Rethinking ‘Run, Hide, Fight’

Our mass-shooting guidance may be woefully out of date.

A makeshift memorial to victims of the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs
Jason Connolly / AFP / Getty

Last night, at least five people were killed and 25 were injured in a shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The venue, Club Q, has been described as a “second home full of chosen family,” a safe space for people to be who they are. No more. The motive of the attacker remains unclear, but officials are investigating whether the attack should be classed as a hate crime. It comes against a backdrop of continuing threats against and vilification of the LGBTQ community and transgender teens, and the rise of hostile protests at gay-rights parades and events.

Early reports say the suspect, who is alive, was in possession of a “long gun.” He might have killed many more people in such a confined space if not for the actions of, according to police, “at least two heroic people” inside the club. These individuals are believed to have confronted the gunman and stopped the in-progress massacre.

“Run, hide, fight” has been the guiding principle in my profession—security—for decades. Running is preferred; hiding if it is the only response possible; fighting if there is no other choice. The motto describes the active-shooter-response training that has emerged for populations as diverse as high-school students, office workers, and those who are out partying on a Saturday night. No active-shooter situation is the same, so it isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, of course. Younger children, for instance, are subject to controversial lockdown training instead.

When it comes to general safety, this is what I tell my children, who are now teens and young adults: If somebody tries to grab your purse or bike, let them. No material thing is worth a potentially violent escalation. If you’ve partied too hard, call me for a ride—no questions asked. If you are in an active-shooter situation, run as fast as you can, hide if you must, and, as a last resort, fight. That’s what the experts have told parents to say: Don’t be a hero. Run. Just please, run. Get out of there.

If this all sounds clinical and antiseptic, it is. Lives are not saved in the midst of an attack by railing against our permissive gun culture. During the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, 10 of the 12 murdered students perished inside the school library—a room where they believed they could hide safely. In the years that followed, “Run, hide, fight” emerged as sort of a dismal new take on “Stop, drop, and roll.” But fighting—or engaging with the assailant—was never really taken seriously; the British, with fewer armed civilians than the U.S. but with significant domestic-terror threats, even dropped the fight from their training and simply urge “Run, hide, tell”—as in tell the authorities. Something about it is quaint. I’m now asking myself whether we in the U.S. have been too dismissive about fighting back.

Riley Howell, 21, died during a shooting on campus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2019 as he charged the suspect and successfully ended the incident. Just a few weeks later, Kendrick Castillo was killed in Colorado while lunging at a shooter, his classmate, allowing for their other classmates to exit the room or hide. Earlier this year, a massacre ended when Elisjsha Dicken, 22, pulled out his handgun and killed the shooter, who had already claimed three victims. Dicken’s actions, in particular, reignited a debate about responsible gun ownership and added to the thorny conversation about a “good guy with a gun.”

Shootings like the one last night at Club Q add to a sense—neither conclusive nor absolute—that fighting is indeed a viable option to stop a massacre in progress. If we are to be guided by facts, and consider our safety training based on the available evidence, then we need to further assess whether, in an age when so much damage can be done so quickly by guns that should not be on the street, “Run, hide, fight” is still the correct public messaging. With killers having the capacity to end the lives of so many people so fast, neither running nor hiding may be the best first option. It is our reality. I don’t love it; I don’t even like it.

The chaos and delays in saving children in Uvalde, Texas, have also raised skepticism about police-response capacities. According to the FBI, nearly 70 percent of all active-shooter incidents end before police arrive; nearly 37 percent of them end in two minutes or less. In the United States, we are vulnerable to gun violence at any moment.

I have struggled, in my profession, with how to measure success. In my book The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning to Live in an Age of Disasters, “less bad”—whether things would have been worse but for an intervention—ends up being better than the alternative. At least five people partying at an LGBTQ bar were killed last night. More lives could have been lost if not for the fight of two brave heroes.

I’m not ready to say I want my young kids to fight if, God forbid, they encounter a mass shooter. But I’m willing to admit that maybe I want someone present to fight for them. I don’t love it. I don’t even like it. In fact, I hate it.