"Active Killer" or "Active Shooter" names a type of mass murder marked by rapidity, scale, randomness and suicide. The phenomenon is exemplified by events at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary School and many others.
Department of Homeland Security defines the Active Shooter as "an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a conﬁned and populated area; in most cases, active shooters use ﬁrearm[s] and there is no pattern or method to their selection of victims." Most incidents occur at locations in which the killers find little impediment in pressing their attack. Locations are generally described as soft targets, that is, they carry limited security measures to protect members of the public. In most instances, shooters commit suicide, are shot by police, or surrender when confrontation with responding law enforcement becomes unavoidable. According to New York City Police Department (NYPD) statistics, 46 percent of active shooter incidents are ended by the application of force by police or security, 40 percent end in the shooter’s suicide, 14 percent of the time the shooter surrenders or, in less than 1 percent of cases, the violence ends with the attacker fleeing.
The term “Active Shooter” is problematic in the sense that the phrase is composed of neutral terms and therefore does not provide the kind of differentiation essential to effective description. There are, after all, no “Inactive Shooters.” Shooting someone is, by nature, active whether during a domestic incident, a gang initiation, a drug transaction or a mass murder event. More problematic still is that the term misdescribes the phenomenon, devolving into contradiction. Not all of the assailants in the relevant incidents employ firearms. Events in Belgium (Dendermonde nursery attack), Canada (2014 Calgary stabbing), China (2008 Beijing Drum Tower stabbings), Japan (Osaka School Massacre), and Pennsylvania (Franklin Regional High School) afford bloody illustrations of this fact. Indeed, across the Far East particularly, the phenomenon tends to express itself by way of edged weapon. In short, many “Active Shooters” are not shooters. The definition proposed by Department of Homeland Security is consequently something of a howler. Borsch recommends “Rapid Mass Murder.” This phrase has the advantage of focusing on the essential activity rather than on the inessential choice of instrument in carrying out the activity, which, as noted, varies. That said, the phrase “Active Shooter,” despite obvious flaws, has proved potently stubborn in its peculiar allure.
The Active Shooter is a mass murderer. Not all mass murderers are Active Shooters. Noting the similarities and differences among several types of mass murderer will help to isolate and define what is meant by the term “Active Shooter.”
Mass murderers defy traditional criminal categorization. The goal of the mass murderer is neither to defend nor appropriate turf, neither to initiate himself into nor elevate his status within a criminal organization. The mass murderer does not kill for drugs or money. The serial killer is one kind of mass murderer. He claims many lives in multiple events across time. The events are discontinuous, punctuated by “a cooling-off period.”  By contrast, the Active Shooter claims many lives in a single event along a compressed frame of time. In practice, this appears to carry a corollary: broadly, the serial killer seeks anonymity; the Active Shooter, notoriety. Repetition through multiple events across time answers the pathology of the serial killer. Savage as they are, his acts are not designed to excite publicity. The Serial Killer will conceal a corpse or bury evidence. He wants to kill again. By contrast, the Active Shooter seeks infamy through slaughter. He means to fuse his name forever to a place, a date, an event. Thus, his acts are designed to maximize publicity. Accordingly, he (generally) plans no escape.
The serial killer murders at close quarters. He delights in experiencing the horror of his victims as he shares their space. In his distorted estimation, his victims “mean” something to him. Consider that the serial killer often secures keepsakes from victims to memorialize the “relationship.” The Active Shooter also murders at close quarters. He delights in experiencing the horror of his victims as he shares their space. Crucially, however, while the victims of the Serial Killer “mean” something to him, to the Active Shooter they mean nothing. The Active Shooter moves rapidly and randomly from one victim to the next.
Modell speculates that the contrast is rooted in the peculiar form of abuse each suffers. The serial killer is a victim of physical/sexual/emotional abuse. Such abuse is administered at length, over time, by those who, by relation or connection, should care for the abused. The Serial Killer, after a manner, models this behavior. The Active Shooter is a victim of bullying. Though bullying may persist over time, it is delivered in discrete, relatively short-lived acts, often by multiple actors with no special relation or connection to the abused. The Active Shooter, after a manner, models this behavior.
A portrait of the Active Shooter may be sharpened by contrasting him with another type of mass murderer, the ideological killer. The Oklahoma City bombing exemplifies the type. On April 19, 1995, a killer with ties to a disorganized Militia Movement parked a Ryder Truck packed with explosives in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Downtown Oklahoma City. The explosives detonated. The resulting blast ended 168 lives while wounding 680.
The ideological killer is driven by adherence to ethico-political or religious orthodoxy. His actions are an expression of that orthodoxy. By contrast, while the Active Shooter may conceive of himself as “making a statement” of sorts, his motives appear more personal and desultory.
Like the Active Shooter, the ideological killer plans multiple murders within the confines of a single event. But the Active Shooter seeks to experience the horror of his victims at close quarters. The ideological killer does not. He kills at a distance. He plants explosive devices or takes up position as a sniper. Killing at a distance suits his primary motive—the expression of adherence to an abstract orthodoxy. For the ideological killer, victims are of incidental significance. He need not “know” them, as the Serial Killer must, nor experience their horror, as the Active Shooter must. For the ideological killer, abstraction is reality, the individual but a construct in an interminable struggle of dogmas.
Since he is motivated by adherence to orthodoxy, the ideological killer typically seeks notoriety for his cause through carnage. While the Active Shooter too seeks notoriety, and while he too maps a careful plan of the event, there is a crucial difference in the pursuit. The ideological killer generally means to elude capture, to live beyond the event (as does the serial killer). The Active Shooter merges his identity with the event and sees nothing beyond.
Integrating the elements elicited by comparison and contrast, the “Active Shooter (Killer)” may be defined as a mass murderer who kills (or attempts to kill) at close-quarters, in multiples, at random in a single, planned event.
Accounts of why Active Shooters do what they do vary. Some contend that the motive, at least proximately, is vengeance. Others argue that bullying breeds the problem, and indeed, the Active Shooter generally is a victim of bullying, directly or derivatively. Still others such as Grossman and DeGaetano argue that the pervasiveness of violent imagery girding modern culture hosts the phenomenon.
As an ultimate explanation, the vengeance theory must fail, for it cannot adequately account for the randomness of the killing. By any ordinary interpretation of the term “vengeance,” one seeks to redress a perceived wrong against the one who wronged—not against a random set of individuals most of whom carry no connection to the killer. Likewise, bullying and violent imagery may be elements of an overall account, but neither suffices as an ultimate explanation. Many suffer bullying. Few of those bullied commit mass murder. And if violent imagery has become a staple of the culture, a fortiori, all are exposed to it. Yet few commit mass murder.
Some argue that a particular interpretation of the world, a conscious or subconscious ontology, accounts for the phenomenon. They argue that the Active Shooter lives in a world of victims and victimizers, that all are one or the other. The ontology accommodates no nuance, leaves no room between the categories for benevolence, friendship, decency, nor indeed, for a mixture of good and bad. His interpretation of the world may grow out of or is fed by bullying or violent imagery (hence the common obsession with violent movies, books or video games), but it is the absolutist interpretation of his world that drives him both to kill and to die.
“The world conceived by the Active Killer is a dark dialectic of victim and victimizer. His impoverished ontology brooks no nuance, admits no resolution. The two categories, isolated and absolute, exhaust and explain his world. And the peculiar logic driving the dialectic yields a fatal inference: in a world of victims and victimizers, success means victimization.”
The Active Shooter does not negotiate. He victimizes. A victim has nothing to offer but his life. More, to negotiate under the threat of mass murder is, in the nature of the case, to adopt a posture of conciliation, pleading, begging. The posture serves to reinforce the victim’s status as a victim.
The Active Shooter does not lie in wait to battle responding Law Enforcement. No Law Enforcement Officers have been killed responding to Active Shooter incidents in the United States. Few have been injured. As noted, more often than not, when the prospect of confrontation with responding Law Enforcement becomes unavoidable, the Active Shooter commits suicide. And when citizens—even unarmed citizens—resist, the Active Shooter crumbles.
Ron Borsch sums the matter neatly:
“In reality (not theory), and round numbers, rapid mass murder has been aborted primarily by a single courageous actor. 50% have been UNARMED citizens, 25% were armed citizens, and the remainder have been police officers (also primarily initiated by a SOLO officer).”
Borsch’s statistical analysis recommends a tactic: aggressive action. For Law Enforcement, respond and engage the killer without delay—the affected orthodoxy of cumbersome team formations fails to answer the rapid temporal dynamics of Active Shooter events and fails to grasp the nature of the threat involved. For citizens, when necessity or obligation calls, attack.
The killing spree
Active shooters initiate their "killing spree" in populated areas and exhibit no discernible pattern in the selection of victims. In some instances, active shooters have planted improvised explosive devices both to maximize casualties and to act as an impediment to responding law enforcement and emergency service personnel. Current models of understanding the tactical contours of Active Shooter incidents demand immediate deployment of law enforcement resources in order to minimize carnage, although many have been stopped by civilians—even unarmed civilians (for example, the 2011 Tucson shooting). Research has determined that aggressive action — by even a single police officer — is the most effective countermeasure in stopping the active shooter. Active shooters do not reason or negotiate. The agenda of the active shooter is straightforward: harm as many as possible until stopped. Escape is rare. Most active shooters commit suicide.
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- "The Active Shooter Threat" (PDF). MSA Special Analysis.
- Morton, R. (Ed.) (2008). "Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators". Federal Bureau of Investigation.
- Modell, Daniel (December 2013). "The Psychology of the Active Killer". Law Enforcement Executive Forum 13 (4): 1.
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- Vossekuil, B.; Fein, R.; Reddy, M.; Borum, R.; Modzeleski, W. (2002). "The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative". US Secret Service and US Department of Education.
- McGee, J.P.; DeBernardo, C.R. "The Classroom Avenger" (PDF).
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- Modell, Daniel (December 2013). "The Psychology of the Active Killer". Law Enforcement Executive Forum 13 (4): 6.
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- "Police One, Ohio Trainer Makes the Case for Single Officer Entry Against Active Killers".
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