Although the chances of any given individual having to survive a mass shooting are almost infinitesimal don’t quote the odds to those who were in Isla Vista near Santa Barbara or Cedarville Rancheria in Northern California in February or Fort Hood (twice) or at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Virginia Tech or any other of the over sixty locations around the United States during the past thirty years. The real question should not be will I ever be involved in a mass shooting but if I am how can I survive?
First, if you think you just heard “fireworks” and it’s not the Fourth of July or the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve immediately take action. Don’t wait for the agonizing screams of the injured or dying to jolt you back to reality. Time and time again research has shown that victims waste valuable seconds trying to rationalize irrational behavior by telling themselves “not to be paranoid”, “it’s just a prank” or “part of some show” all the while being exposed to deadly gunfire because they are not taking life-saving maneuvers.
When under attack, stay calm and think. Hopefully you have had some training at work or school and know that your best chance at survival lies in your ability to exit the scene. Quickly remove yourself from both the line of fire and from the shooters line of sight. Get away and stay away because returning to the scene could prove to be a deadly mistake. Exiting the location and removing yourself from the violent incident is the single most important action for surviving a mass shooting event.
If during a mass shooting or active shooter attack it is impossible to safely exit from the location the next best course of action is to find protective cover, something that stops bullets. Common examples of cover found in public places include: parked cars, cement barriers in parking lots, brick walls, concrete support poles, or structural steel beams. If these types of structures are not available, look for low places in the ground which might provide protection. This could be natural indentations in the ground, in drainage ditches, sewer culverts, or even laying prone on the ground alongside a cement curb in a parking lot.
In an office or workplace, most desks do not provide cover. However, items such as file cabinets, large pieces of machinery made of steel, or other metal objects may provide protection from the attack. Structurally, most interior walls will provide a minimum of cover while exterior walls—especially those with either a brick or cinder block construction—will provide a maximum of protection from bullets of nearly any caliber. Structural support beams of either wood or steel will provide cover, as will various types of fencing and even landscape features such as retaining walls and thick trees.
If cover is not available the next best option is to conceal yourself from the offender. Mass shootings are dynamic events where the shooter is actively pursuing easy targets. Since the offender often moves quickly from target to target, it is hoped that he will pass by concealed individuals, not bothering to take the time to seek them out. If faced with a mass shooting situation, find a place to hide and then stay hidden until it is safe to move. Find a closet, bathroom, cabinet or storage room: whatever is available at the time, accessible at the moment, and maybe most important: out of the offender’s line of sight.
If you find yourself in a school or office cafeteria or a food court at the mall, and your only option is to dive under the table, try to keep moving by rolling on the ground or “army-crawling” in an effort to hide from the shooter. If you are outside and need to find concealment, consider hiding behind a row of bushes, under a pile of trash or debris, or even in a drainage ditch; these all are viable options in a life and death situation. Sometimes you may need to hide from the offender just long enough for him to lose track of you as he moves on to another target. Under certain conditions, even areas with shadows can provide you some concealment from the shooter. This is especially true in outdoor situations where the shooter is in the bright sunlight and moving quickly between locations. Moving into the shadows may provide just enough concealment to allow you to escape harm.
In Mass Shootings:Six Steps to Survival we examined the actions taken by individuals involved in mass shooting events over the past 30 years, and determined that it is possible to identify some tactics successfully utilized by survivors. Even though each situation is both unique in its circumstances and dynamic in its development, it is possible to see that there are reoccurring patterns of behavior that can improve one’s ability to survive one of these horrific attacks.
Remember, if you are ever involved in a mass shooting incident and you can exit, seek cover or conceal yourself your chances of survival increase dramatically.
John Matthews is the executive director of the Community Safety Institute. He is a thirty-year law enforcement veteran, the author of Mass Shootings: Six Steps for Survival , School Safety 101 and the co-author of The Eyeball Killer, a first-hand account of his capture of Dallas’ only serial killer.