The Active Shooter: Staying Alive

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It’s hard to read the news without seeing reports of the latest shooting by terrorists or the deranged and disgruntled. Few believe that they could possibly wind up in the crosshairs of a gunman’s sight, but it can happen anytime, anywhere. What would be your response?

The natural response for most people is not to do anything. You’ve heard me talk about “normalcy bias” before. That’s the tendency for people to believe everything follows a pattern and that the day will proceed normally; they’re usually right. When a terrorist event breaks that pattern, however,  the unprepared brain takes time to process the new situation. People will think that the sound of gunfire is fireworks, or anything less threatening than an assassin out to kill them.

Another thing most citizens believe is that law enforcement and homeland security are on the case. While these agencies do the best they can to counter situations like this, most mass shooting events end in a few minutes. There is little or no chance that help will be there at the moment you need it, so you should have a plan of action.


A person without a plan of action follows the herd. If fifty people around you drop to the floor, your natural tendency is to do the same. Cowering in fear under a table in plain view of the shooter isn’t a recipe for a good outcome. By having a plan, you will have a better chance of getting out of there in one piece.

You’re at the mall; what would your plan be if you heard gunfire nearby? What would you do first? Run? If so, where? If you couldn’t run, what would you do? These are things you should be thinking about, calmly and rationally, whenever you’re in an area where there are a lot of people. It may seem extreme to have to think of these things, but that’s what I call the “New Normal”.

With an active shooter, what you do in the first few seconds may determine your final outcome. Give yourself a head start by always knowing what’s happening around you. We call this situational awareness. Know where exits are. Know where the gunshots are coming from. Know who appears nervous or suspicious in your immediate area.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But in this era of people immersed in their smartphones, few are situationally aware and are easy targets for the active shooter.

Here’s an example: Have you ever seen a patron enter a restaurant through the door marked “employees only”, or a movie theatre through the fire exit? This is a person you’ll want to observe. In most cases, it means nothing. In rare instances, though, it could be someone that’s up to no good.

By the way, those same little-used exits might save your life: Most people will be trying to leave by the front door, just where the gunman expects them to go. Find an exit away from the direction of gunfire.


Run, Hide, and Fight

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If you find yourself in the middle of a terrorist event, you should remember these three words: Run, Hide, Fight. Just as “Stop, Drop, and Roll” can save the life of someone on fire, “Run, Hide, Fight” might save the life of someone under fire. This is the order of the actions that you should be taking in an active shooter scenario.


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Most people will hide as their first course of action. You, however, should run away from the direction of gunfire as soon as you hear it, leaving through those exits you’ve been mentally marking. This will make it less likely you and the shooter will cross paths. Forget about collecting your stuff, it will only slow you down and, face it, it’s just stuff.

If you’re in the line of sight of the shooter, run away at an angle or zig zag to make yourself a more difficult target. I know it’s not a natural action you’d think of doing, but most shooters aren’t marksmen and will miss a moving target.

A good citizen would yell for others to follow and prevent others from entering the kill zone. Don’t try to move or otherwise help the wounded, however, despite your natural tendency to want to do so. You have to get out of there and becoming the next casualty does no one any good. Even the police will leave the injured for after the shooter has been neutralized.

(One very important note: If you see law enforcement, don’t run up and hug them. Get your hands in the air, fingers spread, where officers can see them. They need to know you’re not the threat. Follow any instructions given and leave in the directions the officers came from.)

Once you’re in a safe area, call 911 if rescuers have not yet arrived.


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If there’s only one exit and the shooter is standing in front of it, running might not be an option. Your next choice is hiding.

You first want to get out of the shooter’s line of sight. We call this “concealment”, but it isn’t necessarily “cover”. If you’re concealed, you can’t be seen but a bullet might penetrate to hit you. If you have found cover, it means that you are both hidden and protected from projectiles hurled your way. Foliage is good concealment, but a thick tree trunk might be better cover.

In a building, hiding under a table in the same room as the shooter is a death sentence. Get into another room, preferably one with a door you can lock. If there is no lock, put together a barrier with desks and chairs. Turn off the lights, silence your cell phone, and stay quiet behind an additional barrier like a table or in a closet. If you can quietly alert authorities, do so. Don’t respond to voice commands unless you’re sure the danger is over; sometimes the gunman will try to lure you out of a safe place.

By accomplishing the above, you’ve just made yourself a harder target to acquire for the shooter, and he wants to do his damage as fast as possible. He’ll likely pass you by to find easier targets.



What if you can’t run, and there is no reasonable hiding place? You just might have to fight yourself out of there. This strategy isn’t always doomed to failure. You still might be able to subdue an attacker even if unarmed. Three young and unarmed men were able to do it to a shooter on a train in Paris. It’s a last resort, but it can end without a fatality as it did there.

If you don’t fight, the shooter will have a clear shot to your head and death is likely. If you fight, it might just be harder to be hit with a fatal shot.

Of course, it would be great if you knew martial arts, but any type of aggression against the gunman would disrupt their “flow” and possibly put you at an advantage. If you can, approach him from the side or rear, and go for his weapon. If you have help, all should attack at the same time from different directions while hurling objects that he has to dodge. This guy is probably not James Bond: he’ll be disconcerted and not be able to handle multiple threats at once.

If you’ve disrupted the shooter or, better, gotten the weapon out of his hands, inflict damage on him until he is dead or has stopped moving. Tough, I’ll admit, but these are tough times; commit to your actions.

Luckily, few people will find themselves in the midst of a terrorist attack like the one at San Bernardino, but I honestly believe that more are coming. Needing a plan for active shooter situations is galling to some, but it’s part of life in the New Normal. Those with a plan will have a better chance to survive this event and many other disasters in the uncertain future.


Joe Alton, MD

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