No, an “active shooter” isn’t someone who goes to the practice range twice a week.   It is someone who right now, this minute, is in the process of a murdering multiple people with a firearm.

Police used to have a simple procedure for first responders to a situation where someone with a gun was in a room with other people.  The first officer on the scene would call for backup (usually SWAT or other personnel trained to deal with hostage situations), evacuate bystanders, secure a perimeter, gain whatever information about the situation and participants was possible without getting into danger (for example, slowly and methodically clearing the area near the gunman), and wait for the other forces to arrive, which might take 15-30 minutes.  The situation was usually resolved quite some time later, either by the hostage taker giving up, or being taken out by the police; rarely, if ever, was the responding officer involved in either of those outcomes.  This procedure worked great for hostage crises.  A hostage situation is one where the bad actor has a gun and captive(s) and is threatening to shoot the captive(s).  That shooting hasn’t happened yet.  The hostage taker wants something.  It might be something related to the hostage, but it might be money and freedom, or news coverage, or something else.  The job of the negotiator is to find out what the hostage taker wants or needs, and to try to prevent him from deciding to shoot.

A spree killer operating in a business, mall, church, or school like Columbine is an entirely different story.  All the shooter wants is to kill as many people as quickly as possible, and then kill himself (or be killed by police).  There is nothing to negotiate for – there is nothing he wants to trade for the lives of his captives – so there is no reason for him to delay pulling the trigger.  A terrorist with a gun and a crowd of innocent people around him might or might not have a similar mindset – kill as many as fast as you can.  Even a few minutes wait for police backup can result in many casualties in the meantime.

Note that I’m not talking about a terrorist situation, such as at the school in Breslan, Russia a few years ago.  Terrorists like that come in packs and do have an agenda that stretches over time, so a lone armed responder isn’t likely to prevail over them.

As police quickly discovered, in a Columbine-like situation, the tactics for hostage situations do not apply.  If the first responder does not know this, he or she will be wasting time with activities like setting up a perimeter, waiting for SWAT, and so on while more innocent people are being shot.  This kind of Active Shooter situation needs tactics that are substantially different from a hostage situation.  Many police departments and training organizations have worked on this problem, with simulations, logic, and tactical exercises to try to determine what the roles should be for the police involved, especially the first responder.

Is there anything that we as private citizens can learn from this?  Absolutely.  You might be armed and on scene even before the first police officer shows up.  Imagine that you are going to pick up your daughter at school or at the mall on the very day that someone in your community decides to turn that school or that mall into a shooting gallery as part of his killing spree/suicide decision.  What should, or shouldn’t you do?

One police training agency (Ron Borsch’s SEALE in Bedford, OH) closely investigated the details of 8 mass murder attempts in schools, colleges, and malls. In 3 of the 8 attempts, the mass murder was successfully aborted; in the other 5, it was not.  What made the difference?  One important factor was early armed presence.  In the three successful interventions, two were by a single police officer, and the other was by a two-officer team.  The study determined that the successful (1 or 2 entry officer) tactics saved 11 lives and possibly prevented 5 more from being shot.  The study concluded, “Rapid response, early entry, and aggressive contact by even a solo officer, is, and has been, the most effective countermeasure for the active shooter.”

Time is the most critical factor.  Borsch has looked at all the post-Columbine incidents he can get reliable data on, and has determined that the average shooting spree takes just about 8 minutes.  So, getting even one LEO on site in time to do anything useful is unlikely.  It might be you, the armed private civilian, who is the person who can respond most quickly.  Should you do so?

Before you decide the answer to that, here are some things to consider about the kind of killer you could be intervening to stop.  (This comes from Borsch’s investigation of about 90 active-shooter incidents).

Almost all active killers act alone; the pair of shooters at Columbine was very unusual. 80% have long guns; 75% have multiple weapons, many bring extra ammo.  Their average hit rate is less than 50%.  They ambush stunned, defenseless victims.  They do not take hostages; they do not negotiate.  They will keep shooting until they decide to stop, or until they are stopped.  90% commit suicide on-site, making escape attempts unlikely. The entire incident can take from less than 8 to 20 minutes.

“On a level playing field, the typical active killer would be a no-contest against anyone reasonably capable of defending themselves,” Borsch says.  “Because active shooters seem so intent on killing, it’s often difficult to convince first responders that this bad guy is one of the easiest man-with-gun encounters they will ever have,” He continues, “Most officers have already faced worse opponents from a personal safety standpoint than these creeps.”

So, if you decide to try to stop the next active shooter incident in your community, first be absolutely sure of your target, and what is around and behind him.  Are innocent people close enough to suddenly get into your line of fire?  Could your round go through a wall and into people you can’t even see behind it?

Could the person you see with a gun be just another private citizen like you, also trying to stop the bad guy?  Remember, when you start shooting, bystanders, and maybe even police and security personnel as they arrive on scene, may mistake you for the active shooter.  Don’t make that mistake yourself.   But if you are absolutely, positively sure that you are seeing a multiple murder in action, the best way to stop him is to call 911 (have someone else do it if possible) and intervene as fast as possible with maximum lethal force.

Should you take cover while you are shooting?  Here Borsch and I differ.  He says no but he is talking to LEOs who are probably wearing body armor, “An unintentional consequence of going to cover may be to lose sight of the offender, allowing him to gain the momentum of battle and shoot more defenseless innocents until he says it’s over.”   I think intentionally exposing your whole body to possible incoming fire is unnecessary and dangerous.  Your tactical practice sessions should have emphasized the efficacy of cover and concealment – I would use either of them if they were available in the circumstances.

Borsch has developed a training program for one and two-officer teams to train for active-killer calls.  He advocates rapid zig-zagging down corridors and very fast slicing-the-pie techniques for checking around corners.  Both need to be practiced.  In a almost any kind of building, you might need to go up or down stairs quietly and quickly.  That takes practice, too.   Borsch advocates a patrol rifle for LEOs, but as a private citizen you will have to depend on your concealed handgun and whatever ammo you have with you.   You will also have to depend on your training and your capability with your gun; don’t try a shot unless you are really sure you can make it accurately.

Does knowing that police are being taught to enter an active shooter situation and neutralize it as soon as possible make you more willing to act, rather than wait, if you find yourself in a similar place?  What if you knew of some situations where someone did just that?  In the next issue if W&G I will provide details on a number of actual murder spree situations where a person on the scene who happened to be armed either attempted to stop the killing or actually did stop it.

This article first appeared in the Sep-Oct 2008 issue of Women&Guns magazine.  Copyright © 2008 Lyn Bates