A Look Inside the Mind of an Active Shooter


In light of recent events, several people have asked me questions regarding mass or active shooter events. I thought I would write an article so that all my readers could have the necessary information. This article will focus on three specific areas: The Stages, The Profile, and The Tactics.

Understand that this is not meant to be a “total picture.” Each active shooter is different, so each active shooting scenario should be approached as its own beast. However, there are certain things that we can learn from prior events that can help us to better understand future ones.

The Stages Leading up to the Attack

As with anything in life, things happen in a progression. An active or mass shooting event is no different. Many things led to pulling the trigger on innocent people, which happened in stages.

Stage One: The Fantasy Stage

This is normally considered the subconscious “cry for help.” The would-be shooter begins to humor dark or hostile thoughts. He may draw or write about those thoughts.

Stage Two: The Planning Stage

The would-be shooter begins to formulate a plan and research its viability. This may include physically scouting out potential sites and conducting surveillance of the area to better understand response times, obstacles, and resistance. During this phase, the would-be shooter may also write his “manifesto.”

Stage Three: The Preparation Stage

The would-be shooter begins to devote time to gathering the materials needed to achieve the mission. This could include acquiring firearms, explosives, locks, etc., but may also include necessary tickets, keys, reservations, cars, etc. During this phase, the people closest to the would-be shooter may begin to hear about his wishes to harm others. It may be presented subtly or even as a joke.

NOTE: This stage could also include stashing the necessary tools at the selected location.

Stage Four: The Approach Stage

This is when the would-be shooter is in transit. The decision has been made, and he is headed toward the selected location. If the selected tools are not stashed, they are probably on him.

Stage Five: The Implementation Stage

This is when the would-be shooter becomes the active shooter. He arrives, enters, and executes his plan.

The Profile of an Active Shooter

The average profile of an active shooter is very different from your everyday criminal or murderer. In fact, the profile is almost entirely backward. For the most part, an active shooter wants to cause as much damage as possible and mentally scar as many survivors as possible. They usually have no problem being identified because they do not have plans to survive the ordeal anyway. In some instances, notoriety is a big part of their plan. Here is what you can assume about your active shooter:

  • They are often intelligent.
  • A higher percentage tend to be younger men (but can be female and can be older).
  • They are often intolerant towards racial or religious minorities.
  • They usually possess a superiority attitude and may attempt to bully or intimidate others.
  • They usually don’t cope well with adversity or criticism.
  • They can often be paranoid about the little things.
  • They usually have poor social skills and/or are socially isolated with few friends.
  • They will often tell those few friends about their desire to hurt others during their “Preparation Stage.”
  • They may come across as obsessed with weapons and violence.
  • The circumstances in their lives make them very unstable or deeply depressed (loss of a job, a broken marriage, etc.).
  • They may feel alienated and blame others for it. Those being blamed tend to be the potential targets (schoolmates, co-workers, successful, political, religious, etc.).
  • Only about a third of them have any military experience, and even fewer have a criminal history of violent behavior.
  • They are often very meticulous. They will take the time to plan an effective attack and will learn from the mistakes of those who have carried out such attacks in the past. The goal is to improve upon or increase the results.
  • The final plan will often include a place that has the most people with the least resistance. These will usually be considered “gun-free zones” with few officers.

The Tactics and Tools of an Active Shooter

This is a tough one to put the finger on for several different reasons. It is generally agreed upon by security and law enforcement officials that an active shooter has no pattern or method for selecting their victims – short of being a readily available target. You will often hear professionals suggest that active shooter scenarios are unpredictable and that they evolve quickly. This is very true. The situation is highly fluid. In fact, the damage will often be done, and the shooter will be dead long before law enforcement even arrives on the scene.

This is why you must learn how to survive an active shooter scenario, and I will provide a link to it at the bottom. I have also written an article on situational awareness, which I will also provide a link for.

To survive an active shooter or take on an active shooter, you need to know what you are more than likely up against. Here are some of the tactics and tools often used by mass shooters.

  • They often carry multiple weapons – including semiautomatic pistols and rifles. Sometimes these will be illegally modified to increase potential damage.
  • They may have professional or homemade smoke and gas grenades or even flash-bangs.
  • Depending on the sophistication of the shooter, they may have actual grenades, Molotov cocktails, IEDs, or other explosives.
  • They may utilize body armor such as bulletproof vests or other protective gear.
  • If the event occurs in a building, the shooter will move from room to room and may move from building to building in search of more victims.
  • If law enforcement arrives early, hostages may be taken and/or eliminated.
  • If negotiations are had, they are often limited as the shooter has no intention of going to jail, let alone surviving.
  • The shooter will often commit suicide after the intended targets have been eliminated or if there is a law enforcement response.

Keep in mind that the one element that is consistently absent from the plans of an active shooter is an escape plan. It is generally agreed that an active shooter situation is a one-way mission. You should act accordingly. In other words, if you find yourself in an active shooter scenario, understand that you are in the epitome of a life-or-death situation.

Final Thoughts

I would like to stress three very important points to you. 1) These situations happen very fast and are often over in a matter of minutes. There will not be much time to think after the fact, so think ahead of time (situational awareness). 2) These events usually happen in areas that are considered “soft targets” or “gun-free zones.” This will be anywhere law-abiding citizens are restricted from carrying firearms or where law enforcement is usually absent. This could be a mall, a theater, a concert, and so on. Choose wisely. 3) Rarely is law enforcement going to be able to stop an active shooter scenario from happening, and there is a very good chance that they will not be able to cut it short. This means that you must always be prepared to react mentally and physically.

Let me reiterate my suggestion to read the following two articles:

  • Surviving an Active Shooter
  • Situational Awareness – Tips to Help You Maximize Your Ability

Want to learn more? Check out my article titled, “Survive an Active Shooter.”