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Active Shooter Preparedness Tips for the Worst-Case Scenario

Katherine Schweit talks about gun violence, active shooter preparedness, and potential solutions.

Being caught in an active shooter situation is a nightmare scenario. Nobody wants it to happen. But if it does, you can increase your chances of surviving, helping those around you survive, or even ending the situation with active shooter preparedness. The key is to know in advance what to do.


See Active Shooter Preparedness with Katherine Schweit for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Katherine Schweit is a retired FBI special agent and author of two books, Stop the Killing: How to End the Mass Shooting Crisis and How to Talk About Guns with Anyone. When she started at the FBI, she was working on national security matters. But after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012, she started working on mass shooting and active shooter incidents. She joined then-Vice President Biden’s White House team working on violence prevention, created and led the FBI’s active shooter program, and worked with other government agencies to gather data, talk to survivors and families of victims, and come up with solutions and best practices. Principles like “Run, Hide, Fight,” which many people are familiar with now, came out of her work.

What Defines a Mass Shooting

There is no official federal definition of a mass shooting. So when you see research about mass shootings, the definitions are developed by the researchers. Some researchers set the limit at three people killed, others set it at four.

When the FBI looks at these types of incidents, they don’t look at the number of people killed but where the incident occurs. That’s why the FBI refers to them as active shooters instead of mass shootings. If someone ran through a mall firing a semi-automatic weapon and injures twenty-five people but doesn’t kill anyone, some research wouldn’t count that because there were no deaths. But the FBI wants to study any incident where someone with a gun is trying to kill people in a public place.

The Truth Behind Mass Shooting Statistics

It’s important to remember that if you hear mass shooting statistics on the news or on social media, those numbers are based on how that particular research team is defining them. Most American’s don’t realize that most “mass killings” occur in homes or in neighborhoods. When the researchers use a definition of “three people killed” or “four people killed,” a man who kills his wife and three kids or a woman who kills her four kids would be included in the research. If there is a gun involved, those domestic incidents qualify as mass shootings. The FBI is specifically looking for shootings that happen in public. Some researchers may be looking at all shootings, even those that happen in the home.

There’s a lot of different people counting a lot of different numbers, and none of the numbers are wrong. They’re just based on different criteria.

Katherine Schweit

If you hear a number or a statistic, look at where the numbers are coming from and what kind of definition is being used. Different media outlets or social media personalities sometimes choose particular numbers based on the position they support. But the bottom line is that all of the numbers are true – you just need to know what exactly they’re counting.

Solutions to Gun Violence

People ask Katherine all the time if she is pro-gun or anti-gun. But she thinks that’s the wrong question. She was an FBI agent for twenty years, and she knows guns have their place. But she also recognizes that the fact that active shooter preparedness is necessary means there is a real problem. She thinks that in some ways, it’s about having the conversation and continuing the conversation. In fact, she wrote her second book, How to Talk About Guns with Anyone, because nobody wants to have the conversation fruitfully.

The solution, if that’s even the right word, is to keep having the conversation and also trying different things. Some people say the way to fix it is to secure all guns, not allow concealed weapons, ban semi-automatic assault weapons, and similar restrictions. But since we haven’t put any of those policies and legislation into place, we don’t know if that’s a real solution.

There are all these different solutions … what we lack is research on the effectiveness of a lot of these policies.

Katherine Schweit

We Need to Try Solutions

Think about seat belts. We see people walk away from, or at least survive, devastating car crashes because they were wearing their seat belt. But we didn’t start with the seat belts we have today. We started with lap belts. We took the small step, saw that lap belts reduced deaths, and realized adding a second strap across the shoulder would help more. If we hadn’t started by trying the lap belt, we never would have gotten to the level of safety a seat belt provides today.

The CDC tracks all kinds of data. One of those things is deaths by auto accident. They continue to decline – and in fact, in 2020 gun deaths surpassed traffic accident deaths for those ages 19 and younger for the first time. If you think about it, there are more cars on the road, more people driving, and we’re driving faster. That should make it less safe to drive. But we’ve found ways to adjust – adding seat belts, lowering speeding rates in some places, regulating and restricting how kids can get licenses and what they can do with them.

When it comes to gun violence, we need to do the same thing. We need to try some things, collect the data to see if it works, then continue doing the things that work and try different things. Little adjustments at both the state and federal level made it much safer to drive. We can do the same thing with guns. Katherine thinks we need to do these things not because firearms or cars are inherently dangerous, but because people with firearms or cars can be.

How Law Enforcement Responds to Active Shooters

Americans never dealt with a large amount of school shootings or feared them until the shooting at Columbine High School. That shooting changed the public’s view and law enforcement’s response. Until then, the law enforcement strategy was to contain and wait. The first officers on the scene created a perimeter, then waited for the SWAT team to arrive. The SWAT team were specialized and had additional training, and they were the ones who would actually go in.

At Columbine, SWAT worked out a lot of details and gathered information, but they didn’t go into the building right away. That led to more deaths. The public viewed it as a failure on the part of law enforcement. So after that, law enforcement changed their active shooter preparedness strategy. Their goal became to get inside the building fast and neutralize the shooter as quickly as possible. In essence, every law enforcement officer gets some SWAT training to do this. Studies about the effectiveness of this new strategy are still ongoing, but at this point it does seem to be more effective.

Changes in active shooter preparedness training since Columbine have improved police response.

Even though the news may make it feel like there’s a public mass shooting every day, they are not as frequent as you might think. The FBI has research on twenty-five years of active shooter incidents. Through those years, the number of incidents has increased, but the number of casualties has not. This indicates that both the law enforcement and civilian responses have been effective in preventing mass shooting deaths.

We’ve seen the number of [mass shooting] incidents increase, but we haven’t seen the number of casualties increase.

Katherine Schweit

Active Shooter Preparedness Before the Incident

Several times a year, hundreds of thousands of school children all over the United States do fire drills, even though we haven’t lost a child to a school fire since the 1950s. Every time an airplane gets ready for takeoff, everyone on board goes through the safety drills, even though plane crashes are quite rare. Why do we do this? We want to make sure everybody is ready just in case. If the worst happens, being prepared means you know in advance what you should do to save your life.

Safety isn’t about when it happens. Safety is about if it happens. It may never happen.

Katherine Schweit

See Something, Say Something

Most of us are familiar with the “see something, say something” mantra. There was some really great marketing of it after 9/11. See something, say something is an essential first step to active shooter preparedness because it can prevent the incidents from happening in the first place. FBI research found that in 75% of active shooter cases, family members, friends, spouses, classmates, or teachers had definable, articulable information about the potential threat and didn’t share it. Some of these shootings can be prevented, but only if people around the shooter speak up.

If you want to know more about what to watch for and who to say it too, you can listen to the podcast Stop the Killing. Katherine and her co-host Sarah Ferris talk about what signs to look for, who to report to, how and when to report, and the struggle and challenge of reporting.

Know How to Stop Bleeding

When Katherine asks people if they’ve ever had a first aid course, a lot of people say yes. Maybe they were in scouts, or had been a lifeguard. But most people, even those who have taken first aid, never learned how to apply a tourniquet or stop bleeding. But knowing how to stop bleeding is another essential component of active shooter preparedness.

It takes just a few minutes for someone to bleed enough that doctors can’t bring them back. If it takes an ambulance fifteen minutes to get to you and nobody on the scene knows how to stop bleeding, someone could bleed out and die. It’s important to know the value of stopping bleeding and get some training on how to do it. Stopthebleed.org is a great resource.

Run, Hide, Fight

The third important aspect of active shooter preparedness is the run, hide, fight framework. You should read about it and do some training if you an. Above all, you should know that you’re capable of taking all three actions.

Human nature if fight or flight – our natural reaction is to run. That’s why the federal government adopted run, hide, fight as their framework. They’re not magic words, they’re just things people naturally do. Katherine has interviewed hundreds of victims, been at the scene of incidents, and read reports of more. Everybody runs, hides, and fights in some combination. You need to be prepared to do just that.

Run, Hide, Fight for Active Shooter Preparedness

The run, hide, fight framework tells you what you should do in an active shooter situation. If there is no danger in front of you, hide. If you are in danger, run. You can also always fight, even if you don’t think you can.

There is a lot of value in thinking about run, hide, fight ahead of time. Where would you run? Where would you hide? How would you fight? If you haven’t thought about those in advance, it’s harder to do them in the moment. Not having that mental active shooter preparedness can put you in even more danger.

Run

If you are in immediate danger, your safest bet is to run. There are children who ran from classrooms at Sandy Hook who are alive today because they ran. There are students from Virginia Tech who jumped out of windows because the professor who died holding the door told them to jump and run. Some of them suffered broken ankles or scrapes but they all survived.

You cannot be killed if you’re not there, so run if you can.

Katherine Schweit

The simplest thing you can do is look for exits when you enter somewhere. Even if it’s not an active shooter situation, this preparedness could save you. If there is a fire, or an earthquake, or any other reason you have to run, where would you go? How would you get out? People often enter and exit buildings in the same way every time. If they have to flee, they often go out through the same place they came in, even if there was a safer exit somewhere else.

If you're in danger, getting away in any way possible is your best strategy.

If you need to run, don’t overthink it – just run. Katherine knows people who have run from shooters down hallways, or even run at and past the shooter, and survived. Sometimes people ask her if it’s better to zig-zag, and she always says don’t worry about that, just run. The farther away you are, the harder it is to hit you. Just get away as fast as you can.

Hide

If there is no danger in front of you at the moment, that’s when you should hide. This is what schools teach with lockdown drills. If you’re not in active danger, maintain your location. But it’s important to think about where you would hide and pick a secure spot. Hiding behind a cubicle wall or a plastic desk won’t give you much protection. A stone or brick bathroom would be ideal.

When we think about hiding, we think about ducking down. But ducking under a plastic desk with metal legs isn’t hiding us. Ducking is a natural instinct, and it’s okay to do that. But don’t just stay there. If you have no cover, ducking isn’t hiding, it’s just sitting on the floor. After you duck, if you’re in active danger, run – and if you’re not, find a secure place to hide.

Fight

How often do people have to fight in active shooter situations? Very rarely. But it’s important to think about it as part of active shooter preparedness, because it could save your life. You would be amazed at the people who have successfully done it, and how. You can fight with your fists, with a group, by pushing, by holding a door closed, or even with words. One of the most astonishing pieces of data from Katherine’s initial research with the FBI was that in 13% of active shooter situations, unarmed civilians safely and successfully stopped it.

If your life depends on it, if the life of your family depends on it, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Katherine Schweit

There are no rules in street fighting. If you fight, do whatever you can do. Throw anything, hit them anywhere, kick anywhere, gouge their eyes, whatever you want. These kinds of fights are usually momentary fights. And since these incidents occur in public, often there are other people around who can pile on. Sometimes people pile on and subdue a shooter until law enforcement gets there. Use whatever resources you have. Nobody wants to fight off a shooter, but it’s better to fight than to let them kill you.

Interruption as an Active Shooter Preparedness Strategy

Another benefit to fighting is that it can cause a disruption. The bottom line is that any technique that an interrupt their plan is good. Public shooters commit planned, targeted violence, and they come with intent. They’re focused, they have a plan, they’re prepared, they have supplies. They also have an image in their head of how their shooting is going to go. And that image never includes anyone interfering.

Katherine has seen some amazing video footage and talked to people who have interrupted a shooter’s plan. They’re never prepared for interruptions. A shooter in Wisconsin completely forgot about his intended victims when the police arrived. A would-be shooter at Seattle Pacific University was so thrown off when a building monitor interfered that the building monitor was actually able to take away his shotgun. Shooters’ plans often go downhill very quickly when someone interferes because they don’t expect it.

For Parents, the Fears are Worse than the Reality

If you’re concerned about gun violence harming your child, it’s important to know that the fears are worse than the reality. While active shooter preparedness is a good idea for everyone, statistically kids are much more at risk from guns in the home. In 2020, the CDC reported over five hundred unintentional deaths by firearm. Most of the victims were children, and most of them were shot by another child who found an unsecured gun. That also doesn’t count domestic violence or murder/suicide situations where a child is killed by a gun.

We think that because they’re not in our care, being at school puts them at more risk. But compared to the risk of an active shooter at a school, kids are much safer from guns at school than they are at home. School shootings don’t happen nearly as often as we think. It’s a super rare occurrence in elementary schools. In middle and high schools, the shooters are generally from that school. Stronger school programs, better school safety, better support for students and families, and better reporting of warning signs (coming back to “see something, say something”) can help identify a potential shooter before they bring a gun to school.

Learn more about Katherine Schweit and what you can do for active shooter preparedness at katherineschweit.com. You can also find her books, Stop the Killing: How to End the Mass Shooting Crisis and How to Talk About Guns with Anyone wherever you find books, and find her podcast, Stop the Killing, wherever you listen to podcasts.

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