Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about the terrible theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado.  Most self defense practitioners and martial artists don’t train for such situations.  Those that do tend to do so in firearms training, but even that is extremely rare for civilians.  Realistic active shooter training requires multiple different natural training environments and LOTS of skilled participants, good at acting and willing to be hurt in the training…something that’s very hard and very expensive to come by.

Most talk I’ve seen on the web regarding how to deal with an active shooter is in the realm of Hollywood fantasies.

Extreme Complexity

First, these scenarios have countless variables and are extremely complex.  If you’re within sight of the shooter, where is it taking place?  How many people are between yourself and the shooter?  If you’ve got a firearm and you shoot but miss, are you going to kill innocent people?  If there are walls, what are they made of?  Are there people on the other side?  How close are you to the shooter?  Is there solid cover nearby?  Is the terrain such that it’s even possible to make an escape?  Is your path blocked by crowds of frightened people?  Are you getting run over by crowds of frightened people?  How close are the exits?  Could there by more shooters past the primary exits?  How far do you need to go to get to assured safety?

These are just a few important questions, each with a multitude of possible answers and implications.  The combinations are infinite, and not even the best training can prepare you for each one.  Consider the shooting that just took place in Aurora.  If you’ve trained active shooter scenarios, did you do so in a stadium setting where the only way to run is up or down steps in fixed paths, crowded with panicked people?  Did you do so against a guy who just threw a canister of tear gas at you, wearing bullet proof clothing?  In the dark?  With very loud audio in the background?

No. You didn’t.

How would you respond in such a situation?  You don’t know.

It doesn’t matter how tough you are, how good of a shot you are, or how good you’ve trained.  Due to the complexity of these situations, there are too many variables to predict.  Sometimes there is something you can do to save yourself and others.  Sometimes there is not.  It sucks, but it’s the truth.  More than you might like to think, your life is not always in your hands.

Eleven years ago my wife and I were in a very small bank with just a few people, when 4 men rushed in with guns, yelling and cursing, and shooting at a teller.  We were sitting at a desk, closing an account.  One of the gunmen had jumped a partition and was standing just behind us.  There was no viable exit (I hoped and looked) and nothing I could do aside from telling my wife and the bank employee to put their heads down, not look at the guys, and stay quiet.  My wife and I both thought we’d be killed.  We were lucky that day, but it had nothing to do with us.

So it frustrates me when I see people writing about how they’d take out the shooter(s).  Most of them don’t have a clue.  People with an agenda will say if guns were illegal these things wouldn’t happen.  But many criminals don’t buy guns legally.  And if they couldn’t buy them legally, they’d find another way to get them.  Drugs are illegal, but anyone who wants them can get them.  People on the opposite end of the spectrum will say that if more people were armed, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen.  And what about when more people with guns make the situation worse?  A cop and former training partner of mine was killed in another bank robbery.  The robbers came in guns drawn, and he gave up his gun and let them rob the bank.  Another cop walked in, started firing, and my friend was killed in the crossfire.  There are no easy answers here.  Sometimes life just sucks.


So is there anything you can do?  Maybe.  The way I see it, there are four major options (not necessarily in this order):

  • Escape
  • Do nothing
  • Play dead
  • Fight

If there’s a good escape route, that’s probably your best option.  Look at the Aurora event.  71 people were shot, 12 have died so far.  That’s an 83% chance of surviving if you’re shot while trying to escape.  I don’t know how many people were in the theater.  Maybe 200 or so?  Probably more than half escaped without being shot.  So maybe something like 92% of people who attempted to escape made it out alive.  I wouldn’t get on a plane that has an 8% chance of crashing, but staying put in an active shooter scenario probably isn’t the best idea if the shooting is continuing.  People who do scenario training should train the escape.  You want to try to escape in a way that draws the least attention, using objects to block a line of sight toward you, etc.  It’s not always possible.

Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do.  Doing something will guarantee you get killed.  It depends on the situation.

In a crowded environment where lots of people are being shot, playing dead could work.  It might not.

If you’re close to the shooter or you’ve got a firearm and a clear line of site, you may be able to attempt to take him out.  If there are multiple shooters, you’re going to need cover and/or a whole lot of luck to succeed.  You may get shot by a cop arriving on the scene, who thinks you’re the predator.

Escape is probably the best option if possible.  But no matter what, these situations are terrible, horrific events.  There are no simple solutions.  If you end up in an active shooter scenario and survive, especially if you train self defense, you’ll replay it over and over again in your head.  You’ll second guess yourself.  It doesn’t matter what you did or didn’t do.  It’s not like the movies and the people who claim they know exactly what they’d do have no idea what they’re talking about.  You didn’t do anything wrong, and it’s not your fault.