We've all seen the headlines. Public mass shootings capture our attention and create more terror than almost any other news event. While extremely rare, these attacks cause widespread public outrage as we search for answers. Why would someone commit such a heinous act? We can accept deaths from cancer, heart disease, traffic accidents, or old age much more easily, even though these cause many orders of magnitude more deaths than public mass shootings. We can even accept gang violence, or murders committed during robberies or other crimes, because to some degree those crimes make sense. What is so unsettling about public mass shootings is that we cannot comprehend what would lead someone to murder innocent strangers. Even when authorities determine a motive, it rarely brings order back to our world. Before the victims have even been laid to rest, politicians and advocacy groups seek to implement their proposed solution, yet none of them seem to work. These attacks lead us to feel like they could happen at any time, anywhere, and to anyone, and we are helpless to stop them.
While politicians endlessly and futilely try to shape public policy to prevent the next public mass shooting, we as individuals need to prepare for the inevitable next attack. We must take control of our personal situation to ensure that we not only survive in the event of an active shooter, but that we can respond and help others as well.
Before the Attack
We never know when or where an active shooter attack will take place. Obviously, if we knew when we were getting ready for the day that we would be caught up in a mass public shooting, we would choose to stay home that day. We need to approach each day knowing that we do not know what unexpected turns the day will bring. We need to build the habit of maintaining appropriate awareness depending on our circumstances and setting. During traumatic events, such as active shooter incidents, many people tend to freeze up in terror, unable to respond. The U.S. Marine Corps refers to this as "Condition Black" to indicate that someone has become immobilized by fear. One possible explanation for this is called “behavioral inaction”, where the brain sees something new, tries to find a relative memory on how to respond, but can’t. The brain keeps trying to process it, and gets stuck in a loop. Most of us will never experience a public mass shooting. In the rare case that we do get caught up in a mass shooting, our brains will not have the context to process the information. To avoid become a victim due to failure to respond, we must inoculate our mind to the possibility of a mass shooting, and plan our response beforehand. When you go to a grocery store, mall, movie theater, or place of worship, picture in your mind what a public mass shooting would look like. Where would the shooter come from? Where are the exits? What hazards or tools do you have in your surroundings? By visualizing these events beforehand, you can prepare your mind to spring into action during a traumatic event, and probably save your life.
During the Attack
Once an attack begins, you cannot choose your surroundings or your circumstances. You must be prepared to work with what you have. If you maintained appropriate awareness beforehand, you will have identified your options to run, hide, or fight.
When an attack begins, your best chance of survival may be to run. A public mass shooting will be a chaotic event for both the victims and the attacker. You may have only seconds during the initial confusion to make your escape. During the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi in 2013, al-Shabab gunmen stormed an upscale mall, and started killing indiscriminately. Many people were able to escape unharmed, but those weren't became trapped in a siege that lasted for days. By the time the smoke cleared, 67 people had been killed. Some of those killed had plenty of opportunity to escape when they first heard the gunshots and explosions, but they didn't. Fear of the unknown paralyzed them into staying in place.
When entering any room, restaurant, or building, always look for exits. In the chaos of an active shooting incident, a fire, or a power outage, you may not be able to find a way out. Smoke or debris may block your view, and your brain will not be functioning at full capacity. Make it a habit to always look for multiple exits, to include doors, windows, or stairwells. make a mental note of what route you can take, and what obstacles may lie between you and the exit. When you board a plane, and the flight attendant asks you to locate the nearest exit, do you? When the flight attendant says there is a life vest under your seat, do you check to make sure it's there, and that you know how to reach it? You should. By planning your escape route ahead of time, you can save precious seconds when you need to quickly react to a mass shooting, or other traumatic event.
You may find yourself in a situation where you cannot run. You may be injured, the exits may be blocked, or you may have others with you that you can't leave behind. In that case, you may need to find cover or concealment. Cover is temporary ballistic protection against small arms fire. Cover may not hide you, but it can give you some protection against bullets heading your way. Think of bulletproof glass, or the engine block of a car. Concealment, on the other hand, is something that obstructs the attacker's view of you. Think of bushes, smoke, or blankets. Some objects function both as cover and concealment. Think of a solid concrete wall. In the event of a public mass shooting, head toward the nearest cover or concealment. This will give you a short amount of protection while you plan your next move. Keep in mind that both cover and concealment are temporary. Cover can degrade, and a determined attacker can find you even if you are concealed. Use cover and concealment to buy you time as part of your escape.
Not all situations will be the same. Evaluate the cover and concealment options available to you, and make the most with what you have. Anything is better than nothing. In some cases, simply locking a door may deter an attacker who may move on. Use furniture to create a barricade, or use lighting or noise to distract the attacker. Any resources you have are better than nothing, and something simple may give you just enough time to escape.
You may find that you cannot run or hide. Alternately, you may be able to run or hide, but others may not. In either case, you may have to fight. The grim reality of a public mass shooting is that when an attacker decides to kill as many strangers as possible, they rarely stop until someone stops them by force. How many innocent people die in the minutes it takes for the police to arrive? How many lives could be saved if someone quickly responds and stops the attacker? Out of the 283 active shooter events between 200 and 2017, as defined by the FBI, an armed bystander responded in 33 of those events. Of those 33 responses, the armed bystander reduced the number of lives lost, or stopped the attacker in all but two of them. We will never know how many attacks occurred where an armed bystander did not respond, nor how many lives could have been saved if armed bystanders had been present in the other attacks. (We also don't know how many attacks aren't counted as mass shootings because an armed bystander stopped the attack before it became a mass shooting). This limited evidence does show, however, that armed bystanders are highly effective at stopping active shooters. Statistics from previous public mass shootings show that most public mass shootings occur in gun free zones. This is especially true in attacks with higher numbers of victims killed. This may indicate that active shooters purposely target gun free zones, that gun free zones have greater concentrations of potential victims, or that armed bystanders stop more active shooters than the statistics reflect. Whatever the reasons, active shooters kill more people when there is no one to stop them.
If you choose to arm yourself, check the laws in your state, and find what you need to do to get a concealed weapons permit. Then make sure you train with your weapon to improve your competence and confidence. In the unlikely event you become an armed bystander, you may end up saving more lives than just your own.
If you choose to not arm yourself, or you find yourself in a gun-free zone, you can still successfully fight off an active shooter. Public mass shooters look for soft targets, and they likely will not expect resistance. Arm yourself with any improvised weapon you can find - a pair of scissor, a chair, a rock - anything. Bite, if you must. There will never be an ideal time for a public mass shooting, and you will never be fully prepared. Take whatever options you have available to you. Anything is better than nothing, and you could end up saving your life and that of those around you.
After the Attack
Just because the shooting stops, it does not mean the public mass shooting event is over. Most mass shooters in the U.S. act alone, but you should still scan for additional threats. If there are still threats, whether from attackers or environmental factors, you should move yourself and others to safety. Next, treat any major casualties, as gunshot wound victims may only have minutes to live before they bleed out. Ideally, you will have had first aid or trauma care training. If not, focus on stopping any massive bleeding. Use pressure, tourniquets, or even your thumb to plug any holes, and stop the bleeding. Do not move the casualty unless they are in immediate danger. This is a good time to enlist the help of bystanders. Most people will still be in shock from the attack. Give them clear and simple instructions. Most people want to help, they just don't know how. "You in the green shirt, put pressure on this wound, you in the red shirt, call 911". Even those who are injured can help. Giving them a task can help get their mind off of their injury. "Here, wrap this belt around your arm, and hold it there tightly".
When you call for emergency services, make sure to give them your location, what happened, and what they should bring. Then hang up the phone. "I'm at 123 Main Street. There has been a mass shooting. Four people are dead, six injured, two critically. The shooter has been killed. Send police and ambulances". Or, "I'm at the Lone Pine Mall. At least four attackers armed with rifles and grenades are still at large. There are dozens of casualties, and the building is on fire, send everything you have". Giving emergency services as much information as possible will best position them to respond, and can save critical time. When police arrive, lie flat on the ground, and do not move until instructed. Drop any weapon you may have, whether your own, or the attacker's. Police coming on the scene will arrive with little information, and will consider anyone with a weapon to be a threat. Comply with any commands given, and do not attempt to help, unless instructed to do so.
Inform emergency services of any threats, or the status of any casualties. Otherwise, do not talk to the police or the media until at least 48 hours after the attack, and not until after you have spoken to an attorney. This may seem counterintuitive, since we all want to help in the investigation. Your mind will have just gone through an extremely traumatic event, and it will take a while to process it all. The media is out to push a pre-determined narrative, and they will use your statements to further that narrative, not the truth. Likewise, any statements you make to the police could be used in court, and could cause you legal troubles down the road. Take a few days to gather your thoughts. Then your statements will better help the police in their investigation.
Everyone responds to trauma differently, so there will be no way to anticipate how your mind will recover. In the weeks and months following a public mass shooting, make sure to monitor your eating, sleeping, and exercise habits. Keep your routines as normal as possible to allow your mind to heal. Seek professional guidance, whether you feel you need it, or not. If nothing else, a professional counselor can ensure that you are taking the right steps to recover.
Public mass shootings are horrifying, traumatic events. Because of this, they lead to a disproportionate amount of fear and public attention than many other risks we face on a daily basis. Media attention to every public mass shooting makes these events appear much more common than they actually are. Many people believe that mass public shootings occur in the U.S. more than in any other country, a myth often repeated by politicians. In reality, public mass shootings occur less often, and cause a lower percentage of deaths per capita when compared to most other countries for which we have data. Preparing for the next public mass shooting is important, but less likely to save your life than looking both ways before crossing the street. Staying healthy, eating right, and getting proper sleep will be much more effective in protecting your health and your life.
Why then, did you just spend the past nine minutes reading this article? As a society, we have been conditioned to believe that we are helpless in the face of another public mass shooting. Efforts to reduce these occurrences have succeeded only in making victims more helpless. By changing the narrative, and showing that we as individuals have an active role to play in reducing deaths from public mass shootings, we can regain that control. By being prepared to respond to a public mass shooting, we can reduce the threat, and the accompanying fear they cause. This is something no politician is able to provide.