Mass Shooting or Active Shooter? – Training for Security Officers

Active Shooter Response Course

The terms Active Shooter and Mass Shooting are extremely confusing for a lot of folks. In this article, I’ll do my best to explain the differences and suggest training that might help security professionals address both types of incidents in our modern world.

The confusion.

The almost daily diet of news stories and social media posts covering “mass shootings” gives the public the impression that such events are rapidly increasing in number and severity.  Adding to the confusion is the perception that mass shootings and active shooter incidents are necessarily one and the same.  They are not.  These commonly held perceptions alone, even if untrue, require a thoughtful and strategic response from both security professionals and law enforcement.  Perhaps the most fundamental step toward developing our response is accurately defining the terms.  I’ll explain them both in detail.

Mass Shooting vs Active Shooter.

Mass Shooting: A mass shooting refers to an incident in which multiple individuals are shot, injured, or killed by a perpetrator or group of perpetrators. The defining characteristic of a mass shooting is the number of victims involved. However, there is no universally accepted threshold for the number of victims that qualifies an incident as a mass shooting. Different organizations and jurisdictions may have varying definitions, such as a minimum number of victims (defined as anyone injured or killed), or a minimum number of fatalities.  Obviously, the number of incidents labeled as mass shootings changes depending upon the definition applied.

The American press seems to have adopted three as the minimum number of victims (injured or killed) required for an incident to be called a “mass shooting.”  Unfortunately, the press has occasionally gone so far as to include the shooter in that number.  Thus, if two victims and the shooter have all been shot, the press counts that number as three victims and therefore, a “mass shooting.”

The term “mass shooting” does not specify the circumstances or the shooter’s intent. It can encompass various types of incidents, including those that occur in public places, workplaces, schools, homes, or other settings. The motive behind a mass shooting can vary, including factors such as personal grievances, gang turf wars, various criminal activities, and the like.  

The American press has included gang related shootings, robberies, home invasions, disputes over drugs, family disputes turned violent, murder–suicide, and other such incidents in their list of mass shootings as long as three or more people were shot (which may include the shooter).  While we can debate the motivations of the American press choosing this approach to defining mass shootings, the resulting increase in fear and concern among the public is hardly debatable.

Active Shooter: An active shooter incident refers to a situation in which an individual or individuals are actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area. The key element in an active shooter incident is the active engagement in the act of killing or attempting to kill people. It implies that the situation is ongoing and poses an immediate threat to the safety of individuals within the vicinity.  Potential victims may be known to the shooter, completely random, or a combination of both.

The term “active shooter” emphasizes the need for immediate law enforcement response to neutralize the threat and protect potential victims. It is important to note that active shooter incidents are not limited to firearms; they can also involve other weapons such as knives or explosives.  This explains the recent adoption of the term, “active threat” by some in law enforcement as a more accurate name.

While a mass shooting might also be considered an active shooter incident, it is not always so.  Likewise, not all active shooter incidents necessarily involve multiple victims. The focus in an active shooter incident is on the shooter’s behaviors and the immediate threat they pose, rather than the number of victims.

In summary, the primary distinction between a mass shooting and an active shooter incident lies in their respective focuses. A mass shooting highlights the number of victims involved, whereas an active shooter incident emphasizes the ongoing threat posed by an individual or individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people.  Likewise, the motivations for each may be completely different.

The American press and many political figures have adopted the policy of nearly universally blaming mental illness and guns for both mass shooting and active shooter incidents.  While mental illness may play a part in some examples, actual motivations behind mass shootings range widely from gang violence and other criminal activity to unresolved personal grievances.  Active shooters, by contrast, are more often motivated by unresolved personal grievances against individuals or organizations than by gang violence or criminal activity.  In some rare examples, both mass shootings and active shooter incidents can be the result of terrorism.

Understanding the differences between the types of incidents and the manor and degree to which the press has conflated them, for whatever purpose, is a part of the foundation upon which security professionals must build both a response to the threats themselves and effective measures used to prevent them from occurring.

With those goals in view, we should examine the public’s perception of such threats.

Understanding Public Perception.

Public perception plays a vital role in shaping policies and responses to dangerous threats. It is essential for security officers to comprehend the prevailing sentiments within their communities to better serve and reassure the public. The following factors often contribute to public perception:

  1. Fear and Anxiety: Mass shooting and active shooter incidents create a heightened sense of fear and anxiety among the public, leading to increased demands for effective security measures. Clients expect security officers to be well-prepared and capable of ensuring their safety in such situations.
  2. Sensationalism and Media Coverage: In particular, mass shootings often receive extensive media coverage, with sensationalized headlines and graphic visuals. As demonstrated earlier, this media exposure can shape public perception, leading to misconceptions and exaggerated fears. Security officers must be prepared to address these concerns and provide accurate information to mitigate panic and anxiety.
  3. Trust and Reassurance: The public seeks reassurance that security officers possess the necessary skills and training to prevent and respond to mass shooting and active shooter incidents effectively. Building trust through transparent communication and a visible presence can help alleviate public concerns and enhance the perception of security.

Active Shooter Training for Security Officers.

To meet the evolving needs of their clients and address public perceptions, security officers should undergo comprehensive training that focuses on the following areas:

  1. Threat Assessment and Prevention: Security officers must be trained to identify warning signs and potential threats before they escalate into acts of violence. This training should include recognizing behavioral patterns, implementing surveillance techniques, and establishing effective communication channels to report and respond to suspicious activities.
  2. Emergency Response and Crisis Management: Security officers should receive training in emergency response protocols, including active shooter scenarios. This involves understanding evacuation procedures, establishing safe zones, coordinating with law enforcement, and providing basic medical assistance until professional help arrives.
  3. Communication and Public Relations: Effective communication is crucial in managing public perception during mass shooting incidents. Security officers should be trained to communicate clearly, compassionately, and confidently, disseminating accurate information while maintaining public trust and calming fears.
  4. Mental Health Awareness: Training security officers to recognize signs of distress, mental health issues, or potential threats stemming from individuals struggling with mental health is vital. This can help officers intervene appropriately and connect individuals with the necessary resources for support and treatment.
  5. Continual Training and Preparedness: Mass shooting and active shooter scenarios are complex and continually evolving, necessitating ongoing training and preparedness for security officers. Regular drills, simulations, and updates on best practices should be provided to ensure officers remain knowledgeable and capable of adapting to new threats.

Addressing both public perceptions and the hard reality of either mass shooting or active shooter threats requires security officers to undergo specialized training that goes beyond traditional security measures. Through comprehensive training that focuses on threat assessment, emergency response, communication, mental health awareness, and ongoing preparedness, security officers can effectively meet the needs of their clients in an environment shaped by concerns about mass shootings and active shooters.  The nature of the threats society faces has changed. Security policies, procedures, and training must evolve to effectively address today’s threats.