Tragic Shootings: How Can We Protect Ourselves and Others From Violent Attacks?

Kidpower Response to Common Questions

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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Once again, a terribly troubled person has damaged and destroyed many lives by shooting innocent victims in a public place. As we feel sorrow for the victims and for their loved ones, we also need to focus on what each of us can do to protect ourselves and the people important to us. We need to reassure children who might be traumatized by hearing about this tragedy or, far worse, knowing someone who was directly involved.

Each new story brings up heart-breaking reminders of  other horrifying outbreaks of mass violence — in Isla Vista near Santa Barbara, California, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut; at Aurora Movie Theater in Colorado; at Congresswoman Gabrille Gifford’s Congress on Your Corner event in Tuscon; at Northern Illinois University; at the Westroads Mall in Omaha; at Virginia Tech University; at the Amish school in Pennsylvania; at Columbine High School in Colorado; at the Ecole Polytechnique College in Montreal; and unfortunately many more.

In order to have peace of mind, we have to accept the uncertainty that risk of danger is a part of life. Violent attacks are horrifying. However, so are car accidents, fires, serious diseases, and natural disasters. In each case, although nothing works all of the time, there is a great deal that each of us can do to keep ourselves and others safe most of the time.

The reality is that most schools, offices, parks, and shopping malls are usually not dangerous places to be. Feeling hopeless and helpless can diminish our joy in life and our freedom without making anyone safer.

However, being in denial can increase the possibility that we will fail to recognize a potential problem and increase our risk of being harmed.

Instead of being constantly anxious or pretending that nothing bad will ever happen, we can think through what the risks are from different potential dangers, what steps we can take for prevention, what our best choices are if we end up in an emergency situation, and what actions we can take to protect ourselves. A good safety plan can help us to recognize a potential safety problem and take quick action to avoid it if possible. If avoidance doesn’t work, we want to know what to do and how to do it so we can escape to safety as powerfully and quickly as possible.

In a frightening sudden emergency such as an attack, people are much more likely to do what they’ve practiced.  Increased confidence, competence, and peace of mind are the benefits of training that rehearses various scenarios and gives the opportunity for successful practice of effective avoidance, boundary-setting, getting help and physical self-defense skills.

Question: What is the first thing you should do if you are faced with a violent attack?

Answer: Most of the time in an attack, the safest plan is to get away from someone who is acting in a dangerous way and to get to safety.  Depending on the building, locking someone out can also prevent a dangerous person from getting to where you are. If someone starts shooting or has a gun, be prepared to run away and get to safety, because someone shooting is likely to miss a moving target most of the time. If you cannot escape at first, keep looking for a new chance to get away.

Question: What if nothing works?

Answer: The reality is that there are no guarantees. You might have to risk getting hurt or even killed in order to give yourself and others the best odds for survival. Instead of freezing, you want to be prepared to take forceful action to stop an attack against yourself and anyone you feel responsible for protecting.  Many people who were shot have fought back after being shot and have escaped – and are still alive and amazingly well. Many people who were trapped at first found an opportunity to escape.

Question: What are the warning signs of someone who might be dangerous?

Answer: There is no one profile that fits everyone. Someone who seems –obsessed with violence, who makes threats, who talks about hurting himself or others, who seems disconnected from the world around him, who talks as if he has nothing to lose, who is aggressive, and who seems to feel persecuted by others — needs help whether he is a threat to others or not. We are using “he” because men or boys have done almost all of these kinds of violent attacks.

If someone is talking, writing, texting, or posting videos about hurting other people, animals, or himself, pay attention and get help. There are many resources for assessing the risk of someone who might be going from feeling upset and depressed to becoming violent.

Question: What should you do if someone’s behavior is making you frightened or worried?

Answer: Instead of ignoring the problem and hoping nothing bad will happen, it is important to insist on getting professional help in order to assess risks and explore options. By working together, people can make a plan to try to stop the isolation of a troubled person, provide a safe outlet for anger and despair, and find safe ways to interrupt any escalation towards violence.

Find people who are trained in risk assessment and interventions and insist on getting help. If your police department or mental health department does not know what to do, go up the chain of command. Most federal agencies now have teams who are trained in these skills and schools. and local agencies increasingly have access to these resources as well.

Question: What if you are trapped and someone is threatening you with a knife or a gun?

Answer: If what the person wants is your property, we recommend that you give it away. Your risk of injury goes up if you fight over your property. If the person wants to harm you, try to distract the person to give yourself the chance to get away to safety. Learn and practice how to use both verbal and physical self-defense.

Question: What if you realize that someone is shooting people where you are?

Answer: Escape if you possibly can. Run away. Jump out the window. Barricade yourself someplace that the person cannot get to. Get help as soon as you can.

Question: What if you are trapped, such as in your office and someone is shooting?

Answer: Don’t just sit there and remember that most doors don’t stop bullets. Make a plan depending on the situation. Hide behind your desk and come out the other side. Shove the gun and the person aside and run away. Or throw things to distract aim. Remember that even if you get shot, you have a good chance of survival. If you are trapped, do your best to counter-attack, grabbing the gun and aiming it towards the person, or throwing it out of reach. Having the intention of hitting and kicking HARD. As you move in, yell for others to help you.

Question: What if someone is shooting but you are with people you feel responsible for and you feel that you must try to protect them?

Answer: Again, have a plan. Remember that bullets can go through most doors. Don’t just let your body be a barricade to someone who is shooting. Try to confuse the person shooting by throwing things, yelling, changing direction, hitting the gun aside, grabbing the gun, and/or counter-attacking forcefully. Give orders to the people you are protecting to get away – to RUN to SAFETY.

Question: What should adults say to children about violent attacks?

Answer: Adults need to be calm, to listen to concerns, to answer questions, and to offer support. Remember that how you sound can have a large impact on whether or not a child feels anxious. Your specific response depends on how old the children are and what their level of awareness is likely to be. If a child might hear about a tragedy from someone else, give a simple calm explanation so that the child hears from you. For example, “A man in a college had big problems and killed people and then himself. It is very sad, but this almost never happens. We are going to make sure that you are safe.”

If a child worries about what to do if someone starts shooting, say very calmly, “This almost never happens. If there is someone dangerous, most of the time we can keep that person away by locking the door. If we cannot do that, most of the time, you can be safe if you look for a way out and run to safety.”

Be aware of what a child might overhear or see on the news or hear from people you are talking with, even if this child might seem not to be paying attention. Try to prevent children from overhearing upsetting information and from seeing constant repetitions from the media. Be aware that young children sometimes misunderstand video replays to be multiple occurrences. Remind other people that children are likely to become upset by hearing adult’s sound upset.

Question: What kind of self-defense training is the most effective?

Answer: Look for self-defense programs that provide the opportunity for successful rehearsal of skills in a simple step-by-step way in contexts that are relevant to your life and that create a positive emotionally supportive environment.  Programs that include avoidance and boundary-setting are more useful than programs that only focus on physical skills. In places where this is available, full-force self-defense training with a head-to-toe padded instructor and a coach can lead to a remarkable increase in skills in a very short period of time.

Question: What can we do to help prevent future attacks?

Preparedness is essential for our educational institutions and government agencies to become better able to recognize behaviors of concern and address these effectively. We can insist that our schools and local government agencies all have up-to-date emergency preparedness plans that include how to respond effectively to different kinds of potentially violent situations, as well as early-warning reports of possible problems. We can insist that our law enforcement officers get the training they need to follow up on reports of concerns so that they have clear guidance on what to check for and how to check within legal boundaries, support and education from mental health experts, and information from other social systems involved with this person, including families who are worried about this person being on a destructive path that is a danger to others.

By working together, our society can develop a far better coordinated response that treats individuals whose actions seem to be heading towards violence with fairness and compassion while taking effective action to assess the risk of potential violence and intervene when necessary. We can insist that our elected representatives find a common ground in our debate about the right to bear arms that helps to stop someone whose behavior is potentially very dangerous from having easy access to guns while still upholding the rights of responsible people.

We can work together to create a culture where violence is not seen as a solution to problems, where troubled people are not left in isolation, and where women and girls are seen as being equal in value to men, rather than as being acceptable outlets for rage.

Additional Resources

How to Pick a Good Self-Defense Program.

One Strong Move: A Cartoon-Illustrated Introduction to Learning and Teaching Self-Defense

What if someones starts shooting kids at my school? – A heartbreaking question no child should ever have to ask

Worried parent question: What if I’m on the playground and someone starts shooting at the kids?



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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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