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Can Average Citizens Really Save Lives in Active-Shooter Situations? Here's What Experts Found


"The take-home message is that you’re not helpless and the actions you take matter."

A picture shows the handgun of a police officer taken at the newly inaugurated police station of Villeparisis, north-east of Paris, on March 21, 2013. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Should citizens defend themselves or remain passive during active shooter situations?

This is a controversial query that has been asked and revisited in light of recent mass shootings. And the question also spawned nation-wide discussion, once again, after a video being touted by law enforcement agencies across the country emerged earlier this year.

The clip, entitled, "Run. Hide. Fight," features a reenactment of an emergency situation and tips for decisive action. Originally produced by the Houston Police Department, the video showed victims actively engaging and fighting against a fictional perpetrator.

And following the clip's media coverage, it seems some research has emerged that does corroborate the notion that victims can help save lives by thwarting assailants. On Saturday, The New York Times published a report about this very issue, highlighting that some researchers and police, in the wake of recent mass shootings, are encouraging more active involvement from citizens.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of Police Executive Research Forum, told the outlet that there has been a paradigm shift. He said that the "don't get involved, call 911" advice is no longer pertinent, with "active shooter" situations requiring Americans to defend themselves -- and the lives of others.

The transformation hasn't only impacted citizen involvement. Police, too, are using more hard-hitting tactics. In an effort to save additional lives, rather than waiting for backup, first responders now go in and attempt to defuse dangerous situations. Considering the death tolls seen in recent mass shootings, there simply isn't time to wait for SWAT teams and other backup forces to arrive at crime scenes.

Here's how the Times frames recent research that backs both citizen involvement and swifter police action:

Research on mass shootings over the last decade has bolstered the idea that people at the scene of an attack have a better chance of survival if they take an active stance rather than waiting to be rescued by the police, who in many cases cannot get there fast enough to prevent the loss of life.

In an analysis of 84 such shooting cases in the United States from 2000 to 2010, for example, researchers at Texas State University found that the average time it took for the police to respond was three minutes.

“But you see that about half the attacks are over before the police get there, even when they arrive quickly,” said J. Pete Blair, director for research of the university’s Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center and an author of the research, which is set to be published in a book this year.

In the absence of a police presence, how victims responded often made the difference between life and death, Dr. Blair said.

In 16 of the attacks studied, researches came to some intriguing findings: civilians played a key role in stopping the attacker in those cases. In three of the cases they shot the attacker, while in the other 13 instances they subdued him in some other manner.

"In other attacks, civilians have obstructed or delayed the gunman until the police arrived," the Times goes on to say.

In short, the suggestion is that taking an active role instead of a passive one during an attack has saved lives.

Perhaps the most striking part of the research findings came when Dr. Blair and his associates studied survival rates at Virginia Tech. While in two classrooms students and teachers tried to hide or play dead after the killer entered the room, most of these individuals were killed.

But in a third classroom where professor and Holocaust survivor Liviu Librescu told students to jump from the second story window as he held the door to keep the shooter out, those in the room fared much better. The professor perished, but many survived. And in yet another classroom where a desk was placed against the door, every person lived.

"The take-home message is that you’re not helpless and the actions you take matter," Dr. Blair told the Times. "You can help yourself and certainly buy time for the police to get there."

So, it seems conventional wisdom has changed, with experts telling average citizens to learn the skills needed to defend themselves in the event of an emergency situation. Read the entire Times report here.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments section. By the way, here's the aforementioned video encouraging people to fight back, entitled, "Run. Hide. Fight":

​This story has been updated for clarity.


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