De-Railing the Active Shooter

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How teachers and civilians can prepare for close quarters violence.

by Chris Milburn

A gunman was overtaken on a Paris-bound train this week after being thwarted by alert passengers. Originally reported to be US Marines, the AP is now reporting that the three American men, aided by a British man, were a college student, an Oregon National Guardsman, and a US Airman. These four immediately intervened when they realized the shooter was intent on mass murder in their railcar.

According to the FBI’s unclassified report from 2013, active shooter incidents show a continuous trend of occurring more and more frequently within the US. The report also indicates that in some cases (about 13%), immediate intervention by unarmed bystanders succeeded in ending the violence. An additional 5% of incidents were terminated by armed bystanders.

The FBI has developed the Run, Hide, Fight model for immediate response to these types of mass violence. The idea of running first, hiding next, and fighting when necessary, is an appropriate and useful model for immediate response to a shooter. But the stakes instantly change when the shooter selects a more confined environment — such as a train, an auditorium, or a classroom.

Limited exits are a reality of many public spaces. Even when exits are available, the possibility of getting innocent civilians through the exit is often unlikely in the face of gunfire. In these scenarios, running and hiding are not always an option. This leaves us with the option of fighting — intervening as a last ditch effort to save whoever we can in the crowd.

Fighting the assailant is the most dangerous of these options; but when faced with a shooter, the odds are already bleak. Shooters are typically prepared to inflict mass casualties, and they are armed to do so. There are no guarantees. But the willingness to intervene may be the factor in some innocent lives being spared, and that may be all that is possible in that moment. From close quarters experience and supported by the example of the three American men on the Paris train and, we have developed the Chase, Challenge, Choke model of fighting a gunman. When all else fails, fight for your life.


Chase the shooter. In order to fight, you need to be within arm’s reach; this means physically confronting him, and usually requires a bold move toward the assailant. This is obviously a vulnerable position, and may be the most dangerous time in the incident as you are distinguishing yourself as a target. But rapidly moving toward the gunman may distract and disorient him. Shooters may be confused when people in the crowd break away and move toward them, and they are often not skilled in either warfare or fighting. Chasing the shooter provides a few extra seconds for others to find safe cover and, at best, places you in close proximity for the next step.


Challenge the shooter. Once within arm’s reach, work to disarm and disrupt the shooter. Use anything and everything you can find to challenge his ability to fire at his victims. Hit him with whatever you can find. Push the barrel of the gun out of the way. Grab any other weapons he may have. This is a matter of life and death, and may result in your own grave injury; but any action that distracts him from murdering the others will make a difference. With everything you have, challenge his ability to carry out his massacre by physically fighting to get the upper hand.


Finally, go for the throat. Do everything within your power to choke him, and do not stop until he is completely unconscious. Use your hands (if you’re in front) or your arms (if you’re behind), but do not stop until he falls to the ground. If you have made it this far, clear him of all his weapons and call for help. Remember, arriving law enforcement does not yet know who is safe or not. Comply with everything they demand until they can understand the situation.

Chase, Challenge, and Choke — these actions are not foolproof. You are relying on your ability to confuse and distract the shooter to allow the slight chance that someone else may live. These are the desperate, last ditch attempts to save the others when no safe shelter or escape is possible. They are likely to get you killed. But once the shooting has started, and no other actions are possible, these may save the lives of some of those around you. Like the Brit, the student, the guardsman, and the airman on the train, your actions just may save everybody else.

Chris Milburn is a graduate student in Security Studies at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

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