What would you do in an active shooting?

Ever think about what you would do if you were caught up in an active shooting scenario? For anyone paying even remote attention to national news, it’s hard not to go there mentally. In a recent study by Student Health 101, two out of three students at US colleges said they think seriously about what could happen and what they would do if they encountered an active shooter.

Other threats are far more likely

Active shootings in colleges and other public locations generate horrifying media coverage—but such acts are rare. “[O]ther than hostage situations, active shooter attacks are the least common type of school violence over the last thirty years,” reported Safe Havens International, a nonprofit campus safety organization, in 2012. Many experts agree that we are better off focusing on likelier threats. “Among the things that one could learn to protect themselves from, I would put mass shootings far down the list in terms of real risks,” says Dr. Deborah Azrael, director of research at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, Massachusetts. “You want to learn CPR, what to do in a fire, but the likelihood that someone is faced with an active shooter is slim.”

But active shootings are increasing

The concern is understandable, though, because school shootings are becoming more frequent, as experts acknowledge. “If you look historically, over time, we’re seeing increases in the incidences of shootings at schools, particularly at the college and university level,” says Dr. Amy Thompson, professor of public health at the University of Toledo, Ohio. Mass killings and school shootings may be contagious, research suggests, with high-profile incidents inspiring additional attacks (PLOS ONE, 2015).

Between 2000 and 2013, the US experienced 160 incidents in which a person actively engaged in shooting (or attempting to shoot) people in a populated area, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reports. From 2000 to 2007, these incidents averaged 6.4 a year. In the next seven years, that annual average increased to 16.4 incidents. About 8 percent of these attacks took place at institutions of higher education; 17 percent took place at grade schools. Close to half—46 percent—occurred in commercial environments.

“Campus carry” debates may be fueling concern

Guns vs. no gunsConcern about school shootings may be amplified by the ongoing debate about “campus carry” laws in some states. These laws allow staff and faculty and (sometimes) students to carry concealed guns on campus. They are controversial in part because of the identity of those advocating for these policies. “Many times the people who are trying to pass these laws are not even on a college campus or involved with the campus,” says Dr. Thompson. “They feel like they should chime in because they’re gun enthusiasts or political action groups.” Currently, there is little evidence to predict the effects of allowing concealed carry on campuses.

How to be prepared for an active shooting event

In general, planning for emergency scenarios is thought to increase our chances of survival, because it may help us overcome the freeze response that can prevent us from taking quick action in emergencies. “There’s really no way to know what is the best approach in [an active shooting event], but it’s absolutely worth thinking about,” says Dr. Thompson.

In dangerous situations most people freeze initially, wrote Dr. Joseph LeDoux, director of the Emotional Brain Institute at New York University, in the New York Times. Learning to “reappraise” that freeze instinct may help us shift into action mode. “Even if this cut only a few seconds off our freezing, it might be the difference between life and death,” he wrote (2015).

Here’s where to start:

  • Get into the habit of looking for exit signs and outside-facing windows in every public place you attend
  • Stay aware of your surroundings
  • If active shootings are on your mind, check out two of the leading protocols (below) on how to respond
  • For additional resources, see Find out more today (below)

What to do in the moment

1 Run-Hide-Fight

This response was developed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI.Run, hide, fight

Leaving the scene, run with your hands up so police officials can identify you quickly and not mistake you for the shooter, the FBI recommends.


This response was devised by the ALICE Training Institute, a company that provides security training for schools, colleges and universities. It is sometimes taught by law enforcement officials in some jurisdictions. Unlike Run-Hide-Fight, the ALICE protocol suggests that if there is no way to hide from the shooter, it is worth trying to distract them.

Active shooter response: Alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate

There’s no guaranteed safe response

Evaluating these protocols is difficult. Relatively few people have been involved in active shooting events. Of those who have, it’s difficult or impossible to know whether or not their specific response was the reason for their survival. And in an unpredictable emergency situation, no method covers all possibilities. We may not be able to predict, for example, the implications of running out of a building. That said, researchers have speculated that the will to live is an important part of a survivor mentality.

Prevent a shooting before it happens

Your best defense as a student is to be aware of your friends and classmates who might be showing signs of pending violence and help connect them with relevant resources. “This approach would be a better investment [for preventing] all sorts of violence than spending a lot of time figuring out what one would do in the very unlikely event that someone showed up in a classroom with a gun,” says Dr. Azrael.

Mass shooters tend to fit a standard profile, but it’s broad. “If you told me there was a mass shooting and asked me who had done it, I would be able to give you a pretty good guess: a man between the ages of 18 and 29 who was somewhat isolated or who had some constellation of issues that were diagnosed or not,” say Dr. Azrael. On the other hand, she says, “I wouldn’t be able to tell you who among that big group of people might be a shooter.”

Sometimes, however, the shooter tells us in advance. “In most cases of school shootings, the person told someone else that they were going to do it,” says Dr. Thompson. “Always take such threats seriously and act quickly. Time is of the essence.”

If you witness certain behaviors in another student, immediately contact the Dean of Students, the counseling center, another staff or faculty member, or campus security. Campus officials may be able to further assess the individual and/or the situation to help determine what type of intervention is warranted. Never try to defuse these types of individuals and/or situations on your own. Often, these professionals are able to preserve your anonymity. The following behaviors are red flags that merit assessment or intervention, especially if they seem out of character in the person concerned:

  • Continuous or excessive anger issues
  • Becoming easily agitated
  • Revealing a preoccupation with violence or death
  • Suddenly distancing from others or becoming withdrawn
  • Collecting large amounts of firearms
  • Talking about suicide, especially killing others and then hurting themselves

Voices: The debate on campus carry laws“I would definitely transfer to a school that allowed firearms—concealed or not. ‘Gun-free zones’ get people killed. I am also a reserve deputy, and see absolutely no reason [why] me or anyone else should fear legal gun owners going armed anywhere. Too many people have been blaming guns instead of blaming people that misuse guns.” —Matt R., third-year undergraduate, Northeast State Community College, Tennessee “[As] a scientist, we have the burden of discussing sometime controversial subjects with students. Subjects that are very polarizing like religion and evolution should be able to take place in an open environment free of weapons.”—Jack M.*, graduate student, University of Wyoming (*Name changed)

“Several studies I’ve published looked at faculty, students, campus police chiefs, counselors, and anybody you can think of in the gamut of college, and no one seems to want [campus carry] when we survey them. When you look at the literature, where there are more guns, there are more gunshots, so having them on a college campus doesn’t make you safer.”
—Dr. Amy Thompson, professor of public health, University of Toledo, Ohio

“Given how rare the event is, I don’t think that having concealed carry is going to have any impact on whether the probability of a mass shooting is going to happen or that it’s going to be stopped. I think it’s sort of irrelevant.”
—Dr. Deborah Azrael, director of research, Harvard Injury Control Research Center, Massachusetts

“American culture perceives some groups of people as inherently dangerous, which leads to shooting deaths of citizens doing nothing wrong. This scenario could play out if a student carrying a weapon saw a person running towards them, perceived danger, and shot.”
—Tanya M., second-year graduate student, Portland State University, Oregon

“Shootings were the least [thing] on my mind when I applied, although it’s certainly an issue now. I would say I would feel safest, regardless of the crime in my area, if there were concealed carry permitted for the staff and faculty. I don’t trust my classmates enough with guns because I know how reckless they can be. Most staff have to go through background checks just for the job, though, so I would trust them (if they were trained properly) to protect people on campus if need be.”
—Haley T., fourth-year undergraduate, The College of Wooster, Ohio

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Article sources

Deborah Azrael, PhD, director of research, Harvard Injury Control Research Center, Massachusetts

Amy Thompson, PhD, professor of public health, University of Toledo, Ohio

Albrecht, S. (2014, August 25). The truth behind the Run-Hide-Fight debate. PsychologyToday.com. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-act-violence/201408/the-truth-behind-the-run-hide-fight-debate.

Arrigo, B. A., & Acheson, A. (2016). Concealed carry bans and the American college campus: A law, social sciences, and policy perspective.  Contemporary Justice Review, 19(1), 120–141.

Dahl, P. P., Bonham, G., & Reddington, F. P. (2016). Community college faculty: Attitudes toward guns on campus. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 40, 706–717.

Dorn, M., & Slattery, S. (2012). Fight, flight, or lockdown: Teaching students and staff to attack active shooters could result in decreased casualties or needless deaths. Campus Safety Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.campussafetymagazine.com/files/resources/Fight-Flight-or-Lockdown.pdf.

Ellifritzm, G. (2012, December 12). New “rapid mass murder” research from Ron Borsch. Activeresponsetraining.com. Retrieved from http://www.activeresponsetraining.net/new-rapid-mass-murder-research-from-ron-borsch

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2013, September 16.) A study of active shooter incidents in the United States between 2000 and 2013. Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/active-shooter-study-2000-2013-1.pdf/view

Hemenway, D., & Solnick, S. J. (2015). The epidemiology of self-defense gun use: Evidence from the National Crime Victimization Surveys 2007–2011.
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Ledoux, J. (2015, December 18). “Run, Hide, Fight” is not how our brains work. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/20/opinion/sunday/run-hide-fight-is-not-how-our-brains-work.html?_r=0.

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National Conference of State Legislatures. (2016, May 5). Guns on campus overview. [Retrieved from http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/guns-on-campus-overview.aspx.

Ordway, D. M. (2016, September 22). Campus carry and the concealed carry of guns on college campuses: A collection of research. Journalists’ Resource. Retrieved from http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/education/concealed-carry-guns-college-campus-research

Price, J. H., Thompson, A., Khubchandani, J., Dake, J., et al. (2014). University presidents' perceptions and practice regarding the carrying of concealed handguns on college campuses. Journal of American College Health, 62(7), 461­–469.

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Students for Concealed Carry. (2009). Crime on college campuses in the US. [Website]. Retrieved from http://concealedcampus.org/campus-crime/

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Towers, S., Gomez-Lievano, A., Khan, M., Mubayi, A., et al. (2015). Contagion in mass killings and school shootings. PLos Onehttp://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0117259