10 Lessons for Armed Citizens from the Aurora Theater Mass Murder

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NOTE FROM LISA: In the days and weeks following the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, I’m sure I wasn’t the only mom in America who wondered, “What would I have done? How could I have protected my kids?” Some of us have made the decision to carry a handgun with us everyday or just occasionally. Would a loaded handgun in the hands of a legally armed citizen have made a difference in Aurora? This article contains some great insights and food for thought in answer to that question.

We encourage our defensive handgun students to study media stories about violent attacks to find lessons, consider options, and conduct mental rehearsals.  There are still many facts and details the public does not know about the “active shooter” attack in a movie theater in Aurora, CO, on July 20th.  However, in its immediate aftermath, there does seem to be enough information to reap valuable lessons for legally armed citizens to learn or re-learn about preparing for, identifying, and reacting to an “active shooter” (AS) event.  These include lessons about mindset, gear, and tactics.  To limit the size of this article, I offer ten.  For simplicity, I will refer to the Active Shooter (AS) and the armed citizen as “he” or “him.”

image by DrJimGlide

1.  When an AS begins his attack, it may not be immediately obvious to you and others what exactly is happening.  After many AS attacks, witnesses have stated that they initially believed the gunshots they first heard were fireworks, construction, or some kind of prank.  Even for those of us who shoot often and are very familiar with the sounds of gun shots (although usually altered through hearing protection), that sound in a crowded public place would be extremely uncommon or a new experience for most people.

In the Aurora AS attack, this confusion was amplified by the darkness of the theater and (at least somewhat) reasonable assumptions by many witnesses who initially believed the smoke and shots were special effects or some surprise special promotion by the theater for this special midnight premiere of a hyped-up action movie.  Although rare and bizarre, we must keep the AS attack mentally filed as the possible cause for sights and sounds we experience in public.  The more quickly we realize and identify an AS after he begins shooting, the more quickly we can react to protect ourselves and other innocent people.

2. An AS attack can happen in low-light and darkness.  The vast majority of AS attacks I’ve researched have occurred in daylight or in well-lit indoor locations.  Two exceptions (until now) that immediately come to mind are portions of the Mumbai (India) attack by teams of multiple shooters and the AS who turned off the lights in the aerobics workout room in a Pennsylvania fitness center before shooting at women inside.  The Aurora AS attack occurred inside a dark theater at night.

Had an armed citizen been in that theater, a tactical light would have been very useful (maybe a requirement?) to properly identify and engage the AS, if the decision was made to do so.  Because many companies are making tactical lights that are small, lightweight, bright, and reasonably priced, keeping one with you is now easy to do.  Gear will do nothing by itself, so knowing how to fight with your handgun while holding and using a tactical light would be a critical skill in such a low-light attack.  Night sights would, of course, also be extremely helpful in engaging the AS in a dark environment, after you have positively identified the threat.

image by Angela Schmiedel Randall

3. An armed citizen may get a “long distance” handgun shot at an AS.  Many of us have heard the statistics about the “average” distance of a self-defense shooting being very close – within the 1-5 yard range.  And we are told the vast majority of such shootings are within 7 yards.  This seems correct and reasonable since most self-defense shootings are against attackers who must get close enough to touch you.  So it seems logical for armed citizens to spend most limited training time and ammunition on the most likely self-defense scenarios, those that are within spitting distance.

But I have heard some armed citizens say that practicing defensive handgun shooting beyond seven yards is a waste of time, because you could never, “justify,” shooting someone at that distance.  An AS scenario would be an exception to that theory.  If you had been in the back half of that Aurora movie theater, or on the side opposite the exit door the AS entered, you very well might have been 20-30 yards away from him.  This long-distance engagement could occur in any AS attack location, such as a parking lot, school, mall, or church.  So, to be prepared to act on and end an AS attack, the armed citizen may need the ability to, under severe stress (and other adverse conditions), shoot at and hit (maybe multiple times) the killer at distances that require increased skill.

A gunfight is a balance of accuracy and speed.  At a defensive shooting distance of two yards against someone trying to kill you, speed is extremely important in that balance.  While you must get solid hits, they do not require precision, and time is extremely limited.  At longer distances, the accuracy-speed balance tips toward accuracy.  These are precision shots, especially against smaller body parts or a moving target.  Rushed and missed shots against an AS fail to stop the mass murder, allowing the number of victims to increase.  Missed shots also waste your ammunition, draw attention to you (more on this later), and cause danger to innocent people.

So, to prepare for the possibility of engaging an active shooter, the armed citizen needs to train at longer distances.  How far?  The question might not be, “How far away from the target should I train?”, but instead know how far you are capable and confident of getting hits.  A suggestion is to start with the handgun you carry at a close distance, then increase the distance incrementally by a few yards at a time.  Each shooter doing this will discover, with his skill and chosen gun, at what distance he loses confidence in getting hits.  That is an important thing to know.  If an armed citizen then encounters an AS at a distance beyond where he feels confident, he has three choices: escape;  hide or find cover and wait for the AS to move closer; or advance towards the AS until the armed citizen feels confident in his ability.

The ability to hit a long-distance target under stress requires proper training and proper gear.  Armed citizens carry a wide variety of handgun types that have a wide variety of capabilities.  Small guns with short barrels and small sights are less suited to long-distance hits under stress.  So armed citizens who want to be prepared to engage an AS at longer distances should choose, carry and train with a handgun that gives them the capability, with proper training, to do so.   Imagine how an armed citizen would feel if he was inside the back corner of such a theater when such an AS attack began, with only a North American Arms .22 micro-revolver in his/her pocket or purse?  Our gear and our training are the only variables armed citizens have control over once an AS attack starts, so we should maximize both.

4. The AS may be wearing body armor.  If initial media reports are accurate, the murderer in the Aurora theater attack is at least the third active shooter (not counting the L.A. bank robbers) to be wearing some type of body armor.  Most armed citizens who might engage an AS would probably attempt torso shots.  If successful at achieving torso hits, they likely would not stop a murderer wearing a protective vest.

Using a handgun to engage an AS with a protective vest would require precision shooting while under stress.  If the AS protective vest is visible and obvious, then all shots should be aimed at points other than typical “center of upper chest” for which most of us train.  But it might not be so obvious.  What might happen is the brave armed citizen, attempting to stop the AS, is frustrated and puzzled as to why his initial shots are not stopping the AS. This supports a decision to carry extra ammunition.  The armed citizen might assume he is missing the AS, and not alter sight placement.  If you are confident in your sights and trigger press and are seeing no effects of several torso shots, consider the possibility of body armor.

Regardless of when you realize or suspect body armor on the AS, immediately move the location of your aim.  Possible alternate bullet placement options (if exposed) include the head, shoulders, armpits, hips, legs or arms (but they can be armored as well), and ankles or feet.  All of these require precision shots against small targets, all of which might be moving.  Having confidence in one’s gear and skill would be essential for such hits, which requires training.

Techniques that might improve accuracy for an armed citizen in such a situation include bracing your body against something to steady your hands, or going to a kneeling or prone firing position if possible.  Again, the chosen carry gun will make such a shot either less or more difficult.  Imagine deciding to engage a moving AS wearing body armor at 20 yards with a derringer or Ruger LCP.

Also realize that when you start engaging an AS, if you do not stop him, (among other negative things) you may draw his fire.  Many Active Shooters commit suicide or give up when confronted with resistance or force, but not all.  When a brave armed citizen attempted to stop an AS wearing a protective vest in a Tyler, Texas, parking lot in 2005, he drew fire from the AS, which unfortunately killed the armed citizen.

5.  Expect to be out-gunned.  Most Active Shooters have a long gun, and many have multiple guns.  Most of the few that only had a handgun, had a high-capacity, full-size handgun with several spare magazines and/or extra rounds of ammunition.  So, playing the odds, if an armed citizen decides to engage an AS, the citizen can expect to have far less capable gear.  To win, therefore, the armed citizen must rely on three possible advantages:

  1. The surprise of a citizen having a gun and the decision of when it is deployed
  2. Skill gained through repetitive training for just such an event.
  3. Tactics, which can include movement and use of cover & concealment.

6. Masses of moving bystanders may negatively affect the armed citizen’s ability to identify and engage the AS.  If you do not identify the AS as soon as he starts shooting, you may initially only hear shots before being overcome by the screams and stampede of people who did see the AS.  Some eye-witness accounts of the Aurora AS attack include theater attendees running, shoving each other, crawling up the isles, and climbing over rows of chairs.  All of these would impede the armed citizen’s attempt to identify, move toward (if necessary), and engage the AS.

Imagine, after identifying the AS,  trying to take a precision long-distance shot while under severe mental stress at a moving target who is wearing body armor, all while numerous panicked people are scrambling around (maybe over) you.  If innocent people are moving either between the armed citizen and the AS, or behind the AS, this will make a shot at the AS extremely dangerous to those innocent people.

An extra magazine or two never hurt anything! Image by 316th ESC.

7. Consider the possibility of other legally armed citizens or off-duty police officers confusing you for the AS or a partner of the AS.  If you are legally armed, there is a possibility that there are other legally armed citizens also at your location.  In #1, above, we already discussed the initial confusion we can expect most people to experience when an AS starts his attack.  Once you suspect that you might actually be witnessing an AS, and you decide to engage, what are you looking for?  A person (odds say a man) holding a gun?  Well, that is exactly what you will look like to other legally armed people there who also make the brave decision to act.  This is also true for responding, on-duty police who will arrive later.  The possible negative outcome is obvious – friendly fire.

So, how does the armed citizen lessen the odds of this possible confusion?  One important factor is simply being aware of this possibility and using techniques to minimize tunnel vision.  It also seems logical that the odds of misidentification increase the longer the armed citizen keeps his gun exposed, such as while moving toward the AS.

The AS attack is happening.  You being mistaken for the AS might happen.  Act on what is happening.  If the armed citizen engages the AS, the quicker the engagement is over, the less likely a misidentification will cause harm.  After it appears the AS has been stopped, immediately yelling something like, “CALL 911!”, or “IS THERE ANOTHER SHOOTER?!”, something an AS probably would not say, might reduce the chances of immediate misidentification.

Also, tell people calling 911 to tell and repeat to the 911 operator that there is a legally armed civilian at the scene.  If possible, it may be wise to have another bystander(s) go meet the responding uniformed police, inform them about you and the situation, and (if safe) lead them to you.

8. Consider the possibility of another legally armed citizen, or off-duty police officer, drawing his gun to engage the AS.  This is the reverse of #7 above.  The average armed citizen who realizes that he is experiencing an AS attack will be under sudden extreme stress, and will understand that the sooner he engages the AS, the fewer innocent people will die.  Urgency and extreme stress lead to snap decisions and rushed action.  Citizens that choose to go armed in public must stay aware that they are not the only ones who do so, and may not be the only ones that react to an AS attack.

Unfortunately, neither the AS or legally armed citizens wear an identifying sign.  So seeing someone simply holding a gun in an AS situation may not be enough information for a positive identification, and therefore the decision to engage.  That person’s actions and type of gun(s) may help the armed citizen determine the person’s motives.  Is the other armed citizen at the AS event randomly shooting at people, or is he “stalking,” as you are, trying to understand what is happening and who the shooter is?  Also, if that other armed citizen is carrying a long gun, darn good odds he is the AS.

image by Steve Snodgrass

9.  The AS may employ tear gas, smoke, bombs, or other devices.  Initial news reports indicate the Aurora theater murderer activated teargas or smoke generating devices inside the theater before he started shooting.  The Columbine High School killers attempted to activate bombs before and during their mass shooting.  These devices will increase confusion and fear.  They will also make it harder or maybe impossible to immediately engage the AS.  It may be a very hard decision, and difficult to live with later, if a trained, armed citizen must leave and not engage due to inability to breathe.  Most armed citizens, including me, are not yet ready to carry a gas mask everywhere we go.

10. All legally armed citizens must decide what to do about locations that prohibit the carrying of defensive handguns.  Several news reports have indicated that the theater in Aurora prohibited legal concealed carry by policy.  I do not know, and will probably never know, if there was an unauthorized armed citizen (other than the murderer) in the theater when the attack started, or if any person with a concealed carry license was there, but chose not to carry their handgun into the theater.

In my opinion, the goal should be to legislatively limit, “prohibited places,” to the absolute minimum, such as jails and other, “secured,” areas.  But that is a political solution that is difficult in most places and currently impossible in some.  One option, if possible, is to not enter businesses that prohibit armed self-defense.  That denies these businesses the profit of our money, but it also leaves defenseless other citizens who do enter such a place.

But what about places we must go, or feel compelled to go that are, “prohibited places,” in some or all states?  These include government offices, post offices, churches, hospitals, schools, and other locations.  In these situations, each armed citizen must make a choice.  For those who hypothetically make a decision to go armed into a, “prohibited place,” each must understand and be prepared for what may happen should he be forced to defend innocent life while there.

Conclusion.  In the Army, after every training battle, soldiers gather and conduct what is called an “After Action Review (AAR).  In the AAR, soldiers review the recent simulated battle, to include the preparation for it.  The purpose is to identify lessons that can be identified and learned, so that they can reduce errors and repeat and increase successful actions in future battles.  Most legally armed citizens want to be prepared for a battle that they hope never happens.

The Aurora Active Shooter attack serves as a reminder for what occasionally happens, anytime, anywhere.  As horrible as it was, we should learn from it.  Armed citizens need to be mentally prepared.  We must be ready for surprise and confusion, but quickly identify the AS and decide if and how to engage.  If we decide to engage, we know that conditions of an AS response may be far more difficult than the, “average,” self-defense shooting, for many reasons.  We also must understand that we may not be the only legally armed people at the scene, which increases danger for all legally armed people who decide to act.  Each armed citizen should decide before the next AS attack if he wants to be better prepared to respond.  This probably requires improved tactics, precision shooting skills, and the proper gun and ammunition to do such an important job.


(Ed Monk is co-owner and instructor at Last Resort Firearms Training in central Arkansas.  He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel after over 20 years as an armor officer, including duty in Iraq, battalion command, and three assignments as the leader of military training teams.  He is an NRA certified handgun instructor, graduate of multiple professional handgun training schools, and a GLOCK armorer.  He also serves as a part-time city police officer.  He provides educational presentations to universities, schools, civic organizations, and other groups on the threat of the Active Shooter. He can be reached at edmonk@aol.com)

19 thoughts on “10 Lessons for Armed Citizens from the Aurora Theater Mass Murder”

  1. Great overview. The only thing that usually comes out of these tragedies is more fear of guns by the sheeple. Considering these points you’ve covered may help save a life as we all continue to refine our mental preparedness and our physical training.

    Thank You!

  2. “One option, if possible, is to not enter businesses that prohibit armed self-defense.  That denies these businesses the profit of our money, but it also leaves defenseless other citizens who do enter such a place.”

    I am a legally armed citizen and choose to conceal-carry. At times I chose not to conceal-carry for personal reasons or due to the policy of a private business or governmental requirement. I must admit, I had a strong gut reaction when the author described me as ‘defenseless’. I take other actions to protect myself (be aware of exits, carry non lethal defence devices, and carry IFAK trauma kit). And I would rather rely on myself than an unknown legally armed citizen next to me…especially the citizen that chooses to ignores the wishes of a private business. To a prospective CCWer, do not enter the business, if you wish, but please don’t tread on the business owner because you see yourself as the protector of the masses.

  3. Another lesson learned is that large capacity magazines are not always the best things to use. They can mis feed (thankfully in this case).

  4. Great points! The two that stick out the most to me are returning fire in the dark and the crowd between me and the shooter. Difficult, to say the least. Maybe tritium sights?

  5. I am new to disaster preparedness. Wouldn’t a tactical light just focus a shooter’s attention on the one holding the light?

    1. With a tactical light, if it is shining at his face, even across the room, he will be unlikley to “hit the target.”

  6. InalienableWrights

    I find the words “Would a loaded handgun in the hands of a legally armed citizen have made a difference in Aurora?” extremely grating. They seem to imply that a person could be illegally armed. According to my belief in God given rights and also the words of the Second amendment “shall not be infringed” there really is no such thing. The words also seem to imply that if one were not legally armed then somehow your efforts would be fruitless or tainted in some other way. I have seen this phrase used many times but each and every time I see it – it leaps out at me at being so very inappropriate. You will have to excuse me, I seem to be one of the few remaining Americans left in this socialist country…..

    1. I agree, but you don’t want mentally ill people or felons (especially violent crimes offenders)to carry guns. Also you need to know how to use a gun properly , if not then why have one? This case is the reason mentally ill people don’t need guns. Unfortunately no one recognized or admitted he was unstable .

  7. Fact is, your duty in these situations is only to protect yourself and your family. A 20+ yard shot with a handgun in crowded dark room? Unless you were in Delta Force don’t even bother, you are far more likely to shoot other innocents or be shot by police than you are to take out the attacker. Clear out of the area, if you are confronted or cornered by the attacker then open fire.

  8. “Cinemark Holdings Inc., has a strict “gun-free” policy at all of its 459 theaters, even for those who have concealed carry permits.” No guns allowed. None of your “tips” could help anyone when no guns are allowed.

    1. Cinemark Holdings or any other private business has the right to say they are “weapon free”. But how would they know what you are carrying? If you walk in carrying an 870 pump 12 ga shotgun, they probably would ask you to leave, and if someone spotted a 9mm Glock under your shirt it would not be “concealed” as in what concealed carry is about. In this event they would tell you to leave and refund your money as you did not receive the promised entertainment for the ticket price. Government “authorities” on the other hand will likely beat the crap out of you, if not just shoot you outright on the spot, then put you in a cage, add fines for “legal representation”, etc. Also what constitutes weapons? My pen knife? A determined killer can use steel wire or even an ink pen! Where does one draw the line? If given the choice between private and public, I will go private every time. The grocery store does not strip search on entry, nor do they have porno-scanners you must walk through to get entry. Between a neurotic government and a ninny public, this can not end well.

      Great article BTW.

  9. Ed, Thank you for this informative article; it raised my awareness of what to consider in an AS event. Especially being aware of another legally armed citizen for their protection and mine. Fortunately I have never had to engage my weapon in a life protecting scenario. When I’m in a crowd I perform a series of mental exercises or what ifs – to prepare for an AS situation. If I am to carry, I know there is a great responsibility that I shoulder. Would I have a clear shot? Do I jeopardize innocent peoples safety? If the crowd is stampeding where do I strategically place myself? Do I have a clear view of the room? These are some of the questions I ask myself. Are there other question one might ask themselves? Thanks.

  10. Hello, survivalmom.

    Holmes was wearing an unarmored tactical vest to carry spare magazines. It is not bulletproof.

    Thought you should know,

    Michael B.

  11. It wasn’t just the theatre, it was the town. Colorado has excellent self-defense and CCW laws, but it lacks a “pre-emption” law prohibiting counties or cities from imposing gun laws stricter than the state’s. So Aurora and several other places in CO are therefore “gun-free” (i.e., victim disarmament”) zones.

    For the record, Florida has had a pre-emption law since 1987, but until a year or two ago there were no penalties for violation, so the situation was much like Colorado’s. Then the legislature put teeth in the old law, and now those illegal anti-gun ordinances are being repealed.

    IMO the best way to deal with “gun-free” private businesses is to inform the management that you will sue them into oblivion if you or a loved one is ever harmed by an armed thug because you weren’t allowed to fight back. Then get all of your CCW friends to go there and say the same thing.

  12. And what we saw was a theater, no idea of how “crowded” it may be, and defenseless people cowered and died in place. All the ruminations about “what if so and so had a gun?” are meaningless in such a situation where you, as someone already pointed out, are not allowed to carry a weapon on the premises. Do you passively take a round to the chest, scurry and hope to avoid being hit, or if you’re close enough risk everything and jump the guy? All frightening and potentially deadly, to YOU, decisions to be made on the spot. Very difficult to say what I’d do versus what I “think” I’d do in a similar circumstance.

  13. I’ll add that you should never go into a place without knowing another way of it. If the ballon goes up get yourself and family out. Heros are for movies. If you are trapped and can do it crawl on the ground, out flank the A.S. and shoot him in the back. Preferraly in the back of the head. Then hide your pistol and walk (not run) out so no other hero’s mistake you for the bad guy.

  14. 3 things.. (from my experience in military & law enforcement)

    1. A very bright tactical flashlight (as mentioned in the article) can be used to temporarily blind the bad guy(s), which is a very effective tactic in low-light situations. This can give you at least 5 or 10 seconds to counter-attack or get-out-of-dodge quickly. I have personally used this with great success to keep suspects on the defensive. Just be sure to close at least one of your eyes when doing this to preserve your night vision (it only takes a second or two of bright light to disable someone’s night vision temporarily.)

    2. If the ‘bad guy’ appears to be wearing body armor, the best place to aim for fast take-down is the lower torso (aim for the pelvic region). This is because most body armor does not cover this area, or does not cover it adequately. A shot to this region has a high probability of disrupting the ‘bad guy’s’ ability to stand upright, and is a large enough target to aim for, as opposed to a limb or hand/foot.

    3. ALWAYS position yourself near a quick exit, and know where those exits are when you sit down somewhere. Run a scenario through your mind of ‘what will I do if someone comes in shooting’. This will give you a major tactical advantage over an assailant. Be aware of your surroundings.

    Most importantly: no situation is perfect, and no defense strategy will work every time. So prepare for what you can, and stay aware and dynamic.

    Lastly, the number one rule of law enforcement: WATCH THE HANDS! That is where the danger is if you’re looking for suspicious people.

  15. Unless they have metal detectors, I pay no attention to “NO Firearms” signs. It’s the Supreme Law of the Land (NOT part of the Land!). Nobody has any lawful power to deprive me of my rights UNDER COLOR OF LAW. If you allow them to deprive you or your right to be armed to defend your Right to Life, and your are killed, what recourse do you have against them? What good would it do anyway, since you’re DEAD?

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