There’s always been a risk of being victimized by criminals in America. Less in some places than in others. But being victimized by criminals or at the scene of a mass shooting has become much more common in recent years. Maybe it’s a byproduct of the Covid lockdowns. Maybe people are reaching the end of their ropes. Who can say?
Certainly, the ‘Defund the Police’ movement contributed to the problem. A case could also be made for the media having a degree of accountability for the state of things. They certainly turn every crazy into a folk hero by detailing every aspect of their lives for weeks after a mass shooting or heinous crime.
Whatever the sociological reasons, the fact is that carjacking, riots, mass shootings, assault, and robbery are major problems. In short, we frequently find ourselves in hostile environments. In this second installment of everyday lessons from HEAT training, we will look at what you can do to be safer anytime you are outside your home.
See below for Part 1 of this article:
Don’t Look Like a Good Victim
First and foremost, do not look like an easy target. There have been several research projects exploring how criminals choose their victims. Researchers go into prisons and speak to criminals to ask how they choose a victim. In many cases, the criminals cannot put into words how they selected victims, so researchers showed videos of random people on the street, and the criminals told them who they would target.
There are obvious answers, like elderly people, women with expensive clothes, and handicapped people, but there’s more to it than that. There were some definite patterns in their answers.
Not Paying attention
Bad guys love people who aren’t paying attention. Someone absorbed in looking at their phone or texting hasn’t got a clue what’s happening around them. It’s easy to surprise someone who isn’t even looking around. Do it right, and the victim won’t even know what the thief or attacker looked like. Whatever you are looking at on your phone or whomever you’re texting can wait. Pay attention to where you’re going and what’s happening around you.
Not Making Eye Contact
This isn’t the same thing as not paying attention. People who look down and don’t make eye contact are excellent victims. Criminals like targets who are unsure or insecure. They are easy to intimidate, and they rarely put up a fight. They are also indecisive, so criminals have more time to do whatever it is they are planning to do.
When you are walking on the street or anywhere in public, keep your head up and look around. Make sure anyone observing you can see that you are alert and confident. Make brief eye contact with people around you. I don’t mean stare them in the eye like a challenge, just a quick flicker of eye contact that says, “I see you, and I’m paying attention.” You’ll be surprised how many people will look away and watch someone else.
Criminals watch for people who slouch, shuffle their feet, or look exhausted as they walk. They are less likely to be paying attention. Even better, they are also more likely to be weak or slow to react. When you’re walking down the street, move like you have a purpose. People with their heads held high and walking with a spring in their step make poor victims. Criminals, like wolves, look for the soft target.
Try not to look lost, even if you are. Looking lost indicates that you are a stranger in the neighborhood. It also indicates that you are preoccupied. If you need to consult the map or directions on your phone, move out of the center of the sidewalk and into a less obvious and sheltered area. Somewhere where someone watching will lose track of you. Remember to look alert and make eye contact.
In general, be alert, energetic, and confident.
General Safety in Public
Assaults and robberies can happen anywhere. But there are some locations and situations that are higher risk than others. Obviously, dark streets and alleys at 2 am are places to avoid, but there are other places where we all find ourselves from time to time. While there are general things we can do to increase our security, there are also some things specific to those locations.
Parking lots are a perfect place to mount an ambush-style robbery. People come out of the store preoccupied with their hands full and looking for their car. Criminals who have planned ahead by choosing a specific car as it pulls in know exactly where their intended victim is going.
It works like this. Criminals will watch cars coming and going and pick out a good target as it pulls in. It might be an elderly person in a luxury car or a harried young mother in a van with a child or two. They will choose a car parked in a location they can access easily and then escape from quickly.
They watch the target pull in and enter the store, then simply wait for them to come out. When the person reappears with their purchases, they wait until the person is occupied with loading their car and then strike. They might use a weapon to intimidate the person to hand over money, credit cards, and maybe even car keys, or they might just use physical force to get what they want. Either way, it’s over quickly.
How do you prevent it? There are some commonsense things you can do.
- Park in an area where there are more likely to be other people. It may seem like a good idea to park somewhere no one will ding your paint job, but it sets you apart as an easy target.
- Use a shopping cart. Even if you only have one bag, use a cart. It keeps your hands relatively free, gives you something you can position between yourself and an attacker, and you can let go of it very quickly to react to an assault.
- When you get in your vehicle, immediately lock the door. This will make it much more difficult for a bad guy to open your door and either drag you out or get into the car with you.
- Drive away. Don’t sit in your car looking at your phone or messing with your purse. Move the car to another location, even if it’s in the same parking lot, before doing whatever little things you need to door. This will throw the criminal’s plan off and make them choose another target.
- Be alert! Look around as you come out of the store. Observe…is there someone standing around watching you? Is there more than one person who seems to be paying attention to you or the doorway? Look for anyone acting suspiciously.
Carjacking has risen in frequency in the past decade. HEAT courses emphasize it because it’s very common in cities in Africa and South America, but the USA is catching up in recent years.
Carjacking can occur anywhere someone can jump into your car while you are out of it. It can even occur when you’re sitting at a light or in traffic. But the most common place for carjacking in the U.S. is the gas station.
Gas stations give criminals the best opportunity for committing carjacking. Drivers are usually preoccupied with filling their gas tanks. They very often leave their keys in the car. And the passenger doors are usually unlocked. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to be less attractive as a target.
First and foremost, choose your gas station carefully. This goes back to general travel security. Try to plan ahead and fill your tank at a location you know and feel is relatively safe. Or as safe as anywhere these days. Avoid having to get gas at an unfamiliar location or one that is closer to areas of high crime.
Secondly, always pay attention to what is going on around you. The term situational awareness has been used to death, but it’s still the best description of what you need to maintain. Pay attention to the gas station. Are there people just hanging around outside it? How busy is it? A busier location might be less attractive to criminals because there are more witnesses. On the other hand, it’s easier to sneak up in a crowd than in an empty lot, so don’t take anything for granted.
Once you have pulled up to the pump, don’t just jump out. Take a moment to look around. Make sure you are aware of who is around you and what the vehicles on either side of you look like, and who is near them.
When you get out of your vehicle, take your keys with you. That prevents someone from just jumping in and driving away. Remember that when you opened the driver’s door, the other doors on your vehicle were also unlocked. Take a moment to lock them before purchasing gas, even if you have passengers sitting in the car. That will prevent someone from getting in the passenger side while you’re pumping gas.
If someone approaches you and begins talking to you while your tank is filling, do not engage with them. They could be trying to divert your attention while an accomplice uses the opportunity to approach you from another direction. Pay attention and be prepared to react if something happens.
Pay attention to your surroundings while the gas is pumping. Don’t fiddle around with your phone. Remember how criminals choose victims. Conduct your transaction quickly and then leave. Once you get back in your car, don’t sit there. Drive away quickly.
If You Are Armed
If you are a legally armed citizen, do not leave your gun in the car while you get gas. Keep it on your person. It won’t do you any good in the car if something happens. And if someone does manage to get away with your car, you don’t want to sweeten the deal by adding a gun to their take.
When most people think of abduction, they think of someone being targeted and then held for ransom. Although that is the norm in many foreign countries where Westerners are abducted for ransom or political reasons, it’s not all that common in the U.S. The most common type of abduction in America is something the security profession calls Express Kidnapping.
The victim in an express kidnapping is seldom selected in advance. Most often, they are simply a target of opportunity. Such an abduction can take place anywhere, like a store parking lot or a gas station. But the most common place is at an ATM.
Criminals watch an ATM, waiting for an unsuspecting patron to become engrossed in their transaction. Then they either jump in the car with them or, if they are on foot, accost them and force them into a vehicle. The criminal generally forces them to drive around town to various ATMs and withdraw money from all their accounts.
The best solution here is not to become a victim. Use all the lessons we’ve already talked about in the previous sections. Add to that being very careful where and when you use an ATM. Late at night in a deserted bank drive-through is probably the worst place to use an ATM. Most supermarkets and stores have ATMs that are inside. If you need money late at night, use an indoor ATM. If you absolutely must use an outdoor ATM, remember to keep your car doors locked and be ready to speed away immediately if anyone suspicious-looking approaches.
If you are abducted, remember, it’s only money. Follow instructions and cooperate. Of course, if you have a bad feeling that you are not going to escape alive, then you have no choice but to take action.
Reacting to Gunfire
Reacting to gunfire is a staple topic of HEAT courses being provided to people leaving for assignments to hostile regions. It’s a sad social statement that it must now be taught to Americans staying in their own country. But the reality is that the average person can easily be caught up in a situation where criminals or terrorists are shooting at people.
Statistically, people who own guns, and especially those who carry, are less concerned about mass shootings than people who know very little about guns. This probably has less to do with a knowledge of guns than it does with the fact that concealed carriers are better informed and better prepared for violent crime and mass shootings than other folks.
There are an endless variety of scenarios that would require you to react to gunfire. But we’re going to reduce that to two for the sake of organizing the best responses. Those are random events involving gunfire, like a dispute or a drive-by shooting, and active shooter events.
This is an event where you are not specifically the target. It could be a robbery not involving you, a dispute between two people unassociated with you, or a gang-related drive-by in your vicinity. In these instances, gunfire is unlikely to be sustained. The shooter takes a few shots, then either runs or drives away. Of course, you will have no way to initially know that, so reacting is critical. Your actions should be as follows.
- Get down: Dropping prone on the ground reduces your target profile by as much as 90%. It not only takes you out of the path of bullets fired by a standing or sitting person, but it also reduces your visibility. You can’t shoot what you don’t see.
- Try to locate the source and get cover: Determine what direction the shot came from and get something between you and it. Cover, something that will stop a bullet, is preferable. If there isn’t any cover available, then at least get behind some concealment. Cover might be a concrete wall or a tree that can stop a bullet. Concealment would be tall grass or shrubbery or a sheetrock wall. Something that will hide you but will not stop a bullet.
- Run in a zig-zag: If you have something solid between you and where the shots originated, and it seems safe to get out of the area, then do so. Do not run straight away. Instead, run in a zig-zag to make it more difficult for someone to aim at you.
- In a vehicle, get down and drive away: If you’re in a vehicle, get low and get out of there.
Active Shooter Events
An active shooter situation is very different from an event where random shots were fired. In this case, the shooter has the clear intent to kill as many people as possible. Most active shooters have already decided they are not going to survive the event themselves, so they will not be trying to get out of the area. They will be looking for more victims, and the event is likely to go on for a while.
The response commonly recommended is to Run, Hide, or Fight. Knowing ahead of time what your realistic options are is part of that situational awareness we talk about. The first thing my wife and I do when we enter a new environment is to get a feel for the layout of the place.
Where are the entrances and exits, what cover is available, and where can you go in the event you can’t get out? First and foremost, stay calm and think clearly. Remember that stores have back doors, and restaurants have kitchen entries.
Let’s talk about each one in more detail.
Your best option, if possible, is to run. Get yourself and your loved ones out of the area as quickly as possible. Steps to follow:
- Identify the source of the shooting and move away.
- Do not hesitate or look to see what is going on.
- Do not wait for others. By this, I mean do not try to herd strangers out of the area. I know people reading this will be inclined to try to intervene, and I will address that later. But in general, the guidance is to get yourself and your loved ones out of the area if at all possible.
- Run from cover/concealment to cover/concealment. In other words, try to keep something between you and the shooter. Preferably something that will stop a bullet, but even breaking their line of sight will help.
- Don’t stop until you are completely out of the area.
If there is no way you can escape the area, hiding is your next option. But you must be sure the place you choose to hide will actually hide you from the shooter. Under a table is not a good hiding place. Neither is a restroom unless it’s one where you can lock the entrance. Not the stall but the entrance to the restroom itself. Steps to follow:
- Barricade yourself in. Find a place where you can lock the shooter out. A restroom isn’t good unless it’s a family or unisex restroom where you can lock the main door into the restroom.
- Stay low and behind cover. Even if you’re barricaded in, you should still stay low and find any cover that might be available. If there is no solid cover, lie prone along the front wall. That is the wall closest to where the shooter will be. Someone shooting through a wall will hold their weapon at waist or shoulder height and probably aim down. If you’re along the back wall, you will be hit. But if you lie prone along the front wall, the bullets will pass over you.
- Make no noise. No talking if there’s more than one of you, and no whimpering or crying. Silence your phone so it doesn’t go off and give you away.
- Play dead. If you’re anywhere, the shooter might be able to see you play dead. Not a sound or movement.
The last option for the average person is to fight. If you have reached this point, then make no mistake. You are fighting for your life. This isn’t 10th grade. If you lose this fight, you will lose your life and the lives of any loved ones who are with you.
- Be utterly committed. This is no time to be squeamish or to hold back. This person is already committed to killing you and anyone else they can. You need the same commitment. Remember that the human body is designed to protect vital areas from blows from above. Look at yourself in the mirror. Your eyebrow ridges protect your eyes from above. Your chin protects your throat. Your ribs protect your heart and soft organs. Get inside their reach and attack up into the eyes and throat. If practical, throw something at the shooter as soon as they appear and then attack right behind it. This may make them flinch or duck and give you time to close with them.
- Use anything you can for a weapon. Use whatever you can find. A fire extinguisher, tools, glass bottles, and anything else heavy and easy to swing.
- Control the hands. You want to get in close so they don’t have room to maneuver a rifle or aim a handgun. Control their hands and take them down to the floor if possible. If there are more than one of you, so much the better. But either way, control the hands holding the gun and take the person out of the fight.
- Do not stop fighting. Even if you are wounded, tired, or otherwise injured…keep fighting. Don’t let up until the shooter is out of the fight.
A Note on Being Armed
Many of you reading this article are always armed everywhere you can legally be armed. If you’re like me, you do not leave your house unarmed. For me, that includes mowing the lawn and getting the mail from my rural mailbox. Hopefully, in addition to your handgun and a spare magazine, your EDC kit includes a knife and flashlight. If that is the case, then you are never unarmed unless you are somewhere like a government building where it is illegal to be armed. I’ll let you make your own decision about private stores and theaters posted as “Gun Free Zones.”
That means you can fight back against an active shooter. There are numerous examples of armed citizens stopping crazed and evil shooters who were in the process of trying to murder innocent people. Just remember that if you are carrying a subcompact .380ACP pistol, you are going to be outgunned by an active shooter with a rifle. How to engage an active shooter with a handgun goes beyond the scope of this article. But it can be done. On July 18, 2022, Elisjsha Dicken stopped an active shooter armed with an AR15 with his Glock handgun. The mall where it happened was a Gun Free Zone.
I will simply say the following and leave it at that. If you choose to or are forced to intervene by circumstances, choose your time and place as carefully as circumstances permit. Be aware of the effectiveness of your weapon and the range at which you can realistically hit your target. Gauge the situation. Are they wearing body armor? Are there bystanders on the other side of the shooter who your misses might hit? Stay calm and engage with deliberation.
Once the active shooter event is over, stay where you are. Do not run toward the police. They do not know who is who or how many shooters there are. Stay where you are and let them find you. They may even point their guns at you when they see you. Just stay calm and keep your hands in plain sight. Things will get worked out.
HEAT courses can run anywhere from 4 hours to several days. I’ve only touched on a few of the highlights in this article. Get further training if you can. Above all, plan ahead. Reviews of incidents indicate that in a crisis event, it’s the people who had thought about all the things that could happen and made a plan who kept their heads and responded effectively.