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ILEETA Report: Features of the Active Killer

I recently attended the annual conference of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA) in Wheeling, IL. As it has been since I first attended in 2005, it was an outstanding meeting.

I had the privilege of sitting on the "Panel of Experts on Use of Deadly Force", moderated by Massad Ayoob. As usual, this was a lively discussion forum with a lot of good input from the panel and from the floor. One of the most interesting topics brought up was and update from Ron Borsch on his research into the features of "active killers".  Ron manages the South East Area Law Enforcement (SEALE) Regional Training Academy in Bedford, OH, and has been researching features of active killer incidents for a number of years.

Ron believes the "active shooter" term commonly used by the media and by law enforcement is inaccurate, pejorative and prejudicial against law-abiding firearms users, and potentially dangerous to law enforcement personnel. As he correctly points out, a law-abiding citizen shooting trap or punching holes in targets on his back 40 is an "active shooter": he is actively shooting, and doing so completely within the limits of the law! Ron quite reasonably argues that  the term "active shooter" needs to be replaced by "active killer", because the latter term conveys the essence of the deranged murderer and his actions in two succinct words. I agree. We need to get the message out to fellow LEOs and to the media that this terminology needs to change.

Borsch defines an active killer as a mass murderer (4 or more victims are intentionally murdered in the same episode and location) whose acts take place in no more than 20 minutes. This definition encompasses every active killer event since Charles Whitman’s rifle rampage at the University of Texas in 1966, and including the Columbine High School horror, among others. Borsch has analyzed almost 100 incidents. Borsch’s research shows that the modus operandi of active killers has remained consistent through time, and this knowledge has shaped his training for LEOs.

Borsch’s research reveals a number of critical features of active killers. First, they almost always act alone (98% of cases). Second, their primary objective is to produce as high a body count as possible in a short period of time; they commit as many as 8 murders/attempted murders per minute during their rampages. Borsch relates this high rate of killing in his metaphoric "stopwatch of death": the active killer knows that police will respond, and he has only minutes to cause as many deaths as possible. The active killer fears police, or in fact any form of armed resistance. When police or armed citizens show up, the active killer takes his own life in 90% of incidents. Active killers are "dynamic and quick" (average duration of attacks post-Columbine is less than 8 minutes), almost never take hostages, and they do not negotiate. In 80% of cases active killers have used long guns (rifles or shotguns), and 75% of active killers bring multiple firearms to the scene. 

Borsch has used his data to formulate a training program and policy template that encourages the first responding officers to an active killer call to make immediate entry to the location. As Borsch states, "The incident may well be over by the time police arrive. But with some of these subjects attempting as many as 8 murders a minute, we don’t have the luxury of waiting for backup before entering. These are extraordinary events that warrant an extraordinary response."

Borsch’s training emphasizes the first responding officer making rapid entry into the location, with weapon(s) out and ready for immediate deployment. The active killer is unlikely to return fire on police officers, but also is highly unlikely to respond positively to verbal warnings or to negotiate. Officers need to be prepared to shoot immediately when the subject is encountered. Since active killers are increasingly resorting to wearing body armor, responding officers should be aware that multiple upper torso/head shots may be required to stop the carnage. A patrol rifle/carbine or shotgun is the preferred LEO entry weapon.

Borsch cites the recent actions of officer Justin Garner, who earlier this year responded to an active killer call at a nursing home in North Carolina, as an exemplar. By the time Garner entered the building, the subject had murdered 7 elderly residents and a nurse in a matter of only a few minutes. Garner encountered the subject as he was reloading his shotgun. Garner terminated the encounter with one shot to the subject’s upper chest with his service sidearm.

Of significant note, Borsch’s study reveals that only 6 active killer incidents have been successfully terminated in progress by LEOs. Most successful terminations were the product of courageous action on the part of private citizens, most often unarmed. However, it should be noted that nearly every active killer incident on record in the USA has occurred in so-called "gun-free" or "zero weapons tolerance" zones such as shopping malls, office buildings, and schools. It should come as no surprise to most of us that these zones are highly attractive to the active killer, as he is more likely to be able to execute his high body count plan than he would be in, say, a police station or gunshop!

More on the absurdity of "gun-free" zones, particularly schools, to follow in my next blog article.


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