How to Respond to an Active Shooter Situation?

By Joshua Prince, Esq.

With the recent surge in senseless active shooter situations that our nation has faced, including the Aurora Colorado movie theater shooting and the Newtown Connecticut elementary school shooting,  many of my clients, friends and family have inquired of what they can or legally should do in such situations, especially when occurring in a school, when the Federal Gun-Free School Zone prohibits the possession of firearms on school property and many property owners prohibit possession on their property.

Unfortunately, there is no great legal answer; rather, the answer is more of a moral and ethical decision. Hence, while there will be some laws inter-spliced into this article, it isn’t intended to be legal advice on what to do in a particular situation, as the facts of each scenario could likely change my legal conclusion, but I will tell you what I will do if confronted by such a situation. Furthermore, and let’s be honest, if you find yourself involved in ANY situation where you have to pull your firearm, you are NOT going to be reviewing the law in your head. If you are, you are already dead. You need to have a plan and react; not consider the legal ramifications.

I want to start off by saying that no one can tell anyone else how they should or shouldn’t respond to such a situation. This is an individual decision for which you will have to live with for the rest of your life, no matter how long or short that life will be. Does your duty lie with protecting your family? If so, how so? If you are able to get your family out of restaurant stick-up, without any injury to them, do you stay with them? Or do you go back to attempt to save the clerk and other patrons? If you go back, do you know your family is safe outside? What if there is a get-away driver that now sees them and considers them eye-witnesses? Or, if you stay outside with your family, will you be able to live with the fact that the clerk was shot in the face and her family will never have the opportunity to say goodbye or let her know how much they love her? Oh yeah, how will you explain your decision to her children when they ask “why is mommy is not here?”

As you can see, there are no great answers. Every potential response or action comes with it the possibility of other harm and potential death. However, being prepared through training and ensuring that all family members are armed, so that one family member can stay with the children, while the other deals with the direct threat, can substantially reduce these concerns, while increasing your family’s likelihood of survival. Nevertheless, like everything else, sometimes all the planning in the world won’t change the outcome. So, can you live with that?

I may have scared some readers off by now and that’s fine. That’s the purpose of this article. If you haven’t considered these scenarios already, you aren’t planning enough. If you have considered them, but not with the above specificity (which, quite honestly, is just the tip of the iceberg), you are not prepared. Get prepared. Think through different situations. Devise a plan for each. Implement that plan, if necessary.

Having briefly discussed training/mindset, and believe me that the above is merely the pinnacle of the tip of the iceberg, the next issue to consider is active shooter versus a hold-up situation. As we have seen, active shooter situations usually involve a lone assailant (although there have been times where there were 2-3), where he or she seeks to kill anyone that he or she comes into contact with, without concern. Most interesting aspect to active shooters is that, while they may prepare to fight to the death by suiting up with body-armor, they will generally commit suicide when presented with resistance, such as an armed citizen responding to the gunfire. (It is interesting to note, as James Yeager did in his video on Active Shooters that 8 out of 10 times, where an active shooter is confronted by an UNARMED citizen, the active shooter will also commit suicide. He also notes that 2/3rds of the time, active shooters are stopped by civilians, not law enforcement).

This is reflected to a T by a recent mall shooting that was thwarted by an individual, Nick Meli, who was carrying a firearm in the mall, even though the mall had signs prohibiting him from possessing a firearm. Without firing a shot because he could not obtain a clear line of fire, Mr. Meli was successful in causing the shooter to realize the resistance he presented and causing the active shooter to commit suicide by shooting himself. Unfortunately, this has gone unreported by the major TV networks.

Generally, if an active shooter isn’t killed or doesn’t commit suicide before capture, he or she will explain themselves in terms of going up against “the man.” The man is not defined; rather, it is everything that the individual believes or perceives is coming down upon that individual or the cause for the individual’s misfortune, or perceived misfortune. Unlike the hold-up situation, the active shooter perceives everyone, even those not anywhere nearby, as a threat that must be killed. In the hold-up situation, the robber(s) are there for a specific goal, such as stealing money; whereas, the active shooter has no goal other than to kill people. Furthermore, where, generally speaking, the robber will want to limit casualty as much as possible, for fear of the judicial system if caught, the active shooter has already realized that he or she will not survive the day and has no concern over facing the judicial system, as he or she will be dead.

The problem with active shootings is that they always seem to occur at locations that prohibit the possession of firearms. As James Yeager points out in the above video, 38% of active shooter situations occur in schools and an additional 17% at Universities/Colleges (for a total of 55% involving educational facilities). Thank god was have a Gun-Free School Zone, right? Other soft-targets that prohibit possession of firearms, like movie theaters, malls and an businesses make up the remainder. Do you see a theme? When is the last time an active shooter entered a gun store? Or an active shooter began shooting in front of the police? They won’t because they will be killed before they can kill “the man.” While they may be psychotic, they aren’t stupid.

So, for many, the problem becomes complying with the laws and regulations, while trying to protect those that you love. Do you carry into that movie theater, knowing that, at a minimum, you are violating that business owner’s policies and probably also violating several criminal laws? What about a school? Would you go into an active shooter situation at a school, if no police were currently present? I will because I would rather be judged by twelve than see someone else carried by six.

In these situations, most states, including Pennsylvania, already recognize that there may come a time where someone has to break the law for the greater good. This is known as either the Doctrine of Necessity or Justification. 18 PA.C.S. 503 declares, “Conduct which the actor believes to be necessary to avoid a harm or evil to himself or to another is justifiable if: (1) the harm or evil sought to be avoided by such conduct is greater than that sought to be prevented by the law defining the offense charged; (2) neither this title nor other law defining the offense provides exceptions or defenses dealing with the specific situation involved; and (3) a legislative purpose to exclude the justification claimed does not otherwise plainly appear.”

But, again, are you going to be concerned with the law, if presented with such a situation? I will not be.

For me, I will defend another life, regardless of age, sex, nationality, creed, religion, or political belief. I will equally defend those that I love with those that I despise; provided, neither are causing the harm to others. If necessary, I will use lethal force against someone that I love so to protect those who I don’t know. One, two, five, or any combination thereof, of bullets will not stop me. I will only stop when the threat is neutralized or my body fails due to excessive loss of blood or organ failure, neither of which is likely. I will continue to defend others regardless of the position or condition that I find myself in. I will not concern myself with violating the Gun Free School Zone or violating some business owner’s right to preclude me from his property while armed. I have chosen to be judge by twelve rather than see someone else carried by six.  If charged, I will stand upright at all court proceedings and will accept the sentence imposed by the jury of my peers. I will not beg, grovel or ask for leniency because of my acts. In accepting the sentence, I will forgive those on the jury, if any, who don’t accept or condone my actions. I will spend my sentence not in regret; but rather, in joy knowing of all those lives that have been saved and the benefit that they will provide to this world in the years to come.

For those of you who never read or heard of the One Warrior’s Creed by Steven R. Watt, I post it below. These are some of the most powerful words that I have ever read and will live my life by them until my last breath:

One Warrior’s Creed

If today is to be THE DAY, so be it.

If you seek to do battle with me this day you will receive the best that I am capable of giving.

It may not be enough, but it will be everything that I have to give

and it will be impressive for I have constantly prepared myself for this day.

I have trained, drilled and rehearsed my actions so that I might have the best chance of defeating you.

I have kept myself in peak physical condition, schooled myself in the martial skills

and have become proficient in the application of combat tactics.

You may defeat me, but you will pay a severe price and will be lucky to escape with your life.

You may kill me, but I am willing to die if necessary.

I do not fear Death, for I have been close enough to it on enough occasions that it no longer concerns me.

But I do fear the loss of my Honor and would rather die fighting than to have it said that I was without Courage.

So I WILL FIGHT YOU, no matter how insurmountable it may seem, and to the death if need be,

in order that it may never be said of me that I was not a Warrior.

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Filed under Firearms Law, Pennsylvania Firearms Law

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