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How Armed Citizens Can Prepare to Engage an Active Shooter

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By Andrew Bellfaculty member, Criminal Justice with American Military University and Bruce Razey35-year police veteran

Many citizens own and carry guns for self-defense and to protect their loved ones. In 2017, approximately 40 percent of Americans reported that they own or live with someone who owns a firearm. There were 17 million concealed-carry permits issued in 2018.

With the increase in mass shootings across our nation, armed citizens need to consider what action they would take, if any, should they find themselves in the proximity of an active shooting. While every situation will be different (and impossible to pre-determine), those who would consider engaging a shooter must understand the risks and take steps to prepare for such a situation.

Armed Citizens Don’t Have a Duty to Respond

First of all, it’s important for armed citizens to realize they do not have a responsibility to save the day. That duty lies with law enforcement. Officers are trained intensely and frequently in firearm tactics and active shooter response techniques. Officers are also often equipped with large-capacity, semi-automatic handguns, carbine rifles, and ballistic protective clothing that gives them the best chance for survival during an active-shooter event.

You WILL Be Outgunned

Armed citizens must understand that if they take aggressive action against a shooter, they will be out-gunned. Most concealed-carry individuals carry small- or medium-capacity firearms. Think of it this way: Who in their right mind would use their little .380 or snub-nosed .38 to go after one or more shooters who likely has multiple handguns and rifles that hold 30-round magazines?

Since being out-gunned during a shooting incident is likely, a safer alternative would be to employ the run, hide, fight strategy. If confronted by the shooter, using your weapon to fight back may be the right choice in that situation. Even in a scenario where a person is unable to run or hide, armed citizens still do not have to seek out and engage the shooter.

It’s also important to remember that when police arrive, they likely don’t know you from the shooter so follow their instructions precisely as demanded.

For armed citizens who think they would choose to actively confront a shooter, consider the following strategies and training tactics:

Practice Advanced Training Techniques

Not all armed citizens train for proficiency in self-defense methods. Instead, they merely go to the local shooting range and target practice. That’s not defensive training.

Most shooting ranges don’t have targets that move or shoot back; shooters are not allowed to quick-draw; there’s no urgency to fire rounds as quickly and accurately as possible; and there’s no stress as in a real gunfight. These are all critical skills to have when involved in an active shooter situation.

In contrast, police always train defensively and armed citizens could benefit from replicating similar training techniques. Typical exercises for officers include quick-draw responses to multiple targets, some friendly targets mixed with targets showing threats, and choices about when to use deadly force. Officers generally have two or three seconds to assess the target and take appropriate action.

Most exercises require officers to walk and run while firing, clear misfires, and perform combat reloading. During one exercise, when a buzzer sounds, the officer runs through an obstacle course of numerous threats to neutralize a target within a specific time limit. Other scenarios require shooting while moving forward and backward, down on one or both knees, on the ground lying on one’s back, stomach and sideways while shooting from cover. Officers also practice shooting weak-handed and locating appropriate cover and concealment. Police train to engage multiple targets.

They do all this training while prioritizing weapon lethality (shotgun, rifle, semi-automatic and automatic firearms, handgun, knife), threat proximity (close combat or distant), and maintaining weapon retention. All the above is considered “basic” police firearms training.

Police also conduct specific drills for mass shootings. Officers not only train to seek out the bad guys, but they are also shot at by instructors armed with hot wax and paint rounds. Officers train to work in teams as well as solo as they go in and out of buildings. Active shooter training is intense and frequent, which serves to increase accuracy, safety, discipline, and confidence.

Know Your Surroundings

Police train to be aware of what’s behind their target. If there is any chance of injury to an innocent person behind the bad guy, the shot should not be taken. During a shooting incident, people will panic and run in all directions. You don’t want to shoot, injure, or kill anyone running for safety. If that occurs, you will likely face liable charges. You must quickly determine, “If I miss the aggressor, will I risk injuring the good guys?” If the answer is “maybe,” take cover until you have a clear shot.

It’s not only people you would need to be aware of. What if the shooting is occurring at an outdoor event? Are there buildings nearby? How many times have you heard about a bullet entering a building and striking someone inside?

Training Tips for Armed Citizens

To endow themselves with the best chance for survival, citizens ideally should train like the police. Of course, police departments don’t generally train civilians, so armed citizens could seek out an outdoor range ideally staffed with instructors who have experience in combat and survival tactics. Alternatively, there are private companies that offer combat firearms training for civilians.

If those options aren’t available, there are things you can do on your own to better prepare for an active shooter situation. For example, while at the range practice under stress. Start at a distance where you can consistently hit the target in two seconds and gradually increase the distance until you become proficient from that distance. As career officers, we both trained to double-tap, meaning two quick shots at center mass, then a quick assessment to determine the status of the aggressor. Then repeat as needed until the aggressor stops.

Tactics for Engaging an Active Shooter

If you find yourself in an active shooter situation and decide to take action, do it quickly but not haphazardly. Stay out of the line of fire and use cover and concealment to your advantage.

Immediately upon hearing shots fired, get behind cover and assess the situation, scanning for threats. If you do not see the threat, cautiously move toward the sounds of gunshots, while keeping your firearm concealed. It’s recommended that you draw your weapon, as long as you can keep it out of view. You want to be inconspicuous so as not to draw attention to yourself and avoid being mistaken for the active shooter.

If you identify the shooter, take cover. Your goal is to engage from the shortest distance possible, attempting to ensure accuracy based upon your skill level. Remember, the shooter is a killer, and you are shooting to neutralize the threat.

Once the shooter is down, stay behind cover and reload if needed while scanning for further threats. Always assume there could be more than one shooter. Notably, in a terrorist-related incident, there will likely be handlers covertly directing the shooters behind the scenes. There could also be other armed good guys present, too.

If the scene is clear, approach with caution, keeping your weapon on target and disarm the shooter. Once you deem the scene safe, holster your weapon and wait for the police. They will likely handle you as a suspect until they sort things out. That will include taking your firearm as evidence. Therefore, be sure to follow their commands closely without hesitation.

Legal Considerations

The decision to take action during an active shooter goes beyond a person’s skill level and competency with a firearm. There are also legal factors to consider. If weapons are not handled responsibly, the citizen is risking criminal and civil liability. All firearm owners should understand deadly force is authorized (legal) only in cases of self-defense. In other words, one must reasonably be in fear of his or her life, or of another person’s, or of serious injury.

Individuals who engage an active shooter must realize that their actions will be scrutinized by the justice system, the media, and the public so they must know how to navigate those situations as well.

As a supervisor for the Virginia Beach Homicide squad, Bruce Razey received training from a local defense attorney specializing in defending officer-involved shootings. The big takeaway from the training was that when officers are asked what happened, they should reply, “I will not make any statements without consulting my attorney.”

Many people might think that comment makes the officer sound guilty. We don’t disagree. However, comments such as “I thought he was going for a gun,” or “I heard shots, then he came running around the corner, and I couldn’t see his hands” could raise questions concerning the officer’s actions. This sound advice for officers should also be sound advice for the armed citizen. Remember, the law is not just for criminals; every citizen has the same rights under Miranda.

In summary, the above recommendations in no way cover every situation. Each incident will present diverse issues and must be handled accordingly. It is critical that armed citizens focus on advanced training tactics practiced regularly. To use a common adage within the police profession: When faced with an emergency, you will do one of two things, panic or do what you were trained to do.

About the Authors:

Andrew Bell has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience and 25 years in the U.S. military and civilian service. He served as a patrol officer, detective, patrol sergeant, community-policing supervisor, school resource supervisor and detective supervisor. He was called to active duty with U.S. Army Reserve after 9/11 and completed a tour in Afghanistan. Andrew also worked for the U.S. federal government in Army intelligence, Army capabilities unit and emergency operations. He holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor of science degree with a concentration in criminal justice. Andrew has been a faculty member of American Military University since 2004.

Bruce Razey began his law enforcement career in 1975. During his 35-year career, he worked for three diverse police departments. Bruce served in patrol operations, special operations and the investigative division. His assignments included field training officer, air unit coordinator/observer, field training supervisor, community policing supervisor, detective supervisor and committee chairman for internal affairs review unit. He served on numerous hiring and promotional boards; authored and co-authored policies and procedures; created lesson plans to instruct new and veteran officers in a variety of topics; and established policy and guidelines for an improved method of conducting police lineups and eye-witness testimony. Bruce holds a bachelor of science degree in criminology from the University of Saint Leo, Florida. He graduated number one from the Regional Police Academy and from the West Point Leadership & Management Training Course.

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