Real Solutions to Active Shooters

After every tragedy, there is a very real risk that only knee-jerk solutions will be offered. More often than not, this is driven by politicians eager to look like they are doing something to solve the problem.

The recent murders at Sandy Hook Elementary have sparked a similar response. The focus has been on gun control, even while at the same time, the same people calling for gun control will admit that it would not have helped prevent this tragic case. It is interesting that in online surveys of security professionals and police officers the vast majority do not agree with further gun control or restrictions. It is also noteworthy that the very same week this attack occurred, one man in China stabbed 22 students and a teacher in what has become something of a pattern there.

If, as a society, we are going to make true strives to stop school shootings, then it is crucial to do a realistic assessment of what happened, what could have been done, what should have been known and how do we prevent this in the future.

In healthcare, after a serious incident, those involved work together to do a root cause analysis (RCA) to come up with a fix. There are a number of ways to do this and generally involve debriefing the incident to find all the events that led to the problem at hand. Asking why each stage happened and looking for solutions at each step is common.

There are some potential steps that will help address the issue and help prevent further tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook.

1.      Focus on the suspect. In many of these horrific shootings, there are some common characteristics of the killers. They have been described as intelligent, often have mental disorders, interested in Goth-style in many cases and very anti-social. Any individuals fitting a combination of these traits should be closely watched, both officially and unofficially. Neighbors, relatives and parents are the first line of defense if someone fits this profile. Once mental health workers become involved, they need to be able to alert law enforcement and follow up must be done.

2.     Along these lines, mental health issues must be taken seriously. For years, there has been talk of the revolving door of the justice system, where repeat offenders are quickly released back into society. The same has become true of mental health patients. Anyone making any kind of suicidal or homicidal statement is brought to the emergency room and quickly released. Part of that problem is the number of people who use that as an excuse to try and get drugs, attention or just a meal and warm bed for a short time.

3.     Schools should have better access control in place. This does not just include exterior access, but even individual classrooms should be easily locked and secured so a gunman cannot easily shoot into nor get into a classroom.

4.     End the ‘victim’ mentality. Police often warn people not to try and resist criminals. While this may be wise in the case of a simple property crime, there is an obligation to help and even encourage people to fight back when in danger. Whether there is an active shooter in a theater, shopping mall, church or school, resistance can distract and delay a shooter and may be enough to stop him completely. In many of these cases, the shooter commits suicide as police arrive, so anything that can delay a shooter and buys time creates more opportunity to survive.

5.     Look at ways to increase security and law enforcement presence in schools. Armed intervention has been used to stop about half of all active shooters per a study done by NYPD. It may not be feasible to place police officers in every school, but even random placement along the lines of the air marshal program may be deterrent. Instead of police sitting at speed traps, redirecting patrols to schools at random could be a lifesaver.

There is no one simple answer to the problem even if it is politically convenient. True solutions will include a multi-faceted approach. No matter what the outcome, it is a reminder that security is a serious affair and needs to be treated as such.



Eric Smith, CPP is the leading authority on organizational self-defense.  He has extensive experience in law enforcement as well as security management.  Eric is available for staff education and security awareness training as well as business coaching to help organizations provide safe workplaces.  To learn more email



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  1. Eric, Great article, but Number One is false. If you read the Secret Service Safe School Initiative, although many Active Shooters have similar characteristics, there is no reliable profile for an active shooter. Instead, a Threat Assessment must be conductive before any conclusions can be drawn as to future behavior.

  2. Eric,

    Thank you for another balanced and thoughtful post. In the spirit of open dialog on this important issue let me offer a few comments:

    While an assault weapon ban - especially one that grandfathers existing firearms and magazines - might not have prevented the Sandy Hook tragedy, the failure of Mrs. Lanza to act as a responsible gun owner contributed directly to this disaster. She could have chosen not to keep firearms in a household troubled by mental health issues, but at a minimum the pistols, rifle, and shotgun and their ammunition should have been kept out of the hands of her disordered son. If she had stored the guns in a gun safe almost none of us would ever have heard of Sandy Hook Elementary School, and she, her son, and 26 innocent victims would still be alive.

    I agree with Gary that profiling is not a high leverage solution. Not because the shooters don't share some common traits, but because they share most of these traits with many others who do not become violent. There are tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of socially awkward young men being medicated for a variety of psychological conditions who spend hour upon hour playing first person shooter video games. Only a small fraction of them become violent and only a couple of them perpetrate a school shooting in any given decade.

    With regard to mental health care, anyone who has tried to find a bed in a mental health ward for a person at risk self harm or harm to others will assure you there is no surplus of rooms, severely limited insurance benefits under most health plans, and plenty of legal impediments to involuntary commitment.

    Many schools have made useful strides when it comes to physical security. Providing a door that can be easily locked from within is a simple locksmithing issue. Adding walls to schools built on an open plan is more challenging. I predict the architecture of new schools will do a better job of balancing evacuation requirements, community use, and effective funneling of guests past control points.

    As many training programs and videos (both commercial and public) suggest, one's options when the bullets start flying are pretty much limited to Run, Hide, or Fight. It seems to me that more and more people understand this. For a decade now any misbehavior on public airlines is put down with brutal efficiency - by passengers. We can take pride in the fact that several adults at Sandy Hook gave their lives attempting to stop the shooter.

    Providing enough school resource officers is an expensive proposition in today's economy, with communities facing bankruptcy, and school districts where teachers and parents have to pay for educational materials from their own pockets. Nor is the presence of an SRO a sure fire solution to an active shooter scenario, as far too many forget was tragically demonstrated at Columbine.

    One could argue that these events happen so rarely that it's going to be hard to effect a major reduction in the rate, but we certainly have no choice but to try.

    Thanks again for all your fine work.

    1. Thanks for reading. You make many excellent points. The problem with any threat assessment is that every one is different and there will be no perfect formula. If that were not the case, HR recruiters would be able to fill every job with the perfect candidate and the same management techniques would work with all employees.

      These are very rare, which is good, but does make it hard to come up with the right security measures.

    2. One small criticism on your post... I've heard it mentioned several times that there were police officers present at Columbine. While this is true it is inaccurate. Columbine was THE game changer for response to this type of event. Before and during Columbine police were taught to Isolate and Negotiate. After Columbine, we developed the current active shooter strategies that we are teaching officers.

      You can not use Columbine as disproof that armed security would benefit the prevention effort because armed security at Columbine was not consistent with the armed security we would employ now. Its like saying medicine was used to treat the black plague and therefore proves that medicine doesn't work against a virus. Pick the right medicine.

    3. In the Columbine case, there was an SRO on site who had exchanged fire with the two suspects. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop the shooters. As you pointed out, since that time training has changed has as law enforcement response. A dedicated and well-trained security / police officer can be a deterrent, just as we have air marshals on many commercial flights. NYPD did an in-depth study of active shooters and found that 43% were stopped by armed intervention and another 40% when the shooter committed or attempted suicide so more than 80% ended by applied force.
      Obviously, this is a complicated issue, but there are many cases in which the shooter was stopped by other armed individuals so should not be discounted as a solution.

  3. Great feedback and thanks for reading Business Karate.

    I do stand by the profile I mentioned. Obviously, a full in-depth look at threat assessments is not what this post covered. However, good people do not one day crack and decide to shoot innocent children – there are warning signs and what I wrote covered some of the common ones based on the media reports available. That is why I mentioned that relatives and friends are key and really the first line of defense, as they should see the warning signs firsthand. Unfortunately, as pointed out, in the case of Sandy Hook, the mother chose to ignore or disregard the warning signs and others paid for that mistake.

    The lack of pysch beds and facilities is a very real problem and, as pointed out, many people show up with homicidal or suicidal symptoms. Separating the truly dangerous ones from the attention-seekers brings us back to a threat assessment. We must have the capabilities to make that assessment rather than relying on a doctor spending a few minutes with a patient in a busy ER.

  4. This is a really good blog wish more people would read this, you offer some really good suggestions on Shooter Response Training.Thanks for sharing!