On Her Own

Subway active shooter: what you can do

The news cycle moves fast, but one of the big ones this week was the mass shooting in the NYC subway system a few days ago. It was a worst-case scenario in many ways: a busy commute time, a crowded subway car en route between stations, smoke bombs affecting visibility, and a gunman spraying bullets before slipping out with the panicking crowd. While some folks might focus on what the victims couldn’t do – that is, be in a world free from guns or one where they could shoot back – I’d prefer to focus on what they could and, in some cases, did do.

When it comes to surviving attacks, we often start with simply avoiding them in the first place. John Farnam’s Rule of Stupids is often quoted as an avoidance tactic: don’t go to stupid places at stupid times with stupid people to do stupid things. Harsh, perhaps, and with a strong kernel of truth in many cases, but not in this case. New York is a city that relies on public transportation, where owning a car can be impossibly impractical and expensive for many. While some safety concerns have arisen over the past few years, the subway is still a necessity and by most normal thinking, riding it during rush hour with lots of worker-bees around is about as safe as it can be made. Perhaps those closest to the attacker might have noted him putting a gas mask on, but the layout of a subway car filled with people means that not even everyone on the car could have seen him and what he was doing. And even if they did, there are few reasonable and effective actions that could be taken until the smoke grenades were thrown. Sometimes, you can do everything right, and everything will still go wrong. Realizing that can help you with your next steps to survival because you won’t be frozen with shock at a bad thing happening to you and not only to other people in other places.

Certainly, leaving was not an option, before or after the gas mask and smoke bombs. In spite of our action movie fantasies, it’s highly unrealistic to jump out of a moving train to escape an attacker, let alone while underground. Even if you are near an exit – and let’s be honest, you can’t always maintain full control of where you are in a subway car when it’s busy – wrestling it open and getting out is difficult, time-consuming, and dangerous. However, as long as the subway is moving, it’s most likely headed towards the next station and a simpler, less risky way to leave the situation. What’s more realistic is thinking about the best way to get to that exit as soon as it’s safely available. We’ve talked before about surviving stampeding groups, but the confines of a subway car can be extra-challenging. No later than when the smoke and gunfire start, and preferably before, consider the best exit for you to use and what it would take to get there through the crowd around you. You may not want to go to the closest one if you predict it will be mobbed with people, for instance, and you may need to break “rules” and do things like stepping on seats so that you can stay out of the crush.

In the midst of the attack, our thoughts might turn to fighting back, especially if we have no avenue of escape and the best we might hide behind is minimal or perhaps another human being. One might wonder what options are available, given that carrying guns in NYC is essentially verboten and the gas mask would preclude pepper spray even if it you were comfortable using it in such an enclosed space (you can, but there are some considerations that you would need to be mindful about that aren’t relevant here). Available counterattacks all require going physically hands-on with the bad guy, which is a pretty scary thought and risky endeavor when he’s got a gun and clearly isn’t afraid to use it. If you choose to, are compelled to because you see no other choice, then you are best served by having the skills to actually stop him with that effort. Might you be able to stop him by nothing more than the sheer willpower of rushing him with physical resistance? Absolutely. We’ve seen it happen at other times. But if you think you will want to jump in against an attacker, why not increase your odds of success? Learn to recognize when a gun is jammed or empty and unable to function. Practice some grappling skills and know how to make the most out of strikes without hurting yourself. Don’t rely on the fantasy that you’ll know how to fight when it counts.

One of the defining features of this attack was that nobody died. Some credit the gun jamming, a handful of rounds into the second extended magazine, and others poor marksmanship (on the part of the shooter) or good luck (on everyone else’s part). Those all may be factors, but they aren’t what I’d want to stake my life on. There is something that is under my control, though, and that can be under yours: the ability to provide first-line medical treatment to myself and others who may be injured in this type of attack. It’s surprisingly difficult to kill someone with a handgun bullet in areas where there is access to hospital emergency care, and there is much that can be done to ensure survival if you live past the initial shooting. Stop the Bleed training will teach you the skills, and you can improvise what’s needed to put them into practice. Even better, the relevant purpose-made equipment and supplies are readily available and legal to carry everywhere. With them, you might have been helpless to avoid an attack, unable to escape from it, ineffective to stop it, but you can reduce the death toll from it…and that sounds like a win to me.

Hi, I'm Annette.

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