Active Killer Events – What to do in a Mass Shooting

Active Shooter Exit Sign

Still, the question remains…what can we do or what should we do? According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), we should keep it as simple as possible. In my former federal law enforcement career, I spent a lot of years teaching active shooter response.

Early on, most of my time was spent with plainclothes and uniformed agents and officers. However, later in my career, I began to teach more and more civilians as well. We taught a variation of the same idea DHS promotes to this day. Same concept, different verbiage. Get Out! Hide Out! Take Out! These were our “standard” teaching points to all the civilians we were instructing on this topic. Of course, we had different tactics for agents and uniformed officers, but that is not the focus of this article.

There is additional information you should be aware of related to these three options. The pitfall of this strategy is people take it as the gospel and “think” the only recourse they have is to follow those steps in order. Not only does this take critical thinking out of the equation, but it can also be the worst thing you can do.

Get out! Hide out! Take out!

As simple as these phrases are, they still require planning and thinking ahead of time. The idea behind this concept is to keep things as simple as possible. However, as simple these phrases may be, some people get hung up on the importance of sequential order.

Be mindful…get out, hide out, take out, may happen out of order or not at all. As with a lot of things, the situations are very fluid and dynamic and no solution should be seen as a one size fits all. Do not think following these steps in order will save your life!

In teaching on this topic, we usually found we had very little time to convey very important information to our civilian audiences. Coincidentally, they were generally not very interested in the subject matter unless there was an incident fresh on their minds.

If there was an incident fresh in their memory, there was more interest and folks were generally more situationally aware than they were in their normal state of mind. However, once these memories faded away we found ourselves back to the usual. A lot of time was spent explaining and impressing the importance of situational awareness as a precursor to the other ideas we were trying to convey.

What is situational awareness? Situational awareness is basically your ability to pay attention to your environment. You are not just physically present, but cognitively present in a way that helps you analyze and decipher the events unfolding around you. Events can be macro, or “big picture” with lots of things going on, such as watching a sporting event or collectively eating a meal with other restaurant-goers at a crowded venue. On the other hand, micro-events, or small/trivial/slight events can include:

  • Who is around you and who they are with
  • Clothing 
  • Language, accent, tone, inflection
  • Body language or eye movement
  • Conversation topics
  • The “feeling” of a collective crowd (calm or on edge?)
  • What is considered “normal” clothing/behavior for where you are 

You decipher events on a daily basis already, even though you may not be aware of it. You may have a “gut feeling” about a man you see while at the park with your children. He may stick out to you as odd because he’s there with no dog or children, watching kids play. This gives you cause to be concerned, so you watch your children more closely, make eye contact with him so he knows that you see him, or you just leave altogether.

Being intentional about practicing situational awareness means increasing your ability to pay attention to what is around you; it’s growing your God-given “gut feeling” and instincts, then, gaining the knowledge to know what to do next and the skills to carry out that plan of action. If something doesn’t feel right you don’t have to wait until something bad kicks off to get out.

Let me refocus and get back to the phrase “get out, hide out, take out”. We need to elaborate on each of these to get a good grasp of their full meaning and what you should do outside of these three phrases.


If or when the situation calls for it, you need to run like your life depends on it, because it may. Keep in mind, there are outside factors that may change or modify this strategy? Small children, elderly family members, the position of the killer(s), etc., all may be reasons your escape may be modified. Of course, you are not going to leave family and loved ones behind. It is your responsibility to get them to safety. However, the gist of “Get Out” is just that. Get out of the situation and remove you and your family from the danger if possible. Do it as quickly and safely as you can!

You have to take a moment to observe what is going on in order to have a grasp on the situation and to prevent running towards the threat. Don’t fall into the herd mentality of following the crowd. Panic and hysteria usually drive this behavior and the crowds chosen path may not be the best choice for escape. Trampling can occur and a shooter is oftentimes more likely to shoot into an area where most people are gathered. 

Dress accordingly! Proper footwear can be one of your most vital assets if you are trying to escape an active shooter. Have an escape route and plan in mind before you need to use them and have a rally point established with family members in case you get separated. In crowded areas, it may be best to stay to the perimeter of the crowd to facilitate an escape and to avoid getting caught in the mass of people.

If you attempt to get out and you are trying to escape an event, you need to know where to go. This goes back to situational awareness and observation skills. Know where to go and how to get there before the incident unfolds. Make a mental note of escape routes, exits, paths of least resistance, where your car is parked, etc. Leave your belongings and escape in an erratic pattern if feasible. Also, you need to be mindful of the potential for multiple threats and the fact they may be targeting exits, etc., as people are escaping. You may be forced to fight as you are making your escape…be prepared to do so!

Cover and Concealment!

Do not hide if you have the possibility of escaping. This is paramount! Numerous innocent people have died because of this. There may not always be a way to escape, but if there is…take it! If you have to hide, be sure you know the difference in cover versus concealment. Concealment is exactly what it sounds like…it conceals you from the bad guy. Concealment does not offer protection from gunfire. Cover, on the other hand, offers the aforementioned concealment as well as protection from gunfire. It is extremely important you know the difference. 

If all you have is a place to hide and it is your last resort, then so be it. But, if there are options for both cover and concealment, you need to know the difference and you need to utilize them accordingly. Both can provide you precious extra time, which is vital, but cover offers you much more in terms of protection.

Be sure to silence your phone and keeps all noise to a minimum. Just because a number of people are hiding together doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. In fact, it could be just the opposite.

If you feel like you have no option other than hiding, think long and hard about the alternative which is engaging the killer. Sometimes, this the best and only option!


This is the point where you have to be the most violent person you know. Taking out the threat is listed as a last resort by DHS and that may be the case for some people. But, for most able-bodied individuals this may very well be your first choice!

Prepare ahead of time and train to take control of your own safety and the safety of your family. Have an open mind in terms of using improvised weapons. Keep in mind, once you commit to your plan of action, you need to follow through with it. Work with others if possible and try to use the element of surprise. Take charge and give direction to those who are failing to act. 

Don’t overcomplicate how you react. Be in charge of your own survival and don’t count on someone else to save you. Be an active participant in your own rescue! This includes calling 911 when appropriate. Don’t assume someone else has already done it. Be sure you clearly communicate as much relevant information as possible, including your physical description. This can be of particular relevance if you are armed.

You need to be prepared mentally and physically. I have discussed both of these as well as gear and training in the article, What is a Well-rounded EDC?. Remember, we need to have the mindset to do what we need to do, the physical capability to carry it out, the skills to efficiently do it, and the equipment to support the task. One of the biggest things you can do is to fight the urge to do nothing! The better prepared you are the higher your likelihood fo survival. 

One last point of consideration is the fact you could be mistaken as a bad guy when the police show up. Keep this in mind and react properly with law enforcement. When appropriate, holster your weapon and discard any improvised weapons or anything else that may be taken as a weapon. Remove the perception or reality you could be a threat to first responders.

Keep your hands clearly visible and avoid making any furtive movements which could elicit a response from responders. They are going to be amped up when they get on scene and you need to do as much as possible to assist them with everything they are having to mentally process.

Remember, we are no good to anyone if we are incapacitated. Make a fully functional EDC part of your everyday life. This includes self-defense and medical considerations in the form of gear and qualified training.

Cody Martin

With over 18 years of federal law enforcement, training, and physical security experience, Cody focuses his time nowadays on both consulting and training. He regularly advises individuals, groups, multinational corporations, schools, houses of worship, and NGOs on security threats while conducting customized training as needed.

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