Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.
Author: Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

The FBI has added its most recent study to the body of research on active shooters.

The study narrows its focus on 50 incidents in 2016 and 2017 representing 221 deaths and 722 wounded. One of the challenges of analyzing such studies is defining the commonalities. Do we include attempts or only successes? Do we exclude non-firearm weapons used in attacks? Are gang and domestic violence incidents include?

The alarming total of 221 deaths derives from the three most deadly events:

The Las Vegas Harvest Festival shooting with 48 killed and 489 wounded; The Orlando Pulse nightclub attack with 49 killed and 53 wounded; The Sutherland Springs church shooting in Texas with 26 killed and 20 wounded.

For comparison, the previous two years had 92 people killed and 139 wounded in 40 active shooter events using the same criteria. Only seven of the reported shootings were school related. None were on college campuses or military sites.

Good guys with guns

One interesting finding is the role civilians play in stopping shooters. This happened in eight of the 50 cases in this study, and six of the cases in the previous two years, not including two cases where non-sworn security personnel stopped the shooter or two incidents where civilians confronted, but did not stop, a suspect. In 14 of the cases the shooters were stopped during an exchange of gunfire with the police.

The ambush shooting of Dallas police officers during a protest resulted in five officers murdered and nine wounded. Other than the Dallas ambush, three officers were killed in active shooter response – two by the shooter and one officer in plain clothes shot by friendly fire. In the friendly fire incident, officers under attack at the Prince George, Maryland, police station shot and killed detective Jacai Colson, mistaking him for an aggressor. Since both of these incidents were designed to kill police officers, we can exclude them from the list of active shooter police responses.

In the remaining 48 events, police officers stopped 25 percent of the attacks. Civilians stopped or attempted to stop shooters in 20 percent of attacks, or 25 percent if the civilian security guards are included.

The report noted that not all the interventions by civilians involved firearms, and not all civilian attempts immediately stopped the offender. But the conclusion from examining these incidents is that good citizens, many of whom are lawfully armed, save lives in active shooter attacks. The report acknowledges that, “The enhanced threat posed by active shooters and the swiftness with which active shooter incidents unfold support the importance of preparation by law enforcement officers and citizens alike.”

Implications for the future

The consensus from examining reported active shooting events is that they are increasing in frequency over the past few years.

A 2014 Harvard study and the 20 percent increase in this reporting period over the previous two-year period, indicate a trend with no expectation that the numbers will decrease any time soon.

Although the media focus continues to be on school shootings, the Prince George and Dallas attacks on police officers is a concern to the public, as well as law enforcement, and the Las Vegas massacre makes everyone sense their vulnerability to random mass violence.

Active shooters in public spaces get associated with school shootings in the collective and fearful American mind. The media still gleefully over-reports school shootings to include suicides, incidents before school, accidental discharges and even BB gun injuries in order to highlight our need to panic over issues like gun control and mental health.

The question for police leaders is whether to ignore the reality of good citizen intervention or to pro-actively acknowledge it. The tired advice of “Don’t get involved, just call 911” does not apply when heroic men and women see an opportunity to save lives. Maybe we ought to embrace, encourage and even train our good citizens on ways they can intervene. The run away and hide strategy chokes some among us. And who knows what affect this indoctrination of passivity has on the thought process of a killer bent on mass injury and panic? We might have unknowingly emboldened those with that twisted mindset.

Conversely, one could argue that ensuring every shooter will be engaged and killed could increase the number of suicidal killers. There were no escapes by perpetrators in the 50 events chronicled in this report. Thirteen killers died by self-inflicted shots, 11 were killed by police and the rest were apprehended.

Shooting and escaping never works and is seldom the shooter’s expectation. But in the moral balance, a victim-precipitated suicide by civilian or cop beats a higher body count every time.

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