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A retired FBI agent on how to protect yourself during a mass shooting

Evacuated middle school students wait on a bus after a shooting at Noblesville West Middle School on May 25, 2018, in Noblesville, Indiana.
Kevin Moloney
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Evacuated middle school students wait on a bus after a shooting at Noblesville West Middle School on May 25, 2018, in Noblesville, Indiana.

Updated May 11, 2023 at 5:16 AM ET

In the United States, there have been more than 200 mass shootings so far in 2023, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The nonprofit defines a mass shooting as an incident where at least four people are killed or injured.

In recent years, these shootings have occurred in places of worship, medical offices, elementary schools and outdoor events.

Knowing how to react in an active shooting is now necessary, according to Alex del Carmen, associate dean and professor of criminology at Tarleton State University.

"Many Americans are going to experience this at some point in their lives," del Carmen told NPR in a phone interview. "We now have almost an obligation to teach children and family members what to do in these situations."

Del Carmen has told his kids since they were little: Have an exit plan.

The typical advice?

Run. Hide. Fight.

Katherine Schweit, a former FBI special agent who wrote Stop the Killing: How to End the Mass Shooting Crisis, created the agency's active shooter program after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.

"Being prepared is a good thing," Schweit told NPR. "But don't be so scared that you overthink what's going on. I think, if you step back and look at maybe a fire drill in school, we've normalized fire drills and we don't think every time a fire drill goes off or a tornado warning goes off that we're going to be caught in a fire or killed in a tornado."

The priority for civilians under fire, Schweit said, should always be to escape.

Of course, police response also plays a central role — as it did in Uvalde, Texas. There, the shooter spent more than an hour inside Robb Elementary while police waited outside. How officers respond will always differ as long as agencies across the U.S. follow different training methods. (Recommended national standards do exist, but they are still just a suggestion.)

Schweit added that it's important to remember that these types of public mass shootings make up less than 1% of all firearms injuries in the U.S. annually. More people are killed in their homes and neighborhoods than in public venues.

"So, though they get a lot of news coverage, they really still are a very rare occurrence," Schweit said.

Still, there's a lot of value to the three verbs: Run. Hide. Fight.

Run is option one. If you can't run, hide. And if you can't hide, fight.

Run

Regardless of the weapon, the further away you can get from a shooter, the better your chance of survival.

"That sounds, you know, very like 'we're in a war zone.' But at the moment that the shots are going off, you feel like you're in a war zone and it's better to get away if you can," Schweit said.

Wherever you are, look for exits. Evacuate without hesitating or gathering belongings, and keep going until you've reached a safe location.

Hide

"That doesn't mean run when somebody is firing on you," Schweit explained.

If there is no safe escape route, the FBI recommends finding a good hiding place, locking and barricading doors and silencing cell phones.

Fight

Earlier this year, Brandon Tsay described on NPR's Morning Edition what he was thinking when he decided to fight, and disarmed a shooter in Monterey Park, California.

"It's going to end here. This is the end of my life. It's over. I'm going to die here," Tsay said. "But I was able to gather the courage I didn't know I had. I was able to come to the conclusion that I had to take the gun away from him or a lot of people would have been hurt."

Improvised weapons and coordinated ambushes have been successful in stopping active shooters in places like Colorado Springs and Noblesville, Indiana.

FBI research shows that it is more often unarmed people who save lives and end shootings than armed ones. "So don't believe that you can't stop a shooter. You can," Schweit said. "It's done all the time."

Taylor Haney contributed reporting. Majd Al-Waheidi edited the digital version. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julie Depenbrock
Julie Depenbrock (she/her) is an assistant producer on Morning Edition. Previously, she worked at The Washington Post and on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show. Depenbrock holds a master's in journalism with a focus in investigative reporting from the University of Maryland. Before she became a journalist, she was a first grade teacher in Rosebud, South Dakota. Depenbrock double-majored in French and English at Lafayette College. She has a particular interest in covering education, LGBTQ issues and the environment. She loves dogs, hiking, yoga and reading books for work (and pleasure).