Surviving An Active Shooter Event: How to Stay Alive and Safe

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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 wind up in the crosshairs of a gunman’s sight, but it can happen anytime, anywhere. So what would be your response? This article will look at how you can increase your chances of surviving an active shooter event.

image: active shooter handgun on table with a scattering of shells surrounding it

What is an Active Shooter?

An Active Shooter is a person trying to kill or attempting to kill many people in a confined area. Their weapon of choice is some type of firearm(s). While they have typically carefully planned the event, their choice of victims has no pattern or method.

Our Natural Response to an Active Shooter

The natural response for most people is not to do anything.

It’s sad but true.

You’ve heard me talk about “normalcy bias” before. That’s the tendency for people to believe that everything follows a pattern and that each day will proceed normally; they’re usually right.

However, when a terrorist event breaks that pattern, the unprepared brain takes time to process the new situation. As a result, 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 their best to counter situations like this, most mass shooting events end within 10 to 15 minutes. There is little or no chance that help will be there when you need it, so you should have a plan of action.

Don’t Wait Until It Happens: Plan NOW!

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. However, cowering in fear under a table in plain view of the shooter isn’t a recipe for a good outcome.

You will have a better chance of getting out of there in one piece by having a plan.

For example, if 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 many people. It may seem extreme to have to think of these things, but that’s what I call the “New Normal.”

What You Do in the First Few Seconds is Critical to Surviving an Active Shooter Event

What you do in the first few seconds may determine your final outcome with an active shooter.

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,
  • And 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, therefore, easy targets for the active shooter.

For 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. So find an exit away from the direction of gunfire.

READ MORE: Make yourself less of a target by becoming better at spotting danger before it spots you.

How to Survive an Active Shooter Event

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 you should take in an active shooter scenario.

Run / Escape

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.

Also, forget about collecting your stuff; it will only slow you down, and, face it, it’s just stuff.

If you’re in the shooter’s line of sight, 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.

However, don’t try to move or otherwise help the wounded, 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 neutralize the shooter before tending to the injured.

(One critical note: If you see law enforcement, don’t run up and hug them. Instead, get your hands in the air, fingers spread, where officers can see them. They need to know you’re not the threat. Then, 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.


Running might not be an option if there’s only one exit and the shooter is standing in front of it. So 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, you are both hidden and protected from projectiles hurled your way.

Foliage is good concealment, but a thick tree trunk might be a better cover.

In a building, hiding under a table in the same room as the shooter is a death sentence. Instead:

  • 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 more challenging target to acquire for the shooter, and he wants to do his damage as fast as possible. As a result, he’ll likely pass you by to find easier targets.

READ MORE: Prepare your kids for an active shooter and other scenarios with these drills.


What if you can’t run, and there is no good hiding place?

First, don’t panic. It will likely take every ounce of willpower you possess to remain calm, but it is imperative you do.

Once you panic, you’ve lost the capacity for rational thought and your chances of survival drop drastically. In addition, you may also further endanger anyone with you.

If possible, dial 911 to advise authorities of the shooter’s position. If you can’t talk, let the 911 operator listen. They may glean helpful information to pass on to the police.

If you want to survive an active shooter event and you can’t hide, you might have to fight yourself out of there. However, 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 the 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. On the other hand, it might just be harder to be hit with a fatal shot if you fight.

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 simultaneously from different directions while hurling objects that he has to dodge.

This guy is probably not James Bond: he’ll be disconcerted and unable to handle multiple threats at once.

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

READ MORE: Here are 10 lessons we can learn from the Aurora Theater mass murder in Colorado.


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. Having a plan for surviving an active shooter event 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.

What will you do in an active shooter situation?


by Joe Alton, MD of, co-author of the 3 category #1 Amazon Bestseller “The Survival Medicine Handbook“.  See their articles in Backwoods Home, Survival Quarterly, and other great magazines. For over 600 articles on medical preparedness in wilderness, disaster, or other austere settings, go to their website at

The opinions voiced by Joe Alton, M.D., and Amy Alton, A.R.N.P. are their own and are not meant to take the place of seeking medical help from a qualified healthcare provider. 

This article was originally published on December 26, 2015, and has been updated.

5 thoughts on “Surviving An Active Shooter Event: How to Stay Alive and Safe”

  1. Hopefully this article is targeted towards women, but that should have been made clearer. If you’re a man carrying a weapon you better be running towards the gunfire not away. Otherwise stop carrying a weapon–you have no business handling the tools of a warrior.

    1. Howard D. Huggins

      While on the whole I agree with your comments, I have to respectfully disagree with your assertion about insisting that anyone (male?) running to the sound of gunfire if you are carrying a firearm.
      As “Manly” or macho as it may sound, that is a good recipe for becoming a statistic or victim yourself.
      Whether at the hand of the original Shooter or other lawful gun owners, outside of the immediate participants, you CANNOT possibly KNOW who is the instigator of the carnage in progress.
      IF there are others also doing as you suggest, HOW are they/you to KNOW who the actual BAD GUY(S) ARE?
      Criminals won’t always be wearing a trench coat or carrying a backpack with ammo supplies. They could very well be dressed much like you.
      But assuming you DO respond. When you arrive, what’s to say another “Good Guy” hasn’t already neutralized the threat, but is standing over their body with weapon drawn looking for additional Bad Guys?
      YOU come tearing around a corner and you both see each other, wild eyed and guns drawn. Do YOU KNOW he isn’t a fellow conspirator? Does HE KNOW YOU aren’t the first Shooter’s back up?
      See the potential for Collateral Damage and Good Guys shooting it out?
      No, the best option IS to get out of Dodge and, MAYBE, set up in an area that affords good cover AND ability to return fire IF the Bad Guy comes out and you can, WITHOUT A SHADOW OF A DOUBT, identify him as a BAD GUY, and not an untrained Citizen doing a good thing (in his or her mind) by securing the weapon from the Bad Guy Shooter.
      Not meaning to pick nits but as a former LEO, there are aspects to consider which, without training and experience, you may not be aware of.

      1. The Survival Mom

        You bring up many good points, Howard, and the over-arching theme is this: there are numerous variables in any active shooter scenario — too numerous for there to be any one, pat answer.

      2. How it “may sound” is irrelevant, it wasn’t said to impress you or anyone else as a display of manliness. It’s a statement made with as much consideration as possible first being given. Not all citizens are untrained–certainly those who choose to carry a weapon should not be. Many of us have invested thousands of dollars in seeking out training to prepare us for just such a situation. Many of us have stood next to active military and police taking the very same training. And many of us have spent countless hours studying, considering, and practicing what we have been trained on. One day, God forbid, our number may be called and it’s our time to defend ourselves, our friends or family, or even someone we’ve never met; and to that statistically unlikely end we prepare every day knowing that we’ll have to live with consequences of every action or inaction, every pull of the trigger, and every potential mistake our responsibility exposes us to.

        The scenarios you’ve laid out are all valid possibilities. But your assumption that because I don’t wear a badge I’m unaware of them or have never taken them into account is not–and I know that’s true for many, many others as well. As a former LEO, I’m sure you know that that badge doesn’t necessarily mean that you have any more than a baseline level of skill with a weapon, doesn’t mean that you are completely knowledgeable or experienced with life or death situations or frankly even the law, and doesn’t make you tactically infallible.

        I respectfully disagree that running towards gunfire makes me more likely to be a victim or a statistic. I’ve already chosen to never be either. I’ve chosen to be one who will stand up when the time comes and do what I can for the thousands of others who have been bred to wait for help to arrive when it’s often far too late and to look with scorn, mistrust, and hatred on those of us who would defend them. I don’t know if, when, or how any of this would play out should the time ever come, but don’t assume I expect it to go down like an episode of “Black List”. I know it will be complicated, ugly, and costly regardless of the outcome, but I’ve still chosen to do everything I can to be ready. Because the only other choice was to run and hide.

  2. Howard D. Huggins

    These are all good ideas and suggestions and in this day and age, no one is immune to the possibility of becoming a victim or unwilling participant to an active Shooter event.
    Is it probable? No one can say with certainty.
    Is it possible? Any more the answer is yes.
    You can only do what you can do and as the article mentions, help is not going to be forthcoming quickly.
    So if you don’t care about yourself, think about it from the perspective of your loved ones.
    THEIR lives may depend on you being prepared.

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