Unarmed Civilian Response to Active Shooters: A Crucial Part of Reducing Casualties of Mass Attacks

Heroes of the Paris Train Attack

Heroes of the Paris train attack with French president François Hollande. United States Air Force

Recently presidential candidate Ben Carson “came under fire”1 for suggesting what to most people is common sense: If someone is actively trying to kill you, and you have no opportunity to flee, it is better to try to stop the criminal by force than to wait passively to be murdered. If you take action, you have a fighting chance to live; if you take no action, you will most likely die.

Thankfully, when an Islamic jihadist opened fire August 21 on a train headed for Paris, several people acted according to Carson’s advice—they attacked and stopped the perpetrator before he could murder anyone.

Alon Stivi—a former member of Israel’s special forces, a security consultant, and an instructor of law enforcement in counter-terrorism—said Carson’s message “is what I’ve been telling people, and teaching people how to do, for ten years.”2 Indeed, Carson’s remarks are consistent with advice that law enforcement agencies often offer (see details below).

Stivi added, “We are conditioned to dial 911 and wait, but, in the case of an active shooter, that does not work. Most casualties occur within the first ten or fifteen minutes, and police response usually is too late. Time is always the key factor, and immediate, successful response is critical for survival.”

The problem comes with translating Stivi’s insights into practical action in a time of crisis. Thankfully, Carson’s remarks, and the media attention surrounding them, offer a good opportunity to make headway there.

Unfortunately, many people are reluctant to take Stivi’s (and Carson’s) advice seriously, largely for two reasons: First, some people find it hard to separate Carson’s advice from his personality and the contentious 2016 presidential race, and, second, various well-funded advocacy groups have incentives to avoid serious discussion of the issue. Let’s take those points in more detail.

Carson has made some foolish remarks on the other issues, including evolution and Islam, and now a common media “narrative” paints Carson as gaffe-prone.3 So there has been an attempt by some to spin Carson’s perfectly sensible remarks regarding self-defense as just another gaffe.

Unfortunately, the way that Carson phrased his remarks caused confusion and opened Carson to criticism on tangential issues.

For one thing, Carson hypothetically placed himself at the scene of the recent massacre near Roseburg, Oregon, which prompted the criticism that he can’t truly know what he’d do in such a crisis. One of Carson’s competitors in the presidential race, Lindsey Graham, voiced that criticism.4 Carson would have been better off saying that, if any given individual mentally prepares for such a crisis, that individual is much more likely to respond effectively during the moment of crisis.

Next, as one ABC headline puts it, “Carson appears to be second-guessing Oregon shooting victims.”5 I don’t think that’s what Carson was doing, but it’s easy to see why his critics brought up the point. Carson should have more strongly emphasized from the start that he was in no way blaming the Oregon victims but was instead trying to learn from past horrors in order to mitigate the carnage of future possible attacks.

This last point brings up a crucial issue: If we avoid serious discussions about self-defense and survival tactics in cases of intended mass murder out of fear that such discussions are somehow insensitive to victims of past attacks, all we accomplish is to ensure that more people will be murdered in possible future attacks.

Surely we can agree that preventing murders is a worthy goal. As I will indicate in this essay, an essential way to prevent at least some murders in a typical mass attack is for unarmed civilians in certain circumstances to forcibly respond to the attacker.

To learn this lesson well, we must look at past mass attacks to see what actually happened and what might have happened had the victims had better tactical knowledge and preparation. Obviously, victims of past attacks are in no way at fault for the attack or for their possible lack of tactical acumen. The entire point of Carson’s remarks was not to blame past victims, but to “plant in people’s minds” knowledge of what to do if they find themselves in similar circumstances in the future.6

Obviously, people who think ahead of time about the best ways to respond to a given crisis are more likely to respond more effectively should the crisis strike. If we don’t mentally prepare for a crisis ahead of time, many of us will freeze if we face that type of crisis. This is especially true when facing an armed killer—one of the most stressful and horrifying types of crisis imaginable. For many people, the idea of attacking an armed killer seems insane at a gut level. But it is not insane; in some circumstances, it is the best tactical option, and one that can be extremely effective. Quite simply, in those circumstances, if you attack the perpetrator, you radically improve your chances of living. If you do nothing, you likely will die. There’s nothing crazy about taking the tactical measures most likely to keep you alive.

I also mentioned the problem of various well-funded advocacy groups lacking the motivation to seriously discuss unarmed self-defense during a mass attack; I return to that issue now.

Most of the political debate surrounding mass attacks—and therefore much of the media coverage—focuses on gun laws. The National Rifle Association argues that more restrictive gun laws would not prevent such attacks and that measures such as expanded concealed gun carry and armed guards at schools might help.7 Many Democratic politicians, as well as gun-control groups, by contrast, argue that a range of more stringent gun laws is the appropriate response. For example, Barack Obama explicitly said “we should politicize” mass shootings so as to regulate guns more tightly.8

One side, then, argues that more guns in the right hands is the answer; the other side argues that fewer guns is the answer. But unarmed self-defense during a mass attack has nothing to do with gun policy; thus, neither side of the gun-control debate has much incentive to seriously discuss it—even though, in terms of saving lives during mass attacks, it is the single most important thing we could possibly discuss.

I want to respond to a possible objection here. Some people will say, “We shouldn’t need to discuss self-defense survival tactics during a mass attack, because government should ensure that mass attacks never happen.” I agree that we shouldn’t “need” to discuss such tactics in this context or any other. In a perfect world, no person would ever try to assault or murder another, no man would ever try to rape a woman, no religious zealot would ever try to inflict harm on someone with different beliefs, no white supremacist would ever try to harm others because of their skin tone. But wishing won’t make it so. Head-in-the-sand thinking about such matters will result in one and only one outcome: More innocent people dying. Responsible people try to prevent such deaths.

Let’s say that the most far-reaching gun laws, somehow, magically were enacted in the United States. That would not stop mass murders. Even in the event of a total gun confiscation program, it would take government years—probably decades or longer—to retrieve the bulk of existing guns in America. And anyone who has ever thought seriously about the black market in illegal drugs will immediately realize that the same sort of criminal elements that now trade in illegal drugs will trade in illegal guns, no matter what the law says. Prohibition would merely make the black market in guns exponentially more profitable for criminals. As bloody attacks at such places as the offices of Charlie Hebdo make clear, countries with stricter gun laws are not immune from mass attacks.9

We need a strategy for preventing casualties during mass attacks more serious than wishing the bad guys would go away.

Teaching people the appropriate, relatively simple self-defense survival tactics useful in cases of mass attacks is probably the single most important thing we can do to prevent future carnage. It is also an excellent way for people to avoid a “paralyzing, irrational fear of mass shootings”10—which, after all, are relatively rare despite their wall-to-wall media coverage—because people will know they can be pro-active in the extremely unlikely case that they find themselves in the middle of such a crisis. Further, if more perpetrators are stopped by their intended victims, fewer sick individuals will try to become perpetrators of mass murder in the first place as their chances of hoped-for infamy diminish.

The purpose of this essay is primarily to persuade people of the need for widespread education regarding self-defense survival tactics in cases of mass attacks. This essay is not a guide for mastering those tactics.

Of necessity, I will need to discuss some of the basics of good self-defense survival tactics as I understand them. I am not an expert in the field. I do not teach these tactics professionally or as a hobby. What I know, I learned primarily from Alon Stivi and from my father, Linn Armstrong, who often works with Stivi to teach people the tactics at issue. Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to spend a day with Stivi for a class he taught in Grand Junction, Colorado, that included both research materials about mass attacks and hands-on practice in simulated attacks. I therefore have greater-than-average knowledge of the tactical matters at hand, but I am no expert. I urge readers not to attempt any of the tactics I discuss without first thoroughly vetting them independently with a reliable expert in the field.

The basics of surviving an active shooting (or other sort of mass attack, such as one involving edged weapons) can be summarized in three words: Run, hide, attack. In slightly more detail: Escape the area of danger if you can; if that is impossible, barricade yourself in a safe room or hide effectively from the attacker; if that is impossible, and your life is in imminent risk, attack the perpetrator, hopefully with the help of others in the area. The focus of this essay is on that third step, attacking the perpetrator, something that is generally appropriate only if fleeing or hiding is impossible. For short, I will refer to this strategy as “attack the perp.”

It should be clear that neither I nor any sensible person advises that unarmed people who are not in law enforcement actively try to hunt down a distant perpetrator (except perhaps in very special circumstances). This isn’t about a Rambo fantasy or a video game simulation; this is about taking the steps most likely to keep you alive. Only if you are in close proximity to an active attacker, and you have no opportunity to flee or hide, should you consider attacking the perpetrator.

The basic advice summarized by “run, hide, attack” is not controversial among experts in the field. It is the basic advice (described in somewhat different language) offered by videos produced by the Los Angeles Police Department, New York State University Police, Texas State University, the city of Houston, and Stivi’s Attack Countermeasures Training:11

The type of situation we’re talking about, in which the best tactical move is to attack the perp, is when the perpetrator is close and escape is not an option. Scenarios include the perp breaking into a room from which you cannot easily escape or opening fire in a crowd where you are very close and cannot reasonably hope to run away in time.

Obviously, if the situation calls for attacking the perp, there are better and worse ways to do it. Many people who encounter an active shooter will not have prepared much if at all for the situation. At the point of crisis, you cannot get better preparation; all you can do is act as effectively as you can. In these cases, the basic idea is to get the perpetrator on the ground and incapacitate him (most mass attackers are male). Shouting simple, direct orders to others—such as “Tackle him!”—can sometimes break people out of a panic-induced passive state and motivate them to help. Ideally, one person grabs the perpetrator’s arms (and weapon) and drags him to the ground while another person or persons tackle him from behind. Then, if necessary, those available beat and stab the perp with any available object—such as a laptop computer or a ballpoint pen—until he is no longer a threat.

What about a scenario in which the perpetrator opens fire in front of a large crowd, such as a movie theater? Some people are too close to flee but too far to immediately attack the perp. In that case, my father suggests pelting the perp with whatever objects are at hand in an effort to surprise, distract, and disorient him—hopefully giving others a better chance to attack the perp. This idea springs from the work of military strategist John Boyd, who discussed the “OODA loop”—the process in which people observe, orient, decide and act.12 Boyd argued that disrupting a person’s OODA loop can give one the tactical advantage. By throwing something at an attacker, one may be able to get the perp out of action mode (killing people) and back into the modes of observation and orientation.

One of my interlocutors on Twitter objected that effectively attacking the perp would involve elaborate coordination among multiple parties that would be impossible in a true crisis.13 But coordination in such a crisis might be as simple as barking, “Attack the perp!” or “Tackle him!” to others. Simply taking action yourself might spur others to join you, absent any coordination. In some contexts, people who refuse to be victims may have more time to coordinate in more complex ways. For example, if an active shooter is in another part of the building, people in a room can coordinate to barricade the door and plan an attack should the perp break in.

After the fact, an expert in self-defense probably could look at any instance of self-defense and suggest improvements. The fact that, during a crisis, people are unlikely to respond with tactical perfection is hardly a reason for them not to respond as well as they can given their abilities and experience. Even the best possible tactical response may fail in a given circumstance, and even an unskilled response may succeed. The point is, in the relevant circumstances, attacking the perp is the only possible way to increase the odds of survival.

Is all of this unrealistic theory, or is it practical?

According to a 2013 report published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, of 160 cases of an active shooter investigated, “In 21 incidents (13.1%), the situation ended after unarmed citizens safely and successfully restrained the shooter.” The report adds, “Of note, 11 of the incidents involved unarmed principals, teachers, other school staff and students who confronted shooters to end the threat.” By contrast, armed citizens (not in law enforcement) stopped the perpetrator in only five of the cases.14

To get a better idea of what unarmed citizens can do in practice, consider a few recent examples.

On September 30, 2015—just one day before the massacre at Umpqua Community College in Oregon—an armed student entered Harrisburg High School in South Dakota. The school’s principal, Kevin Lein, struggled with the student, and the student shot him in the arm. Then the assistant principal, Ryan Rollinger, “tackled the teenage shooter and held him down with help from another staff member [activities director Joey Struwe] until police arrived,” reports the Argus Leader. School superintendant Jim Holbeck fears the student might have shot more people had staff not intervened: “You really never know what this student would have done if they hadn’t confronted him. If he already shot once, who knows?”15

On April 27, 2015, “A teacher in Washington state helped prevent what could have been a deadly school shooting when he tackled and restrained the suspect,” reports the Huffington Post. The school was North Thurston High; the teacher was Brady Olson. “The teacher and a school resource officer held the suspect until police arrived.”16

Then, of course, on August 21, 2015, two French men and three Americans subdued a murderous jihadist who was armed with “an AKM assault rifle with 270 rounds of ammunition, a 9mm handgun, a box-cutter and a bottle of gasoline.”17 Weaving together numerous media accounts, Wikipedia reports that one French man “attempted to restrain or disarm the gunman but fell to the floor in the ensuing struggle.” Then “[a]n American-born Frenchman, 51-year-old Mark Moogalian, attempted to wrest the rifle from the gunman, who then drew an automatic 9mm Luger pistol. Moogalian was shot through the back of the neck; seriously injured, he played dead.” Then three Americans—Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos—successfully attacked the perp. “Sadler told CNN that Skarlatos yelled ‘Get him!’ after which ‘Spencer immediately gets up to charge the guy, followed by Alek, then myself.’” Stone received some blade injuries in the process. “Skarlatos seized the assailant’s rifle and beat him in the head with its muzzle until the assailant was unconscious. A British passenger, 62-year-old Chris Norman, and a French train driver came to their aid to hold the gunman down.”18

Several points about the Paris attack are worth mentioning here. Attacks on the perp can have varying degrees of success. Although the first two men to attack the perp did not disable him, they may have been able to delay him from clearing a jammed rifle. The three Americans coordinated their attack with a minimum of planning: Essentially, one person yelled “Get him!” and the three men got him. True, two of the Americans were off-duty soldiers, so they probably had very good preparation and physical conditioning for such an attack. However, any three average people who followed a similar course stood a reasonable chance of success, particularly when others joined them.

During the Oregon shooting, in which nine people were murdered, apparently no one attempted to attack the perpetrator, although one man, Chris Mintz, heroically took other important defensive actions. To emphasize the point again: Reviewing the facts of this case from a tactical perspective does not imply that the victims were in any way to blame for the atrocity; the purpose is to try to figure out how others might respond with more effective tactics in possible future attacks.

Apparently Mintz took the most active role in responding to the crisis, urging people to leave and attempting to obstruct the attacker. The perpetrator shot Mintz multiple times (thankfully not fatally) as Mintz tried to block a door.19

What happened next is sickening: The perpetrator spent long agonizing moments talking to many of the victims before wounding or killing them. First, he verbalized his intent to select one student to receive an envelope before handing off the envelope. Then, as one wounded survivor reports, before the perpetrator shot people, “He had us all get up one by one and asked us what our religions were.”20 After the fact, in our calm living rooms and offices, we can conclude that, obviously, the strategy of sitting or standing around waiting to get shot is not tactically optimal, if the goal is to stay alive.

We can only speculate what might have happened if one of the students had shouted, “Get him!” and gone on the attack. Might that have broken others out of their panic-induced passivity? If, prior to the crisis, some of the students had watched a video on surviving an active shooter, might those students have been mentally able to take action and attack the perp?

I needn’t get into details of other cases here to draw a conclusion: In some cases of mass attacks, some of the intended or potential victims attack the perpetrator; in other cases, none of the victims do. In cases where intended or potential victims attack the perpetrator, sometimes they succeed and stop him from killing or killing again. In cases where victims do not attack the perpetrator, usually he stops killing people only when he kills himself or when the police show up and subdue him.

We do not honor the memories of the victims of mass attacks by refusing to draw lessons from the attacks that could help others save lives in the future. We honor their memories in part by taking reasonable steps to prevent future murders. Whatever else might be said about gun laws, mental illness, police action, and other matters, it is clear that, if caught in the horrific crisis of an active attacker, unarmed people can in certain circumstances take effective action to bring down and subdue the perpetrator.

Attacking the perpetrator might not save lives in all cases, but not attacking the perpetrator certainly will cost lives in many cases.

Unfortunately, unarmed self-defense in a case of mass attack is not something easily politicized, so it is not provocative enough for many politicians or journalists to discuss. It is shameful that many journalists chose to cover the issue only in relation to the politically-driven controversy of Ben Carson’s remarks. At least Carson’s remarks got more people talking about this vitally important issue.

Attack the perp. No, it is not as easy as it sounds. But, if more people prepare themselves mentally to attack the perp should the need arise, fewer people will die horrific deaths. If even one person’s life can be saved—and probably many people’s lives can be saved—then we need to act to educate people about unarmed self-defense in response to mass attacks.

Related:

Endnotes

1. See, for example, Greg Richter, “Lindsey Graham: Carson ‘Has No Idea What He Would Do’ in a Shooting,” Newsmax, October 7, 2015, http://www.newsmax.com/Politics/lindsey-graham-ben-carson-comments-oregon/2015/10/07/id/695171/.

2. Alon Stivi’s remarks come from personal interviews on October 7 and October 8, 2015. Stivi’s biography may be found at his web site for Attack Countermeasures Training at https://www.actcert.com/instructors.aspx. My father, Linn Armstrong, frequently works with Stivi to conduct counter-terrorism and workplace safety classes in western Colorado. I have spent several days training with Stivi for firearms use and workplace safety.

3. For one detailed critique of Carson’s remarks on evolution, see Jerry A. Coyne, “Ben Carson on Evolution: An Ignorant (or Duplicitous) Presidential candidate,” Why Evolution Is True, September 24, 2015, https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2015/09/24/ben-carson-on-evolution-an-ignorant-or-duplicitous-presidential-candidate/. For my critique of Carson’s remarks about Islam, see “Ben Carson’s Grain of Truth: Voters Should Care about Candidates’ Religious Views,” AriArmstrong.com, September 21, 2015, http://ariarmstrong.com/2015/09/ben-carsons-grain-of-truth-voters-should-care-about-candidates-religious-views/. For one account of Carson’s “gaffes,” see “To Ben Carson’s Fans, those ‘Gaffes’ Aren’t Gaffes,” Daily Kos, May 16, 2015, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/05/16/1385049/-To-Ben-Carson-s-fans-those-gaffes-aren-t-gaffes.

4. Greg Richter, “Lindsey Graham: Carson ‘Has No Idea What He Would Do’ in a Shooting.”

5.Katherine Faulders, “How Ben Carson Appears to Be Second-Guessing Oregon Shooting Victims,” ABC News, October 7, 2015, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/ben-carson-appears-guessing-oregon-shooting-victims/story?id=34310265.

6. Alexandra Jaffe and Andrew Rafferty, “Ben Carson Says People Should Attack Active Shooters,” NBC News, October 7, 2015, http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/carson-loss-gun-rights-more-devastating-bullet-wounds-n439251.

7. See, for example, Ashley Fantz, “NRA clarifies its stance on arming schools,” CNN, December 27, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/27/us/nra-president-interview/.

8. Jordan Fabian, “Obama: Mass Shootings Are ‘Something We Should Politicize,’” The Hill, October 1, 2015, http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/255723-obama-mass-shootings-should-be-politicized.

9. For more examples of mass attacks in other countries, see David Harsanyi, “Actually, President Obama, Mass Killings Aren’t Uncommon In Other Countries,” Federalist, June 18, 2015, http://thefederalist.com/2015/06/18/actually-president-obama-mass-killings-arent-uncommon-in-other-countries/. Much more could be said, of course, about the incidence and trends of mass attacks in the United States and in other countries.

10. The quoted line comes from Steve Neumann, “I’ve Developed a Paralyzing, Irrational Fear of Mass Shootings. I Bet I’m Not Alone,” Vox, October 2, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/9/17/9340679/mass-shooting-fear.

11. “Surviving an Active Shooter,” March 17, 2015, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=6&v=DFQ-oxhdFjE; “Crisis on Campus: Shots Fired,” August 20, 2013, New York State University Police, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNzYNhySD_8; “Surviving an Active Shooter Event—Civilian Response to Active Shooter,” February 10, 2015, Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Program at Texas State University, https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=1&v=j0It68YxLQQ; “Run, Hide Fight: Surviving an Active Shooter Event—English,” July 23, 2012, City of Houston, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VcSwejU2D0; “Last Resort Active Shooter Survival Measures by Alon Stivi,” June 18, 2010, Attack Countermeasures Training, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2tIeRUbRHw. I found several of these videos through links provided by Randall Holcombe, “Be Prepared for Active Shooter Threats,” September 22, 2015, Independent Institute, http://blog.independent.org/2015/09/22/be-prepared-for-active-shooter-threats/.

12. For one summary of Boyd’s work, see Brett and Kate McKay, “The Tao of Boyd: How to Master the OODA Loop,” September 24, 2015, Art of Manliness, http://www.artofmanliness.com/2014/09/15/ooda-loop/.

13. See Bryan Register’s Tweets of October 7, 2015, at https://twitter.com/RegisterBryan/status/651905208214155264.

14. “A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013,” September 16, 2013, Federal Bureau of Investigation, https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2014/september/fbi-releases-study-on-active-shooter-incidents/pdfs/a-study-of-active-shooter-incidents-in-the-u.s.-between-2000-and-2013.

15. Patrick Anderson, “Heroes emerge from shooting at Harrisburg High School,” October 1, 2015, Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com/story/news/crime/2015/09/30/shots-fired-harrisburg-high-all-students-safe-principal-wounded/73085090/.

16. Sebastian Murdock, “Hero Teacher Brady Olson Stops High School Shooter In Washington State,” Huffington Post Crime, April 28, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/27/teacher-brady-olson-shooter_n_7154554.html.

17. “Suspect in France Train Shooting Watched Jihadi Video Prior to Attack, French Authorities Say, August 25, 2015, Associated Press, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/08/25/french-authorities-launch-terror-probe-in-train-attack-says-suspect-watched/.

18. “2015 Thalys Train Attack,” Wikimedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015_Thalys_train_attack (accessed October 7, 2015).

19. Don Melvin, “Oregon Shooting Hero Tells Gunman, ‘It’s My Son’s Birthday Today,’” October 3, 2015, CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/02/us/oregon-school-shooting-hero/.

20. Neal Karlinsky, Sabina Ghebremedhin, and Cassidy Gard, “Oregon Umpqua Shooting Survivor Recalls Terrifying Moments Inside Classroom,” October 5, 2015, ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/US/oregon-umpqua-shooting-survivor-recalls-terrifying-moments-inside/story?id=34249478.