How to Survive

In 2007, a gunman murdered 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus. It was the deadliest mass shooting in US history. But while dozens were killed in that tragedy, other potential victims survived, in some cases because they made smart decisions. A number of students escaped by jumping out windows…and in one classroom, everyone lived even though the gunman tried to enter—the students successfully barricaded the door.

If you manage to make smart, fast decisions during a mass shooting, your own life might not be the only one you save. People often follow crowds during emergencies, so some of those around you could follow you to safety.

The odds are low that you will ever be caught up in a mass shooting—but these terrible events have been occurring with alarming frequency. A 2013 FBI report found that there were more than 11 per year, on average, in the US during the first 14 years of this century, and the rate continues to rise. That FBI report also suggests that nowhere in the US is truly safe—there were mass shootings in 40 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia during the 14 years studied, with 486 people killed and 557 people ­wounded.

The FBI identified more than 160 shootings from 2000 through 2013 that it defined as “active shooter” events, or an “individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.”

And, sadly, mass shootings have occurred since the report, including on December 2, 2015, in San Bernardino, California, when 14 people were killed and 22 injured in a mass shooting perpetrated by a married couple.

Smart: It’s worth knowing what to do in a mass shooting even if you never are in one—knowing what to do in an emergency can reduce anxieties about that danger.

Try to Get Away

Here’s how to improve your odds of survival…

Identify secondary exits before trouble happens. Your first response in an “active shooter” situation should be to try to run away. But in many public spaces, there is only one main entrance, and that’s often where the shooter enters and begins firing.

When you are in a public location, such as a workplace, shopping mall, ­supermarket, restaurant, movie theater or anywhere where large groups of people gather, take a moment to scan for exits other than the main exit. Is there a fire exit? An unmarked door leading to a loading dock? A ground-level window that opens…or on the second floor, a window that opens and is above a soft, grassy landing spot…or on a higher floor, a window that opens onto a fire escape? Do not wait until there is an emergency to identify this alternate exit. It is difficult to think clearly during emergencies, so people who do not have a plan in place before the emergency begins tend to either freeze up or follow a panicked crowd.

Helpful: Restaurants almost always have secondary exits through their kitchens.

React immediately when you hear a sound that might be gunfire. Most people’s initial reaction to the sound of gunfire is to dismiss it as fireworks or a car backfiring…or to remain stationary while wondering, What was that? This delay can significantly reduce the odds of survival.

Instead, immediately start to move away from the gunfire and/or toward a secondary exit that you have identified when you hear something that might be gunfire.

If you cannot think of a good explanation for why this would be something other than gunfire by the time you reach an exit—if you realize it’s Fourth of July weekend, for example, so someone probably is setting off fireworks—strongly consider continuing out the exit and putting some distance between yourself and the sound. Perhaps it will turn out that it wasn’t gunfire after all, but it is better to lose a few minutes because you retreated unnecessarily than lose your life because you did not.

If the shooter is within sight, your best bet still probably is to run. Most people’s first reaction when they actually see a gunman is to hide. People in offices tend to duck under their desks, for example. Situations vary, but hiding generally is a poor choice—it makes you a sitting duck. Moving from the danger zone usually is preferable—avoiding the shooter.

Warning: Playing dead tends not to be a great option, either. Mass shooters have been known to target victims who are lying still to confirm they are dead.

Dial 9-1-1 after you clear the area. This is not a time to call the police and then sit back and wait for them to arrive. The average police response time to these types of attacks in the US is around three minutes—which is tremendously fast but often not fast enough if you are in the same building as a mass shooter.

If You Cannot Get Away

Running might not be a viable option if the shooter is between you and the only exit, or if you are with family or friends who are not very mobile and who need your help. If so, the most effective plan B usually is to deny the shooter access to your area…

Lock or block a door. Get into a storeroom…closet…bathroom…office…or some other space that has a door that shuts. If this door locks from the inside, lock yourself (and other potential victims) in. Then use desks, chairs, file cabinets or any other available heavy items to barricade the door, assuming that it opens in. Turn off the lights in the room, close the blinds, turn off your cell-phone ringer/buzzer to avoid signaling the shooter that you are in the room, and remain silent. Quietly instruct everyone else in the room to turn off their cell phones and remain silent as well.

Barricades can be effective even when they fall far short of being impenetrable. History tells us that mass shooters usually give up or move on when confronted by impediments that would take more than a few seconds to overcome. These shooters know that the police are likely to arrive soon, so they generally seek out targets they can shoot very easily and quickly.

Alternatives: If the door does not lock and you don’t have the time, strength or heavy items necessary to create a barricade, you could use your body to hold the door shut. But do not brace your back or shoulder against the door—shooters sometimes fire through doors to kill people who attempt this. Instead, lie on the ground and use your feet to hold the door shut. If the killer shoots blindly through the door, there’s a good chance he will assume that you are standing and aim too high.

If the door opens out and does not lock, loop a belt around the doorknob, then tie the other end of the belt to something heavy…or if there is nothing heavy to tie it to, hold the other end of the belt while remaining as low to the ground as possible and to the side of the door.

Do not unlock the door or dismantle your barricade for “the police.” It is possible that the shooter might be claiming to be the police to draw you out.

Example: In 2011, a Norwegian mass shooter lured victims out of hiding by claiming to be a policeman. He even dressed as a policeman. The death toll was close to 100.

The real police almost certainly will not seek to free people safely barricaded in rooms until after the shooter has been captured or killed…and if the shooter has indeed been stopped, the police can take the time to dismantle your barricade themselves. The best practice is for you to dial 9-1-1, explain where you are and ask for confirmation that the person outside the room truly is with the police.

If neither running nor denying access is possible, you have the right to defend yourself. Unarmed people stop gunmen more often than you might imagine, though obviously this should be considered an extremely risky last resort. A 2013 FBI report of 160 recent active shooter incidents found that 21 were stopped by unarmed potential victims.

If a potential weapon is close at hand, grab it—fire extinguisher, scissors, staplers and letter openers are good choices, and metal trash cans will pack a punch, too.

Attack from the side or behind, if possible. If you are in a different room from the shooter, one option is to position yourself to the side of the doorway so that you are not in the shooter’s initial field of vision if he enters the room. That can buy you enough time to attack the shooter before he can turn his gun on you. (If the door opens in, position yourself on the hinged side of the door so that you will be hidden by the door itself if it is opened.)

If you can grab the barrel of the shooter’s gun and point it away from yourself, you will greatly reduce his advantage.

If there are other people in the area, yell that you have a grip on the gun and need help—others might join the fight upon hearing this, allowing you to overtake the would-be killer with superior numbers.