PBS News Hours: There were 372 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2015, killing 475 and wounding 1,870.
“We never thought it would happen here!” is the typical response by school administrators, corporate, or government officials in the immediate aftermath of an active shooter event or a school shooter. Let that sink in for a moment. In every active shooter event, the infliction of surprise on an unsuspecting individual or organization always leads to catastrophic consequences on those caught unsuspecting an assault or attack. Whether it was the attack on Pearl Harbor, 9/11, or a fictionalized representation in a Hollywood movie the consequences of striking at an unprepared and unaware defender lead to the achievement of an attacker’s tactical goals.
When an active shooter “catches” his victim by surprise there is always a moment (captured by cameras) of smug satisfaction on the face of the shooter. Whether the attacker’s primary objectives are achieved may be more serendipitous as the shooter in a Texas church discovered when a parishioner drew a weapon and shot the active shooter. (For the record, we discourage the arming of congregants with guns against a potential shooting event. For further information, contact CINTINC, directly.)
Without a firearm, how is anyone expected to repel or stop an active shooter? The government recommends you: flee, hide, or attack the shooter – not an enticing set of options. Looking at it another way, what is a homeowner, a business owner, or school administrator to do? Does anyone believe it is wise to leave themselves vulnerable to surprise, especially the surprise of an armed assailant or active shooter in school? When life itself is in the balance can anyone allow such a surprise to occur? Can we do nothing but leave a surprise in the pocket of tools for others who mean to do us harm?
What is “surprise”? Surprise may be defined as: “When events occur that so contravene the victim’s expectations that one or more opponents gain a major or lethal advantage.” This definition has several useful aspects that make it appropriate for purposes here.
First, the definition recognizes that surprise is rarely absolute. Many times, victims have at least some inkling of what is about to happen but could not come to a decision or recognition/awareness in time or simply acted too late to take effective defensive measures to avoid the event.
The definition also focuses on the risk to life, on gaining “major advantage,” where surprise can affect the course and outcome of an assault or crime and, therefore, is where life or death may hinge.
Finally, the definition recognizes the variety of elements to surprise. Surprise assaults/attacks get the most attention. This is understandable since these surprises are highly visible (thanks to the ubiquitous use of security cameras – which do not prevent or predict the event) and dramatic – very appealing as news stories for media networks. However, there are other elements to surprise we must consider before we address technological countermeasures that change the asymmetrical balance of surprise away from an attacker and to the defender.
How to deal with the surprise from the active shooter
The surprise is generally not achieved on a whim. Although it can happen, it is not typical. Every school shooter plans his/their attack; this is true in every case. This means the attacker has some knowledge about the intended-victim/target, knowledge obtained in-advance of the attack. We call this information, “intelligence”. Intelligence may be gathered through a variety of means, direct and indirect. A school shooter knows the layout and schedule, crucial information for the attacker. In an armed robbery, the attacker may visit a store to “case” the place; he may use the internet to research the best escape routes, nearest highways, etc. A growing phenomenon is that of multiple shooters.
Therefore, an attacker may use an accomplice who is knowledgeable of or familiar with the target to glean essential information about the defender and his defenses; a shooter may read about the target in news articles and reports; or maybe he will just go online to see what is offered up by the defender’s website, something useful for the planned attack. In the private sector, the shooter may be a current employee or a parishioner with an unannounced grievance. The point is, the attacker is methodically collecting, and analyzing data, progressively preparing for his nefarious deed.
Meanwhile, the defender is unaware he is being targeted. Without specific training in counterintelligence (and there are few who are) a defender will never recognize the intelligence collection effort against him and its ultimate purpose until it is too late. In other words, the attacker has substantial, likely irrecoverable (for the defender), advantages that create an asymmetrical problem for the defender.
With key information about his target, the attacker will select a time of greatest disadvantage to the defender. With knowledge of the defender and the element of surprise, the sum constitutes an overwhelming advantage to the attacker – likely a lethal advantage.
By contrast, the defender may know little or nothing of his attacker, himself. What day? What time? How will it be done? What type of weapon? What is the objective of the attack? Who or what is the target? With all these questions, how can a defender reasonably expect to protect himself, his family, his employees, or his business from such an event without incurring costs disproportionally expensive to an unknown threat? This is the asymmetrical advantage, then, held by the attacker: The attacker’s costs are low with all the other advantages as mentioned above, as against the defender’s costs (exponentially higher) to remedy the vulnerabilities.
In order to successfully perpetrate surprise, a would-be active shooter must accomplish the following: He must conceal his intentions, and some of his actions, in order to avoid discovery. Concealment can sometimes be accomplished by hiding with the highest possible visibility – in plain sight so to avoid suspicion; appearing to do normal things. By concealing his intentions, by disguising actions as an everyday activity, and soon-to-be school shooter or office shooter may accomplish another critical piece of the puzzle, intelligence collection.
If the shooter has accomplices, then secrecy about their plans and intentions is more complex and difficult to maintain. Posts to social media sites, text messages, or discussing plans with people not a party to the conspiracy risks discovery and worse for the conspirators. (One hopes discovery would happen more often than it does.)
To achieve concealment and secrecy, it is often necessary to engage in a deception campaign to obscure some of the actions for the sake of concealment and secrecy. Next, the attacker, as with most successful surprise attacks, will initiate violent actions that are not customary for the victim to recognize as those which precede an assault; the actions are intended to distract the intended-victim and lower his guard, rendering the surprise all-the-more effective. Sometimes it is necessary for the shooter to “practice” the non-conforming behaviors in order to enact them effectively during the assault.
The act of initiating surprise is often difficult for an attacker. Nerves and high levels of emotion are accentuated by doing things unorthodox and contrary to the shooter’s (especially that of a school shooter) character. This leads to a person acting “strangely” immediately preceding an attack. As the moment of surprise approaches, the stresses on the attacker multiply. Such stresses can lead an attacker to do things contrary to plan and preceding the actual event but are nonetheless extremely violent.
The immediate effects of surprise, shock, and confusion, are temporary and may fade quickly. A moment of clear thought by a defender can initiate a series of unanticipated (by the attacker) events that are just as surprising to the attacker as the attack was surprising to the defender.
Response and Response Time:
The instant an attack occurs, there is almost always a pause, a moment’s hesitation by the victim; Shock and disbelief at the immediacy and proximity of violence are frequently too much for the average person to comprehend immediately. This “pause” is exactly what the active shooter wants and hopes to achieve. All too often, the shock and pause are deadly.
Statistics show that the moment a school shooter, or any shooter, penetrates the target area, those who are in the area have less-than-a-minute (<1-minute) to decide and act to save themselves. LESS THAN 1 MINUTE. Once the shooter draws his gun, the defender has about 2-seconds to act. (There are circumstances when school shooters, walk into the school, guns already drawn.) Thus, the shock and pause combine as a distinct and lethal advantage that surprise gives to the shooter.
Technological surprise occurs when the performance of new or unexpected tools or countermeasures disrupt the plans and expectations of an attacker, creating a shift in the strategic balance and effects in favor of the defender.
The Texas church shooter did not expect or anticipate armed parishioners. Consequently, he was killed before he could react and mount an attack on the armed security personnel. Countermeasures, equipment, and/or training designed to meet and defeat an attacker, are in-demand as a means of improving security at home, at work, in church, almost anywhere.
To avoid a face-to-face encounter with the threat requires a technological advantage that may be activated from another room or place – away from the shooter. Such technology does not preclude the use of or application of some training techniques. Rather, technology can be used to substantially augment existing security systems and plans. More than that, technology offers a REAL option that extends well beyond the three options as espoused by the DOJ and FBI – flee, hide or, if all else fails, attack the shooter with an improvised weapon.
This article is not intended to instill fear about surprise as a tactic. Instead, we hope that you are more aware of its potential as a tool, whether for a shooter or for the defender. We encourage you to investigate all means of defending yourself and to carefully consider your objectives and risks in implementing a defensive strategy. Success is often the result of seeking and listening to wise advisers. Talk about it within your family, your business, your church. Seek outside help in assessing your risks. When you are ready to ask informed questions, then look for professional advice based that fits your objectives.