In my Introduction to Sociology class we usually read an excerpt from the late, great Peter Berger’s book, Invitation to Sociology. I literally do a call and response with the students to highlight Berger’s fundamental view of the sociological perspective.
Me (quoting Berger): “It can be said that the first wisdom of sociology is this–“
Students (responding, quoting Berger): “things are not what they seem.”
Things are not what they seem. For this reason, I am naturally skeptical of any simple answers to complex questions like how to address active shooter situations.
Especially when I cannot formulate them myself, I like complex answers to these questions by people who bring professional expertise in risk management to the table. People like A.C. Haskins, whose work on guns and risk I have re-posted before.
Below please find Haskins’s thoughts on active shooters and risk management, posted with permission and my appreciation.
On Active Shooters and Risk Management
By A.C Haskins
In my day job, I work with leaders in high risk industries to figure out how and why their systems and processes are going wrong and leading to negative outcomes, and how they can redesign said systems and processes to fix those identified problems. We consult in health care (patient safety, quality, and risk management), in transportation (accident avoidance, maintenance quality control), in gas and electric (employee safety, system reliability), in manufacturing (workplace safety, process improvement), and more. The reason we can work with such a wide variety of industries is that our reliability and risk management principles aren’t specific to any process or procedure, or even any desired outcome, but are universal concepts that can be applied to any problem, to help avoid any negative outcome of concern. In fact, one of my colleagues has demonstrated this universality to clients by building a model oriented around preventing the “negative outcome” of his son’s dog scratching his hardwood floors.
If you model the problem as a line, beginning with the initiating action and ending with the negative outcome, there are essentially three potential places you can attempt to intervene. First, you can try to prevent the initiating action itself. Second, you can try to put defenses in place between the initiating action and the negative outcome, so that even if the initiating action occurs it doesn’t cause a negative outcome. And third, you can accept that, despite your best efforts, sometimes the negative outcome will occur, and you can seek to mitigate the harm it causes. The best, most reliable systems will seek to do all three: they will include precursor strategies to reduce the likelihood of the initiating action, layered defensive strategies to stop or catch the initiating action before it can result in harm, and mitigation strategies to reduce the harm when a negative outcome does slip through the cracks. But in general terms, those are the three options available.
This morning, I had a discussion with an old friend on the topic of school shootings and other mass killer events, and it got me thinking of problem solving in the terms of these risk management principles. There are three types of strategies to solve the problem of active killer attacks.
First, we can seek to prevent people from attempting such attacks in the first place. This, presumably, is the goal of gun control legislation, under the belief that if only we could control access to firearms better, people wouldn’t have the opportunity to conduct such attacks. The problem is that there’s no evidence that’s true–the UK and Australia have still experienced multiple mass killer attacks despite outright gun bans, and France and Belgium have had multiple mass killer attacks despite relatively strict gun control compared to the US. Committed attackers will still conduct such attacks even without guns–the Nice attacker used a truck, as did the recent New York City attacker; Chinese and British terrorists have killed dozens with knives; attackers in Belgium and Boston and France and elsewhere have used homemade explosives and other improvised weapons. If someone is committed to attacking, gun control does not stop them, it merely disarms those who might stand as a defense between them and their intended victims. But the point of this post isn’t to argue against gun control, so let’s move on. Other, perhaps more viable (and perhaps not) strategies to reduce the likelihood of an attack include efforts to reduce the root causes of such violence through early identification and intervention: mental health reform, outreach efforts to disaffected youth and immigrants, etc. But no matter how good such efforts may be, they will never stop someone like the asshole in Las Vegas who had no identifiable motive and was clearly committed to his efforts–given his level of planning, if it weren’t a gun, he was just as likely to use something else.
Second, because there is no way to prevent ALL such attacks, the next strategy is to put defenses in place between the attacker and his intended victims. This may be early efforts to catch them in the planning stages (such as the multiple school shootings which have been foiled pre-attack by alert parents and citizens reporting concerns to the police, who investigated and stopped the attacker before he ever fired a shot). Such efforts can fail (and did in the Parkland shooter’s case, due to the FBI not following up on the report they received), but they’re a viable option in general. Next, if we can’t prevent the attack before it starts, we can seek to stop it before it reaches its intended victims through robust security measures. Even locked reinforced doors and windows, for example, can serve as a defense between an attacker and his intended victims, as can armed security at the door (see the Garland, Texas, incident).
Third, even the best systems sometimes fail, so we need to seek to minimize the harm when an active killer reaches his intended victims. And, quite frankly, statistically the best way to limit deaths and injuries in active killer incidents is to confront the attacker with armed resistance. Greg Ellifritz over at Active Response Training has spent decades studying this very issue, and in his words,
“Statistically, the absolute best way to survive an active shooter event is not by running, hiding, or fighting with chairs and fire extinguishers. The best survival results for everyone involved occur when an armed citizen or police officer kills the active shooter…Active killers have historically stopped their attack as soon as they have been met with EFFECTIVE resistance. Although many folks have effectively resisted while unarmed, the most effective way to target an armed killer is to use a firearm. Here is an article that describes numerous incidents when armed citizens have stopped active killers. Please note that in each of these cases, the armed citizen was not harmed by the killer. Also, in each example the killer stopped his rampage without shooting another round as soon as he was confronted by the armed citizen. Having an uninjured citizen responder combined with no further casualties among the killer’s intended victim pool is the best possible outcome during a mass murder event. That rarely happens unless the courageous resisting citizen is carrying a firearm.”
This is why I support the proposal to allow qualified, trained teachers to carry concealed weapons (voluntarily) as part of a school active shooter response plan–the most effective mitigation strategy to limit casualties when our prevention efforts fail is a rapid on-site armed response to stop the continued threat as quickly as possible. Having teachers as auxiliary armed first responders, even if only a handful of volunteers in a given school, means not having to wait five to fifteen minutes for police to arrive. The average number of deaths in active shooter events when the shooter is stopped by law enforcement is 14. When the shooter is stopped by armed civilians, that number drops to 2.5. The difference isn’t because armed civilians are better at stopping shooters. It’s because they’re faster, because they’re already there.
That said, using teachers to supplement our response plans isn’t limited to using them as armed auxiliaries. A very easy strategy to implement, that wouldn’t cost very much money, would be to ensure every teacher and school staffer is trained in immediate trauma casualty care, and there is a basic trauma kit in every classroom with a tourniquet, a compression bandage, gauze, medical tape, and chest seals. We already teach CPR. The American College of Surgeons’ “Control the Bleed” campaign recommends that basic first aid training be supplemented with bleeding control training for trauma, because rapidly controlling hemorrhagic bleeding can keep victims alive long enough for them to be treated and saved at the hospital. This has the added benefit that it doesn’t just apply to active shooter events–the same training can apply for any traumatic injury, regardless of the cause. We will reduce casualties if the teachers and staff know how to keep the victims alive until the ambulances can arrive.
Like I said before, the best risk management systems implement strategies in all three areas: seeking to prevent the initiating action, adding layers of defense between the action and the outcome, and mitigating the harm associated with the outcome when it occurs. There is no reason our approach to school shootings and other active shooter events should not follow the same principles. We absolutely should seek to prevent attacks in the first place, sure. But we can’t prevent them all, so we also need to defend against them reaching their intended victims as much as possible, and mitigate the harm when those efforts are unsuccessful.