Marching to the Sound of Gunshots

Virginia Tech incident puts emphasis on active shooter response


     Imagine sitting in a classroom, daydreaming and staring at the sunny skies just outside an open window, as your instructor drones on about elementary German. You are abruptly dragged from your reverie by loud popping noises in the hallway outside. Thinking it's the din of construction as carpenters begin their day, you turn your attention back to the lecture. Then a man dressed in a black leather jacket, dark-colored jeans and a baseball cap storms into the room and you find yourself in the crosshairs of a .22-caliber pistol.

     While this might sound like it's ripped straight from a Hollywood movie script, it is exactly the situation some Virginia Tech students encountered on April 16 when a 23-year-old gunman murdered 32 people before killing himself.

     These types of cases have become so commonplace that law enforcement professionals coined the phrase "active shooter." This term is used to describe an armed individual who has used deadly force on others and continues to do so while having unrestricted access to additional victims. The list of cities struck by the active shooter phenomenon is long and includes places like Littleton and Bailey, Colorado; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Red Lake, Minnesota; San Diego, California; and Barts Township, Pennsylvania. Reviewing the list of names, it quickly becomes clear that be it a pastoral village or sprawling metropolis, no community is immune to an active shooter massacre.

     Because these dangerous and unpredictable situations require swift and immediate law enforcement action, authorities have fashioned a response strategy where first responders march to the sound of gunshots to neutralize the threat. The modified response tactic has prompted many of the nation's police agencies to engage officers in ultra-realistic training regimes aimed at eliminating and minimizing casualties by preparing patrol officers to go in where they typically haven't gone before. "Traditionally we've always put officer safety first," says Anthony Callisto, Syracuse (New York) University chief of public safety. "But this kind of training really puts victim safety first. We are putting officers in harm's way to enter an active shooting situation."

     Active shooter response training originated after Colorado's Columbine High School attack, where 13 people lost their lives and 24 were injured. In the massacre's aftermath, responding agencies teamed with the Los Angeles Police Department's SWAT team and the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) to develop an active shooter protocol termed Immediate Action Rapid Deployment or IARD.

     This training places emphasis on the fact that officers must charge into a situation — even if it means putting their own lives at stake. As Lt. Patrick Martin of the Greenfield (Wisconsin) Police Department points out, "You've got to do something or people are going to die."

A thinking man's game

     At Virginia Tech, the diminutive, South Korean gunman brandishing a 9mm Glock 19 and a Walther P22 took out his first two victims in the early morning hours. He returned two hours later, chained shut the three main entrances to an educational building and opened fire into second-story classrooms. Thirty others were slain before the gunman turned a weapon on himself. "The [second] shooting spree took him 9 minutes — 9 minutes to shoot 170 rounds and kill 30 people," says Tom Turner, director of campus safety at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. "The best thing a department can do is send in first responders to try to minimize death and injury, and neutralize the threat."

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