When Things Go Bad
Editor's Note: In light of the shooting in an American elementary school on Dec. 14, we have decided to republish the following analysis, which includes guidance on how to react when caught in a situation with an armed assailant.
By Scott Stewart
Over the past several weeks, we have discussed a number of different situations that can present a common problem to people caught up in them. First, we discussed how domestic terrorism remains a persistent threat in the United States, and that despite improvements in security measures since 2001, soft targets still remain vulnerable to attack by terrorist actors driven by a variety of motivations. Due to the devolution of the jihadist threat toward the grassroots, there is also a growing trend of jihadist actors using armed assaults instead of bombing attacks. We also discussed the continuing problem of workplace violence, and finally, we discussed last week evacuation plans for expatriates due to natural disaster, civil unrest or war.
People caught in any of these situations could find themselves either confronted by an armed assailant or actually coming under fire in an active shooter scenario. Of course, there are other situations where people can find themselves confronted by armed assailants, from street muggings and carjackings to bank robberies. Because of this, we thought it might be useful to our readers to discuss such situations and how to react when caught in one.
Perhaps the most important factor affecting a person's reaction to a life-threatening incident is their mindset going into the situation. As we have previously noted when discussing situational awareness, the way the brain is wired makes it very difficult for a person to go from a state of being "tuned out" and completely unaware of what is going on around them to a state of high alert. When confronted by such a jump, it is not uncommon for people to freeze, go into shock and become totally unable to respond to the situation confronting them. This type of panic-induced paralysis can be extremely deadly, and at that point the only hope of surviving an incident is sheer luck or divine providence. People in such a state can do nothing to save themselves.
Another factor of this mindset is the need for people to recognize that there are bad people in the world who want to hurt innocent people, and that they could be potential targets. This means that people must not only practice situational awareness but also trust their gut when they feel something isn't quite right. Denial can be a very dangerous thing when it overrides or rationalizes away gut feelings of danger. Over my former careers as a special agent and corporate security officer, I have interviewed numerous people who allowed denial to override suspicious indicators they noted, and who then proceeded to do things that resulted in their victimization — all because they had the mindset that they could not possibly become victims. These situations ranged from a mugging victim, who thought there was something odd about the way three guys on the corner looked at her, to the kidnapping victim who spotted the deployed abduction team but proceeded into the attack zone anyway because he thought the team would target someone with more money than his family had. In shooting situations, I have spoken with victims who did not realize that shots were actually being fired and instead dismissed them as pranks or fireworks. I have seen media reports of similar remarks from witnesses regarding recent shooting incidents, such as the July 20 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. In short, denial is deadly.
By practicing the proper level of situational awareness and understanding the possibility of being targeted, a person will be mentally prepared to realize that an attack is happening — something we call attack recognition. The earlier a target recognizes the attack, the better. In the kidnapping case noted above, the victim recognized the attack before it was sprung, and could have avoided a long (and costly) hostage ordeal, had he taken immediate action to avoid the attack site. As we have mentioned repeatedly, criminal and terrorist attacks do not appear out of a vacuum. Instead, they are part of a planning process that can be recognized if one is looking for it. We have also noted over the years that criminals and terrorists tend to be very bad at camouflaging their actions, and their suspicious demeanors often leave them vulnerable to early detection.
Admittedly, there is the slight danger of embarrassment in the aftermath of a false reaction. I have blushed after hitting the ground and rolling to cover in response to unexpected celebratory gunfire in Yemen, but in general it is far better to initially overreact when there is no threat than it is to underreact in a truly dangerous situation.
But even if one cannot avoid an attack, recognizing danger immediately and then quickly taking action to avoid it can often mean the difference between survival and death.
Run, Hide, Fight
Some people have been critical of the simplicity of the "Run, Hide, Fight" public service video available on YouTube, which was produced by the City of Houston and funded by the Department of Homeland Security. In our assessment, the video does a good job achieving its goal of raising awareness of active shooter situations and of providing a simple, easy-to-remember mantra similar to the "stop, drop and roll" fire-prevention slogan. The video also discusses the necessity of having an evacuation plan and being aware of surroundings. Is the video a complete self-defense course? Clearly not, but it does meet its limited objectives.
Once a person has recognized that an attack is taking place, a critical step must be taken before they can decide to run, hide or fight — they must determine where the gunfire (or threat) is coming from. Without doing so, the victim could run blindly from a position of relative safety into danger. We certainly encourage anyone under attack to get out of the attack site and run away from danger, but you must first ascertain that you are in the attack site before taking action. Many times, the source of the threat will be evident and will not take much time to locate. But sometimes, depending on the location — whether in a building or out on the street — the sounds of gunfire can echo and it may take a few seconds to determine the direction it is coming from. In such a scenario, it is prudent to quickly take cover until the direction of the threat can be located. In some instances, there may even be more than one gunman, which can complicate escape plans.
Fortunately, most attackers engaging in active shooter scenarios are not well-trained. They tend to be poor marksmen who lack tactical experience with their weapons. For example, in his attack on a Los Angeles Jewish community center daycare Aug. 10, 1999, Buford Furrow fired 70 shots from an Uzi-style submachine gun but only wounded five people. The Uzi is an effective and highly accurate weapon at short distances, meaning the only reason Furrow did so little damage was his poor marksmanship. During the July 20 shooting in Aurora, James Holmes only managed to kill 12 people — despite achieving almost total tactical surprise in a fully packed theater — due to a combination of poor marksmanship and his inability to clear a malfunction from his rifle.
This typical lack of marksmanship implies that most people killed in active shooter situations are shot at very close range. There are some obvious exceptions, like the shooting at the University of Texas on Aug. 1, 1966, when ex-Marine Charles Whitman shot several people from the top of a tower on the college campus. But even then, most of Whitman's victims were shot early on in his attack, and his ability to successfully engage targets declined rapidly as victims realized where the shots were coming from and either moved away from the threat or took cover and waited for the authorities to respond.
As seen in the Whitman case, potential victims can do several things to reduce their chances of being shot, even with a trained shooter. We use an old acronym to describe these steps: MDACC, which stands for motion, distance, angle, cover and concealment.
First, it is much harder to shoot a moving target than a stationary one, especially if that target is moving at a distance. Most tactical shootings happen at distances of less than 7 meters. Indeed, there are very few people who can consistently hit a stationary target beyond 25 meters with a pistol, much less a moving target. Most people can put 25 meters between them and an attacker in just a few seconds, so motion and distance are your friends.
The angle between the target and the shooter is also important, because shooting a target running away in a straight line is easier than shooting a target running away at an angle, since the second scenario would require the shooter to swing the barrel of the weapon and lead the target. Both require a good deal of practice, even with a rifle or shotgun. If the target can run at an angle behind objects like trees, cars, office furniture or walls that obstruct the shooter's view of the target (concealment) or stop bullets (cover), that is even more effective.
Whether running or trying to hide, it is important to distinguish between concealment and cover. Items that provide concealment will hide you from the shooter's eye but will not protect you from bullets. A bush or tree leaves may provide concealment, but only a substantial tree trunk will provide cover. A typical office drywall-construction interior wall will provide concealment but not cover. This means that if a person is forced to hide inside an office or classroom, they might be able to lock the door but the shooter will in all likelihood still be able to fire through the walls and the door, should they choose to do so. Still, if the shooter cannot see his or her target, they will be firing by chance rather than intentionally aiming.
In any case, those hiding inside a room should attempt to find some sort of additional cover, like a filing cabinet or heavy desk. It is always better to find cover than concealment, but even partial cover — something that will only deflect or fragment the projectiles — is better than no cover at all.
The Inner Warrior
Mindset also becomes critical when a person is wounded. In active shooter situations it is not unusual for many more people to be wounded than killed; this also relates to the issue of poor marksmanship discussed above. In such a situation, it is extremely important for the wounded person to understand that, unlike what is portrayed in the movies, most wounds are not immediately fatal and rarely immobilize the victim right away. However, it is not uncommon for people to drop to the ground when they are shot and freeze in panic or go into shock. This gives the shooter an opportunity to approach them for a point-blank coup de grace.
It is very important for people to realize that most gunshots are survivable and that, even after being wounded, their bodies can continue to function to get them away from the attack site and to safety. Certainly, once a target gets out of the immediate danger zone they will want to seek first aid or treat themselves with improvised pressure bandages to stop the bleeding and avoid going into shock. Modern trauma medicine is very good, and as seen in the Aurora shooting, most victims wounded in these types of attacks will survive if they get prompt medical assistance.
It is no mistake that training regimens for special operations forces soldiers and serious athletes place so much emphasis on the mental aspect of combat and sports — that is, learning that your body can keep functioning and continue to do amazing things, even after your mind has told you that it is time to quit. That same sense of drive and determination, the inner warrior, can help keep a person's body functioning after they have been wounded. The inner warrior is also critical when it is time to fight rather than to run or hide, but that is a topic for another time.