Active Shooter: Survival and Prevention

Today, when I teach self-defense, students often ask how to defend against an active shooter. This question was never asked when I began teaching 20 years ago. We live in a different world, a world that changed in 1999 when two teenagers walked into Columbine High School and shot 34 people, then killed themselves.

In 1999 most of us were unfamiliar with the term ‘active shooter’, a term the FBI defines as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” Between 2000 and 2013, an FBI study found a total of 167 active shooter incidents. In 2023 alone, there were over 600[i] resulting in 597 deaths and over 2,300 injuries. These shootings happen in places we all go: businesses, schools, supermarkets, clubs, places of worship, parades, and concerts. Since there are over 300 million people in the United States, the chance of encountering an active shooter is relatively small, but mass shootings have literally become an everyday occurrence in today’s world.

Active shooter incidents happen quickly and are often over within 10 or 15 minutes. Knowing how to respond in those first critical minutes, before police arrive, saves lives.


An active shooter expects you to feel helpless, but you are not. What you do matters. Begin with a survival mindset.

Be Prepared. Knowledge and practice are empowering. I recommend businesses and public institutions receive active shooting training and put a response plan in place. In our area, the Portland Police Bureau offers  Active Shooter Preparedness Trainings. I have also included several links to private, national organizations in the endnotes.[ii]

Active shooter training, just like fire drills, increases the likelihood we will respond quickly and effectively in an emergency.

Be Aware. When in public places, use your situational awareness to assess your surroundings. When you enter a building, notice alternate exits, including windows.

Know what gunshots sound like. People lose valuable time wondering if what they heard was a gunshot, or a car backfire, or fireworks. If you think you hear a gunshot, trust what you hear.

Stay Calm. In an emergency, immediately take deep, slow breaths to calm yourself. This will help clear your mind so you can more easily access your plan and assess your options.


Law enforcement and the FBI offer active shooter training called Run. Hide. Fight. Here is a link to a brief U-Tube video that demonstrates Run. Hide. Fight.

Run. If you can immediately escape, this is your best option. Find a door or window to flee a building. Run away from the sound of gunshots. Help others escape if possible. Leave belongings behind and run with empty hands above your head, fingers open wide so if you encounter police, they do not think you are a threat. Don’t stop running until  you reach a safe location.

The more distance you put between yourself and the shooter, and the more erratic your movements, the more likely you are to survive.  If you are running away from someone with a gun, run in a zig-zag pattern to be a more difficult target. If you are shot from more than six feet, you have a 75% chance of surviving.

Hide. Hide actively. Stay alert and aware. Prepare to run or fight. Silence your phone. If you are in a room, lock and/or barricade the door. Use large pieces of furniture or other large objects as barricades, the more the better. Turn lights off. Hide out of sight and, if possible, shield yourself with a substantial object that provides cover from bullets.

If hiding in a room, do not open the door for anyone until you are positive it is safe. The shooter may claim to be a medic or police officer.

Fight. If you have to fight, fight with full commitment. Keep your eye on the weapon, grab and control the weapon, continuously strike the attacker. You can strike with or throw weapons of opportunity, any hard object that is handy. You can strike with hard  body weapons: fingers, base of palms, elbows, and knees. Aim for soft body targets like eyes, throat, and groin. Continue striking with full commitment until the attacker is no longer a threat.

If you are with other people, you can coordinate your fight response: one person controls the weapon, another strikes the attacker, another restrains the attacker.

How to Respond When Police Arrive

The police are running into a high stress, chaotic situation. For your own safety remain calm and follow their instructions. Put down any objects in your hands and raise your hands above your head with fingers spread. Always keep your hands visible. Avoid making quick movements. Avoid yelling and screaming. You can help by providing any information you have about where shots were fired, description and number of shooters, and possible victims.

Law enforcement’s first priority is to stop the shooting as quickly as possible. They will go to the area where the shots were last heard. They will not immediately help injured persons. Rescue teams will arrive next to do that. It may be up to individuals at the scene to provide whatever aid they can to the injured until help arrives.


Self-defense is as much about preventing violence as it is about surviving. Over the past 25 years we have learned some important things about threat assessment and prevention, and we have created some distracting myths. Accurate information helps us keep ourselves and our communities safe.

Myths and Facts

Myths about predicting and preventing mass shootings vary from the belief that they are 100% preventable to there is nothing we can do. Naming some of these myths and clarifying what we know to be true is a good place to start becoming advocates for change.

Myth: We have an accurate profile of who an active shooter is.

Fact: There is no specific profile of an active shooter other than that they are almost always male. The small percent of females who have participated in mass shootings have done so with a male partner.

Myth: Most mass shootings happen in schools.

Fact: About 24% of mass shootings happen in schools. They are more likely to happen at a workplace or place of commerce.[iii] Two thirds of mass shootings are related to domestic violence, but the perpetrator is only defined as an ‘active shooter’ if the shooting takes place in a public, populated area. [iv]

Myth: Fortifying buildings will protect us.

Fact: There is no evidence that turning our schools and other public spaces into fortresses increases safety. A multi-million-dollar industry has grown up around this myth, particularly in relation to schools. We spend millions of dollars on special bulletproof equipment, metal detectors and other school security such as internal locks and limiting entry points, but studies show it is more important to allocate resources to a multi-faceted approach that includes increasing mental health services, providing social and emotional support in schools, and passing “red flag” laws to prevent firearms from getting into the hands of people who pose a threat to themselves or others.[v]

Myth: Perpetrators are mentally ill.

Fact: According to a 2016 study by the American Psychiatric Association the majority of people with mental illness never commit a violent crime. Active shooters with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all gun homicides.

Myth: Mass shooters get their guns illegally.

Fact: A recent report by Statistica shows that the vast majority of guns obtained by mass shooters were obtained legally.

Threat Assessment

While there is no specific profile of an active shooter, there are signs that a person may be preparing to commit an act of violence. If you recognize the mindset and behavior of someone who is a potential threat, you may be able to stop the violence before it happens.

Warning Signs. Active shooters are hyperviolent individuals with easy access to firearms who usually have deeply held personal grievances that have no means of resolution. They perceive themselves as victims, believe that no one cares about them, and have trouble forming meaningful relationships with others. They are isolated, lonely, and depressed. Their depression manifests as anger. They may have a history of harassment and stalking.

They are fascinated with violence. They often research and even idolize prior active shooters. Most active shooters have expressed their violent ideation through writing, artwork, or other creative outlets.

They take steps to plan the attack. These steps can include having a hit list of enemies; diagramming the place where the attack will occur; and gathering guns, ammo, and explosives. They may even warn people of their plans, making statements like “don’t go to school tomorrow.”

Before an active shooting, planning and preparation has usually been seen or heard by bystanders. Noticing one of these behaviors in someone you know may not be enough to raise the alarm. But, when you put concerns you have in the context of other behaviors, as well as what you know about this person, you can make a more informed decision about taking action.

Taking Action

Gun violence is everyone’s problem and responsibility. We can take action to keep ourselves and others safer.  

See Something. Say Something. Do Something. If you see or hear warning signs that a person is planning an act of violence, you don’t have to handle it alone. Talk to people who can help. Alert others in your workplace, school, or community. You can contact local law enforcement or community mental health agencies. The FBI has created a National Threat Operations Center, solely for the purpose of taking tips and giving those tips to a local agency. The more eyes on the threat, the safer everyone is.

What About Gun Control? It is unfortunate that gun control has become a hot button, political issue. The politicization of gun control is costing lives every year. The facts show unequivocally that strong state gun laws reduce gun injury and death.

Every Town for Gun Safety and Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence are two highly rated, nonpartisan nonprofits that research and publish information about ways to reduce gun violence. They advocate for legislative reform based on their findings. Every year they publish a scorecard grading each state based on the strength of their gun safety legislation. States with A ratings have significantly fewer gun deaths than states with F ratings. For example, in 2023 California received an A rating and had 8.7 gun related deaths per 100,000 population, Wyoming received an F rating and had 20.6 gun related deaths per 100,000. You can go to either website, compare states, and find that across the board the stronger the gun safety legislation, the fewer the gun deaths.

Gun safety laws do not prohibit responsible adults from owning firearms. They safeguard against irresponsible and reckless gun ownership, in the same way driving laws safeguard against irresponsible and reckless driving. We train, license, and do our best to prevent unqualified and unsafe drivers from getting behind the wheel because cars are dangerous. So are guns. Yet we resist putting similar safety requirements in place with firearms. If we take politics out of gun safety, and rely on solid information to guide public policy, we will save lives.

Kindness Matters. Sometimes pushing against the tide of interconnected, complicated social and political circumstances that feed violence feels overwhelming. Sometimes I just think about what I  can do today in my world, and I think kindness matters.

People who commit these terrible acts of violence have likely spent years feeling isolated, unseen, and uncared for. They are deeply depressed, and they express their depression with rage. We don’t have to know someone well, or agree with their point of view, or share their values, to show kindness. When we see someone struggling and offer support, when we listen to a grievance without judgement, when we reach out to someone who seems alone and include them in the group, we break through their isolation.

Each of us can do our part to foster emotionally safe and inclusive communities, express genuine interest in others, and be respectful. People are not likely to arm themselves and open fire on a workplace or school or community where they feel included and valued.

In a recent episode of The Empowerment Podcast, self-defense teacher Silvia Smart interviews an agent with the Portland FBI, SAC Agent Kiernan Ramsey, and asks him how he thinks kindness can make a difference in stopping an active shooter. He responds by saying “the smallest act of kindness can have a such a huge ripple effect.” He  goes on to say “sadly we aren’t able to show or see via data how those little acts of kindness, that expression of empathy, prevents the attack that never occurs.”

It’s true, when we practice kindness, we may never know what could have happened because it didn’t. And that is the best kind of self-defense.

If you or someone you know is thinking of hurting yourself or others The National Mental Health Hotline offers free support 24 hours a day. 866-903-3787.


[i] BBC World News. How many Mas Shootings Have There Been in 2023?. Dec.7, 2023.

[ii] Alice Training Solutions

  Compliance Training Group

[iii]  FBI News. FBI Releases Study on Active Shooter Incidents. Sept. 24, 2014

[iv] Geller, Lisa. The Education Fund to Stop Gun Violence. Study: Two-Thirds of Mass Shootings Linked to Domestic Violence.

[v] Walker, Tim. neaToday. ’School Hardening’ not Making Schools Safer, Say Experts. Feb. 14, 2019.

Experience the power of your intention, your voice, and your strikes. Create boundaries wherever you need them: in the home, the office, on the playground, or on the street.

These are just three ways you will benefit from training at
Wildfire Self-Defense:

  1. Recognize warning signs of offender behavior
  2. Increase your options to respond immediately
  3. Strike with speed and commitment.

Get the peace of mind that comes with knowing you can and will defend yourself.

1 comment

  1. The Run/Fight/Hide unit was a mandatory training at my former place of employment. It’s a good start. I have not encountered any training that recommends kindness as a preemptive strategy. Thank you for bringing that into the discussion. As the FBI agent said, we may not ever know when a situation was diffused. It’s on all of us to bring down the temperature and the hyperbolic rhetoric around guns and violence. Maybe someday we will grow out of this wretched phase.

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