Survival Basics

Terror Mass Shooting

Terrorism is difficult to define. Our classic view usually involves fanatic devotees to religious or political ideology. More recently, other forms of violent extremism have emerged both domestically and abroad. Some are bound to a philosophy of environmental responsibility (i.e. ecoterrorism), while others are borne of ethnical prejudice (i.e. racial supremacy) or a sociopolitical goal. Oftentimes, the attackers have no apparent motivation to escape the event alive, which makes them even more dangerous. Whatever the motivation or specific definition, we must be prepared to survive if we are caught in the crosshairs of these targeted forms of violence. 

On average, approximately 20,000 people across the globe fall victim to terrorist violence each year. Fortunately for us Americans, less than 1% of annual terror victims are on U.S. soil. But, it is still a situation worth mentally preparing for. This posting will address a mass shooting scenario.

Terror Mass Shooting


Statistically, firearms are used in only a minor fraction of terror events (approximately 10% in 2017), but are far more lethal, claiming over half the overall victims. Firearms are dwarfed by the use of explosives and incendiaries, yet carry a very similar death toll. Conceivably, this makes some sense: an explosive device is difficult to smuggle into a densely-populated area, such as a sporting event, and is used one time. Firearms, on the other hand, have easier access to most venues, and can be used until ammunition is exhausted. Firearms allow the attacker to be selective about their victims (not that they always exercise this discretion), and have a lethality radius from 50m (shotgun) to 100m (pistol) or 500m+ (rifle). Compare this to a handheld grenade, which typically have a casualty radius of only 15m. 

How do you protect yourself from becoming a victim?

With this information in mind, how do you protect yourself from becoming a victim? The simplest answer is to simply avoid any venues that may be targeted by a terrorist: large gatherings, enclosed spaces, and having an opposing view from a terrorist organization. Obviously, this is nearly impossible to do—simply being an American can be sufficient justification for targeting by nefarious individuals.

So, from a practical perspective, mere avoidance is not an option. What we have remaining is prevention, vigilance, and reaction. 

In the disproportionate media coverage following a terrorist incident, journalists and investigators often find that people close to the perpetrators had an inkling that something was not right in the days leading up to the attack. Terror is often premeditated, and all humans show some signs of malicious intent. In a few cases, observers reported unusual or alarming behavior to authorities prior to the attack; unfortunately, these warning signs can get lost in the sea of false alarms and inconsistent information, and even modern law enforcement has its surveillance limits (both technical and ethical).

Do not let this prevent you from reporting suspicious activity. Warning signs include sympathy with a known terrorist cause, antagonistic behavior, aggressive opposition to a cause, and unexplained hostility toward friends and family. Even the traditional signs of depression and suicidal ideations may be indicators of premeditated martyrdom. Do your part and report suspicions to be part of terror prevention.

In public places, law enforcement surveillance is not omniscient. Cameras and metal detectors have limited range, and cannot possibly screen all individuals in the vicinity of a potential kill zone. Be on the lookout for concealed weapons: unseasonably heavy clothing, bulky duffel bags or backpacks, and bulges under jackets. In urban areas, watch for open windows into dark rooms, especially if you catch the silhouette of a barrel or glint of a scope. Observe people’s behavior, especially if they appear to be scanning for security, blocking exits, or gaining high ground. If you spot an anomaly, egress the area and alert law enforcement.

If the worst happens and shots ring out, remember Fire Marshall Jim’s advice from elementary school: stop, drop, and roll. These steps are actually fairly useful in a number of applications, this being no exception. If an attacker’s goal is to maximize casualties, he will generally select the easiest targets—stationary, nearby, and upright. He will also be on the lookout for anybody that is threatening his actions, so brandishing a weapon of your own is equivalent to wearing a target on your chest. By getting low and maneuvering to cover or concealment, you instantly raise your chances of escaping alive. Now, you might have to take some calculated risks.

Terror Mass Shooting

If you can remain hidden or protected for several minutes, the gunmen might move on or exhaust their ammunition—law enforcement response is only a matter of time. If you feel that you are still too exposed and in immediate danger, then you’ll have to make your own luck to get to a more advantageous position. Every weapon requires reloading at some point, and this could provide a few valuable seconds for a well-timed escape. Or you can be sneaky and avoid detection while the attackers’ attention is elsewhere.  As you plan your escape, try to be fast, silent, and never too far from cover. It is more difficult to hit a target moving side-to-side than straight away, so avoid escaping down a straight line away from a gunman. And don’t box yourself into an enclosed space unless you can barricade it.

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This concludes your quick guide to surviving a mass shooting situation. It’s impossible to prepare for, but with some clear thought and deliberate action, you can live to talk about it. And don’t forget to thank Fire Marshall Jim for his friendly advice that saved your life.

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