Testing Reality

Potential "active shooter" toll

Response time - how many can die?

An incident of mass murder at a university, college campus or other gathering of people is referred to by professional law enforcement trainers as an "active shooter" incident.

How many lives of disarmed victims might be taken by an active shooter before law enforcement can arrive and stop the shooter?

Legitimate questions have been asked about historic and projected response times for law enforcement professionals to an active shooter incident.

In early April of 2008, the International Law Enforcement Educators' and Trainers' Association held its annual conference in Wheeling, Illinois.  Veteran firearms instructor and writer John Farnam reports from that conference:

"Ed Sanow, active trainer and editor of Law and Order Magazine, told us all that the four-man, 'diamond' formation that is currently being promulgated as the local PD's standard response to 'active-shooter' calls is indeed an effective and powerful, tactical tool.  It is also mostly wishful thinking!

"By the time we get four, plain-vanilla patrolmen, let alone four SWAT-Team members, to the scene and ready to make entry, nearly a half hour will have elapsed since the first 911 call.  By then, there is every chance the entire event will be long-since over!  Ed suggests we need to be training with two-man teams, even one-man entry, if we expect to act in time to save any lives.  Even then, he tells his school administrators that they will be on their own for at least the first six minutes.  There is virtually no possibility even the first beat-car will get there any sooner than that."

This report confirms that even though the first law enforcement officer may arrive on the scene of an active shooting incident within (no earlier than) six minutes, that officer will probably not effect entry and interdiction, but will rely on protocol to wait until a four-man "diamond" entry team can be assembled, 30 minutes after the first 911 call.

What is the likely price for this delay, price in number of human lives?  Also, what is the likely price of a policy decision to disarm the victims of such an attack?

This question can be answered, but requires making some assumptions.  Let us first assume that the active shooter incident occurs in a "gun-free zone," a place where all potential victims have been disarmed by applied policy, and nobody on the scene is armed and able to stop the active shooter.

Then, the simple question becomes, how many people can the active shooter shoot in six minutes, or in 30 minutes?  How many accurate shots can a reasonabley adept person fire in six minutes, or in 30 minutes.

The answer to this question is subject to testing, and this test has been accomplished.  Here is the report of this test.

Test Conditions

At a designated shooting range, six targets were set up seven yards from the shooting position.  The targets used were the standard target of the United States Practical Shooting Association, a brown, cardboard target of humanoid shape, and with faint scoring lines present that are not visible to the shooter.  The targets were placed a target-width apart to separate them somewhat, but to also simulate a relatively target-rich environment likely to be found in a school classroom or lecture hall.

The shooter was started facing the targets, with handgun loaded and holstered.  A "shot timer" was used for timing the test.  A shot timer is an electronic device used for competitive shooting that emits a loud tone to start the shooter.  When the tone sounds, the timer also starts a very accurate quartz clock running.  The timer hears each shot and records the elapsed time from the start signal to each shot, to the nearest 1/100th of a second.  The timer may also be programmed to give a "par time" signal.  This par time signal is a second loud tone that tells the shooter that available time has elapsed and the shooter must stop shooting.  For this test, the par time was set at 15 seconds.

The participating shooters were instructed that they must change targets for each shot - that they could not fire two simultaneous shots at any one target.  This was to simulate a new target for each shot fired.

So, how many accurate shots were participating shooters able to fire in 15 seconds?


Six different shooters participated in the test.  The fewest shots recorded in 15 seconds was 17.  The most shots fired in 15 seconds was 34.  The mean was about 25 (VIDEO CLIPS).

This rate of fire is easily sustainable for one minute, which yields a range of 68 to 136 accurate shots that can be fired in a 60-second period.

Most of the shots fired during this test scored in the "A zone" of the targets used, shots that would be fatal to a person.  Shots not in the A-zone were mostly in the C zone, hits that would likely be fatal to a person not immediately given quality, professional medical care.  (Note:  This writer was formerly an advanced life support paramedic and has treated many gunshot victims.)

Since most of the shooters participating in this test were experienced shooters, suppose an active shooter could only fire half as many accurate rounds as the fewest fired in this test, or 34 per minute.  Since the first law enforcement officer able to interdict the active shooter cannot be expected to arrive until six minutes after the first 911 call (which may occur some time after the active shooter begins shooting), our less adept active shooter could still fire over 200 shots before the first officer arrives.  This officer may or may not enter and stop the shooter.  The active shooter could conceivably fire as many as 1,000 shots before the "diamond" formation can be assembled to stop the shooter, 30 minutes after the first 911 call.


The real limit to the cost in human lives in an active shooter incident becomes the density and availability of targets, as long as the victims cannot fight back and as long as the strategy depended upon to stop the shooter is the arrival of law enforcement.  With a large group of victims, such as in a large lecture hall with the exits chained shut, as was done at Virginia Tech, an active shooter might have sufficient targets to kill continuously for the first six minutes, or longer.  In that case, the toll would be horrendous.

The net price of an applied policy to assure that all victims are disarmed and unable to resist an active shooter may be scores of dead students.

Analysis - The Montana University System and Firearms