Surviving a Movie Theater Shooting

Recently, a man began firing rounds in a Louisiana movie theater.  He fired 20 rounds from a .40 Hi-Point pistol, hitting 11 people before killing himself when police arrived.

Have you ever thought about what you might do if you were engaged by an active killer while watching a film at a movie theater?  Here are some things you should be considering:

1) Choose your seats wisely.  I always sit on the aisle, ideally in one of the “separator rows” that have more legroom in front.  I want to be able to instantly move if I have to react.  I don’t want to be trapped in a middle seat and be forced to scramble over dozens of obese, popcorn eating moviegoers to engage a shooter or escape.  More specifically, I sit with my left arm on the aisle and my right side toward my companion.  I carry my gun on my right side.  If I have to engage in a hand to hand struggle with the shooter in the aisle, it will be slightly harder for him to access my right hand to foul my draw.  Additionally, if I am disabled or occupied fighting the shooter, it gives my (potentially) unarmed companion better access to my weapon.

There are those who will advocate taking a middle seat because the shooter is likely to target people along the aisles first.  That may be a good point, but I prefer better mobility to the ballistic protection offered by others’ bodies.  Remember, the emergency you face may not be a shooter, but something else (bomb, fire, gang fight, etc).  I think the aisle offers a better overall position.

The shooter in this case did not initially fire from the aisle.  He stood up and shot from his own seat, initially targeting the two women sitting immediately in front of him.  In a situation like this, an aisle seat would certainly be a better option than sitting in the middle.  An aisle seat in the far rear of the theater might be the absolute best place to be.

2) Pick at least two exits.  Look around before you sit down and notice all the potential exit points.  Your primary strategy during any type of emergency is to escape.  That has historically served as the most successful option for the largest number of people in past active shooting incidents.  Find the exits and have a plan to get to them (including getting your companions or loved ones out as well).

3) Carry the right equipment.  One thing I never leave home without is a powerful flashlight (I generally carry two).  That would have been tremendously useful in a dark theater that was filling with the smoke of 20 gunshots.  Whether it’s used to temporarily blind the shooter, find an escape route, or to line up your sights, a flashlight would be incredibly useful.

If you can lawfully carry a gun, think about your weapon choice.  What gun would you choose if you knew you might have to fight a shooter  in a dark, smoke filled theater with dozens of panicked people running around?  For me, a .38 snub or .380 auto would be at the bottom of the list.  Carry enough gun to do the job.  Movie theaters are large.  You’ll want a gun with which you can easily hit a target 25 or more meters away.  Most pocket pistols aren’t very useful for making precision shots at long range in the dark.

Carry what you like, but when I went to the movies last Saturday night, I carried a Glock 19 with a spare mag and a bright flashlight.

The other important thing to carry in crowded public places is medical gear.  If you were seriously injured and unable to evacuate, could you treat yourself and prevent your own death for nearly 30 minutes until the paramedics arrived?  What type of gear should you carry with you to self-treat a gunshot wound?  While I have a complete trauma bag in my car, sometimes a full kit is difficult to carry on your person.  At bare minimum, I carry a military triangular bandage.  While it isn’t the best piece of gear, it can be used adequately to improvise a pressure dressing, pack a wound, or create a tourniquet.  If I am wearing a jacket or a pair of pants with a large pocket, I will generally supplement the triangular bandage with a mini pressure dressing, some petrolatum gauze (for a sucking chest wound), and a flat pack of duct tape.  I can treat almost any wound adequately with those items and they don’t take up too much space.

4) Think about what else you will need to escape.  Good footwear comes to mind immediately.  I don’t go out in public anywhere I may have to run while wearing flip-flops.  Wear some real shoes!

Also think about where you park your car. I prefer to park a little bit farther away from the theater (nose out) so that I can make an escape if necessary without being blocked in by responding emergency vehicles and crime scene tape.

5) Training is important.  Think about this scenario again.  It’s dark and smoky.  You have dozens of innocent people running around.  A man is firing at you with a large caliber pistol.   Could you actually hit the target with your chosen CCW gun?  That’s a tough shot to make.  Don’t delude yourself thinking that your military experience from 30 years ago or the 8-hour CCW class you took gives you the skills to do it.  It’s never been easier to get quality professional firearms training.  If you are serious about protecting yourself and your loved ones, it would be in your best interest to find a good instructor or shooting school and take some classes.

Think about these tips before you spend any time in a movie theater.

Greg Ellifritz is the full time firearms and defensive tactics training officer for a central Ohio police department. He holds instructor or master instructor certifications in more than 75 different weapon systems, defensive tactics programs and police specialty areas. Greg has a master's degree in Public Policy and Management and is an instructor for both the Ohio Peace Officer's Training Academy and the Tactical Defense Institute.

For more information or to contact Greg, visit his training site at Active Response Training.

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