Is sixteen hours enough time to learn to attack an active shooter?

While delivering a conference keynote at a state emergency management conference recently, I ran a simulation of a student holding a gun to his temple with his finger on the trigger and threatening to commit suicide.  The volunteer who had to verbalize what she would do as 400 people observed was a university administrator.  After she described for me and the audience what she would do to try to address the situation, we discussed her responses as a group.  When I asked if anyone in the audience would do anything differently, an attendee stated that she should have attempted to take the gun away from the student.  When I asked if he felt that she was capable of doing so, he told me that she would be if she had been properly trained.  As an instructor who teaches a sixteen hour program which includes techniques to attack an active shooter as a last resort, he felt that she would be able to reliably do so if she had completed this two-day training program utilized by many K12 schools and institutions of higher learning.  When I polled the other 400 public safety officials in the room, not one agreed that it would be a proper course of action to attempt to disarm the student. 

During the discussion, the attendee stated that 16-hours of training on disarming an armed aggressor is more than a police officer gets.  I received two weeks of this type of training in the first police academy program I attended and additional training over my two decade law enforcement career.  I would not consider it an appropriate response to use a disarming technique for the situation depicted in the video scenario.  I later learned that the gentleman asking the question is a highly motivated and dedicated campus security director at an institution of higher learning.   During a discussion following my keynote session, a group of attendees expressed concern that a caring and intelligent professional who had completed a nationally recognized instructor program would so attempt to apply techniques that are clearly designed to be applied as a last resort for active shooter situations to a situation where a student was holding a gun to his head threatening suicide.  Another higher education campus security director, who is also an instructor for the same program, expressed concern that such misapplications are likely under field conditions.

Campus safety experts, law enforcement officials, insurance carriers, and campus administrators remain heavily divided on this hotly debated concept.  People on both sides of this discussion can easily become defensive to their respective stances because they are so passionate about their responsibility to protect staff and students.  To be clear, I have never advocated that students and staff remain passive if they are trapped in a room with an armed aggressor who is actively attacking the group with a firearm or other weapon.  At the same time, extensive review of research on how the human brain works under life and death stress, personally working seven active shooter incidents in K12 schools, and hundreds of more typical school and university shootings, stabbings and other weapons assaults combined with what our analysts have found in conducting more than 3,500 controlled one-on-one campus crisis simulations, leaves me deeply troubled about current concepts being used to train people to attack and active shooter as a last resort.

Four of my colleagues and I have been conducting extensive research on this topic for a chapter dedicated to this approach in our new book Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters.  We have interviewed numerous subject matter experts ranging from Delta Force Special Operators, Researchers, and leading campus safety experts. We have also interviewed victims and witnesses of dozens of campus shootings including those at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary School.  We also ran simulations with campus employees who have completed training programs on attacking an active shooter as a last resort while also conducting simulations with employees from the same organizations who have not participated in this type of training.

Our conclusion is that the current active shooter training programs can result in the type of misapplication described earlier.  We respectfully caution that training of this type must be significantly improved to reduce the significant danger of these unintended and deadly consequences.

About Michael Dorn

Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a non-profit school safety center. The author of 27 books on school safety, Michael’s campus safety work has taken him to 11 countries over the past 34 years.