TSG IntelBrief: The Active Shooter – A Threat to Homeland Security
January 3, 2013

As of early January 2013, the world is experiencing one of the most intensive periods of active shooter events in history. The most recent took place in the United States where, on the morning of December 14th, 2012, a gunman forced his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and proceeded to kill twenty children and six adult staff members, after which he intentionally killed himself. The gunman, later identified as Adam Lanza, aged 20, had killed his mother earlier that morning at their nearby home. The total death toll was 28, including the perpetrator, with others treated for injuries.

Over the five-year period between 2007 and 2012, there has been an escalation in the frequency and lethality of such attacks carried out by single individuals, with five especially horrific active shooter events occurring in the US:

▪ April 16th, 2007: Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, 32 people killed and 17 wounded
▪ November 5th, 2009: Fort Hood, Texas, 13 killed and 39 wounded
▪ January 8th, 2011: Tucson, Arizona, 6 killed and 14 wounded
▪ July 20th, 2012: Aurora, Colorado, 12 killed and 58 wounded
▪ December 14th, 2012: Newtown, Connecticut, 26 killed and 2 wounded

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A Global Problem

Often overlooked is the fact that such catastrophic active shooter attacks have also occurred elsewhere across the globe. The following are among the most notable:

▪ November 26th–29th, 2008: Mumbai, India, 164 killed and more than 300 wounded
▪ June 2010: Whitehaven, England, 12 killed and 25 wounded
▪ July 22nd, 2011: Oslo, Norway, 8 killed, and Utoya, Norway, 69 killed and 40 wounded

During this period of concentrated violence, more than 400 people were killed in these and other incidents. At the same time, in a number of countries around the world — including Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chechnya, Mali, and Somalia — shootings and suicide bombings that kill hundreds of people annually are part of full-fledged terrorist insurgencies that target weakly governed societies. Together, these events demonstrate the various forms of mass casualty violence that threaten all societies and challenge policymakers responsible for public safety and security. 

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Indicators of Violence

That such violent incidents have continued to proliferate — and with such frequency — attests to the fact that the phenomenon of the “active shooter” is still poorly understood. One common misconception is that active shooter attacks are impulsive acts. A closer examination of these events suggest that they actually involve plans and actions that evolve over time. Further, the pre-incident preparatory phases often produce early warning signals that people close to the perpetrator, as well as security personnel, can identify and potentially respond to with the chance of preventing the act from occurring.

Unfortunately, many past incidents, including those that caused catastrophic casualties, have demonstrated that numerous early warning signs associated with such attacks are often ignored or misunderstood. The most notable recent examples of such missed opportunities for early intervention include the mass killings by Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech), Nidal Hassan (Fort Hood, Texas), Jared Lee Loughner (Tucson, Arizona), Anders Breivik (Oslo, Norway), James Holmes (Aurora, Colorado), and Adam Lanza (Newtown, Connecticut). In each of these cases, worrisome mindsets and risky behaviors were observed by the perpetrators’ families, friends, work colleagues, and mental health counselors, but the preemptive warning flags were not passed on to the appropriate authorities for evaluation and possible intervention.

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A Definition

What is an “active shooter?” The term can be defined in several ways. Fundamentally, an active shooter is as an individual (or a small group) actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined space or populated area. The “active” component refers to the shooter’s continuing use of violent physical force while having unrestricted access to an extensive number of victims. He literally decides who lives and who dies until he either stops at his own discretion, experiences a loss of capability (such as a depleted supply of ammunition), or is stopped by force (most often by law enforcement). He usually does not take hostages, nor does he have any intention to negotiate. Attempts to escape are unlikely, although some shooters do surrender when confronted by law enforcement. Often, the active shooter event ends with the perpetrator taking his own life.

Some of these active shooter perpetrators, such as Nidal Hassan and Anders Breivik, could also be reasonably categorized as “terrorists,” since their rage was motivated by political objectives. Conversely, certain terrorist attacks — such as the Mumbai assault listed above — could be considered as “active shooter” incidents. In the Mumbai attacks, like many active shooter events, civilians found in a variety of public venues (in this case it included hotels, a train station, and a Jewish community center) were deliberately targeted for mass killings.

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Prevention

It is, in fact, possible to prevent some potential active shooter events. In a prominent example that occurred in November 2012, a mother decided to turn her 20-year-old son over to police authorities after discovering he had purchased a pair of assault rifles and 400 rounds of ammunition. The son, Blaec Lammers, had reportedly become so infatuated with the Aurora, Colorado, shootings at a movie opening that he began to collect weapons and ammunition with the intention of carrying out a similar mass shooting at a movie theater in Bolivar, Missouri. It is reported that he even planned to continue his shooting spree at a nearby Walmart because it would have provided him access to additional ammunition. As with many other active shooters, Lammers had spent time honing his shooting skills at a local gun range.

Of note, Lammers shared a similar psychological profile with a number of other active shooter cases. For example, he was described by his mother as “very quiet,” “very much a loner,” “had a hard time making friends,” and “felt like he was a failure.”

Interestingly, Lammers — as with some active shooters — had reportedly planned to turn himself in to police when they arrived at the scene of his envisioned shooting spree. In contrast, other active shooters, such as Adam Lanza, intentionally kill themselves when their massacres have been accomplished.

With catastrophic active shooter incidents occurring so frequently across the globe, it is crucial for public safety authorities to have a comprehensive and systematic understanding of this threat and the protocols required to respond, manage, and, if possible, prevent it.

From a public sector management perspective, it is also vitally important for authorities to be proactive in implementing effective protective security measures at facilities under their purview — even during periods of calm — to avoid possible civil liability lawsuits in the aftermath of active shooter events. Civil litigation against agencies or enterprises often involve charges that more could (or should) have been done to prevent the event as well as allegations of perceived failures in how various agencies responded to the event once it was underway. While these charges often arise even in circumstances where officials have done their reasonable best to protect those affected, a better understanding of the threat — and strategies for proactive intervention — serves everyone’s interests and is a critical step in developing the most effective preventive and contingency plans possible.

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