What to Do in an Active Shooter Situation

For about 2 minutes on November 28th, 2017, students and staff at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino were trapped inside their school as the police response to an active shooter situation was delayed. When it became clear that no one could safely exit the building or reach emergency services for help, teachers locked themselves in classrooms with their students. In this article we will look at how you can best react when faced with a similar threat by preparing your mind beforehand and knowing where to go next if things take a turn for the worst.,

What to do in an active shooter situation.

Active shootings have become a common occurrence in the United States in the twenty-first century, which is a tragic reality of life. Terrorist organizations are utilizing active shootings to scare people in various regions of the globe. While the media concentrates on the cyclical firestorm of political argument that these tragedies generate, I’ve seldom heard them explore what individuals should do in these instances.

Active gunshots in public locations, according to the FBI, are getting more regular. As a result, everyone would benefit from knowing how to react if they ever find themselves in the line of fire.

I’ve spoken to a number of military, tactical, and law enforcement experts over the years who have spent their lives training and dealing with violent people: US marshals, SWAT officers, and special forces operators, to name a few. And I’ve asked them all the same thing: what is a regular person like me meant to do when confronted with a shooter who is shooting indiscriminately?

They’ve all given the same response.

In today’s piece, I provide expert-backed recommendations on how to respond if you ever find yourself in an active shooter scenario. Learning how to survive a shooting is similar to learning how to survive an airline crash: such an event is statistically improbable to occur to you, and chance may render you a victim before you have the opportunity to take any voluntary action. But if there are things you can do to improve your chances of survival even somewhat, you should know about them and put them into practice.

Keep in mind that you’re probably on your own.

According to a survey conducted by the FBI in 2014, most active shootings last two minutes or less. There isn’t enough time for police enforcement to arrive in that amount of time. So, if you start hearing gunshots in locations where you shouldn’t be hearing gunfire, realize that you don’t have much time to decide what to do.

That is why…

Before anything happens, you need to know what you’re going to do.

Man contemplating actions for active shooter situation.

When confronted with an emergency scenario, whether it’s an active shooter or a fire, most people’s natural reaction is, shockingly, to do nothing. In our essay on why most individuals freeze up in emergency circumstances, we discussed various causes for this inactivity. The “normalcy bias,” for example, encourages victims to behave as though everything is alright even when it isn’t. Our brain is wired to believe that things will proceed in a predictable manner. When a pattern is interrupted, the brain takes a long time to analyze the deviation. This is why many witnesses to tragic events say it seemed unreal, as if they were watching a movie and it wasn’t actually occurring. They also often claim that they first mistook the gunshots for fireworks, a vehicle backfiring, or a book dropping, all of which would fit better into their normal lives.


Our natural propensity to follow the herd is another prejudice that prevents us from taking action. If we see everyone else cringing in fear or immobilized by lethargy, it’s natural for us to do the same.

The best method to counteract these tendencies toward inactivity is to plan ahead of time what you’ll do in the case of a shooting. You must have a strategy.

I know it seems grim, but you should really think about what you would do in different scenarios if an active shooter appeared out of nowhere. What would you do if you were at your workplace and heard gunshots from the level below you? Do you think you’ll be able to run? If that’s the case, where would you go? What would you do if you heard gunshots just down the corridor and there was nowhere to flee or hide? Make a detailed visual representation of your plan.

Seconds count in an active shooter scenario. When a man begins showering a structure with gunfire, you don’t have time to think about what you’re going to do. You give yourself a head start by having a basic predetermined strategy. All of this connects to our previous post on the OODA Loop. Remember that there are several loops in each disagreement. It’s your loop vs the shooter’s, and the battle generally goes to the first person to finish their individual decision-making cycle.

OODA Loops might start long before an interaction takes place. You’ve already started the second step: Orienting, by devising a strategy for what you’d do in an active shooter scenario before one occurs. If you come across a shooter, you’ll be able to react quickly since you’ve already started the cycle and have a strategy in place. Always Be Orienting, as the saying goes.

Wherever you go, maintain situational awareness.

Aside from having a rough notion of what you’d do in an active shooter scenario, keeping situational awareness is another thing you should do to improve your chances of survival.

Rather of diving into the deep gritty of situational awareness, let’s explore a few key ideas as they pertain to shootings:

Yellow, stay in shape. “Relaxed alert” is the best way to characterize Condition Yellow. There’s no immediate danger, but you’re keeping your head up and using all of your senses to take in your surroundings. Most people equate situational awareness with visual stimuli alone, yet sounds may teach you a lot about a situation. This is particularly true in the case of active shooter situations. If you hear gunshots — or anything that sounds suspiciously like gunshots — it’s a sign that you should begin planning for action right now. 

While your senses are somewhat heightened under Condition Yellow, it’s still critical to maintain a calm demeanor. Maintaining a calm state enables you to keep your concentration open, allowing you to take in more information about what’s going on around you. When we are apprehensive or tense, research reveals that our attention narrows, leading us to focus on just a few things at a time. As a result of our restricted concentration, we may overlook vital nuances in our surroundings.


Bottom line: Don’t keep your nose buried in your smartphone and don’t zone out; instead, open your eyes, ears, and nose and scan your area calmly and frequently to take in what’s going on.

Create baselines and check for outliers. Establishing baselines and searching for abnormalities, as Van Horne, Patrick points out in his book Left of Bang, is an important part of situational awareness. A baseline is what is considered “normal” in a certain scenario, and it varies from person to person and environment to environment. People working at their workstations or conversing in the lobby serve as a baseline in an office. People in uniform coming in and out of the kitchen, as well as customers entering and departing the restaurant via the front door, would be a baseline at a restaurant.

We build baselines in order to detect irregularities. Hearing gunshots on a college campus is unheard of, and it should instantly set off your active shooter response plan. But let’s look at a more subtle abnormality. If you’re at a movie theater and you see a man arriving from the exit near the screen, you should be on the lookout. It may be a thief trying to get a free movie, or it could be a shooter. You don’t have to go attack the man right away, but you should keep an eye on him and be ready to flee fast.

Man looking at exit sign knowing environment active shooter.

Make a list of all of your exits. If you only remember one thing from this article, make it this one. Always know where the closest exits are, no matter where you are. Running should be your first line of defense in an active shooter scenario, as we’ll see shortly. You’ll want to escape as far away from the shooter as possible, which usually means leaving the building where he’s firing. As a result, the first thing you should do when entering a building is search for exit signs and make mental notes on them.

You should also think about exits that aren’t immediately obvious. Most grocery shops, for example, will have an escape door at the “staff only” area at the far back. If you’re towards the back of the shop and hear gunfire coming from the front, go straight to this back exit. Restaurants are another example of non-obvious exits. The rear of most restaurants’ kitchens will have an exit. You should go to this rear door if you’re in the kitchen and hear gunfire at the front of the building. People have been trained not to use these exits since they are located in areas designated as “employee only.” However, in an active shooter scenario, these rules are blatantly broken, and you must be prepared to disobey them.

Run, Hide, Fight is your Active Shooter Triage.

You’ve heard gunshots and screaming, right? There is a gunshot going on right now. So, what are your options? According to all experts, you have three options: flee, hide, or fight.



Man running for exit active shooter situation illustration.

Your initial course of action should always be to flee. As soon as you hear gunshots, use your pre-planned escape route to flee the scene and get as far away from the gunman as possible. You should be able to flee without having to cross the shooter’s route, ideally.

Remember that in an active shooter scenario, most people won’t want to leave because 1) they’re afraid, 2) they’ve succumbed to normality bias, or 3) they believe hiding is the best option. Regardless matter what others are doing, you must flee. Do all you can to persuade them to accompany you, but if they refuse, leave them and exit the building or dangerous location as quickly as possible.

Do not attempt to get your items. You can get a new laptop, but you can’t get a new life.

As you go out the door, invite others to join you. Once you’ve gotten out of the danger zone, don’t let anybody else in (unless law enforcement).

Keep your hands visible while you’re sprinting. You’ll be checked by law enforcement to see whether you’re a danger.

Don’t attempt to move or aid the injured while you’re making your leave, even if it goes against every decent instinct you have. It makes you exposed to assault, and multiplying one loss into two isn’t going to improve matters. Even the first police officers on the site would first disregard the injured in order to pursue the gunman. Your first objective is to get to safety, just as theirs is to stop the shooter.

If you’re in an open region with enough space between you and the shooter, run in a zig-zag manner as quickly as you can. Even expert marksmen find shooting a moving target difficult, and many mass shooters have little or no weapons training. So move about as much as possible and take refuge behind bullet-proof barricades (cement pillars, vending machines, etc.).

Call 911 as soon as you’ve reached a safe location. Don’t presume that someone else has already done so.


Man hiding in dark room active shooter illustration.

Running isn’t always an option. Perhaps the gunman is standing in front of the lone escape, and you’re on the fourth story and can’t leap out the window. If you are unable to flee, the next best option is to seek refuge in a safe area.

You want to conceal in a location that is out of sight of the gunman and can protect you if gunfire are fired in your direction. Find a room with a locked door if you’re in an office or school facility. If you can’t lock the door to the room you’re in, use a table and chairs to block it. You want to make it as difficult for the gunman to enter as possible; he’ll frequently search for easier victims and will go on rather than push through the barrier.


Turn off the lights and stay as silent as possible in the room. Make sure your phone is turned off. It shouldn’t even be on vibrating.

Keep your back to the entrance and crouch behind anything that may shelter you from gunshots, such as cabinets or desks. If you can, hide in a restroom or closet.

If at all feasible, call 911 and report an active shooter in your building to the police. Leave the line open if you can’t talk because the gunman is close by so the dispatcher can hear what’s going on.

Open the door only if it’s really required or if you’re certain it’s the authorities knocking. Shooters would often knock on doors or shout for aid, according to Clint Emerson is a well-known musician., a Navy SEAL and author of the book 100 Deadly Skills, in the aim of persuading individuals who are hiding to come out.

If you can’t locate a room to hide in, choose a place that provides protection and seclusion from the gunman while yet allowing you to see him. You can make a break for it if the gunman passes you. If he doesn’t, you’ll be in a better position to strike if required.


Men with weapons ready to fight shooter illustration.

When fleeing or hiding has failed or is no longer an option, it’s time to turn to Plan C: Fight!

The majority of citizens believe they are incapable of confronting an active shooter because, well, the gunman has a gun and they most likely do not. But here’s the thing: an armed gunman may be subdued or chased away by unarmed people. The three friends who rushed a terrorist on a train to Paris, Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone, and Alek Skarlatos, accomplished it, saving scores of lives. Frank Hall, a football coach who chased down a gunman and forced him out of an Ohio high school before he could wreak havoc, felt the same way.

Yes, some studies have showed that in an active shooter scenario, armed citizens may lower the number of deaths compared to instances when there are no armed civilians. However, these same studies demonstrate that just having people — armed or not — respond immediately to a shooter may help lower the number of casualties. So, even if you don’t intend to carry a gun yourself, make the mental commitment that if you absolutely have to (and we’re talking last option here), you’ll tackle an active shooter fast and decisively.

Are you going to get shot? Possibly. However, it is possible to survive numerous gunshot wounds, and doing nothing will almost certainly result in your death. Unfortunately, many active shooters have a history of shooting victims who are pleading for their life while curled up in the fetal position. As Chris Norman, a British citizen who supported the three Americans in their assault on the train terrorist, put it:

“OK, I’m probably going to die anyhow, so let’s go,” I reasoned. I’d rather die actively attempting to subdue him than sit in the corner and get shot. You can either sit down and die or stand up and die. That was truly all there was to it.”


How to Survive an Active Shooter Situation

So you’ve decided that fleeing and hiding are no longer viable alternatives, and that fighting is your only option. What’s the best strategy to deal with a gunman on the loose?

If you’re armed, there are a few things you should know before retaliating fire. This essay does not provide a lesson on how to take down a shooter, which must be practiced in the actual world.

If you’re not armed, real-world training in hand-to-hand combat will be invaluable, not just in terms of providing you with practical abilities, but also in terms of increasing your comfort level with violence and confidence in taking action. Spencer Stone, a United States Airman who was the first of the three Americans to attack the train-bound terrorist and strangle him out while his colleagues beat him up, was trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Stone believes that his martial arts training saved his life at the time, and that even a basic understanding of self-defense is beneficial: “I 100 percent think that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu saved my life at that moment.” Every maneuver I used on him was so simple that anybody could learn it in five minutes. If the Air Force had a training like that where individuals could learn fundamental movements, it would be beneficial to anybody in a circumstance like that.”

Even if you’re the most ordinary of ordinary joes — you don’t have a gun or a black belt — you should try to take on a gunman as a last option, keeping the following ideas in mind:

Recognize your advantages. Most dangerous gunmen believe that if they have a gun, people will do whatever they want or just hide. They aren’t expecting someone to chase them down. Resetting or breaking your opponent’s loop, as we explained in our essay on the OODA Loop, is a vital aspect of winning any battle. You want your opponent to have a “uhhhh…” moment, as retired US Air Marshal Curtis Sprague told me. Sprague claims that by doing the unexpected (attacking), “you’re breaking the gunman’s OODA Loop, which slows him down — even if it’s just for a few seconds — and allows you more time to finish your OODA Loop and win the war.”

As a result, merely charging your gunner gives you an edge since he isn’t anticipating it.

Another benefit to remember, according to Emerson’s book 100 Deadly Skills, is that “a gun can only be fired in one direction at any one moment.” It will be difficult for the gunman to fire you if you approach him from behind or to the side. Furthermore, if you assault the shooter as a group (which you should), he won’t be able to kill everyone at once. A lone shooter will find it difficult to repel a multi-person onslaught from many directions.

Aggressive and violent behavior is encouraged. This isn’t the time to be sloppy with your feet. Attack with ferocity and aggressiveness after you’ve decided to fight. Alek Skarlatos snatched the terrorist’s firearm and repeatedly smacked him in the head with the barrel. This kind of violence may be unpleasant to consider, but remember that in a crisis, old established conventions such as never harming others are thrown out the window, and success will go to the speedy and unrelenting. Use fatal force and don’t stop fighting until the gunman stops moving or you’re dead.


First, control the weapon, then the shooter. The sooner you can remove the firearm from the shooter’s hands without putting others in risk, the better. He can’t fire anymore since he doesn’t have his gun. Turn your efforts to thoroughly enclosing the culprit after the weapon has been secured. Keep in mind that each battle is unique. You may not be able to grab the weapon away from the shooter right soon, therefore your first objective should be to inflict as much harm on him as possible until you can get the rifle away from him.

Even if you can’t entirely remove the pistol from the attacker’s grip, do all you can to keep it under control. Take the gun so you can have some control over where it’s pointing. Use this suggestion from UFC fighter and Army Ranger Tim Kennedy at the Atomic Athlete Vanguard if the shooter possesses a semi-automatic handgun. Grab the barrel with all your might. For starters, you’ll be able to control where the pistol is aimed. Second, if the gun fires, it will block the slide from returning to the chamber and chambering another round, preventing the shooter from reloading.

Make do with makeshift weaponry. It doesn’t mean you don’t have a weapon just because you don’t have a gun. Almost everything in your surroundings may be transformed into a weapon, including chairs, fire extinguishers, umbrellas, belts, and coffee cups. A pen, for example, may be used as a makeshift weapon.

Objects should be thrown toward the shooter. Even if it doesn’t cripple him, you’re causing him to pause, giving you more time to close the distance and conclude the battle. Remember to break the cycle!

Use objects that can blind the shooter if they are accessible, such as a high-beam tactical flashlight, a fire extinguisher or chemicals sprayed in his face, or a pot of scorching hot coffee thrown at him. Be inventive! Rush the gunman and take him down once he is confused.

Collaborate as a group. The more individuals you can get to assist you in your assault on the shooter, the higher your chances of escaping with fewer losses. But keep in mind that most people’s natural instinct in these circumstances is to do nothing. You must be proactive and take the initiative. Courage spreads like a virus.


While active shootings are becoming more common, they are remain uncommon. We should not be afraid to leave our houses. Being prepared, on the other hand, has no drawbacks. There are instances when there is nothing you can do to avoid being shot; you are in the wrong place at the wrong moment and are murdered without warning. However, you may be given the opportunity to act, and you will only have seconds to decide what to do. Your anxiety will be at an all-time high, and the scenario will be complete mayhem. Prepare yourself now and have a plan of action everywhere you go if you want to be able to safeguard your life and the lives of others at that time.


While active shootings are becoming more common, they are remain uncommon. We should not be afraid to leave our houses. Being prepared, on the other hand, has no drawbacks. There are instances when there is nothing you can do to avoid being shot; you are in the wrong place at the wrong moment and are murdered without warning. However, you may be given the opportunity to act, and you will only have seconds to decide what to do. Your anxiety will be at an all-time high, and the scenario will be complete mayhem. Prepare yourself now and have a plan of action everywhere you go if you want to be able to safeguard your life and the lives of others at that time.


Clint Emerson’s 100 Deadly Skills

Patrick van Horne’s Left of Bang

Tim Larkin is a writer and a musician.’s How to Survive the Most Crucial 5 Seconds of Your Life

The Department of Homeland Security’s Active Shooter: How to Respond

Listen to these interviews I conducted with professionals in the area for more information on this subject:

Clint Emerson

Tim Larkin

Patrick Van Horne

Seeklander, Mike

Grossman, Dave

Ted Slampyak created the illustrations.