“I’m a Concealed Carrier. Should I Engage an Active Shooter?”
With the spate of mass shooting attacks the last couple years, I’ve had a few people ask my thoughts on responding to a mass shooting as an armed citizen. Someone else asked the same question on a forum recently, and I’ve decided to give my opinion.
When someone asks, “If I wind up in a mass shooting, should I go after the shooter?”, my answer is, “You’re the only one who can answer that.” Only you know your level of skill, experience, toughness and willingness to act. If you know you’re not skilled enough, don’t engage. If you’re not experienced enough, stay back. If you know stubbing your toe makes you fold like origami, keep your distance. If you’d like to engage the shooter but are worried about missing your favorite TV show later that evening, chances are you’re better off doing what most armed citizens would do: getting yourself and your family the hell out of the area. That’s not what I would do, but it’s not wrong.
For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume you’re confident in your abilities, you know there’s a big difference between drawing on a convenience store robber armed with a knife versus going pistol against AR-15 in the crowded Pulse Nightclub, but you’re not real clear on what factors are involved with engaging a mass shooter. So I’ll identify a few things I think you should know and consider. My opinion is based on 22 years of police work, a couple trips to war, and some time spent training police officers how to respond to mass shootings. Please read it, decide for yourself if it’s valid, and do what you think is best. The points below aren’t all-inclusive; there are numerous other factors to consider. This is just a brief summary to get you thinking.
POINT ONE: YOU MIGHT GET REPORTED AS A BAD GUY.
A mass shooting is pure chaos. That chaos leads to bad or contradictory reporting. Bad or contradictory reporting means arriving officers don’t really know what’s going on, or even worse, makes them think a good guy is actually a bad guy.
Imagine this: a middle-aged woman with no tactical experience whatsoever is eating lunch at a mall food court. From the other side of the food court she hears sudden screaming, then rapid gunshots. She looks that direction in disbelief and sees a crowd of people running in all directions. Behind the stampede she briefly glimpses a white man in a black jacket standing still, hands out of view behind a table. He’s the only man calmly standing among the panicked crowd, and looks to her like he’s holding a gun. Her immediate impression is “He’s the shooter.”
She makes it outside to her car, calls 911 and reports her description of the suspect. That description is broadcast to responding officers. But the man she saw was actually a victim, shot in the abdomen and clutching his wound in shock. Now every responding cop will automatically lock in on any white man in a black jacket, even if the shooter was actually an Asian man in a red t-shirt.
Multiply that one woman’s report by the number of people who were near the shooter and think they saw something. That’s about how many bad reports can be generated during a mass shooting. Now, if you have a gun in your hand, imagine how many people will report you as the bad guy. Even if you’re doing everything right, even if you’re obviously going toward the sound of the guns, even if you’re directing others to safety, even if you’re yelling for police, some people will see your gun, freak out, ignore everything else and think you’re the shooter.
For you as an armed citizen responding to an active shooter, you have to remember that your actions will make you stand out, and standing out means you’ll likely be reported as the shooter.
How do you minimize the risk of being mistaken for a bad guy? Don’t act like one. Contrary to popular belief, cops aren’t trained to immediately shoot at anyone with a gun. We’re trained to engage those who reasonably appear to be an imminent threat to us or other innocent people. If you’re spraying unaimed rounds, cursing like a sailor, using a gangster one-handed pistol hold and strutting like you just got paroled, you’ll look like a bad guy. If you look, act and move like a professional, you’ll make responding cops think twice.
POINT TWO: DISTANCE IS NOT YOUR FRIEND
In most lethal force encounters, you want to create and maintain distance. In a mass shooting, you don’t. Or I should say, you don’t if you expect to take the shooter out.
The average concealed carrier has a small or mid-sized semi-auto in their waist or pocket. Maybe they’ll have a spare magazine. Even if you’re a pro with your CC weapon and hit targets at 75 yards on a square range, your accuracy is going to suffer badly when you introduce fear, tunnel vision, fleeing bystanders and a moving target. Dumping .380 or 9mm rounds at a mass shooter from nearly a football field away will probably result in nothing more than wasted rounds with no effect, but could also cause friendly fire deaths or draw accurate return fire from a rifle-armed shooter.
Yes, it’s possible to make an accurate shot from a distance, even under stress. I’ve even written about a couple instances where it’s been done in active shooter situations (https://chrishernandezauthor.com/2014/12/09/austin-pds-104-yard-pistol-shot-real-or-not/). It’s just not likely, and definitely isn’t what you should expect.
If I’m ever unfortunate enough to be present in an active shooter situation inside a structure, my plan is to send my wife and kids running in a safe direction, draw and keep my weapon in sul (tucked against my chest muzzle down) covered with one hand, and bound from cover to cover until I’m close enough to mag dump on the shooter. Or if he’s moving toward me, I’ll set up somewhere I can ambush him, the way a brave Turkish cop did in the Istanbul airport.
But I won’t stay far away and expect to Glocksnipe him. That’s a fantasy. In some situations it makes sense to keep distance and just report, but if your plan is to put “bullets on bone”, you have to close distance.
POINT THREE: GO FASTER, YOU FRIGGIN’ SLUG
Unless a cop just happens to be close by, you can expect several minutes between the beginning of an active shooter incident and the arrival of the first officer. There is a world of difference between the first officer arriving to find you standing over a dead shooter with your weapon safely concealed and your hands over your head as you yell “The suspect is down!”, versus the first officer turning a corner and seeing you shooting at something the officer can’t see. So if you decide to act, act fast. Try to resolve the situation before officers arrive. The best way to avoid being mistaken for an armed bad guy by responding officers is to not look like an armed bad guy when officers arrive.
No, you should never rush into anything blindly. Yes, it’s always better to assess for a moment before acting, and especially before shooting. But in this case, you need to minimize assessment time and maximize speed. The best way to do that is to have a plan, wargame situations, and get ahead of the curve by knowing how to react before you have to react.
POINT FOUR: SPEAKING OF HAVING A PLAN…
My biggest worry in an active shooter situation is my family. Of course that’s everyone’s worry, but mine is a bit bigger because I have an autistic son. Because it’s sometimes difficult to get my son to do what we want him to do, I don’t plan on ordering my wife to drag my autistic son a quarter mile out of a mall to the car while a madman is shooting at her. So my orders to her are to get to the nearest safe place; in a mall, that’s usually the employees-only area in the back of a store or restaurant. An active shooter is searching for the largest number of easily-accessible victims, not looking to clear back rooms.
On the other hand, most businesses probably tell their employees to immediately go to those back rooms and lock them. That’s another reason to react quickly. Most untrained people will have “normalcy bias”, which significantly extends their reaction time. That is, when something out of the ordinary happens, their first reaction is to convince themselves it’s not what they know it is.
I saw this when I responded to a shootout between a cop and a bank robber, in broad daylight in a residential area, and heard witnesses say “I thought someone must have been filming a movie or something.” I’ve also experienced it myself, when I walked up to an apparently undamaged car at an accident scene, saw a decapitated child’s head on the back seat floorboard, and tried to convince myself the child was just stuck in a weird position so I could only see his head. When shots first ring out, untrained people will freeze, look toward the shots, and spend precious moments telling themselves they’re not seeing what they know they’re seeing.
You’re not untrained. You’ve taken the time and training to get a concealed carry license, you’re reading articles like this to help you better prepare for a lethal force encounter, and if you ever face a mass shooter you shouldn’t waste precious seconds denying you’re actually seeing what you’ve trained for. If you see it and hear it, react to it immediately. Implement your plan. My plan is:
- Send my wife and kids to the nearest safe place. Force a door open if I have to, but get them out of view and behind cover.
- Draw (if I haven’t already) and briefly assess the situation from behind cover. By briefly, I mean within seconds.
- Threat scan for secondary shooters.
- Bound from cover to cover toward the sound of the guns, or toward the identified shooter if I can see him, staying low and trying not to be seen. I’ll also keep my weapon in sul and covered by my off hand if I don’t have a target. Keep bounding until I find the shooter.
- Engage from the nearest accessible covered position until he’s down.
- Threat scan again, reload as necessary.
- Separate weapon from shooter (kick it out of arm’s reach).
- Holster my weapon.
- Communicate by phone and wait for arriving officers.
- Hold hands high and announce that the shooter is down as soon as I see the first officer.
Of course, no plan survives first contact. That’s fine, I’ll adjust as necessary. But when I hear the first shots, I won’t be bumbling around wondering what the hell to do.
And lastly, the most important thing to remember…
POINT FIVE: EVEN IF YOU DO EVERYTHING RIGHT, YOU STILL MIGHT GET SHOT BY A GOOD GUY. ACCEPT IT.
Cops aren’t supermen. In a critical incident we’re making life-and-death decisions, based on a tiny amount of often-wrong information, in an incredibly short amount of time. Since we’re lucky enough to not have daily mass shootings in America, we can assume that officers responding to a mass shooting will never have responded to anything like it before. They’ll be high on adrenaline. They’ll be confused. They’ll suffer from survival stress reactions like tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, and critical incident amnesia. They’ll know that every shot they hear could mean another innocent life lost, and they’ll be in a rush to find and engage the shooter. They might be experienced veterans who’ve heard thousands of shots fired in anger overseas, or terrified rookies who’ve never dealt with anything scarier than a parking violation.
And they might make a very human mistake.
I could follow all the steps of my plan, ensure I’m moving and acting like a cop instead of a criminal or terrorist, fire only a few accurate shots, clearly communicate my identity and intentions, and still get shot by an officer (or CCer) who mistakes me for the bad guy or is acting on bad information from a panicked witness. A mass shooting is a crappy situation, and all you can do is reduce but not eliminate the suck. In that crappy, sucky situation, an officer under stress can make an understandable error. If you’re willing to accept the risk of being shot by a cop in addition to the risk of being shot by the bad guy, you should take action against a mass shooter. If you’re unwilling to accept reality and irrationally expect perfection from people struggling to do the right thing in the worst situation they’ll probably ever face, keep your distance and only worry about yourself and your family.
Chris Hernandez is a 22 year police officer, former Marine and recently retired National Guard soldier with over 25 years of military service. He is a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and also served 18 months as a United Nations police officer in Kosovo. He writes for BreachBangClear.com and Iron Mike magazine and has published three military fiction novels, Proof of Our Resolve, Line in the Valley and Safe From the War through Tactical16 Publishing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/ProofofOurResolve).
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