The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) offers a wealth of materials on Ready.gov to assist Americans in preparing for—and responding to—various kinds of emergencies. Among them is guidance for dealing with an active shooter situation: “RUN, HIDE, FIGHT.” If you ever find yourself in the middle of a shooting, DHS advises that you should “RUN and escape, if possible,” “HIDE, if escape is not possible,” and “FIGHT as an absolute last resort.”
It’s not bad advice. It’s punchy, much like the unforgettable guidance that we “STOP, DROP, and ROLL” if we ever find ourselves on fire. It is practical and smart. If you learn the details of DHS’s guidance and marry it to the punchy slogan, and then you remember and follow that guidance in an emergency, you will probably survive. But it is worth remembering that our government does not have a great track record in its guidance for dealing with rare and high-profile crimes. Advice that seems perfectly sane and rational can sometimes be harmful in situations that are by nature insane and irrational.
Before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, federal Hijacking Survival Guidelines said, “Do not challenge the hijackers physically or verbally. Comply with their instructions. Do not struggle or try to escape unless you are absolutely certain of success.” It seemed like good advice at the time. And that’s exactly what the passengers on American Flight 11, United Flight 175, and American Flight 77 did. It’s what I almost certainly would have done too. And, with twenty-twenty hindsight, we now know it was the wrong thing to do.
The passengers of United Flight 93, having learned what happened on the other flights, rewrote the playbook. They gathered their forces, attacked the hijackers, and probably saved many hundreds of lives . . . sadly at the cost of their own. Because of them, nobody will ever again successfully hijack an American airliner. The passengers and crew won’t let them. And the assurance of facing a unified and overwhelming violent response from a planeload of angry Americans is probably why nobody in the last seventeen years has tried. The men and women of Flight 93 made airline hijacking obsolete.
It’s time that we make mass shootings obsolete too. And we can do it by applying the lessons of Flight 93.
If you find yourself in an active shooter situation, gather every bit of manpower you can muster, gather every weapon or potential weapon you can find, and FIGHT. Fight like your life, and the lives of others, depend on it. And don’t stop until the threat is eliminated or you can’t fight anymore.
DHS need only shorten their existing guidance and focus-in on the last and most important part: “Your last resort when you are in immediate danger is to defend yourself. Commit to your actions and act aggressively to stop the shooter. Ambushing the shooter together with makeshift weapons such as chairs, fire extinguishers, scissors, and books can distract and disarm the shooter.” Just change that first sentence to make fighting back the first priority, not the last resort.
We are already moving, slowly but surely, in that direction; two notable incidents occurred just in the last month. When a student started shooting at Noblesville West Middle School in Noblesville, Indiana, science teacher Jason Seaman immediately rushed him, tackled him, and disabled him. One student was seriously injured, as was Seaman who was shot three times, but nobody was killed. And when another gunman opened fire at Louie’s Grill and Bar in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, shooting two patrons and injuring two others, two armed citizens returned fire and killed the attacker before he could kill or injure others.
Many of us will never know for sure how we will handle these kinds of situations unless we find ourselves in them. Running only on instinct, some people will freeze, some people will run or hide, and some people will attack and defend. No victim of a violent crime should be judged or condemned for what they did or did not do in that terrible moment. And no amount of government messaging will entirely change the variety of human responses . . . but it can help to nudge those responses in the right direction. Some people, in the moment, will not have a strong instinct either way, and will fall back on the instructions they have received from people in authority.
Today, that instruction is to run or hide, and then, only as a last resort, fight back. So that is what many people do. That’s part of the reason why, in so many of these shootings, the killer roams the building shooting and killing or injuring more, more, and more people until law enforcement officials finally arrive and put a stop to it. We need to change the message, and, hopefully, change the usual response. If you’re close enough to the shooter to attack them, then attack them. Use every tool at your disposal. If you have a gun, shoot back. If not, use pepper-spray or a pocket knife. If you are entirely unarmed, use a fire extinguisher or a chair or any other blunt object you can get your hands on. Rally others to help you. Mob the shooter with immediate and overwhelming force. Put a stop to the killing.
Some of those who attack the shooter may be shot themselves, that is true. They may be shot if they run or hide too. The passengers of Flight 93 taught us that it is better to go down fighting—trying to save lives even at the cost of our own—than to sit passively and let killers kill unopposed.
“RUN, HIDE, FIGHT” does not work. There is no evidence that it save lives, and it certainly does nothing to discourage these rampages in our schools, malls, homes, and churches. We need to decide, collectively and with the support of our local, state, and federal governments, that every mass shooter from this moment on will be attacked, disabled, and killed if necessary in the first moments after they pull the trigger. And that will do more than anything else to make mass shootings—like airline hijackings before them—obsolete.