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Active shooter

Common sense thinking, common sense planning  

The recent shooting, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has rekindled the hot debate about gun control in the United States.  Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), a proponent of more restrictions on firearms, argued, "This happens nowhere else, other than the United States of America. It only happens here not because of coincidence, not because of bad luck, but as a consequence of our inaction. We are responsible for a level of mass atrocity that happens in this country with zero parallel anywhere else."2

Unfortunately, this has become the routine in the United States.  After every mass shooting, the debate over guns and gun violence begins again.  But, the violence is not solely about the gun. We have seen knives, bombs, trucks and cars used as the assailant’s tool as well.

In response to Senator Murphy’s (and others) attacks on Second Amendment rights, the National Rifle Association (NRA) “officially spends about $3m per year” lobbying to influence gun policy.  Since its founding in 1871, the NRA has continued to promote gun safety programs and is the primary firearms educational organization in the United States.3   

Here’s something to think about: Is it guns that kill people or people who kill people?   Because a mentally ill person commits a mass shooting, is it fair to say that because of that, no one else can own a gun?  Opponents of gun control argue that The Bill of Rights gives us as American citizens the right to own a gun for protection.  What would happen if only people who acquired them illegally had guns? Would more people die because others were unable to protect themselves?  Using that same logic, if we say that guns aren't allowed for anyone because someone with a mental illness kills someone is like saying that “nobody can eat sugar just because there are people with diabetes.”4    

In order for someone to purchase a firearm, it is only common sense to a require rigorous background check, restrict gun sales to only those individuals over 21 years of age and to prevent the purchase of, or take guns away from those individuals who are mentally ill, but as the old adage goes, “Common sense ain’t too common.”  If only it were this easy . . .

Fortune magazine has identified a group of “Gun Super-Owners," who love guns more than the average gun-lover and it should come as no surprise that these “Super-Owners” drive the firearms market in the United States.  To illustrate this point with the numbers, approximately 2% of Americans (1 in 50) own half of the guns (50%) in United States.5   

In 2015, The Washington Post's Wonkblog site revealed that the average number of firearms owned by a "typical gun-owning household in the United States" has roughly doubled between 1994 and 2013, to 8.1 guns per household AND the trend has only gone up since.  A recent Harvard/Northwestern University joint study estimates that America's 319 million citizens own about 265 million guns. From 1994 to 2016 the number of Americans who owned guns decreased from 25% to 22%. In the last 18 months (May, 2016 through November, 2017), the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System data indicates that gun sales set new records in the United States.  This means that there are fewer households who own guns, but there are more gun sales, so there is an increase in the number of guns owned per gun-owning household.6   

The following five items are being proposed to help with what is commonly called the “gun problem,” in the United States:    

  • Universal background checks
  • "No fly-no buy" barring people on the no-fly list from purchasing guns
  • Creating a federal database for gun purchases
  • Banning assault-style weapons
  • Prohibiting the sale of bump stocks

The question is whether or not the “problem” is really a mental health problem that is partially fueled by the breakdown of the family structure and support system in the United States.  Is it possible to detect a mental health issue with a background check before a gun can be purchased? The answer is maybe yes and maybe no.

Are people in the United States so accustomed to violence that it has become a way-of-life and we have become de-sensitized to it?   

Consider the following statistics:

  • Number of murders seen on TV by the time an average child finishes elementary school: 8,000
  • Number of violent acts seen on TV by age 18: 200,000
  • Percentage of Americans who believe TV violence helps precipitate real life mayhem: 79
  • According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day (or 28 hours/week, or 2 months of nonstop TV-watching per year).  This means a 65-year life, that person will have spent 9 years watching TV, so how many murders and violent acts have they seen?7

Some Things to Think About

Should the chief of police in every city or town be assigned the task of issuing gun permits so law enforcement in that city or town will know who in their area has a weapon?  What if individuals had to be certified by law enforcement to carry (and possibly use) their weapon of choice? Would this have an effect on gun crimes in the United States?

Everyone agrees that someone with a mental health condition should not be able to purchase a gun or obtain a gun permit. What if a doctor had to certify that the person was of sound mind? Would this help the problem?

We also agree that there should be signage posted that no guns should be allowed within 1,000 feet of any school and area to be posted.  Again, will this help the problem? What if it is a mentally ill person with an illegally obtained firearm in the area of a school? Will they obey the law and stay back 1,000 feet if they have a gun?  Are signs of “gun free zones the only answer, no, certainly not. Those that choose to break the laws, norms and mores of society will NOT be hampered by legislation, signage or other factors. As a locksmith told me in class, locks keep honest people out, if there is a will, there is a way in.


Every mass shooting incident (especially at a school) creates frustration – for law enforcement, politicians, school administrators, teachers, parents, general public and even the students. Why?  On Wednesday, February 27, a Broward County School Board member said that the security measures that were in place and the active shooter training that was conducted at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida were not enough to stop a gunman from killing 17 people.  So, what is “enough” security?

Does This Need to be a Very Complicated Issue?   

This may not have to be such a complicated issue.  We need to use a common sense, pro-active approach.  There are two approaches . . . we need to reduce the risk of mentally ill individuals obtaining guns and causing mass casualties or give everyone a gun and then active shooter will be the “new normal.”  We are supposed to be a civil society but at times that doesn’t appear to be the case. Regardless of the reason – mental illness, gun availability, de-sensitivity to violence and death, over-exposure to violence through television or video games, anger issues, etc., it does appear as though some individuals think only with their trigger finger.

What About “Smart” Guns?

A “smart” gun is a firearm that uses technology to prevent anyone except the owner from firing the weapon. This is achieved in different ways depending on the design, including through fingerprint sensors, radio-frequency identification (RFID), magnets and biometric sensors that unlock the weapon based on a combination of grip style and the strength and size of the person’s hand.  Since technology is used in order for the weapon to fire, there is some concern that if “smart” guns become more readily available, they may run the risk of being hacked.

One of the major issues holding up “smart” gun technology is the question of reliability.  Some proponents of “smart” guns believe that law enforcement agencies should take the lead on testing this technology because that would help with further development and consumer acceptance.  There are law enforcement-friendly models, in spite of the lack of firepower currently available in “smart” guns, but the question is whether or not this untested technology should be put in the hands of first responders.  Gun grab safety issue for plain clothes detectives (who don’t have a safety holster) is one of the most common arguments for why “smart’ guns could make a huge difference in officer safety.

Gun control supporters support laws to prohibit the sale of firearms that do not possess "smart" technology and would also prohibit the manufacture of traditional handguns.  The NRA doesn’t oppose the development of “smart” guns, but they do oppose any law prohibiting Americans from acquiring or possessing firearms that don’t possess “smart” gun technology.    

How can Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) help?

CPTED concepts may help reduce the likelihood of crime or violence and many times helps people “feel” safer in their environment.   

  • Lobby. All visitors must sign in and show identification before being granted access to the building.  Consider a Visitor and Volunteer Management System, such as the systems by Raptor Technologies.9 The technology has the capability of tracking who is inside school buildings and uses facial recognition software to help keep pedophiles out.  Your video surveillance system should not have any “blind spots” with no camera coverage. Why? To be effective, your security surveillance system needs to have a 360 degree of coverage of the perimeter of the building.   
  • Urban Schools.  Schools in urban districts such as Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York have largely been able to avoid the rash of school shootings that have swept the nation, having installed metal detectors and other security features in the 1980s and 1990s to combat gang and drug violence. Security experts believe these measures have made urban districts less prone to mass shootings, which have mostly occurred in suburban and rural districts
  • Windows. Numerous windows in the front of building (especially school buildings) should have line-of-sight visibility through natural surveillance.  In other words, there should be a clear view of the outside property from inside the building.
  • Natural Surveillance. Surveillance is a design concept directed primarily at keeping intruders under observation. Therefore, the primary goal of a surveillance strategy is to facilitate observation, although it may have the effect of an access control strategy by effectively keeping intruders out because of an increased perception of risk.  Surveillance strategies are typically classified as organized (e.g., police patrol), mechanical (e.g., lighting, locks and alarms), and natural (e.g., windows).   

Traditionally, access control and surveillance, as design concepts, have emphasized mechanical or organized crime prevention techniques while overlooking, minimizing, or ignoring attitudes, motivation, and use of the physical environment. More recent approaches to physical design of environments have shifted the emphasis to natural crime prevention techniques, attempting to use natural opportunities presented by the environment for crime prevention. This shift in emphasis led to the concept of territoriality.

CPTED Landscape Security

An important element of CPTED that defines semi-private and private space on a campus is your landscape design.  It should be clear when someone is passing from public to semi-private to private space. This can be achieved different ways.  If bushes are used, it is recommended that the height of bushes be no higher than 3 feet. We have recently read that FEMA recommends the height of bushes to be 18 inches and that tree branches should be between 7 and 8* feet off the ground as a means for Natural Surveillance and Safety.  You want to be able to easily detect intruders and not allow for any hiding spots. Your landscape, if properly laid out can also be a deterrent for crime and prevent criminal opportunity.

Landscape furniture should be vandal-resistant and if benches are installed they need to be designed so that individuals can’t sleep on them.

Also, take into consideration, exterior lighting, video surveillance, vegetation,  

* 8 foot clearance is also recommended by ASIS Physical Security Principle Book, 2015, p. 214

maintenance, barriers, the entrance & exit of your property, signage and the surface structure.

Controlling Access

The perimeter of the property should be fenced.  Although fencing does not deter a

determined trespasser, it does make individuals approaching the building from an unauthorized are more obvious.   

To effectively control access to the property and the building(s), the number of entrances should be limited.  The general idea is few entrances and many exits. Monitored video surveillance and intrusion detection (such as door prop alarms) can monitor secondary points of entry or those emergency exits not used for entry into the building.  Police officers or security officers can respond to unauthorized entry at these locations. Effective access control requires that entry to and from the building be actively monitored. Security must be developed in a layered approach, from Culture, parent’s students staff.   It begins away from the site we are protecting.  

Immediate Steps to Shore Up School Security 

1.  Access control is the starting point.  If you can’t control access, anyone can bring any kind of gun into our schools.  Stand-alone metal detectors are relatively inexpensive and easy to install. Wand scanners could be deployed asap.  Backpacks and cases need to be scanned or opened. 

2.  Limit and alarm entrances to the schools.  No school is secure if there are multiple entrances, and if anyone can enter the school undetected.  All exterior doors should be locked 100 percent of the time, not propped open, and doors should be checked weekly to make sure they close effectively. [Text Wrapping Break]3.  Actively monitor security cameras. Cameras should be set up for active monitoring on every egress door, so that if a shooter somehow gets in, they can be discovered at the first shot and then isolated so that students are removed from the immediate area. Students could have been prevented from putting themselves in harm’s way, or even rescued.

4.  Leverage gunshot detection solutions. Gunshot detection software can alert at the sound of the first round fired. 

5.  Color photo ID badges should be issued to every student and worn at all times. They cost almost nothing and instantly help to keep people out who should not be in the facility, such as the shooter who carried out this massacre.[Text Wrapping Break]6.  Use bullet-resistant backpacks and white boards. Though they can’t stop a gunman, these products can help children and staff protect themselves when all else fails.

Florida schools are required to “lockdown” if an active shooter code is called. This is not an effective procedure and the number of victims in the Parkland massacre show that it is ineffective. It does not limit the shooter once they are inside the facility and it prevents students from being able to exit quickly.

Once again, as was the case in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, we saw law enforcement holding back instead of entering the school sooner and finding and eliminating the shooter before he kills more students.  

Early on March 20th, before Great Hills High School opened, a male shooter entered the school and began shooting, hitting a female student and a male student, who are both in critical condition at nearby hospitals. 

The School Resource Officer was on the scene and engaged the shooter, who died at a local hospital.

The Importance of a Security Assessment  

A full site security assessment or safety audit conducted by a security professional is the most effective way to identify security-related strengths and weaknesses on your campus.  The assessment can then be used to address immediate areas of vulnerability and budget for more long-term security enhancements. 

Long Term Solutions

Long term solutions should always be pursued but they must include a national discussion about access to lethal and automatic weapons.  We all agree that before a gun can be purchased, a more stringent background check should to be conducted. Think about the events leading up to the 2013 shooting at Los Angeles International Airport, the Pulse Nightclub shooting and even the 2016, New York bombing where the suspect’s father called the FBI to report his child was planning to kill people and nothing was done.  Long-term solutions need to be developed, but in the meantime, the discussion today, tomorrow and the next day needs to be about how we can prevent or lessen the likelihood that a mass casualty, violent event can occur.  This will require the implementation of mandatory controls/solutions that can be deployed today and tomorrow, not in three years.

The close-knit community of Parkland, FL has been terrorized and forever changed.  There is no resolution for those families who lost loved ones or those students and teachers who survived the shooting.  The most aggravating thing about the Parkland, FL massacre is that for one more time, again it's too late. It didn’t matter how much training was done or how many drills were conducted, in this instance, it didn’t help.  


Long-term solutions are a partial answer and we say this because this is not a single answer issue.  It’s a multi-answer and multi-solution issue that can’t be fixed overnight. The safety of the students, faculty and staff in our schools is of paramount importance.  We need to keep everyone safe and learn how to prevent these senseless acts of violence from occurring.

Safety and Security are cultural events as well. We cannot, by the stroke of a pen, legislate all things away.  Look at the root cause. As a safety professional, we try to determine “root cause” vs “ placing blame.

How far can we go to determine the reasons why active and aggressive deadly behavior occurs?  Look at the statistics from the 1960’s to today. Violence in video games, where you “win” with the higher scores, are being played out in the minds of the people today. Social media, or “anti-social” media plays a huge role.

Let’s look at this issue like we’re playing a football game.  There’s offense and defense and both sides make changes and adjust their strategies as their opponent makes changes and adjusts their strategies.  We need to not only think one play ahead, but several plays ahead by being proactive. If an active shooter changes his/her offense tactics, so must we change our defense tactics.  We’re not trying to make light of the seriousness of active shooters, but instead use this sports analogy to initiate a common-sense discussion about solutions. The strategy is plan ahead, have security policies and procedures in place that are consistently followed, implement target-hardening security measures, conduct training and drills and consistently work to not only to reduce the likelihood of an active shooter incident, but reduce fear and improve quality of life.  Safety and Safety is our touchdown.

Lawrence J. Fennelly, Marianna A. Perry and Caroline Ramsey-Hamilton are risk mitigation consultants.