Running through the mocked up halls and rooms of SIG SAUER’s Active Shooter Response Instructor class, gun in hand, seeking to stop multiple threats as soon as possible, I started thinking about what an armed citizen should/could do if caught in the mayhem of an active shooter incident . . .

First off, it depends. There are lot and lots of what ifs. What is the location? What is the access? Is there a family member trapped? What equipment does the shooter have?  What equipment and how much ammunition does the good guy have? How skilled is the good guy? Cover and concealment available? Is the bad guy dressed in bullet resistant vest or other clothing? Are other responders on the scene? How close can a good guy get to the shooter? The questions go on and on.

For this discussion, let’s make the crime scene a “gun free” school or, as I call them, criminal empowerment zone. Let’s also make the assumption that you are near a school at the start of an incident and that you’re legally armed. You’re there to pick up your child when shots ring out. Should you go in to rescue your child?

Whether you should or should not is probably a moot point; most parents would be inside before the question could be answered. But before you rush into hell, you need to consider a few important factors . . .

– Where is the threat? Echoes inside a school can make it impossible to identify the exact location of a shooter. Or shooters.

– How will you get inside? Most schools lock their doors nowadays and if under attack, may not let in strangers. Breaking a window or glass door may be your only option.

– Will you get lost? Many shooting incidents include detonation devices to increase the carnage and terror. The resulting explosion will fill the halls with smoke and set off sprinkler systems.

– Will you be able to get to your child? Hoards of students may form human tidal waves running to escape, making progress towards your child—or the threat—near impossible.

When I asked my [police] classmates what an armed citizen should do at the scene of an active shooter, they were unanimous: be an armed observer. As far as the cops are concerned, your gun is far less important than your ability to provide strategic intelligence. And they’re worried about shooting you. As you should be, too . . .

If you draw your weapon at the scene of an active shooter you’ll most likely be mistaken for the killer and attacked; by bystanders, teachers, and even kids. You might also be shot by other armed citizens or by a School Resource Officer (SRO). And don’t forget those responding officers scouring the halls and rooms looking for someone, anyone, with a gun in their hand.

Don’t let that be you.

In a lethal attack, your first instinct may be to draw your weapon and hold it in a low ready. Bad idea. Don’t draw your gun until the very moment you need to shoot.  If you encounter a perceived threat do not shoot first and ask questions later. Scan. Assess. Decide. Make a conscious choice whether or not to engage. Remember: you, too, could shoot an innocent armed civilian or an undercover policeman.

Again, if you do decide to stop a threat, don’t draw your weapon until the last possible second that you make contact with the shooter. Then reholster immediately.

I can’t emphasize this enough. In an active shooter incident, lots of armed folks will be descending on the scene. The police’s rules of engagement mandates that stopping the threat is Job One. The cops will burst in the room and instantly dispatch any threat with no time for you to explain your innocence.

It may be safer to simply drop your weapon. Or it may not. There were two shooters at Columbine.

[Beware. Holster manufacturers sell holsters that flatten after you draw your gun. Don’t buy one. And practice reholstering with your concealment clothing.]

It does not take a mass shooting to put you, the armed citizen, in jeopardy. Responding with a gun to any violence, anywhere, can place your life in danger. You shoot the store robber dead, a cop bursts in sees a body and you with a gun in your hand. It’s no different than a school shooting. Now imagine a highly trained team of cops armed with ARs working desperately to save children.

Truth be told, better them than you. But if it is you, don’t forget to save yourself.


  1. Yeah, thanks for reminding/informing me of:

    1) The benefits of not having children.

    2) The disincentive to “be a hero” nowadays – Big Brother can take of it and your contribution isn’t needed, little man! (The idea about being an “armed observer” is great and all until you consider the possibility of coming into contact with the bad guy – without your gun drawn, if you don’t get the drop on him you’re gone but with your gun drawn you’re as good as dead if any other armed individual spots you.)

    I will be armed most everywhere I go and I will try to keep in mind the folly of using my weapon for anything else but saving my life or the lives of those I care about – and that’s a darn short list.

  2. When it comes to an active shooter scenario there are no good alternatives.If I’m about the be a victim of a murdering psychopath,I have before me a series of very bad options.I can do nothing and be shot dead or be killed in self defense engaging in a gunfight with a suicidal murderer equipped with a long arm,ammunition reserves,and backup weapons.

    Being killed by the police assumes I’ve survived a premeditated assault by a determined madman armed with a rifle or high capacity pistol.Getting shot by Law Enforcement would be the least of my worries if my day has gone that badly.

  3. Very good article. A lot of scenarios that can be applied to anytime and anyplace you ever might pull your CCW. I like the Armed Observer Tag. It says you have options, but not omnipotence.

  4. “Armed observer,” huh? Which means you’re supposed to cower with your thumb up your ass while an ill-trained bunch of Keystone Cops try to figure out a way to look good for the news cameras while everyone inside gets smoked. No, thanks.

    The odds of me being in an active shooter situation are less likely than, say, the Cubs winning the World Series. I tend to avoid criminal empowerment zones — such as schools, government buildings and New York City — like the plague that they are. However, should the stars align in such a way that I found myself armed and in an “active shooter” situation, I would be likely to shoot the bastard(s), pocket my piece and then observe his body. That’s my definition of an “armed observer.”

    • Based on how they handled Columbine and the Petite situation I think you would have plenty of time, at least a good 45 minutes, to holster your weapon before they came strolling in.

  5. “The cops will burst in the room and instantly dispatch any threat with no time for you to explain your innocence.”

    100-percent right, as far as my limited experience goes.

    I once played the “active shooter” in a municipal SWAT training exercise. I showed up at an empty office building with long hallways and lots of medium-sized rooms (chosen because the layout was like a school) was given a blue Glock with a simunition barrel and some paintball safety gear, and was told to be “unpredictable.” SWAT had simunition AR-15 SBRs. It was horrifying. I’d imagined SWAT might come in yelling “Police!” or the like, at which point I’d holler back “you’ll never take me alive, ya rozzers!” (or better yet, “don’t shoot, I’m a good guy and I’ve got my concealed carry card right here to prove it”) but it was all hand signals and eerie silence from SWAT — until of course it suddenly wasn’t. Several times I never even saw the officer who “shot” me when I tried to be all sneaky about it too — just rat-a-tat-tat, ouch, play dead while contemplating the wisdom of handcuffing a suspect you’d just shot 15 times in the face, and repeat. Running around and getting into little gunfights around corners like I guessed a genuine maniac gunman would wasn’t any better. They just shot whatever part of my head I poked out six or seven times or circled around and shot me in the back. They get ya every time, and at no point did they ever stop to say “excuse me, sir, we’re looking for a maniac gunman and I can’t help but notice the gun you’re holding there . . . You wouldn’t happen to be him, would you?”

    Very good article.

  6. Rationally, you’re probably better off not entering the building at all. At best you’d be a distraction to the police, delaying them from getting to the real BG; at worst you’d be dead, either by the real BG or by a cop or another armed citizen. Actually at worst you end up shooting the wrong person.

    If you do decide to go in (I have kids, you bet I’d be trying to go get them) then what the victims really need is someone with a cool head to help them get organized and move out of harm’s way. If the BG shows up during that process, then by all means let him have it. Otherwise, like the rabbi said, there’s no good reason for your gun to be out of its holster, and a lot of good ones for it to stay out of sight.

  7. SWAT operates a scene like that with impunity. Any friendly fire incident gets shrugged off since it was a stressful situation. It’s real hard to pin the blame. There really isn’t a good answer except if you see a SWAT guy before he sees you then consider yourself lucky.
    If they see a gun in your hand you’re a goner.

  8. How to deal with an active shooter:


    Just. Leave.

    Unless you have kids or family members inside that are in danger, I can think of no reason not to get the freak out of dodge. And even them, my family members can take care of themselves.

    Screw all that noise. Shoot your way out, if you need to, but other than that, screw it. Go home, grab a couple of beers, and watch the live coverage on the TV news.

    The lives of some strangers are not worth my life.

    • My life has no more or less value than any other, yet as a
      Christian I would prefer to lay down my own rather than allow
      someone else to die. I would never seek a fight, but if I was in
      the midst of an active shooter situation my first concerns would be
      to stop the threat and ensure the safety of others. If I have
      identified some as an active shooter I am not as concerned about
      the legal ramifications of getting involved.

      • Keeping your weapon concealed and quikly reholstering after a DGU
        is the best take away from this article. Then, when the Calvary
        arrives stay out of their way.

  9. If there is an active shooter inside of a school don’t even consider going inside the building. Most likely you won’t be able to get inside, unless you are going to try to walk through the front door. If there is an active shooter the school would be locked down, all doors locked, teachers huddled in class-rooms, Principals locking down the rest of the school and an armed response team on the way in. As a parent the best thing you can do is get the hell out of the way.

    If you look at the cases of active shooters in schools, they tend to follow a pattern: start with densest populated ares of the school and work your way back to the classrooms. Libraries, cafeterias, hallways and playgrounds are generally the first places actives shooters seek out to being their massacres. The cafeteria at Columbine, the walkway surrounding the clock tower at the University of Texas, the main entrance at Red Lake high school. Open spaces with lots of people, easy targets. Once the targets of opportunity are gone spree shooters usually move to the classrooms;fish in a barrel. The shooters are there to take as many lives as possible, and very little if any regard for their own personal safety, they know that shooting up a school is a quick death and they are looking for someone to pull the trigger.

    Like I said in another on of these posts, as a Teacher I wouldn’t carry a gun on my person until: my union, the school board, and the state provide a legal defense to protect me from civil litigation after the shooting. The liability just isn’t worth risk. And I also don’t think there is enough inherent deterrent to justify arming teachers. Spree shooters are going to go to the school and shoot as many people as possible regardless of the possible armed police, security or teachers that may be present at the school. They are looking to die, they know they won’t survive the shootings. Add more cops to high schools and junior high schools, but allow college kids to carry. It is not that I am against the arming of teachers of school staff, I am, but under the current laws, it is not worth the risks.

  10. I would not enter a school shooting zone with my own weapon for the same reason I would not enter a burning building with my garden hose. I am not a trained firefighter, I’ll just add to the bodies that the firefighters have to try to rescue/recover. I am not a trained SWAT team member, and have no way to easily communicate via radio to police who I am, where I am , what I see, and what I’m doing. Even Rabbi and RF taking their training at SIG’s academy have documented that they being shown how to clear rooms by shooting the bad guys as fast as possible, while trying to avoid the unarmed and the guys with guns AND badges. and although we have seen some news stories of SWAT guys doing really badly, I think tha majority of the time they do a pretty good job, and even a poor team at least trains together, knows each other, has a chain of command. Me having no “badge”, would get me shot ASAP by any “good guy” entering the room/halway, just as they are trained to do. And what if I do enter the school with my legal licensed handgun, and what if a dozen other dads also enter, all unknown to me or each other? We dozen dads can’t work as a team, we will have different levels of training or no training at all, and no way to assess what the others can or can not do. We will probably end up shooting at each other, and the police shooting at all of us. I think the better position to take would be set up outside with a 50X spotting scope, and maybe a rifle IN A CLOSED CASE and try to establish who, what and where the threat is. The best possible situation would be to be part of the solution, the worst possible case is to become part of the problem. The first will be very hard to do, the second is all too easy.

  11. I understand this is a big “if” … if something like 1 out of every 4 adults were armed, an active shooter situation would never accomplish much. Sure, an active shooter would shoot some people. However the number of victims would be low and the event would be over in less than a minute. Here is why.

    The shooter starts shooting at people. It is immediately obvious who the criminal is because they are the person shooting indiscriminately at anything and everything. And with several adults being armed, one of them will promptly see the shooter shooting people and know for certain that they are an active shooter. Knowing this and having the element of surprise the armed citizen would promptly take out the shooter. The event is over. There is no reason for more people to run around with guns drawn — whether more armed citizens or law enforcement. That means no one else is accidentally shot/killed.

    I know someone is thinking, “But what if another armed citizen sees the first armed citizen shooting at the active shooter — and doesn’t know which one is the bad apple?” The answer is simple. This additional armed citizen doesn’t shoot at anyone until they know for certain which person is the criminal! If the armed citizen prevails and takes out the shooter, the shooting stops and the citizen puts their handgun back in its holster. If the criminal prevailed, the criminal resumes shooting at anything and everything and this second armed citizen, now knowing for certain who the criminal is, repeats the process again with the element of surprise.

    They key to all of this is one of the fundamental rules of firearm safety, “Know your target!”. As an armed citizen, your target is not anyone with a firearm. Your target is a criminal trying to harm people. And the only way you know if a person is a criminal is if you see them trying to harm people. I wish law enforcement had the same standards and mindset.

    It isn’t possible to stop all losses of life. The best we can do is minimize losses of life. A competent armed citizen on site — in the presence of the active shooter — will end the event much more quickly and with much fewer victims than SWAT teams that take 15+ minutes to arrive and assemble.

    • Your error here is the assumption that all of those 1 in 4 are as smart as you are.

      I would like to think that too, but your screen name says it all.

  12. So what about the real world where maybe 1 in 20 adults are armed and none of them are on hand to stop an active shooting event in less than 1 minute? That is an ugly situation. I would definitely try to get to my daughter inside her school. I would keep my handgun holstered. I would not draw my gun unless I came upon the active shooter and knew for certain that they were the criminal. That means unless I see an armed person shooting indiscriminately at innocents which makes it blatantly obvious that they are the criminal, I keep my handgun in its holster. That also means I am at risk if I stumble upon the active shooter and no other targets are around. The active shooter’s identity is only obvious when they are shooting at innocents. If I am the only innocent in the area, there is now way to know if the active shooter is really the active shooter until they fire at me. That is the best I can do. Leaving my daughter in school to fend for herself for the 15+ minutes it takes for SWAT to arrive, assemble, and begin clearing the school is not an option.

    If the criminal walks around with gun in hand (whether in “low ready” position or otherwise), they obviously have the advantage because I have to keep my handgun in its holster. Criminals will always have the advantage. We cannot change that. We can only respond to minimize the destruction.

  13. Excellent article. Thank you for the advice.

    Last weekend a mall that I visit somewhat frequently had an active shooter incident. It made me what I would I do if I was there, concealed carrying.

    I had been considering how to signal to the police/SWAT that you are defensive and not attacking, and to keep from getting shot in this situation. I hadn’t come up with a good answer.

    Better practice my draw, I guess.


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