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What to Do If You Are In the Middle of An Active Shooting

Avatar for Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: December 16, 2020
What to Do If You Are In the Middle of An Active Shooting

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If you are at work, at the mall, or at a concert and some terrorist or crazy person starts shooting, what should you do?  Who has not sought an answer to that question recently?

I have read enough books by former law enforcement officers to know that run and hide are two of the best options for seeking shelter during an active shooting.  Becoming a hero and fighting back, especially if you are licensed to carry is a third option, but one that could have dire consequences.

What to do if you are in the middle of an active shooting | Backdoor Survival

Chances are, you will never be in a situation where you are under immediate attack by a a terrorist.  On the other hand, like everything else that we prepare for, knowing what to do and being ready to do it are an important aspect of the prepper knowledge set.

Along those lines, yesterday, contributing author Joe Alton,reached out and gave me permission to share his recent article “The Active Shooter: Staying Alive”.

In my continuing effort to bring you the best and most credible preparedness information available, I share his wisdom with you today and hope that you will take heed and think – really think – about what you will do if you are in the middle of an active shooting situation.

The Active Shooter: Staying Alive

It’s hard to read the news without seeing reports of the latest shooting by terrorists or the deranged and disgruntled. Few believe that they could possibly wind up in the crosshairs of a gunman’s sight, but it can happen anytime, anywhere. What would be your response?

The natural response for most people is not to do anything. You’ve heard me talk about “normalcy bias” before. That’s the tendency for people to believe everything follows a pattern and that the day will proceed normally; they’re usually right. When a terrorist event breaks that pattern, however,  the unprepared brain takes time to process the new situation. People will think that the sound of gunfire is fireworks, or anything less threatening than an assassin out to kill them.

Another thing most citizens believe is that law enforcement and homeland security are on the case. While these agencies do the best they can to counter situations like this, most mass shooting events end in a few minutes. There is little or no chance that help will be there at the moment you need it, so you should have a plan of action.

A person without a plan of action follows the herd. If fifty people around you drop to the floor, your natural tendency is to do the same. Cowering in fear under a table in plain view of the shooter isn’t a recipe for a good outcome. By having a plan, you will have a better chance of getting out of there in one piece.

You’re at the mall; what would your plan be if you heard gunfire nearby? What would you do first? Run? If so, where? If you couldn’t run, what would you do? These are things you should be thinking about, calmly and rationally, whenever you’re in an area where there are a lot of people. It may seem extreme to have to think of these things, but that’s what I call the “New Normal”.

With an active shooter, what you do in the first few seconds may determine your final outcome. Give yourself a head start by always knowing what’s happening around you. We call this situational awareness. Know where exits are. Know where the gunshots are coming from. Know who appears nervous or suspicious in your immediate area.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But in this era of people immersed in their smartphones, few are situationally aware and are easy targets for the active shooter.

Here’s an example: Have you ever seen a patron enter a restaurant through the door marked “employees only”, or a movie theatre through the fire exit? This is a person you’ll want to observe. In most cases, it means nothing. In rare instances, though, it could be someone that’s up to no good.

By the way, those same little-used exits might save your life: Most people will be trying to leave by the front door, just where the gunman expects them to go. Find an exit away from the direction of gunfire.

Run, Hide, and Fight

If you find yourself in the middle of a terrorist event, you should remember these three words: Run, Hide, Fight. Just as “Stop, Drop, and Roll” can save the life of someone on fire, “Run, Hide, Fight” might save the life of someone under fire. This is the order of the actions that you should be taking in an active shooter scenario.

Run Hide Fight | Backdoor Survival


Most people will hide as their first course of action. You, however, should run away from the direction of gunfire as soon as you hear it, leaving through those exits you’ve been mentally marking. This will make it less likely you and the shooter will cross paths. Forget about collecting your stuff, it will only slow you down and, face it, it’s just stuff.

If you’re in the line of sight of the shooter, run away at an angle or zig zag to make yourself a more difficult target. I know it’s not a natural action you’d think of doing, but most shooters aren’t marksmen and will miss a moving target.

A good citizen would yell for others to follow and prevent others from entering the kill zone. Don’t try to move or otherwise help the wounded, however, despite your natural tendency to want to do so. You have to get out of there and becoming the next casualty does no one any good. Even the police will leave the injured for after the shooter has been neutralized.

(One very important note: If you see law enforcement, don’t run up and hug them. Get your hands in the air, fingers spread, where officers can see them. They need to know you’re not the threat. Follow any instructions given and leave in the directions the officers came from.)

Once you’re in a safe area, call 911 if rescuers have not yet arrived.


If there’s only one exit and the shooter is standing in front of it, running might not be an option. Your next choice is hiding.

You first want to get out of the shooter’s line of sight. We call this “concealment”, but it isn’t necessarily “cover”. If you’re concealed, you can’t be seen but a bullet might penetrate to hit you. If you have found cover, it means that you are both hidden and protected from projectiles hurled your way. Foliage is good concealment, but a thick tree trunk might be better cover.

In a building, hiding under a table in the same room as the shooter is a death sentence. Get into another room, preferably one with a door you can lock. If there is no lock, put together a barrier with desks and chairs. Turn off the lights, silence your cell phone, and stay quiet behind an additional barrier like a table or in a closet. If you can quietly alert authorities, do so. Don’t respond to voice commands unless you’re sure the danger is over; sometimes the gunman will try to lure you out of a safe place.

By accomplishing the above, you’ve just made yourself a harder target to acquire for the shooter, and he wants to do his damage as fast as possible. He’ll likely pass you by to find easier targets.


What if you can’t run, and there is no reasonable hiding place? You just might have to fight yourself out of there. This strategy isn’t always doomed to failure. You still might be able to subdue an attacker even if unarmed. Three young and unarmed men were able to do it to a shooter on a train in Paris. It’s a last resort, but it can end without a fatality as it did there.

If you don’t fight, the shooter will have a clear shot to your head and death is likely. If you fight, it might just be harder to be hit with a fatal shot.

Of course, it would be great if you knew martial arts, but any type of aggression against the gunman would disrupt their “flow” and possibly put you at an advantage. If you can, approach him from the side or rear, and go for his weapon. If you have help, all should attack at the same time from different directions while hurling objects that he has to dodge. This guy is probably not James Bond: he’ll be disconcerted and not be able to handle multiple threats at once.

If you’ve disrupted the shooter or, better, gotten the weapon out of his hands, inflict damage on him until he is dead or has stopped moving. Tough, I’ll admit, but these are tough times; commit to your actions.

Luckily, few people will find themselves in the midst of a terrorist attack like the one at San Bernardino, but I honestly believe that more are coming. Needing a plan for active shooter situations is galling to some, but it’s part of life in the New Normal. Those with a plan will have a better chance to survive this event and many other disasters in the uncertain future.

By Joe Alton, MD, of
Co-Author, The Survival Medicine Handbook

The Final Word

First there was the Paris attacks and now San Bernardino.  I don’t know about you, but right now I am glad that I am a homebody and rarely venture out, not even to shop for anything but groceries.  On the other hand, a reality of  life is that people go to work, visit friends and family, and shop for food and supplies.  Who knows who or what is lurking out there, waiting to capture the headlines with an attack against innocents?

I tell you this not to scare you but to remind you that you need to be aware of your surroundings at all times.  If you own a firearm, make sure you know how to use it and practice, practice, practice.

In case you missed it, go back and read How Not to Be a Victim and Survive A Terrorist Attack.  You should also read The “Mass Shootings Map” Propaganda Should Convince You to Carry At All Times written by my friend Daisy Luther.  It is an eye opener.

None of us wants to be a victim.  That said, these are scary times and I want you to be safe.  Truly, I do.

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!

If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to email updates.  When you do, you will receive a free, downloadable copy of my e-Book, The Emergency Food Buyer’s Guide.

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Below you will find the items related to today’s article.

Fight, Flight, or Hide. The Guide to Surviving a Mass Shooting:  This is the book that taught be that hiding or running away does not mean you are a coward.  As a matter of fact, doing so can be an act of bravery.    Recommended!

Leaving The Trees and Good Crazy (Leaving The Trees Journey) (Volume 2): These two books of fiction, by Richard Broome, present a post apocalyptic survival story unlink any other.  The lessons I learned from Leaving The Trees can be found here: Leaving the Trees: More Lessons of Survival.

Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath:  The hallmark book, by award winning journalist Ted Koppel, will hopefully educate the sheeple and motivate them to embrace the message of preparedness.  For the rest of us, there is much to learn about the state of preparedness, or lack thereof, at the highest levels of our government.  Read more:  Prepper Book Festival 10: Lights Out by Ted Koppel.

Sabre Family Home and Property Protection Pepper Spray:  Not everyone is comfortable with a firearm plus, getting started with guns and ammo is an expensive proposition. That, plus the training required means that you should have some other means of self-defense to get you by while you are learning about firearms. But even a hand held pepper spray such as the Sabre Compact Pepper Spray will keep you protected.

Pocket Survival Kit 002

Windstorm Safety Whistle:  When being heard is a matter of safety or even life and death, you want a whistle that is not only loud but can be heard for a long distance.  This particular whistle is not the cheapest one out there but I have proven to myself that this particular whistle can be heard a long distance away and above howling wind and other competing sounds.

LifeStraw Personal Water Filter:  The LifeStraw is considered the most advanced, compact, ultra light personal water filter available. It contains no chemicals or iodinated resin, no batteries and no moving parts to break or wear out. It weighs only 2 oz.  making it perfect for the prepper. For more information, see my LifeStraw review.


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13 Responses to “What to Do If You Are In the Middle of An Active Shooting”

  1. Doc,
    You really should stick to what you know before posting as an expert on a subject. None of what you said seems like bad advice but really, wtf do you know?

  2. Good article – The NRA has a program called Refuse To Be A Victim – I have been an instructor for a number of years – it is a good program to teach people how not to be a target

  3. Oh, I forgot to mention that a gas station attendant in ND was snatched by a Serian immigrant, forced into the ladies restroom, beaten and raped. This just happen recently.
    Heads up, it’s about to get lively.

  4. Good article Gaye. I would also suggest that people practice in their everyday routines at home, around the yard, and anywhere you go, while you are going about your daily routine. This will help in getting into the habit of using situational awareness. My parents taught me as a kid, and hubby learned it in law enforcement along with criminal Phycology. Stay safe everyone, may your holiday season be a blessed one

  5. Aaagh. I was browsing while substitute teaching and ran across your post about clues one is a Crazy Prepper. Now I want to read it more fully, but can’t find it! Can you send me a link?
    I’d REALLY appreciate it. I was laughing so hard the students wanted to know what I was reading! I want to read the rest of it!

    • There are actually two articles, written by my friend, Daisy Luther:


  6. Excellent suggestions on how to survive. Very similar to the ALICE trainings done at schools around the country. Another good thing to remember is paying attention to any loading areas/doors as you walk into a mall, since not all stores have outside doors but if they back up to a loading area then they can be a good exit that isn’t marked as such….
    Also, not sure I’d agree 100% with the not ducking when everyone else does. If gunfire is aimed in your general direction, then ducking can be useful…just remember to move when the shooter targets elsewhere or pauses to reload. Of course, staying put in sight of an assailant is always a bad idea, but a temporary pause before a strategic withdrawal can be a smart move. Every situation will be different, so try to keep your head about you as you make split second decisions.

  7. Answers for the sheeple.
    Unless you are known to the shooter, your only reason for
    being shot, is to raise the body count.
    Self defense is a civil right.
    Concealed carry is not a guarantee, it’s a chance.
    The cops got to the Inland Center in 4 minutes. Pretty good time, I think.
    Or 3.4 lives per minute.

  8. This is an excellent article to remind us all to be mindful at all times of our surroundings. It’s really sad now but when I go to a theater I look for the “exit” signs. I have always looked for the signs but, now I count how many rows/chairs I need to pass to get to those exit doors. When I go to a grocery store now which is very seldom but I look around at the people and their backpacks. I am even more aware of looking for the exit doors and I watch the people. This is really sad we even have to “check” out those people that may be trouble. I recently flew to California and I was grateful for the officers with dogs trained to look/smell for explosives. Who would have ever guessed we would need dogs trained to look for explosives at an airport. Thanks again for this wonderful aritcle.

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