Learning from the Loss: Essential Lessons from the Recent Active Shooting Events
The past several weeks has been filled with repeated and collective grief and heartache across our nation, with multiple active shootings occurring in a wide array of environments. The first attack happened on October 27th in Pittsburgh, PA at a well-known and well-attended synagogue, where 11 people lost their lives. Shortly after, on November 2nd, a man opened fire in a yoga studio in Tallahassee, FL, killing 2. On November 7th, we experienced the shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, CA, which took the lives of 12 people. And just a week ago, there was a lesser-mentioned shooting at a bar in Globe, AZ, killing 2 patrons.
Following this string of horrific attacks, there are inevitably the questions on why this happens and how to stop them. Those questions require complicated answers and will likely not be truly solved for a while to come. That leaves us with how to be better equipped to prevent an individual from doing this act and how to respond if we are ever caught in a similar situation. Fortunately, there are an equal number of lessons learned after these events as there are questions and it is from these lessons that we can better understand how to manage these attacks. Let’s honor each individual who lost their life in one of these events by using their sacrifice to save more lives in the future. This article will dive into several of the lessons that came out of these recent active assailant attacks and apply it to our readiness plan: Prepare, Escape, Hide, Defend.
Prepare Yourself with Training
The concept of ‘prepare’ when it comes to active assailant is a broad one and includes everything a person or organization should do prior to an attack to be more capable of responding appropriately. This includes utilizing situational awareness, developing action plans throughout your day, and most importantly, training on response skills. The common pattern among the targets of these recent active shootings is that they were all places where the public was welcome. The significant impact of this fact is on the likelihood of training preparation among those in attendance. The majority of the public has not gone through sufficient training, meaning that the large number of untrained people in attendance will greatly dilute those who are properly prepared to respond in an attack. This contributes to the chaos and higher death toll in an attack since many people have never learned what to do if faced with this situation. The main take away of this lesson is that every individual needs to take it on themselves to be prepared for an active assailant. As all these recent shootings demonstrated, they can occur anywhere and in areas where you have often lowered your guard due to the activity. Eyes closed in prayer; lying on the floor in a yoga class; dancing at a concert. You must be cognizant of your potential vulnerability in these moments. That is absolutely not to say that you cannot go out and enjoy these activities. Go out and live your life to its fullest. Just prepare yourself with training and a plan so that you can contribute to the solution in the attack, rather than being caught up in the chaos.
The other question we must ask following these attacks in public areas is whether the facility’s employees had received training. We do know that the Tree of Life Synagogue had gone through some active shooter training within the last year and they are crediting this training with saving the lives of many who recognized quickly what was happening and were able to escape or hide as they had been taught. We have not heard that any of the other locations had provided training to their staff. That does not mean that they hadn’t, but it has not been discussed in the media. We cannot stress how essential it is that every organization, whether closed or open to the public, provides their people with a comprehensive training program on active assailants. Even in those areas open to the public where the majority of people are untrained, having well-trained staff who can provide leadership and guidance to others could likely save lives.
Getting out and away from the attack is obviously the desirable response option, providing you have the means to escape. While that is not guaranteed to you, there are often ways to get out that are overlooked. The human mind under stress will generally not come up with original thought and will default to something that it already knows. In the case of escaping, that often means that people will try to get out the same door that they came in or one that is just as obvious. This creates a large group of people trying to get out a narrow space, causing a traffic jam. The unfortunate nature of these attacks is that the assailant is trying to kill as many people as possible. The masses of panicked people trying to get out the main doors are an easy target.
A great habit to get into whenever you enter an area is to scan for all exit options. This can include doors that may be less obvious or assessing whether the window height would allow you to safely climb out that way. At the Borderline Bar & Grill attack, the assailant began shooting immediately as he entered the front door, effectively blocking that means of escape. This is often the case that the attacker enters from the main door, so positioning yourself close to an alternative exit during your activity can allow you a quick escape route instead of risking being caught up in a crowd. There were also a few people who had the sense to break the windows and help people escape out the back of the bar. As stated above, knowing ahead of time that breaking the windows is a viable option will allow you to perform this action sooner and get out more safely.
It is also important to know the difference between cover and concealment in order to use them properly while you are escaping. Cover is an object that will stop a bullet (brick wall, large tree, etc.) while concealment is an object that will prevent you from being seen, but will not stop a bullet (sheetrock wall, bushes). Most people think that a car is a safe place to hide behind while they are moving away from the attack, but that is only partially true. There are images of people crouching behind car doors in the Borderline Bar & Grill parking lot. While the body of a car can provide decent concealment, most parts of a vehicle are not capable of stopping a bullet. To use a car effectively as protection, you will want to position behind the engine block or the axle.
The Art of Hiding
When escaping is not a viable option, finding a safe place to hide may be your next best answer. The key word there is safe. All too often, we see training that tells people to hide under desks or in unprotected corners, both of which are completely ineffective at preventing the assailant from seeing or reaching you. The other essential factor when choosing to hide is whether you can access and barricade the area quickly. Spinning in circles once an attack has started trying to figure out where you can go will do you no good. In the same way that you should look for your exits, you should also do a quick scan of available rooms where you can hide. You may find that there aren’t any, which is equally important to know so you are not wasting time trying to locate a place to hide when it’s actually not a safe response option for you.
There are several stories and lessons to learn from people who attempted to hide during both the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting and the Borderline Bar & Grill shooting. In one eye-witness’s testimony following the Borderline shooting, he talks about seeing many people who remained in the bar and were hiding under tables. We do not have information on whether any of those people were among the victims or perhaps they lucked out if the shooter was distracted elsewhere. Hopefully, they did survive but hiding under a table can never ever be your answer. It is an incredibly vulnerable and exposed position that does nothing to stop the attacker from reaching you. If you find yourself in a situation where the assailant is approaching you, you want to be in a position where you can properly defend yourself and starting from under a table does not give you a chance. We also were told that several victims were shot and killed as they attempted to hide in a bathroom stall. This again is unfortunately not a suitable place to hide. You remain partially exposed if the shooter enters the bathroom and you again have not given yourself the proper positioning to engage the attacker in defensive maneuvers if necessary. If you find yourself in the bathroom, you would be better off either trying to barricade the door with your body by lying on the ground and leg-pressing against the door, or to position next to the door to ambush the assailant if they make entry.
Another lesson on hiding came out of the Tree of Life Synagogue. We heard that a group was able to make their way to a room with a steel door and were successfully hidden from the shooter. By all accounts, the room was ideal for hiding or barricading, and everyone in that group would have been safe to wait there until the situation was over. However, during a long break in the shooting, one of the gentlemen in the room decided to open the door and leave. We do not know why this decision was made – perhaps he thought the attack was over or was trying to go help the wounded – but he was tragically shot and killed after exiting the room. The lesson from this instance is to never leave your safe room until you are 100% sure that the attack is over. As hard as it is to know that there are people on the other side of your door looking for shelter or badly wounded, do not risk your safety or the safety of those in your room by compromising the integrity of your barricade to open the door. We advise remaining in your barricaded room until Law Enforcement comes to your door to inform you the threat is gone. We suggest verifying that the Law Enforcement officers are truly the good guys by having them slide badges under the door or by calling 911 and asking the dispatcher to radio the officers and confirm it is them at your room.
Defend Your Life
This is the response option that makes people uncomfortable. It is not a natural thing for most people to even think about engaging someone who has a gun or other weapon, never mind ever actually doing it. We really do need to get away from this mindset, however, and realize that the unarmed civilian truly can defend themselves and potentially stop the attack. The key to successfully and safely defending yourself is in knowing the weaknesses of the weapon system and positioning yourself in an area that is vulnerable for the attacker, such as a corner or doorway. Anyone with military or law enforcement experience will tell you that entering a room is very vulnerable transition and you do not have full visual awareness of the room until you are inside. This is why professionals will often use flash bangs to disorient occupants prior to entering a room. We can use this vulnerability to our advantage by positioning flush against the wall next to the door and grabbing the attacker’s weapon or arms as soon as they cross the threshold. Consider the people who lost their lives in the bathroom stall at Borderline. Their chances of survival would have been significantly higher if they had lined up next to the door and worked as a group to disarm the assailant as he entered.
The key to making any defensive act like this work is through 100% commitment, or something we call Violence of Action. You will not be successful if you second-guess your decision as you are reaching for the gun, or if you hesitate to strike the attacker with your hands or improvised weapon. There have been multiple examples from active shooters in the past where people have been successful at stopping the attack by using violence of action. By simply seizing an opportunity to engage the attacker and refusing to quit until they neutralized the threat, unarmed citizens have repeatedly been heroes in these events. The latest example of this was at the Tallahassee yoga studio, where a man rose up to defend himself and others during the shooting. As the shooting started, Joshua Quick immediately searched for an item he could use to defend himself. Finding a vacuum, he took his opportunity to strike when the assailant’s pistol jammed. Quick hit the assailant over the head with the vacuum but was then struck in the face with the gun. Despite this injury, Quick did not give up, found a nearby broom, and returned to attack the assailant again. This brave action allowed others time to get out the studio door to safety and is being credited with saving lives. The biggest lesson learned from this story is that you are never powerless. If more and more people realized that and acted against these attackers, you would likely find a lower causality rate in each attack since the gunman is not allowed to shoot unchecked, and you could potentially even find that the number of these attacks decreases as would-be assailants reconsider due to the public no longer being easy targets.
Another lesson to learn from this example of defensive action is how training could have benefitted Quick in knowing how to engage the shooter. While using the vacuum and broom were excellent choices of improvised weapons, understanding how to safely grab a pistol and secure it away from the attacker could have helped Quick be even more successful in his defense. By not removing the gun from the shooter, he risked the gunman using the pistol against him, which is exactly what happened. He is lucky that he was only pistol-whipped, instead of the attacker clearing the jam and shooting him. Educate yourself on the safe ways to grab both a pistol and rifle to learn where you should and shouldn’t put your hands (for example, parts of a rifle that has been recently fired will be hot enough to cause burns). Knowledge is power and will make you infinitely more successful if ever in a fight for your life.