Image this; you’re in a large department store in the shopping mall with your family on a busy Saturday. Suddenly, without warning, you hear the unmistakable sound of an AK-47 on full automatic fire, coming from somewhere behind you. As you turn, you see a gunman spraying lead in all directions. One of his bullets hits you in the chest before you can finish your turn and draw your sidearm.
You were armed and (you thought) prepared – but you were just too late.
Now, maybe you think this scenario is unrealistic. The truth is it’s exactly the opposite. Carrying a gun might make you feel safer, but for most carry permit holders that’s all it is – a feeling. You fire off a few rounds at the range every week, check it’s in your holster when you leave the house and think you’re ready to face whatever the world can throw at you. Nothing could be more wrong. It’s not enough to have a weapon; you need to be prepared to use it, or the chances are it’ll be in your hand a moment too late.
Look at how the military do it. Soldiers are schooled endlessly in how to react to incoming fire. Drills are taught, practiced, then practiced again – over and over, until they’re an instinctive reaction. Even then many troops freeze the first time real bullets are coming at them. But they have a chain of command, NCOs, and comrades who’ll give the orders needed to snap them out of that initial shock. Then the drills take over and they work as part of a trained, disciplined team.
If terrorists strike while you’re out in public, you’re on your own.
The problem is, all you can do is prepare yourself in general terms to respond to an attack. If terrorists strike they have the advantage – they’re prepared to fight right now and you are not. Their advantage might only last a few seconds, but those seconds are the most critical. In that time they establish control of the situation; once they have control it’s difficult to take it back. Panic is setting in, terrified crowds are fleeing and the attackers are carrying out their goal – to spread mayhem, panic, and death.
Until you’ve been in a real-life shooting situation you can’t even begin to understand the speed with which they develop. It’s paralyzing. You’re out there going about your business, the same as you have thousands of times before, then suddenly the world changes. There’s the crack of shots, the whiplash of bullets passing you. Screams of pain and fear. Reacting before the situation spirals out of control means you need to switch from happy obliviousness to combat mode in a split second – and most people just can’t do that.
To be ready to react you need to maintain a high level of situational awareness. Know what’s happening around you. That doesn’t mean being in a constant state of alert like an infantryman on patrol – that’s mentally exhausting, and you won’t keep it up for long. It does mean keeping track of your environment and watching out for anything that’s new or suspicious. Is anything unfamiliar? Are some of the people around you, not the type you usually see or are they acting in a way that’s out of place? If you’re somewhere that’s popular with families and a group of young men appears that might be a sign that you need to start mentally preparing yourself.
Are people dressed in a way that doesn’t make sense? If it’s a warm day but someone’s wearing a heavy jacket, maybe they deserve some extra attention. Jackets have been used to conceal firearms or even suicide vests. Bonus points if they’re dripping with sweat while wearing one – they obviously aren’t wearing it to stay comfortable, so they must have another reason.
Terrorists have often used holdalls to carry weapons over the last stretch to their target. An AR15-style carbine with the stock collapsed is just two and a half feet long, so it’s easy to fit one and a load of ammunition in a medium-size bag. Anyone who’s carrying one is worth a second glance. Does it look as if it’s almost empty, but still quite heavy? They could have tools in there, but they could also have a rifle. If they put it down and reach inside watch, and be ready to react. If you see a weapon start to emerge you’ve just gained time to act before they have it in a fire position.
Don’t be side-tracked by stereotypes. You can’t identify a terrorist by the color of their skin. Yes, it’s pretty stupid to deny that most terrorism right now comes from followers of a particular religion, but converts are more likely to become terrorists than people who were born to it. If you see a guy with a beard in a shalwar kameez the chances of him being a suicide bomber are pretty low; bombers usually have a ritual wash and shave before setting out on their mission of murder. However, if you see someone who looks very stressed, walking fast and muttering a prayer to himself, that’s a much more likely candidate.
There isn’t any checklist you can work through for spotting potential terrorists; all you can do is stay aware of anything that doesn’t look quite right. You know your own neighborhood and you know what looks out of place. If you do spot something unusual there’s no need to over-react – most likely it’s something completely innocent – but if you’re aware of it you’ll be ready if it does turn out to be a threat. It’s being ready that will let you react in time to make a difference. Some people spend time practicing drawing their weapon – but that will only save you a fraction of a second when it really counts. Maintaining situational awareness could give you an extra three or four seconds – and that’s enough to matter.
So what do you do when you spot something suspicious? Again, there’s no quick checklist. It’s going to depend on what you’ve seen and you’ll have to make a judgment call. That’s where the extra time gained from good situational awareness comes in useful.
If you suspect a bomb your priority is to dial 911 right away and give them as much intervention as you can. Then start looking at ways to get people out of the danger area. Don’t yell, “Hey, it’s a bomb!” Firstly you’ll cause panic. Secondly, if it’s a suicide bomber the chances are he’ll immediately detonate to cause as much damage as possible. A conventional bomb could be on a timer but if it’s remotely fired the terrorists will have eyes on so they can detonate at the optimum time. If they see you suddenly start to clear people away they’ll flick the switch.
A bomb, or any other suspected threat that isn’t immediate, calls for a quick but orderly evacuation. Once you’ve called 911 take a moment to look for a safe exit route. Try to avoid choke points where people will be penned up in a narrow area, or anywhere that looks like a secondary bomb could be hidden there – trash cans, piles of garbage and parked vehicles are favorites. Choose the way out that has the last hazards and leads to a safe place at least 100 yards away – somewhere with at least one solid wall blocking line of site to the suspect bomb. Then pick a couple of steady-looking people near you, calmly approach them and explain what you suspect and why. Ask them to help you inform people, and to do it in a low-key way that avoids panic. Don’t hang around, but don’t rush either.
Bombs are the traditional terrorist weapon of choice, but in the last few years, we’ve seen firearms being used more and more frequently. Some argue that this is because anyone can buy a semiautomatic rifle in the USA, but the fact is terrorists will get guns if they want them. The Paris attacks used military assault rifles – anyone can buy a semiautomatic rifle in France too, but the paperwork was too much trouble so they just smuggled weapons in. The UK’s strict gun laws never stopped IRA terrorists getting weapons either.
However terrorists get their hands on guns, they’re a powerful tool for creating chaos and fear – and a gun attack happens very fast. If you suspect someone has a gun and is acting suspiciously, call 911. Don’t confront them; it the attack isn’t a lone shooter then the terrorists will position themselves to give each other mutual support, so you’ll probably just get shot and precipitate the attack before anyone else has a chance to respond.
If you see someone suddenly pull a weapon out of concealment, however, that’s the time for decisive action. If you’ve spotted them acting suspiciously and stayed aware of them you’ll probably have a vital few seconds’ advantage. The first thing to do with it is verified that you’re actually facing a threat: Do they definitely have a weapon? Do their actions look like an attack – rapidly retrieving the weapon from a holdall, taking up a fire position, releasing the safety or chambering a round?
If they are, act. If they look aggressive the law is on your side; self-defense says you can use force if you believe your life is in danger. Draw your weapon, take aim for the center of mass and engage. Forget Hollywood and rhetoric about stopping power; shoot until the threat is down and not moving, then shoot him two or three more times. At least seven or eight rounds from a handgun are needed to reliably stop someone, and that’s vital when you’re taking down a terrorist who might be wearing a suicide belt.
With the target down, immediately take cover – even if that just means diving on the ground – and look around for more threats. This is where things can get messy. After shooting incidents, people speculate about whether armed citizens could have stopped the attack. Sometimes – but think of the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting. Imagine yourself in that scenario, then add a few frightened people with handguns stumbling around in the dark. It’s very likely that, in the confusion, the would-be rescuers would have ended up in a shootout with each other.
The same risk is there at every incident. You’ve just brought down the first terrorist and you’re looking for more. You see someone drawing a handgun. Is it another terrorist – or is it another citizen doing the same as you? This is the time to start shouting something to make it clear what side you’re on, and it needs to be clear and unambiguous. “Police!” is good – everyone will get the message that you’re a good guy. Sure, impersonating a peace officer is probably illegal in your jurisdiction, but you have bigger problems right now. Focus on not getting shot.
If you do identify any more terrorists engage them, again going for multiple hits on the center of mass. If not, reload rapidly. You need to have at least one extra magazine with you, and – sorry, purists – if you have a big-bore pistol you need to consider swapping it for a high-capacity 9mm. Thirty rounds is a bare minimum for even a short shooting incident, fifty is better, and that’s a lot of 1911 magazines.
If all the terrorists seem to be down call 911 right away and take steps to secure the area. If there’s a safe-looking exit route get people moving along it. If there isn’t then ask everyone to lie down with their hands visible, and take position to cover any entrances in case there’s still a threat. Then wait for law enforcement to arrive.
As soon as the cops take control of the scene, put your weapon on the ground. If you don’t, and a cop tells you to drop it, do so right away – don’t argue, because you’re likely to be shot. Rights and wrongs can wait for later; their priority is making sure the shooting incident is over, and an argumentative person with a gun can look a lot like a threat. Stay as calm as you can – probably not very – and follow all instructions, but as soon as you can, tell a cop that you engaged the attackers. That seriously reduces the chances of you having any issues about it.
There’s another scenario for a shooting incident, which is one breaks out near you. Your responsibility is to yourself and the people around you; it’s tempting to run to the sound of the guns, but don’t do it. You’re in serious danger of being shot, either by the terrorists or by law enforcement; all they’ll see is a guy with a gun running into the scene. Instead, try to find a safe exit and get people heading that way. Bring up the rear, watching for anyone who tries to pursue – and if you see anyone with a rifle moving up behind, and they don’t look like a cop, engage them instantly.
Again, if you can’t find a route out, try to get everyone into a safe place – a room, a building – then ask them to lie down with hands visible. This will make a big difference in the first few seconds when tactical units arrive, and seriously reduces the chances of a blue on blue shooting. Again, cover the entrance and wait for rescue. In a scenario like the Orlando nightclub shooting the terrorists could be moving from space to space, killing as they go, so you’ll need to be prepared. Find cover with a clear view of all entrances, make sure you have a full magazine and prepare to engage. Then, if someone with a gun comes in the door and they don’t look like a cop, take them down instantly.
The odds of you being caught in a terrorist attack are very low, but they’re not zero. The same situational awareness and basic tactics also work against non-terrorist mass shooters and even traditional armed robbery. Added to that, maintaining situational awareness is just a good habit to get into. When it comes to protecting yourself and your family it’s maybe the most important habit you can have.
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