The lone gunman
Understanding and mitigating an active shooter :
Headline making stories throughout the past two years have centred on
incidents involving the violent episodes of the active shooter. So far,
all the active shooters have been men, the most number of killing sprees
originating in America. Many people have not been able to grasp this
sudden outburst of rage and mass murder. The background of each shooter
remains complex. The crime scenes are also complex, especially from a
law enforcer’s view point, as it is always a direct threat to unharmed
The FBI has classified an active shooter as “an individual engaged in
killing people in a confined or populated area”. The first half of this
profile clearly shows that the shooter always operates alone. He does
not plan his mission with anyone. He is willing to take the full credit
and risk for his diabolic crime. Secondly, his selection of ‘soft
targets’ is always in a place where there are more than a dozen people.
The shooter wants a public display. Often such soft targets are
schools, mega malls, railway stations, public parks etc. These places
have limited security and often the security officer is not legally
empowered to use a firearm and counter attack. The only effective
response to such a threat is the rapid response of Police within minutes
to the scene of confrontation, a difficult challenge in any country. The
shooter always uses a semi or fully automatic weapon.
Mindset of the shooter
The active shooter has a complex set of behaviour which is hard to
understand. Somehow, they never arouse the suspicion of their family
members, co-workers or friends. Many of the shooters have been gainfully
employed. Some played sports. Others had relaxing hobbies such as
The active shooter does not fit into the general pattern of a mass
murderer or Serial killer. A serial killer commits a prolonged crime
spree, yet operates in a low profile, hunting his victims one at a time.
In contrast the active shooter makes a ‘one time encounter’ in a
compressed time frame.
He does not shoot to reign over territory as in a gang related
shootout. The serial killer hides the corpse but the active shooter
wants fame for his slaughter.
Another interesting point is that the active shooter does not want to
hide or escape.
He comes prepared for a shootout with the Police or any one
responding to him. He wants publicity. Often the shooter will post a
brief homemade video on Youtube or Facebook, minutes before the attack
(but will not disclose the chosen target) foolishly trying to justify
The serial killer enjoys the horror he inflicts on his victims, but
for the active shooter his victims have no meaningful connection. They
fatefully happen to be at the venue.
Psychologically the serial killer is a person who has undergone
physical/ emotional abuse over a long time period (few years). He then
chooses to vent his revenge on his single victims from time to time,
craftily evading arrest. In contrast the active shooter is a victim of
bullying. He is emotionally displaced by one incident that may trigger
the need for mass revenge (ie being bullied at university or workplace).
Some active shooters are mildly similar in their rationale and
thinking to an Ideological Killer. The ideological murderer is a person
who is strongly infused with extreme patterns of ethico-political or
religious orthodoxy. They attribute their deviant actions to
religious/political teachings which they have really misinterpreted
(i.e. - most loners committing subversive actions come under this
category). The Oklahoma City bombing is a prime example of this kind of
mindset, where 168 lives were lost within a few seconds. The ideological
killer has a strong adherence to his belief. Yet, the active shooter’s
motive or agenda is always personal. The ideological maniac kills form a
distance often detonating an explosive and eludes capture. Being in the
centre of the crime scene and putting his name in the news is the
thought process of the lone shooter.
Given the sudden outburst of this kind of carnage, the Police face a
very difficult challenge in responding to an active shooter. Often the
people being shot at may not have access to a phone. Even if they
carried a mobile phone they would not be in a safe position to dial for
help. The shooter takes a defiant and glorified stance as his innocent
victims are often pleading for their lives. He will not negotiate with
He comes ready to shoot and be shot at. Recorded incidents clearly
show that to this date no policeman has been killed by an active shooter
(i.e. Virginia Tech shooting 2007 and Parliament Hill shooting Ottawa
Another point to note is that 40% of such lone gunmen were shot and
killed by Police and 46% shot themselves in an act of public suicide.
In the Sri Lankan context, we have not yet witnessed such a shootout.
Yet we cannot undermine the impending threat of such actions in the
future. Over the past decade the Police have upgraded their response and
This must be improved to areas outside major cities. Emphasis must be
placed on having a system of recording behaviour which is seen as anti
social (with criminally violent content) and such citizens must be
Religious and civil organisations must also contribute to programmes
aimed at counselling and stress relief. A society where people can
pursue life, liberty and happiness would be a good countermeasure to the
threat of the active shooter.