Fight or Flight at Virginia Tech

What should you do when confronted with a gun-wielding madman?

Eyewitnesses at Monday’s Virginia Tech massacre described a chaotic scene in which some professors fought back against Cho Seung-Hui, a group of students blocked off their classroom door, and many others sought safety under their desks. What should you do when confronted with a gunman?

Fight or flee, depending on the situation. Running away should be your first plan, when possible. At 20 feet from the gunman, you’re still within a deadly range, but at 40 feet, you’re a difficult shot. If he starts to shoot as you’re making your escape, try to run in a zigzag or another unpredictable pattern. To escape through an upper-floor window, find a drain pipe or a ledge that can slow your descent or let you slide down part of the way. You’ll likely hurt your ankles when you land, so be prepared to break the fall with a quick roll. Protect your body by rolling over one shoulder, diagonally across the back and onto the opposite hip.

If there’s no way out, then assess the situation. Most robberies, for instance, end without violence, so it may make sense to cooperate with the gunman. If you’re confronted with a determined psychopath, fighting would be a better option.

If the killer opens fire, you’ll want to take cover behind heavy furniture. Hiding is only a temporary strategy, though, since a gunman like Cho may plan to kill everybody in a room. At least two of the students at Virginia Tech survived by playing dead, but if they had more time on their side, they and others could have gone on the offensive.

To disarm a gunman, you’ll need to take his focus off his weapon and his plan of attack. To do this, you might throw chairs, laptops, or fire extinguishers at him, or set off the sprinkler system or fire alarm. Then, you’d want to pick up a desk or some other shield and charge right at the killer. There’s a chance you’ll be killed in the process, but if two or three people rush at once, there’s also a chance that somebody will take him down. (Unarmed civilians who band together have a much better chance of surviving an attack.)

If you’re already within a step or two of the gunman, you might be able to grab his weapon. If he’s facing you, quickly reach up and take hold of the barrel, and then aim it away from your body. The move should be as clean and economical as possible. The gunman will reflexively pull the gun back away from you. Go with him: Keep gripping the gun and push your weight forward. Then, punch him in the face or the throat as hard as you can. Hit him on the nose, jab your fingers into his eyes, or strike him with the heel of your open palm. Then use your free hand to grab the nonbusiness end of the gun. With two hands on the gun, you can knee the killer in the groin or head-butt him. A better idea might be to twist your hands like they are revving a motorcycle engine. The weapon will pivot and break the gunman’s finger inside the trigger guard.

Of course, this wouldn’t have worked at Virginia Tech, since Cho had one gun in each hand. In that case, your best option would be to grab both weapons and hold the gunman off with kicks until another person can help disarm him.

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Explainer thanks Richard Kobetz of Executive Protection Institute and John Whitman of Krav Maga Worldwide.