What Should You Do if You’re Threatened by a Mass Murderer?

You need to understand that if you’re threatened by a killer, you’re on your own, and you must take initiative to protect yourself.
September 4, 2013 • Commentary
This article appeared in Forbes​.com on September 4, 2013.

Calling 911 isn’t enough.

On July 23, 2007, two men invaded the Cheshire, Connecticut home of Dr. William Petit Jr., his wife Jennifer Hawke‐​Petit and their daughters 11‐​year‐​old Michaela and 17 year‐​old Hayley. There wasn’t a gun in the house that could have been used to ward off the attackers. They savagely beat Dr. Petit and then left him to focus on the others. He managed to call 911. The attackers tied the girls to their beds. Jennifer was raped and strangled, the girls were sexually abused, then the place was doused with gasoline and torched.

Incredibly, police who arrived at the scene didn’t go straight into the house. They were said to have stood around outside for about 25 minutes, and there were off‐​the‐​record reports of screams from the house during that time. After having committed three murders, the men tried to escape, and police caught them outside.

Dr. Pettit wanted to know why the police didn’t try to stop the killing, but evidently neither Town Manager Michael Milone, nor Police Chief Michael Cruess (when the crime occurred) nor the present Police Chief Neil Dryfe had any comments. According to the Hartford Courant, the police department didn’t review their handling of this case. Town officials similarly declined to answer questions from David Heilbroner and Kate Davis, who produced The Cheshire Murders, a documentary that HBO aired in July. The Associated Press reported, “Connecticut Cops Still Mum On ’07 Home Invasion Response.”

SWAT team and posse too slow

This could have been a matter of incompetence or cowardice. It could also have been a matter of obsolete police procedure. Officers might have been ordered not to do anything until a police supervisor arrived. Or they might have been ordered to wait until a SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) team was on the scene.

Until the mid‐​1960s, police work was generally handled by patrolmen. Then came a succession of difficult challenges, like the Watts riots (Los Angeles, 1965), barricaded gunmen, hostage situations and snipers. For example, on August 1, 1966, a sniper climbed to the top of the Texas Bell Tower at the University of Texas and killed 15 people, wounding 31 others.

These challenges led to the formation of specialized tactical forces — SWAT teams. Their policy has been to proceed slowly and deliberately. In any case, it was hard to move fast, since a SWAT team involved assembling men, advanced weapons and tactical equipment.

The April 20, 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, Littleton, Colorado was a wake‐​up call. Apparently two disgruntled seniors wanted to do copycat killings that would rival the Oklahoma City bombing (April 19, 1995). Undoubtedly one consideration was that a school was a gun‐​free zone where attackers could anticipate little, if any, resistance. The idea of these seniors was to detonate two bombs in the cafeteria, driving people out of the building and into a hail of gunfire. The bombs didn’t go off, so the duo went inside and began to shoot randomly. They found the largest concentration of students in the library, cowering helplessly under desks, and that’s where the killers seem to have spent most of their time. Altogether, 13 people were murdered, and another 24 were wounded. This was the most deadly attack at an American high school.

Some police who arrived at the scene reportedly entered the building but backed off when they saw the bombs. There was a decision for officers to stay outside until a bomb squad or SWAT team arrived. It isn’t known if a bomb squad ever showed up. There was a SWAT team, but it was too slow to do victims any good. The shooting began about 11:19 AM, and it ended around 12:08 PM when the killers were believed to have committed suicide. Incredibly, a SWAT team didn’t enter the building until about 1:09 PM — about an hour after the massacre ended! See a shocking timeline for yourself.

All the officers gathered outside did nothing to stop the slaughter inside. The more time passed, the more people were killed. This must rank among the worst episodes in the history of American law enforcement.

If you wish to check out the police response to mass murders discussed in this article, or any other cases that might interest you, try to find a timeline and note: (1) the time when killing began, (2) the time when the first 911 call was made, (3) the time when police arrived at the scene, (4) the time when police entered the building and (5) the time when they reached or stopped the killer (who in many cases commits suicide). (1), (2) and (3) are commonly mentioned in press reports. (4) and (5) can be a problem, commonly omitted from press reports.

The point in this article isn’t to criticize police. The point is you need to understand that if you’re threatened by a killer, you’re on your own, and you must take initiative to protect yourself. There’s a high probability that police cannot stop the killer in time to save you.

The Columbine experience made many observers realize that the more quickly police intervened, the more lives might be saved. Consequently, it was better to intervene sooner, even though that meant going in with fewer officers. Police departments across the country began training officers to form small groups — commonly four officers — with whomever the early arrivals turn out to be. This is sometimes referred to as the “posse theory.” With greater recognition that faster intervention means saving more lives, the small‐​group strategy was refined. Especially in large, compartmentalized facilities like a school, often with much sound‐​proofing, it’s hard to tell where gunshots might be coming from unless the killer is nearby, so the strategy was to have small groups enter a building and split up, enabling the officers to explore more corridors, rooms, stairways and other parts of a building faster.

The posse theory, however, was never universally adopted, and in any case it, too, involved having officers wait around until there were enough to proceed.

On April 3, 2009 — almost a decade after Columbine — there was another wake‐​up call: a mass killing at the American Civic Association immigration center, Binghamton, New York, and it was déjà vu all over again. Around 10:30 AM, a man barricaded the rear entrance of the building with a car, so nobody could escape, then went to the front entrance, walked into the building and began shooting. Somebody called 911 right away. The gunman entered a classroom and shot everyone. He fired 88 rounds with a 9mm Beretta and 11 more rounds with a .45 caliber Beretta. Altogether 13 people were killed — the same death toll as at Columbine — and four were wounded. The killer committed suicide.

Police, who had arrived about 10:33 AM, three minutes after they had been dispatched, remained outside the building. They didn’t try to stop the killing inside. As at Columbine, they waited for a SWAT team. It entered the building at 11:13 AM, approximately a half‐​hour after the last victim had been shot and 43 minutes after the first 911 call — far too late to do the victims any good.

There continue to be cases where officers arrive at a scene quickly, then wait around outside while killing goes on inside. Don Alwes, a tactical trainer, noted on PoliceOne​.com, “As I go around the country teaching, I encounter many departments still instructing officers to wait until 4 or 6 officers are present before making entry.”

Which makes it more likely that officers would be too late to save you.

The most critical minutes

In an effort to help save more lives, Ron Borsch, manager and lead trainer at the South East Area Law Enforcement (SEALE) Training Academy, Bedford, Ohio, began analyzing past experience. He identified approximately 150 cases of what he called rapid mass murder attempts in the U.S. since 1975. He defined this to mean more than four people murdered in 20 minutes at the same place.

“Of the pre‐​Columbine rapid mass murders,” he explained, “the average killing time was 11 minutes, (ranging from 2 examples of 4 minutes, to one example of 20 minutes). Among the known times of post‐​Columbine rapid mass murders, the average time was down to 8 minutes. Now the average killing time is only about 6 minutes.”

In many cases, Borsch pointed out, rapid mass murders are over in less time. At Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut, the killing time was 5 or 6 minutes.

A problem is that the first 911 call tends to come in about 6 minutes after a killer has started shooting.

Then officers have to be dispatched, arrive at a location, enter a building, find the killer and stop him.

The odds are that an officer won’t be able to stop much if any killing.

Nonetheless, it’s an officer’s sworn duty to try. Borsch strongly believes that the first officer who arrives at a location should go straight into a building and begin searching for the killer. He should jog through hallways and spend no more than 5 seconds scanning any suspicious room or other placelock along the way.

A rapid mass murderer almost always acts alone, so a solo officer is unlikely to be outnumbered. In addition, a solo officer has had far more training and more time on a shooting range than a killer. Reinforcements are coming for a solo officer, but nobody’s coming to help a killer. At least a third of the time, the sounds of approaching police lead a killer to commit suicide. The sooner that happens, the better, since it could mean fewer people killed.

For example, a 45‐​year‐​old man burst into the Pinelake Health & Rehab facility, Carthage, North Carolina, and began looking for victims. Within a few minutes, he killed eight people. He was stopped only because a 911 call was placed right away, police officer Justin Garner happened to be nearby, he immediately entered the premises and began a search. The killer fired his shotgun, and pellets hit Garner in the legs and feet, but Garner disabled him with a pistol at 114 feet. Moore County District Attorney Maureen Krueger reported, “We had a well‐​trained officer who prevented this from getting even worse than it was.”

Revelations about rapid mass murder

Ron Borsch, with three decades of police experience, has reported many important findings about rapid mass murders. For instance:

  • Although the overall murder rate declined by about 50 percent since 1980, the annual number of rapid mass murders has nearly quadrupled since Columbine.
  • A rapid mass murderer’s apparent aim is to kill as many people as possible in a short period of time. Such killers are rarely interested in negotiation.
  • These killers tend to be cowards, because they generally favor gun‐​free zones where few, if any people, are likely to resist their attacks with force.
  • Most common targets: 41 percent of rapid mass murder attempts occur at educational facilities — 31 percent at K-12 schools, 10 percent at colleges and universities, so killers prefer facing little children rather than big guys.
  • By comparison, 7 percent of rapid mass murder attempts occur at offices, 6 percent at churches, 5 percent at eating places, 5 percent at malls, 4 percent at factories, 4 percent at government offices, 3 percent at hospitals, 2 percent at grocery stores, 2 percent at post offices and 1 percent at bars and night clubs.
  • 62 percent of rapid mass murder attempts are stopped by civilians on‐​site– not police based off‐​site.
  • 76 percent of successful civilian attempts to stop rapid mass murder are initiated by one individual.
  • About two‐​thirds of civilians who stop a rapid mass murder attempt are unarmed.
  • 38 percent of rapid mass murder attempts are stopped by police.
  • 73 percent of successful police attempts to stop rapid mass murder are initiated by one individual.

Incidentally, many people refer to the perpetrators as “active shooters,” but Borsch pointed out that the overwhelming majority of shooters are generally good, law‐​abiding people. Some do recreational shooting, and many are in law enforcement. Obviously, when there’s a killer on the loose, everyone wants a sharp shooter capable of stopping him. Borsch recommends the phrase “active killer.”

Also, Borsch noted that most rapid mass murderers seem to want notoriety. They don’t wear masks, hoods or do anything else to conceal their identity. They appear to relish sensational headlines about their exploits. Accordingly, Borsch supports the practice of ignoring their names when discussing their murders.

You’re on your own

In 2011, the New York City Police Department published Active Shooter, Recommendations And Analysis for Risk Mitigation, a report listing 279 cases that involve “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” Based on internet searches, the research covers cases in office buildings, schools, homes, churches, mosques, airports, factories, warehouses, restaurants, malls, medical facilities, nursing homes, neighborhood streets — on and on. It would be hard to think of a setting that’s totally secure.

There have been cases across the U.S. and overseas, in places with and without gun controls.

The report makes clear that we must always be aware of what’s going on around us, and we must take initiative to protect ourselves and our loved ones in unexpected circumstances.

The New York City Police Department report includes much basic information about rapid mass murderers, though it doesn’t indicate when a 911 call was made, when police arrived at a scene, entered a building and reached or stopped the killer.

J. Pete Blair, Terry Nichols, David Burns and John R. Curnutt, at the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University, published some related findings.

These researchers studied “active killer events “ as they call crimes where the aim is to maximize killing. They gathered data on all such cases in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010. They found that about half the time, killing ended before officers reached the killer.

The point of all this is to understand that even if you’re fortunate to live in a place with a great police department, and you’ve managed to call 911, you’re still substantially on your own during a killing time.

The December 14, 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut makes this dramatically clear. Officers didn’t enter the building until after the killer fired 154 shots, murdering 20 children and six adults.

One factor might have been the decision to take time forming three three‐​officer teams, rather than sending the first officer into the building and trying to save at least a few of the people threatened. Borsch derides as “tactical loitering” this practice of having officers stand around rather than going into a building immediately. Apparently none of the police fired a shot.

The 5 or 6‐​minute killing time suggests a compelling case to have trained, armed individuals on‐​site who can provide immediate resistance to a killer.

Gun control is no answer, since Connecticut already had strict gun control laws and special restrictions on assault weapons. Despite gun control laws, robbers, drug dealers, gang members and other criminals never seem to have much trouble obtaining guns. Governments can’t even keep illegal guns out of jails and prisons where government has more direct control over people than anywhere else.

Rapid mass murder is likely to go on as long as (1) there are easily accessible victims and (2) there’s no effective resistance.

It seems that the only credible solution is to have each school, business or other entity assume responsibility for maintaining its own security. The interest of such entities is different from the mission of a police department. Police respond to calls and go to crime scenes. They don’t have a budget big enough to protect everybody all the time. The surest way to gain comprehensive protection is to have trained, armed people already on‐​site.

Take initiative to survive

Survivors are most likely to be those who take initiative, try to protect themselves and fight if necessary. For years, we were told that when confronting an attacker, whether an urban mugger or a Nazi thug, the best advice was to be passive so as not to provoke the attacker, but plenty of experience has shown that such passivity makes it easier for killers to do whatever they want — not good for us.

In their survey of all rapid mass murder cases from 2000 to 2010, Blair, Nichols, Burns and Curnutt don’t attribute as many saves to self‐​help as Borsch, but they affirm that self‐​help is vital. They reported, “In 30 percent of the attacks stopped before police arrived, the victims took action to stop the shooter themselves either by physically subduing the attacker (81 percent) or by shooting him with their own personal weapon (19 percent). These data clearly show that it is possible to defend yourself successfully in these events even if you are unarmed.”

Blair, Nichols, Burns and Curnutt cite the Virginia Tech case that illustrates the importance of taking initiative to protect yourself. On April 16, 2007, a senior with a history of disturbing behavior went on two rampages at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg. The first was reported at 7:15 AM in West Ambler Johnston Hall, a dormitory — two dead. At 9:42, shooting was reported in Norris Hall, an engineering building. Police arrived in about three minutes, but the killer had chained all the entrances shut, so that nobody could escape. Breaking open an entrance took another five minutes. Apparently after hearing the police make their way through the building, the killer committed suicide. Altogether, 32 people were dead, and 17 more were wounded.

The Norris Hall shooting spree is of particular interest, because survival rates varied dramatically in the four second‐​floor classrooms. The doors didn’t have locks that would have helped turn those classrooms into safe rooms, so finding ways to prevent the killer from entering depended entirely on the initiative, resourcefulness and quickness of the people in each room.

  • “In room 206,” Blair, Nichols, Burns and Curnutt explained, “where the potential victims took no defensive actions other than freezing, 92 percent of the people were shot, and more than three‐​quarters of them died.”
  • In room 211, people couldn’t block the doorway, and the killer got in quickly. Everyone was shot, and two‐​thirds died.
  • In room 204, the door was blocked for a while before the killer got in. The delay enabled many people to escape through the windows before the killer was able to enter the room and start shooting. About 36 percent of the people were shot, and 14 percent were killed.
  • In room 205, people successfully blocked the doorway with a heavy teacher’s desk and kept the killer out. Nobody was hit — 100 percent survived.

Blair, Nichols, Burns and Curnutt concluded: “Those who took some form of defensive action at Virginia Tech fared much better than those who did not.” Freezing and playing dead didn’t work, since the killer walked back and forth, shooting at people lying on the floor, some of whom hadn’t been shot before.

Do’s and don’ts of escape — the best option

People are most likely to be killed if they’re trapped in an enclosed space, so the best option is to escape — if it’s possible.

It’s important to think through your preferred escape route and alternatives in case the preferred route is blocked.

The temptation might be to run, but that could be deadly if you’re wrong about the killer’s location, and you inadvertently run into him. Walking might be more prudent, since it would enable you to reverse direction fast.

Avoid trying to escape in an elevator (where you could be trapped) or on an escalator (where you would be exposed).

As the Virginia Tech made clear, one’s chances of surviving a drop from the second floor were much better than the odds of surviving in one of the classrooms.

How to drop from a second story window: (1) you need to keep your feet down, so you don’t land on your head, which could be fatal; so (2) carefully maneuver your way out of a window feet first, facing the building, and hang on to the bottom of the window frame; (3) when you let go, put your hands behind your head, to help protect your head and neck; (4) bend your knees and try to land on the balls of your feet; (5) push out with your legs when you hit the ground, as if you were jumping up; (6) try to roll forward, to reduce stress on your legs and spine — curl your body and pull in one shoulder to roll in that direction (depending on what’s below).

Don’t assume, though, that you’ll be safe once you’re outside — look for a place where you might find cover. More than one planned massacre involved indoor terror intended to drive people outside where killers were ready to open fire.

What you should know about hiding

It’s worthwhile thinking about how you might escape or where you might hide in the unlikely event a killer came to your school, workplace or other places you often go.

A good hiding place has a door with a solid lock. It’s an essential starting point for a safe room.

Even though movies often show somebody blasting a lock apart, a handgun is unlikely to do that.

Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters tested the ability of a 9mm handgun, a .357 magnum, a 12‐​gauge shotgun and an M-1 high‐​powered rifle to break apart standard padlocks and deadbolt locks. Testers fired three rounds through a hole in a large shooting shield at the front, side and center of each lock. The locks were battered and loosened up to various degrees, but they continued to hold, and the keys still worked.

The 12‐​gauge shotgun and M-1 rifle did succeed in breaking apart the locks, but the area was showered with shrapnel. Doing this in a small space like a hallway, without a shooting shield, would have been quite hazardous, probably incapacitating a shooter.

Okay, once you’re in a room, and the door is locked, you should pile as many large, heavy objects against the door as possible — desks, tables, chairs, book cases, anything available. The more difficult and time consuming it is for a killer to enter a room, the more likely he’ll go elsewhere. Also, all those things can help stop bullets.

After a door is heavily secured, turn off lights, silence cell phones, stay low and keep quiet.

A large room isn’t a good idea, especially if there are already a lot of people hiding there, because there’s no safety in numbers. Active killers go where they can find a large number of potential victims.

The closer a hiding place is to a window or outside door, the better.

You need to check out a number of possible hiding places, in case somebody else has locked one or more that you had identified.

It would be tragic if you ever desperately needed a good hiding place, and you didn’t know of one, or you hadn’t identified enough backups, even though you had been going to this school, office or other facility for years.

What if you’re face‐​to‐​face with a killer?

There are a wide range of situations. When one person acts immediately as an opportunity arises, usually others will get the idea and join in. For instance:

  • In a crowded supermarket parking lot, a 22‐​year‐​old man shot U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others as she held an outdoor constituent meeting. Six people died. The killer used a 9mm Glock 19 semi‐​automatic pistol. When he was hastily reloading, he dropped the magazine. Patricia Maisch, standing just a few feet away, grabbed it. Someone behind the killer hit him on the head with a folding chair. Then he was tackled and brought to the ground by Bill Badger, a 74‐​year‐​old retired U.S. Army colonel. Patricia Maisch, together with bystanders Roger Sulzgeber and Joseph Zamudo, reportedly helped subdue the killer until police could take him away.
  • A 58‐​year‐​old disgruntled maintenance worker broke into a meeting of the Kanawha County Board of Education, Charleston, West Virginia. He wounded one person with an AK-47 and doused two others with gasoline but was unable to set them afire, because three people nearby were quick to pull his gun away and subdue him.
  • A 16‐​year‐​old boy brought a Winchester 12‐​gauge pump‐​action sporting gun to Columbia High School in East Greenbush, New York. He began shooting randomly, but almost immediately assistant principal John Sawchuck managed jump on him from behind, and the gun went off as they hit the ground. Special‐​ed teacher Michael Bennett was wounded as he came to help. Because of Sawchuck’s decisive action, there were no other casualties.
  • A 15‐​year‐​old boy brought a shotgun and a .22 caliber pistol to school, intending to avenge grievances with the principal, teachers and students. When he aimed the shotgun at a social studies teacher, custodian Dave Thompson managed to grab it from him. The boy reached for the pistol and shot the principal who managed to tackle him and knock the gun away. Others helped hold him for the police, preventing any more shooting, but the principal subsequently died.
  • A 36‐​year‐​old school bus driver brought a handgun to the Laidlaw Transit Services bus yard and opened fire on her co‐​workers. One of them was killed, and three more were wounded. Gregory Alan Lee, another Laidlaw employee, was close enough to grab the killer until the police showed up. San Jose sergeant Steve Dixon remarked, “He saved a lot of lives.”
  • A man, 58, with a 12‐​gauge shotgun, broke into a Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee during a children’s performance of Annie. He aimed toward the front of the church, killing two and wounding seven others. Jamie Parkey charged him, and several more church members helped subdue the killer.
  • A 69‐​year‐​old man with a .32 caliber pistol planned a massacre of residents at the Kkottongnae Retreat Camp, a Korean Catholic community where he worked as a handyman nearTemecula, California. He wounded a man and killed his wife living in one bungalow, but apparently the shots alerted the couple in the next bungalow. They fought him with their fists, furniture, a dumbell and whatever else happened to be available. The killer was knocked out and taken into custody.
  • A 53‐​year‐​old disgruntled former employee of Grady Crawford Construction Company, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, used a handgun to kill two people and wound a third person there before he was brought to the ground by four other employees. One of them, a foreman, put his finger between the killer’s finger and the trigger guard, preventing the killer from getting off more shots.
  • A 32‐​year‐​old man with a .30–06 hunting rifle shot two students outside Deer Creek Middle School, Littleton, Colorado — only about three miles from Columbine High School. While he was reloading, seventh grade math teacher and track team coach David Benke tackled him and held him until police arrived. Both of the victims survived.
  • A 41‐​year‐​old man with a .357 magnum pistol started firing randomly at a playground where children were playing, outside Kelly Elementary School in Carlsbad, California. Then he went back to his car and tried to get away. But construction worker Carlos Partida dashed to his truck and followed, eventually hitting and stopping the assailant’s car. Partida and several other construction workers piled onto the assailant until the police arrived.
  • At Las Vegas’ New York, New York casino, Justin Lampert thought the popping sounds were coming from a game. Then he saw people screaming and running past him. Behind them, he noticed a shabby‐​looking bearded man about 20 yards from where he stood. The man, 51, stopped to reload a 9mm pistol. Lampert took off for him and wrestled him to the ground. It turned out that four people had been wounded. The situation could have been much worse. Lampert was an Iraq war veteran and a staff sergeant in the North Dakota National Guard. His brave save accomplished its mission in less than 30 seconds.

Armed civilians and off‐​duty cops stop killers

The fastest way to stop a killer is to have somebody on‐​premises who’s armed, whether a security guard, an off‐​duty police officer or a civilian with a permit. For example:

  • Two men broke into a College Park, Georgia student apartment. They separated the men and women, demanded wallets, planned to rape the women, and since the intruders counted their bullets, they seemed ready to kill everyone. Fortunately, one of the male students pulled a gun out of his backpack and began shooting. One intruder was killed, and the other fled.
  • A 16‐​year‐​old gunman with a Marlin 336 .30–30 caliber rifle broke into Pearl High School, Pearl, Mississippi. He killed two students and wounded seven others. Then he left the school and walked toward an elementary school across the street, presumably for more mayhem. Assistant principal Joel Myrick ran outside to his truck and grabbed his .45‐​caliber semi‐​automatic pistol. He intercepted the killer and detained him until police arrived.
  • A 30‐​year‐​old man with a pistol entered the Players Bar & Grill, Winnemucca, Nevada. He fired, reloaded and fired again, killing one and wounding another. Reportedly this had to do with a dispute between two families. The attacker was killed by a man from Reno who had a concealed carry license for his handgun.
  • A 14‐​year‐​old boy killed a teacher and wounded three others at a Parker Middle School dinner‐​dance in Edinboro, Pennsylvania. James Strand, who owned the banquet hall where the dinner‐​dance took place, got his shotgun and used it to detain the killer for the police.
  • A 24‐​year‐​old man started shooting his pistol at the Youth With A Mission training center, Arvada, Colorado. He killed two people and wounded two others. He left and later opened fire at the New Life Church, Colorado Springs, killing two more people, wounding another two. But former Minneapolis police officer Jeanne Assam shot back, hitting him several times, and he subsequently committed suicide.
  • A 79‐​year‐​old man entered a store in New York Mills, New York and began firing a .357 Magnum at employees. One was wounded. Probably somebody would have been killed if off duty police officer Donald J. Moore hadn’t been in the store at the time. He stopped the assailant with his .40 caliber handgun.
  • A 43‐​year‐​old man entered the Appalachian School of Law, Grundy, Virginia and opened fire on administrators with a .380 ACP semi‐​automatic handgun. It isn’t entirely clear what happened next, but he seems to have been subdued by one student, Ted Besen, while two other students, Tracy Bridges and Mikael Gross, retrieved guns from their cars and helped detain the killer for police.

NOTE: An armed civilian who stops a killer must be extremely cautious when police officers arrive, because they know little, if anything, about what happened. They don’t know who the good guys and bad guys are.

If they see a civilian with a gun in a place where there has been shooting, they might well assume that person is the killer and start shooting.

The best advice is to drop your gun and open your hands to show you don’t have anything.

Don’t make any sudden movements.

You might be handcuffed until you have had an opportunity to explain, because the police will be preoccupied trying to determine how many killers there are and who needs medical attention.

Talk a prospective killer out of it?

Although active killers rarely negotiate, since their goal is a maximum body count for notoriety, occasionally a confident, resourceful, compassionate individual is able to engage a killer and persuade him to not to do terrible things. It might be worth trying before shooting begins.

You probably heard about the quiet heroism of a Georgia school bookkeeper. In case you didn’t: on August 20, 2013, a man dressed in black followed a student with a pass into the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy near Atlanta. The man, armed with a semi‐​automatic weapon, stopped in the office where he encountered Antoinette Tuff. He told her to call the police and warn them to stay out of the building. She did that, and while she talked with the dispatcher, the man went into the hallway and fired some shots.

The man returned to Tuff, and she relayed the message to him that no police would come into the building. Then she started a sympathetic conversation with him, captured on the 24‐​minute 911 recording that has some incredible moments amidst periods of silence when Tuff put the dispatcher on hold.

Apparently Tuff didn’t display any fear. She took the initiative to share some of her personal struggles. “I tried to commit suicide last year,” she explained. “My husband left me after 33 years.” She added, “I’ve got a son who’s multiple‐​disabled. “

He said he had nothing to live for, and she replied, “Look at me now. I’m working, and everything is OK.”

She went on to say that she had stumbled but picked herself up, and he could pick himself up, too. She offered to walk with him out of the building, so that nobody would hurt him. He agreed to give her his gun, and she put it on the other side of the office. As directed, he emptied his pockets and lay on the floor with his hands behind his back, awaiting the police.

“Nobody’s going to hate you,” she said. “You didn’t hurt anybody. It’s going to be all right, sweetie. I just want you to know I love you, OK? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing you’re giving up. Don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life.”

Later, after the man was in police custody, Tuff said, “I’ve never been so scared in all the days of my life.”

As these cases suggest, there are times when you must have your wits about you to survive.

Even in the most difficult circumstances, though, there are probably more ways than you might imagine to protect your life and your liberty.

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