Active Shooter: James Holmes, the Aurora Theater Shooting, and How to Survive

“Active shooter.”  It’s a cold term, divorced from emotional context. For more than fifty wounded and a dozen or more dead and dying in Aurora, Colorado, it became a horrific reality minutes after midnight on 20 July, 2012.  A young man identified in news reports as James Holmes, dressed in tactical gear and carrying multiple weapons, threw a smoke or gas bomb into a crowded theater in which The Dark Knight Rises was playing.  For reasons not yet clear (but which probably hinge on the shooter being a deranged psychopath), the attacker proceeded to slaughter moviegoers at random.

The massacre drew intense media scrutiny, as is to be expected.  The shortest interval of time yet measured by science is that between a mass shooting and liberal Democrat calls for civilian firearms confiscation (“gun control”).  No less a political figure than President Obama traveled to Colorado to make a show of addressing the tragedy; the irony of Obama’s involvement was missed by most who reported this.  Given his apparent complicity in murders stemming from the failed “Fast and Furious” scheme, in which guns were “walked” to Mexican drug cartels (allegedly to foment support for gun control in the United States), it is hard to see Obama’s appearance in Colorado as anything but naked exploitation of the killings. These political issues, however, pale in comparison to the greater issue James Holmes represents.

The Real Problem of the Active Shooter

An active shooter, a madman who enters a public place and begins murdering strangers, immediately forces us to ask ourselves, “What do I do?”  If it happens to you, how will you cope?  If is your family in danger, how will you protect them?

Some of the Monday-morning-quarterbacking invariably turned to this… and to Colorado’s very reasonable “gun control” laws.  In other words, it’s legal to get and carry a handgun in Colorado.  This begged the questions: Were any of the patrons in the Aurora theater armed?  If so, why didn’t they shoot back?

The question only seems worth asking if you fail to consider the scenario… and if you know nothing about using a firearm under stress.  Picture this:  You are sitting in a darkened theater, the floor of which is on an incline.  You are watching an action movie replete with explosions and gunshots.  The theater is deafening, as modern films so often are.  The first sign you get that there is any trouble is a cloud of gas, possibly noxious, definitely visually impairing.

When the shooting starts, the audience panics.  They rise from their seats. They scream.  They run mindlessly.  People begin to fall, spraying blood.  Perhaps they’re right next to you.  Maybe you see someone die before your very eyes.  In that situation, in the dark, with your target at an angle separated from you by a pall of smoke and a roiling, screaming crowd, do you honestly think you would have a shot?  Would you dare take one, even IF you could identify the gunman in the chaos?

Even more importantly, your brain will never be LESS engaged for self-defense than when you are watching a movie.  When you are in “recreation mode,” it’s very easy to get caught mentally and emotionally flat-footed.  You are expecting to have a good time; guns and knives and aggression are the furthest thing from your thoughts.  While out with your family you might fail to react with appropriate assertiveness, at least in the moment, to an unexpected verbal insult, much less the sudden appearance of imminent death.

Now do you think you would take that shot… or even know that you had it?

There’s more bad news: You have to deal with the danger.  You have no choice.  While the chances you could be confronted by an active shooter are low, they ARE real.  It IS possible.  Hope is not a survival strategy.  Wishful thinking is not problem solving.  You must learn and apply the basic principles of surviving an active shooting if you and your family are to continue living your lives.

Surviving an Active Shooting

Your first priority in an active shooting is to identify the problem… or that a problem exists.  Your second is to protect your dependents.  Your third is to neutralize or escape the shooter, in that order of priority as circumstances allow.  It is that simple in theory.  In practice, it’s more complicated.

Identify the Problem

The odds are that if you are caught in an active shooter scenario, your first sign that trouble exists will be gunfire or explosions.  You likely will not see or notice the killer beforehand.  What you must do when you are in public, therefore, is resist the urge to become mentally complacent.

Always be aware of your surroundings.  Don’t wander blithely through a public space without noticing who is nearby.  This does not mean to spend your days in a flop-sweating state of perpetual paranoia.  Rather, simply be awake, mindful of what is taking place in your vicinity.

When you do see or hear something that seems unusual, obey your instincts.  Trust your gut, no matter how trite or tired the phrase.  Keep your eyes on those who seem out of place, or whose behavior strikes you as odd or “creepy.”  Be especially aware of people who are dressed inappropriately, such as those wearing long, concealing outer garments when the weather or the venue makes these garments seem strange.

A lot of people refuse to obey their instincts, when something bothers them or “weirds them out,” because they’re afraid of looking silly, being perceived as rude, or otherwise appearing foolish.  For example, a woman might not jump out of an elevator when a man who gives off a scary “vibe” gets into the elevator with her.  This is because she doesn’t want to appear rude or, if he is a different ethnicity, racist.  But obeying that instinct and looking silly or appearing rude could save her life or prevent her from being raped.  The same is true of missing the end of a movie, or leaving a party, because you think there are people present who might be dangerous.  Which would you rather do — feel foolish or be inconvenienced, or get hurt or killed?

If you see something, don’t wait; alert others, including authorities, to the possible issue.  If you don’t see anything, at least have the presence of mind — when all hell breaks loose — to acknowledge that, yes, something bad could be occurring, and that, YES, the time to take action is NOW.  That necessity to act will carry you through the next priority, which is protecting dependents.

Protect Your Dependents

Could you live in a world in which you lived and your son, your daughter, or your spouse was killed as you escaped?  Of course you couldn’t.  Nobody could.  If you have family, a spouse, or other loved ones with you, you will naturally protect them. When the shooting or the explosions start, herd your loved ones to the nearest exit, shielding them with your body.  Move forcefully and with determination.  Do not stop.  If you can accomplish this without confronting the shooter, do so, for you owe it to your dependents to go on living if you can.

It may not be possible to escape without confronting the shooter, however… even if you have no dependents to protect.

Escape or Neutralize the Shooter

Beyond the distance you can cover in a single rush — the distance across the average living room — running will only make you a target.  At such close ranges you must rush the shooter and attempt to overwhelm him.  Use whatever objects are at hand to hurl at him; dodge behind whatever cover or concealment exists to foul his shots; act as ferociously as you can, with as much bloodthirsty rage as you can muster.  You must become a monster, a screaming ball of hate, whose only object is to claw and tear down and smash the subhuman creature who threatens your family and your life.

In every instance in which an active shooter has been brought down by others, it has occurred because the citizens took the fight to the killer, while he was changing magazines, while his weapon was jammed, or simply because those citizens knew the alternative to likely death was certain death.  This is why it is much harder to hijack an airplane now, after September 11th, 2001:  Passengers know they will be killed unless they resist, so they have nothing to lose — and their lives to gain — by fighting back.

If you are armed and you can use your weapon without hurting an innocent bystander, do so.  If you can’t get a shot, if you can’t identify the threat, then concentrate on escape.  Above all, know that you are first responsible to your own dependents, and then, when they are safe, call the police.

The Realities of Escape

Active shooters are not dispassionate.  Shooting people is hard.  A person who runs, dodges, ducks, and throws things is hard to hit.  It’s a fact that people who run for their lives are far more likely to get clear of the shooting than people who hide and wait to be found.  When fleeing, if you can ALSO throw objects, duck behind cover, and otherwise make things harder for the shooter, so much the better.

This means, too, that you may have to ignore a lockdown.  In a mass shooting situation, or in any emergency, authorities tend to prefer keeping people in place.  This reduces variables and makes the situation easier to control for them… but it may also make you an easier target.  Just as those who ignored instructions to remain within the World Trade Center towers saved their lives by escaping the building, it could be that disobeying a lockdown enables you to escape an active shooter before he can pin you down and take you out.

But How?

You cannot learn the specifics of how to fight an active shooter, how to increase your odds of survival, from this article.  You can only learn the philosophy, the strategy, of your response.  The specifics — how to use weapons, how to employ physical combatives, the mindset of survival and preparedness — can only be developed through training and education.  Reading sites like The Martialist is one way to educate yourself.  Studying practical combatives, training in shooting, learning reality-based self-defense, covers most of the rest.  For you to distill any of this into an increased chance of survival requires first a commitment to martialism.  This means you must decide to train and prepare to protect your family and, when possible, your fellow citizens.

This decision is yours.  You can take responsibility for yourself and your loved ones in a dangerous world, or you can stumble forward blindly, hoping that nothing bad ever happens in your proximity.  That choice is no choice at all.

Be ready.


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3 thoughts on “Active Shooter: James Holmes, the Aurora Theater Shooting, and How to Survive

  1. I can hardly believe that no one in the theater was armed that day. Not a single Sheepdog in the crowd.Its a terrible shame that we have to live this way, but lets not put our heads in the dirt and pretent it doesnt happen. Nine children were shot in an Amish schoolhoude near me. Where is it safe? If you can tell me that, Your crystalball is better than mine. Stay alert and prepared. Respectfully, Bob

  2. “…those citizens knew the alternative to likely death was certain death.”
    Great phrase!
    Always take the gamble of possible survival against certain termination.

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