as hissing, snapping or whizzing sounds that indicates bullets are in flight in your proximity. If you hear any cracking or crashing sounds, or notice puffs of debris and dust coming off many surfaces, that is a sure-fire indicator of bullet strikes.
If you are not immediately receiving fire, you may spare a few seconds attempting to zero in on the source or just make a move towards the nearest, safest and most certain exit.
There is no need to run in a zigzag fashion or bob and weave erratically. This is the stuff of movies and television, not reality, as the chief advantage you have when it comes to reducing the chances that you will be shot is distance from the shooter.
Bobbing, weaving, ducking and diving will only slow you down and impair attaining that safe distance. If you know where the gunman is get away from him as quickly as possible via the most direct route that will provide cover from gunfire.
If you do not have any objects or path that will provide cover from gunfire, simply get as far away as quickly as possible. You should only consider ducking while running if that will allow you to move while staying behind a low barricade that will block bullets.
If you are forced to run through an area where the gunman can see you, use additional caution. Try to run from cover area to cover area so you expose yourself as little as possible. If there are other people with you, try to run in a group. See the “Hide” section for more info on using cover.
Consider the fact that your best exit could potentially be above or below you. If most traditional entrance ways are blocked or too risky, consider getting out through a window or hopping over a wall or fence if it is possible.
Take great care when breaking windows, as any severe lacerations you receive could prove as detrimental as a bullet. If you are forced to get out of a structure above the ground floor, be very careful when jumping and try to break your fall. Fracturing your leg or hip when you hit the ground could see you immobilized and left easy prey.
Many things can be used to break your fall and make longer drops survivable in a truly dire situation. Take note of these things when you’re entering any building.
Remember that it takes three minutes on average for police to arrive, and a great number of deaths take place in those first three minutes. Quickly finding an exit is by far your best bet. Never try to bring any belongings with you as it would only slow you down.
Option #2: Hide
If running is absolutely not an option, then hiding is a fair bet. I want to be clear that concealment alone is not security. Hiding is better than nothing, but you really need to truly separate yourself from the shooter and find cover.
It is possible to put enough obstructions between you and the shooter, or to conceal yourself in a location that they would not think to look and escaped notice, and hopefully direct gunfire although this will do nothing to protect you from stray bullets unless you have genuine cover.
The easiest way to hide it simply to lock the door and turn out the lights of any room you’re in and then conceal yourself behind some obstruction that is out of sight of windows in the door or around the perimeter of the room. Depending on the structure you are in or your location this might be easier said than done.
Generally speaking, a shooter will not work too hard to defeat a locked door if they have other victims that they can draw a bead on elsewhere and reach them easily.
However, not all barricades are created equal and many interior doorways in all kinds of buildings serve as very little impediment against forced entry.
For this reason, it is imperative that you choose your hiding-place well assuming you have time to choose and then do what you can act quickly to fortify it against entry. I’ll share with you some tips for doing exactly that and just a bit.
But first we need to talk about cover and concealment, and specifically the differences between these two terms since they are not synonymous!
“Cover” is defined as any obstruction you can put between you and incoming gunfire that will stop a bullet. Not just deflect it, not just degrade it, but stop it. Cover is dependent on what you can hide behind and also what is being shot at you.
Handgun rounds are much easier to stop than rifle rounds. Shotguns fall somewhere on the extremes or in the middle depending on the load; birdshot is easily stopped by many materials, buckshot will penetrate about as much as an average handgun round or a little more, and slugs can penetrate very deeply, akin to a rifle.
Choose your cover accordingly, but in general heavy concrete, stone, masonry, heavy steelwork or very thick wood is your best bet.
“Concealment” is something that will hide you from sight but not necessarily from gunfire.
Sheetrock walls of the kind that are ubiquitous in pretty much every building across America is only concealment, except perhaps to birdshot. The sheet metal body work of an automobile is typically only concealment, although structural members may stop a handgun round.
Interior and many exterior doors are only concealment. If it will not stop bullets, it might serve to hide you which can make you harder to target or keep you from notice.
Tips when Hiding
A heavy, locked and barricaded door is by far your best level of separation. Shooters typically take the path of least resistance, so they will not often waste time trying to force or blast their way through a locked door while other potential victims are about.
Keep in mind if you are detected or suspected in your hiding-place the gunman might send one or more rounds your way. For this reason, it is imperative that you try to take the best cover possible while in your hiding spot.
If you’re in a room, put as many potential obstacles between you and a gunman’s likely location as possible. Enough light pieces of cover that would not stop a bullet on their own- now placed in a row- will eventually become legitimate cover. The more, the better!
Another important aspect of securing your location is to give yourself the option of running if it arises. You never know when your situation will change, so try not box yourself in with no other way out.
For this reason, bathrooms are often a horrible idea. In most cases you have no windows or doors and only one entrance. Many people make this mistake and pay with their lives.
Remember that most shootings are over in 10 to 15 minutes, so you hopefully only have to stay in your secure location for a short while. You can cut down the response time by calling 911 as quickly as possible.
On average, it takes five minutes before somebody makes the call, so do not assume somebody else will do it. Call on a landline so they can trace the call if possible. You can also set off the fire alarm or sprinklers if you cannot get to a phone.
Option #3: Fight
Fighting back is an option, but it should always be a last resort due to the risk involved. By attacking you have now made yourself the primary target for the shooter.
You may also be outgunned even if you have a firearm with you. If you don’t have a firearm, the shooter will obviously have an enormous advantage over you and you’ll need to strike with surprise and advantage, hopefully with overwhelming numbers to stand a good chance of success.
If you are armed, trying to keep your weapon holstered or concealed until it is time to strike. A mass shooting is an event of unparalleled chaos, and other citizens or police (in plain clothes or uniform) will likely be looking in the general vicinity for a killer who has a gun in hand.
Consider how you might look to those people. How would you look to you if the roles were reversed? You got it; chances are you will be getting burned down with no questions asked.
Also keep in mind if you decide to go hunting for the bad guy or the only way out to safety is through them every minute that goes by means police are getting closer and closer to the scene.
When the time comes to shoot there must be no hesitation and there’s absolutely no margin for error. You do not want to get sucked into a gunfight with the killer, and statistics show that at the first sign of resistance many of them choose to take their own lives or give up.
Your intervention might bring the event to its conclusion even if you do not directly shoot or kill the attacker!
If you do not have a firearm and are relying on a close-quarters weapon or an improvised weapon of some kind, distance is now your enemy, so you’ll need to get in their face, secure their weapon first and foremost or deliver a massively debilitating strike.
When you grab their gun, try to place your hand over the ejection port or any other components of the action so that gun malfunctions after the first round is fired. Tie up the gun!
Doing this is obviously easier said than done, and to have any chance of success you will need some form of opening. This opening could be the shooter becoming fixated or distracted on other victims, crossing a blind corner and stumbling into an ambush or pausing to reload.
When you have an opening, now is the time to strike with everything you have! Strength in numbers is your best strategy when you decide to fight back. As a general rule, you want at least one and preferably two or more other people backing you to tip the odds in your favor.
If you have two other people, and any time to strategize, assign one person to control the gunman’s head, one to control his weapon and/or arms, and one to control his body.
The more people you can pile on to immobilize him, the better. Always be alert to the fact that he might have additional weapons on his person and try to access them. If he keeps resisting and you suspect he has the ability to deploy additional lethal force, do not be afraid to use lethal force of your own even after gaining control.
Tips when Fighting
Using your own conceal and carry weapon may seem like your best option, but consider the consequences. When the police arrive, they will go after anybody firing a weapon.
hey have no idea who the shooter is, so it is easy for them to assume it is you. The same can be true of other victims with weapons. If they see you shooting, they may fire back assuming you are the bad guy.
If you are completely unarmed, consider using a fire extinguisher as a survival tool. Your standard, ubiquitous dry chemical fire extinguisher can spray a blinding, choking cloud of chemical into an attacker’s face, severely impairing his ability to fight back.
Not for nothing, the heavy duty steel container housing the extinguishing agent also makes a fairly efficient bludgeon especially if you strike someone in the head.
There are two things you should never do in a shooting. One is to try and reason with the shooter.
In every case the shooter has come there with the intention of killing multiple victims. The odds of talking them down are poor at best and you put a target on your back by engaging with the shooter.
The other is to play dead. In many shootings the gunman will pump additional bullets into bodies to make sure they are dead. It is too risky to lay in the open and hope that the shooter passes you by.
When the police arrive, it is not the time to get sloppy! Stay down, ensure you have no weapon in your hand or nearby and keep your hands where they can be seen.
Never run towards the police or make any sudden movements. Remember that the police still have to determine which people are threats and which are not.
They may even handcuff you and detain you until they have eliminated the threat. Continue to stay calm and follow their directions closely. The end is in sight, so do not do anything stupid.
The Importance of Medical Skills for Surviving a Mass Shooting
It should not take much convincing to sell any readers on the importance of an EDC first aid kit with basic trauma supplies.
The seemingly nonstop terrorist attacks of the past couple of decades as well as the countless mass shootings that are the subject of this article and not to mention common, accidental everyday mayhem should render first aid skills and the equipment needed to employ them absolutely crucial on your list of priorities.
But sadly this is one piece of equipment that most people will omit from carrying on or about their person at all times. Everybody wants to carry the gun and the cool-guy knife, but nobody wants to learn much less carry first aid supplies.
This is a critical thinking failure: most people that die from a gunshot wound die from an extremity hit, meaning exsanguinations, bleeding out, that is entirely preventable.
Even serious gunshot wounds to the torso can be stabilized and drastically increase the victim’s chances of survival with a timely and comparatively simple intervention accomplished by employing a few simple tools and supplies.
Do you want to die from getting winged? How would you feel if you were watching your daughter or wife bleed out on the ground in front of you?
Does that sound awful? Does it make you feel bad? Then you need to learn first aid and basic trauma response, and carry the supplies needed to treat these injuries!
This does not mean lugging around a giant briefcase or backpack akin to something a paramedic would haul out of the back of an ambulance, but it does mean committing to carry a pocket sized, compact kit that has the essentials, things like tourniquets, chest seals, gauze and other similar implements. It can be stowed easily in a pocket or even on a specially designed ankle rig.
Fixing holes is just as much a part of surviving a mass shooting as making holes in the bad guy. This requires commitment and real training. Here is an article that will serve as a good primer.
Your natural instinct in a mass shooting will often be to make the wrong moves. The only way to avoid this is to stay calm and think through the correct actions to take. It is easy to become a cowboy or to panic, but do not let pride or fear control you.
Like any survival situation, logic, coolness and training will tell you what to do if you let them. Use your head and you will likely come out of it just alive.
My name is Ryan Dotson and I am a survivalist, prepper, writer, and photographer. I grew up in the Ozark Mountains and in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains. My interest in survival started when I was in Boy Scouts and continued as my father, uncle, and grandfather taught me to hunt and fish. In the last few years I have started taking on survival challenges and have started writing about my experiences. I currently live in Mid-Missouri with my wife Lauren and three year old son Andrew.