Recognizing an Active Shooter Threat before it Happens

Understanding the body language and behavior of a potential shooter before they act can help avert disaster. But, then you’ve got to think and act quickly. 

There’s a key element of active shooter threat training that programs traditionally overlook – biophysics and behavior during the early stage of any event. Understanding behavior anomalies and acting upon them can be the difference between life and death. 

Baseline (behavior) + Anomaly = Decision

Our minds and bodies are programed to seek out baseline behaviors within our environments. This is an ingrained protection mechanism that we all possess. Alerts come in the form of ‘funny feelings,’ being ‘unsettled’ or a feeling that ‘something is just not quite right.’

Seeking out those anomalies and then making a decision as to whether or not to stay in observation mode, or engage with the individual is the critical decision. Our current societal norms and habits prevent many from engaging individuals when their behavioral characteristics are different than those around them. 

For example, people committed to harming others will walk differently than ‘normal’ people, and so those and other identifiable behaviors intensify within a potential shooter before he strikes. Recognizing these warning signs at the right time can be the key to averting disaster.

The challenge is, these clues come just hours or moments before the crime, and therefore, are often overlooked, misread or misunderstood by those around the shooter. In some of the most well-known active shooter events, witnesses say their encounter with the shooter just before the event was full of biophysical and behavioral pattern clues unique to an active shooter – only they recognized them too late or failed to engage/disrupt the shooter prior to the event.


Recognizing biophysical and behavioral patterns

Once the mental process to engage in violence occurs, the body responds and prepares to fight. A person in this mode typically exhibits some or all of the following biophysical features when the body’s sympathetic nervous system takes over the individual:

  • Head tilts forward (protecting the neck and  putting the forehead, the thickest bone formation in the skull, forward)
  • Focused eyes (aka, tunnel vision)
  • Puffed up chest, straight back
  • Leaning forward
  • Fists may clinch
  • Heartrate increases along with internal temperature, which causes redness and sweating.
  • Increased inhaling and exhaling (needed to oxygenate the blood)

Once you notice these biophysical features, you have to make a split decision – and time is not on your side. Unfortunately, because many jobs revolve around a one-dimensional surface, i.e. the screen of a computer or hand-held device, our ability to observe such things has greatly diminished over time. That’s why training in biophysical signs can be especially helpful in violence prevention for institutions.

When violent offenders are from inside the targeted organization, their normal behavior patterns are known and anything outside of their baseline will be more easily recognizable.

Look for anomalies in behavioral patterns, or clothes that are a recent departure from the person’s baseline, including outward accessories, like jewelry and shoes. All anomalies convey a message, because accessories are purposeful and have reason. And then consider if the individual’s behavior is attempting to establish dominance, neutrality or submission.  How do they respond when you verbally engage them?

  •  Are they complacent before you?
  • Is there any push back in response to you?
  • Are they submissive?
  • Can they provide detailed answers?
  • Is their tone of voice authentic? 

A different type of training

Eliminating the threat of an active shooter begins well before the perpetrator is inside the building or school. Training staff on biophysical and behavioral signs can add a new level of protection to your institution. Contact your AVMA Trust Risk Services Specialist to learn how you can diversify your training and active shooter prevention to include biophysical and behavioral responses.