Active Shooting Psychology

It seems that the incidents of active shooters are becoming more common.  After each tragic occurrence, people ask themselves and each other what motivates the perpetrators to go on a rampage killing.  They might also consider what they need to do or how they will cope with the distress of such traumatic events.  The American Psychological Association (APA) describes the multitude of feelings that may overwhelm people, including sorrow, numbness, shock, anger, fear disillusionment, grief and yet more (APA, 2017).  After a time, difficulties experienced in engaging in our basic drives (sleeping, eating, for example) start to settle, and thoughts begin to regain their former clarity.  No sooner has the initial grief started to wane somewhat, but disaster strikes again, and the cycle repeats itself.  The APA advocates for resilience strengthening, that is, to be able to adapt in the face of adversity.  This is sound advice; and anyone can visit their website to read their tips on distress management (  It is important to seek out a professional therapist if you need help, sooner is better than later.

However, something else can be done: it is possible, to not only be reactive and help each other better cope with the aftermath of mass shooting trauma, but to be proactive and be more guarded as an individual, or as a group, specifically in our different places of worship.  Places such as churches, schools, and hospitals once thought to be community sanctuaries have had to formulate safety plans and undertake emergency trainings to proactively strengthen their resilience (Palestis, 2016). Taking a proactive stance does not mean making the congregation in constant fear; if done correctly, it is a reassurance that others are looking out for them.

It is very difficult to understand the different reasons that may trigger active shooter behavior; and sometimes these may be inaccurately described in the literature.  For example, according to Dutton, White and Fogarty (2013) diaries and web sites inspected from a subset of mass shooters contradicts the commonly-held belief of their psychopathic nature or reacting because of rage from being bullied.  Third-party peers described these individuals as over-exaggerating the negativity of their treatment (Dutton et al., 2013).   The APA state that many possible risk factors may be precursors to the use of a firearm on other people; it is not possible to create a profile of who is likely to commit gun violence, and it is unfair, and stigmatizes the mentally ill to say most active or mass shooters are mentally ill.  The APA (2017) says that the most consistent factor seems to be a history of violence.  Unless the behavior attached to the violent history has been observed, it is not easy to identify such an individual.  It is possible to be prepared in advance and follow recommendation to stay as safe as possible in highly traumatic situations.

There may never be satisfactory answers to what triggers active shooter behavior; preparing ourselves to lessen impact on us, to be safer in such situations, is something that can be proactively sought, specifically in places like churches, schools, and so forth.  Consider reaching out and building yourself up with resilience training as an individual and specifically as a group for your establishment.

Cleo Warnick

(Master’s Degree Learner, Clinical Psychology)



APA. (2017). APA Resources for Coping with Mass Shootings, Understanding Gun Violence. Retrieved from

Dutton, D. G., White, K. R., & Fogarty, D. (2013). Paranoid thinking in mass shooters. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18(5), 548-553. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2013.07.012

Palestis, K. (2016). Active shooters: What emergency nurses need to know. Journal of Forensic Nursing, 12(2), 74.