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What Training is Sufficient for Civilians in Responding to an Active Shooter?

by George on December 20, 2012 09:33

Active shooter.  That phrase creates many strong emotions in many of us.  For example, on December 14, 2012, a gunman shot his way into an elementary school where firearms, by law, are prohibited, murdering 27 children and teachers before taking his own life as law enforcement approached.  Yet on December 16, 2012, an off-duty Bexar County Sheriff’s sergeant shot and wounded a gunman who shot one person at a movie theater in San Antonio, Texas, ending what might have been another massacre of innocents.  As firearms instructors, there is no question that a person who is armed and willing to confront those who willfully and serendipitously murder the unarmed is the best way to stop the killing.  And if we can’t be the one at the tip of the spear, we want to the ones who taught that person how to end this senseless killing.

The question of the sufficiency of training must be addressed by those who not only train police officers, but also instruct legally armed citizens.  Some instructors will flatly state that only the elite military and SWAT operators should intervene, while others will set a more reasonable standard as that of an average police officer.  Due to the inundation of newscasts about the tragedies of Active Shooter events, you, like me, are probably being approached by legally armed citizens asking questions about how they might be able to protect their families and others in these situations.  The questions they are asking are, “What kind of training would be required to effectively stop that level of violence?  How long would that training take?  What kind of reoccurring practice would be required?

Questions such as these indicate thoughtfulness and a serious consideration of what is involved in possibly interrupting this type of attack.  Different individuals are going to gain proficiency differently given the same number of hours training, and then will maintain that proficiency to various degrees of competency.  Shooting is a perishable skill, and regular practice increases familiarity and may create increased skill if—and only if—that training is consciously performed.  When developing training or answering questions related to any training topic, the foundation must be within the context of the problem.  In this case, what training is sufficient to interrupt the murder of innocents, divert the shooting, and either physically stop the shooter, cause him to commit suicide, or create a situation that permits the police time to respond and intervene?

This level of skill development and mental preparation is likely much, much more than most citizens (and just as many police officers) are willing to do.  The reality is that hits with handguns at extended distance are more a matter of luck than skill while being shot at by your target.  Shooting on a square range on a sunny warm day with a range master and a red flag run up the flagpole may allow for consistent slow-fire hits on a man-sized target at 100 yards with a handgun.  However hitting a man who is moving, murdering people, and maybe shooting at you from 25 yards may be beyond what most people can reliably do with a handgun. 

If it is unlikely that the citizen or the officer armed with a handgun will be able to hit the Threat at realistic distances, why train anyone with a handgun to attempt to interdict an Active Shooter event?  Again, we must look at the context of the event.  According to Ron Borsch, 90% of suspects involved in an Active Shooter event commit suicide on-site (http://www.policemag.com/blog/swat/story/2008/05/active-shooter-response-revisited-part-1.aspx).  When confronted by any significant resistance, these people immediately turn their weapons on themselves.  The legally armed citizen who is able to quickly confront the Threat with fire may actually wound the individual.  Significantly, whether or not the Threat is hit, in most situations the murder of innocents is stopped as his attention is diverted and the threat is soon ended.

After decades of studying these events (having coined the term, “Active Shooter” with Jeff Martin in 1999), it is my belief that any intervention by a legally armed citizen or police officer will generally end the attack on the innocent, and the earliest intervention regardless of whether or not the citizen or officer actually hits the Threat (the criminal gunman) will save lives.  If the statistics are correct, approximately two-thirds of these events are stopped by either the legally armed citizen or police officer (Ron Borsch). 

 

WHAT KIND OF TRAINING?

To prepare any person to competently and contextually respond to this type of defensive shooting, I believe the training would minimally entail:

  • Familiarity with the laws of deadly force in your state.  It is vital if you are going to carry a handgun that you understand when you can legally press a trigger, when you cannot, and know what to say and do following that shooting.  Saving your life or someone else's may be a good thing, but spending your life in prison following the shooting because you don’t understand the law or you say the wrong thing to police detectives is probably not on your bucket list.
  • Sufficient marksmanship skills.  While tight groups on a paper target do not automatically translate into solid hits on a gunman who is shooting at you, putting bullets through the bad guy with combat accuracy is how shootings are generally ended.  Combat accuracy is defined as any hit disrupting the imminent threat.  For those who have never felt bullets just missing them, with the corresponding adrenal dump and the well-known effects on perception, decision-making processes, and the ability to accurately fire a weapon, shooting at paper in a slow-fire method without a care in the world is as dissimilar as flying an F-22 combat jet and a single-prop Cessna airplane.  Both are airplanes, both take off and land, and both move through the air, but that is where the similarity ends.  Again, hits matter, but any shots disrupting the gunman’s murder spree is sufficient, and sometimes just knowing he is being shot at may cause him to shoot himself.
  • Sufficiently aggressive mindset.  You have to be willing to make yourself a target: when you move aggressively, it will be different from every other person who is fleeing, inviting him to target you; when you begin firing, you will also invite him to target you.  Your willingness to do this will be answered only when there is lead in the air and blood is flowing.  The moral question of whether or not it is morally acceptable to shoot and possibly kill another human being must be resolved before you hope to act on-time, in-time.  You cannot hope to act decisively when you have sights on the Threat and hesitate, wondering if it is moral to shoot this person.    This question must be resolved prior to carrying a firearm.  An appropriately aggressive mindset will be enhanced by mental imagery, imagining your response to this deadly situation in vivid detail.  In this way, you will create memories of actions, facilitating your schema, or mental maps, to quickly orient to the situation, avoid being shocked, and giving you that feeling of, “Oh yeah.  I know what to do!’  These mental patterns permit you to act decisively in a situation where aggressive action (either fighting or fleeing) is safer than non-action.  Firearms instructor John Farnham accurately said, "A confused countenance always locks you in position and generates a focused response by predators.”
  • Sufficient tactical competency.  Knowing the human limitations of responding to a deadly attack, as well as the tactics that can give you time to react and positively respond allows you to fight when you are surprised by the sudden nearby gunfire.  How to use cover or concealment (and knowing the difference), how to move safely to position yourself to shoot the bad guy, and how to respond when he targets you will be required.  Ensuring you have a clear gun-target line (the imaginary line between the muzzle of your handgun and the targeted area on the Threat) as well as a reasonably clear background (to protect innocents when you miss the Threat) will be necessary.
  • Sufficient understanding of police response.  In this case, police officers responding to this violent event will be both frightened and excited, and will have a high degree of urgency to end the event.  While it is in everyone's best interest for the police to arrive early, they are not your friend at this moment.  Standing in a public place with a handgun in your hand where shots have been fired with innocents down will not be healthy for you when the police arrive.  Understanding how to survive this second threat to your life is as vital as surviving the first.

Practically speaking (rather than the ideal minimum training above), a legally armed citizen actually needs just two things to make a difference disrupting the Active Shooter event:  a loaded weapon that functions every time the trigger is pressed, and the guts to get into the fight. 

 

HOW MUCH TRAINING?

The honest answer to this is:  As much as you think you need and are willing to pay for in range time, ammunition, and training hours.  If I told you that in one week you are going to face a murderous shooter who will attempt to take your life, your family’s lives, and dozens of innocents’ lives, what level of training would you want to have under your belt?  IF this happens to you (a big if, but then again, if it happens to you, it's 100%), what capability do you want to have?  The real question that can only be answered by the student is, “How much preparation is practical for you for an event that can happen, may happen, but likely will not happen to you?” 

For example, I was driving within 5 miles of the Clackamas Town Center  mall shooting when it began (Oregon, 12/11/12).  10,000 people in the mall all have a story to tell about what they experienced in an event that took the lives to two innocents and wounded a third.  This occurred in a metropolitan area of approximately 1.5 million people.  For most of the 10,000, no training was necessary because they fled at the sound of gunshots and sight of people surging past them, or they were locked down in stores.  Perhaps only 300 people in the mall may have been able to make a difference and would have benefitted from being armed and having undergone this training.  There are reports of one concealed pistol permit holder who pointed his handgun at the Threat but did not take the shot because of innocents in the background.  This young man believes the murderer saw him with the handgun, and then took his own life moments later.

For some of us, it was a case study on what these events look like, how they unfold, and to ask how I might better react to protect myself, my family, and those around me as a legally armed citizen or police officer.  After each Active Shooter event, I ask myself, “How might I modify my training courses to better meet the needs of my students?”  For most people, however, it was just another horror-filled event that shocked them out of their denial for a few days before they re-entered their imaginary and safe “gun-free zones” where the police protect them from all harm and their belief that if they are nice people, no harm will come to them. 

The question of how this training should be delivered lies in frequent, short duration, high-intensity training sessions.  This training regimen is far more valuable to skill development and retention than a long course where the same intensity is sustained over days.  Therefore, most training courses should be three to four hours max, with subsequent training sessions weekly or semi-weekly. 

A basic course for a first-time shooter to gain sufficient competence to build upon through independent practice and minimally react to an Active Shooter as a lawfully armed citizen is a minimum of seven classes, each 3 to 4-hours in length. 

  • One 4-hour class on defense/deadly force law and its aftermath, as well as tactical theory.  
  • Four live-fire range sessions, with 1,000 rounds of practice handgun ammo, plus 50 rounds of carry/defensive ammo (to ensure reliability).  This is sufficient to familiarize the new shooter with weapon function and marksmanship capability suitable to hit what they're aiming at on the range at a reasonable distance, from one-foot to 50-yards.  However, it must be emphasized that this may NOT translate to hitting a person at that distance who is shooting at that him in a gunfight).
  • Two 4-hour sessions on tactics (500 rounds).  This is fighting from a barricade as well as movement work. 

At the end of 1,550 rounds over a seven to fourteen week period, this person should be capable of going from a non-shooter to someone who is competent in their tactics and marksmanship and may be able to safely disrupt a mass murder event through their skills and tactics. 

 

MAINTAINING PROFICIENCY

After fundamental marksmanship, tactical, and skills training, the shooter would have to determine the level of proficiency he wishes to maintain.  Firearms proficiency may either be enhanced or degraded with each trigger press in training.  To be of value, training must be conducted with intent to improve the fundamentals with each shot, even during rapid fire, and an understanding of the very real contextual and human factors limitations we all possess.  It is only through conscious training goals and application of effort that any shooter may progress.

With a conscious training plan, that lawfully armed citizen may be able maintain a sufficient degree of proficiency through self-initiated practice.  That practice would include:

  • Regular range training.  Approximately 500-1000 rounds per year in a course of fire that included periodic, regular training that focused on fighting skills as well as marksmanship skills.  This training should emphasize functionality and familiarity with your weapon as a fighting tool.
  • Mental imaging and preparation.  Playing reasonable "If-Then" games prepares you to respond competently to a suddenly evolving event.  Reading about the situations that occur throughout the world and mentally placing yourself at Ground Zero and then "gaming" possible responses will give you options should you be presented with the real thing. 

No matter how conscious your training practices might be, there will be habits you create that become invisible to you.  Most of these habits will serve you, but others will not.  Allot at least one practice session per year, probably only for one-hour or two, with a competent coach who can observe and correct these invisible habits before they degrade your ability to hit, or worse, get you killed. 

 

CONTEXT IS KEY 

In every aspect of this discussion, the context must be considered if the answer is to be addressed.  The answer to the question, “How much training do I need if…?” is different for everyone.  The proper response is, “At what level do you want to operate?”  When that “if” is a question about the training necessary to function as a SWAT team operator on an entry team during a hostage rescue, the answer is going to look much different than, “I have a concealed pistol permit, and I want to learn how to better protect myself.  What do I need to learn?” 

As a defensive shooting instructor, it is important to ask questions and determine the practical context of the event we are preparing our students for prior to snapping off a pat answer.  While I am willing to train any lawfully armed citizen to operate their weapons at the highest possible skill and tactical levels, I need to remember that they may not have a clue about what they really want.  It is up to me as the instructor to determine the context of the training course I will suggest to them to meet their needs.