Active shooters almost always leave clues before they attack; here’s what to look for and how to report 


It is the nightmare scenario. Mass shootings have become a seemingly ever-more prominent backdrop to life in the United States. 

The recent shootings, in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the racially motivated massacre in a Buffalo, N.Y. supermarket, and, closer to home, the attack at a church in Laguna Woods, have driven home that these kinds of tragedies can happen anywhere, to anyone, and for any reason.

In their ruthlessness, hatred and seeming randomness, mass shootings strike at the heart of a society’s psyche.

“Active shooters are the hardest to deal with because they are willing to die,” said Sgt. Gus Gonzalez, who is the SWAT Sergeant for the Tustin Police Department. “With that mindset, it’s hard to combat.”

In response to the heightened activity and concern over such occurrences, public safety groups are rallying to raise public awareness on how to react.

Locally, efforts like SafeOC have continually pressed the message If You See Something, Say Something, and have included tips on how to report suspicious or potentially serious situations you may see online or on social media.

Tell someone

According to many experts, society is no longer in a place where citizens can just hope for the best. In the United States, where citizens have the ability to both legally, and illegally, purchase a firearm or weapon, we must remain vigilant and watchful.

If there is a glimmer of hope, it’s that authorities say shooters almost always leave clues or hints before they strike. People just need to be on the lookout.

On SafeOC’s website they state, “Remember, do not ignore your feelings of uneasiness about a person or circumstances you may encounter. If you observe someone or something unusual or suspicious that may be related to terrorism or criminal activity, take the time to complete the online report and have the situation checked out.”

Gonzalez put it in stark terms, saying it is a person’s duty and part of our social contract.

“If you’re not going to be responsible enough to call something in, that’s where we’re all going to fail,” he said. “As a society we’re going to let these people win.”

In an emergency, call 9-1-1. If the threat is not immediate, you can contact a police department or a number of organizations that accept tips, including the Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center. Information can be provided anonymously or online.

When reporting suspicions you should always keep the five W’s in mind:

  • Who did you see?
  • What did you observe?
  • When did you see it?
  • Where did it occur?
  • Why is it suspicious?

If you happen to see suspicious activity on social media, be sure to take a screenshot or screen record the activity. Provide the platform, name of the user and their social media handle.

Gonzalez said it is important to be straightforward without embellishment.

“Be clear and concise, don’t add things you don’t know,” he said. “Be honest and give straight facts.” When you speak to a professional trained in the field, they may help you think of critical details.

Gonzalez said if you feel something is worth reporting, it’s important to make the call yourself and not ask someone else to do it for you. Reports can be confusing and elements can be lost through hearsay or a third party.

If you find yourself in the midst of a mass shooting incident, only call when it is safe to do so, after escaping, under protective cover or barricaded. Do not remain exposed just to make a call. 

Information you should provide to a 9-1-1 operator or law enforcement should, to the best of your ability, include the location of the shooter, number of shooters, physical description, number, type of weapons and the number of potential victims.

Be watchful

People who become shooters or violent often build up to it. According to experts, attacks are almost always premeditated, planned, and often discussed. 

According to a story in Five Thirty Eight about mass school shootings, “at least four potential school shootings that were averted in the weeks after Parkland (2018) all stopped because the would-be killers spoke or wrote about their plans and someone told law enforcement.”

Increasingly, airing of perceived injustices are discovered online in so-called manifestos.

Even if a report leads nowhere, the ounce of prevention is worth the potential uncomfortableness of reporting suspicions.

Most reports don’t lead to arrests, but officials are willing to take as many as needed to prevent a future attack.

“We’re already behind the eight-ball,” Gonzalez said. “If we put ourselves at even more of a disadvantage, if we’re going to worry about little things like being a snitch, then we’re going to fail.”

Authorities say to be on the lookout for: 

  • Increasingly erratic, unsafe, or aggressive behaviors
  • Hostile behavior based on claims of injustice or perceived wrongdoing
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Claims of marginalization or distancing from friends and colleagues
  • Changes in performance at work
  • Sudden and dramatic changes in home-life or in personality
  • Financial difficulties
  • Pending civil or criminal litigation
  • Observable grievances and making statements of retribution

Be prepared

Most active shooter events are over within five minutes and more than 35 percent end in less than two minutes, according to the FBI. For that reason, authorities say pre-planning will help you react more quickly and not freeze in instances where action is critical, and seconds can mean life or death.

“Be alert, know where you’re going and what type of event it is,” Gonzalez said. “Make sure you know where the exits are and the back exits. It’s unfortunate, but you need to know all these things in these times.”

A former member of the military who served in Iraq in Mosul, Iraq, Gonzalez says he automatically runs through a mental checklist while at an event, including seeking high ground, exits, choke and funnel points.

And he watches. “You need to actually look around and observe people,” Gonzalez said. “These days people have their heads in their phones or computers. They forget to look around and look at their surroundings. If you see something suspicious, think to yourself, ‘Maybe I should continue to watch this person’.”

Gonzalez said families should have “safe words,” so they know if it is time to leave a situation immediately.

While this may seem to border on paranoia, Gonzalez says not so.

“Some people would disagree with me and argue, ‘Why can’t I just enjoy myself?’” Gonzalez said.  “I say by educating and disciplining yourself you’ll get to the point where you do it as routine. And because it’s second nature, you’ll feel at ease. That’s where I’m at. Discipline gives you freedom.”

In an active shooting

The FBI promotes a three-fold series of tactics if you are in an active shooter situation – run, hide, or fight.

According to the agency, “Learning these principles now will prepare and empower you to put them into practice—and survive—should the unthinkable occur.”

To that end the agency has released resources and videos online.

Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security produced a booklet on responding to an active shooting.

In the event of gunfire immediately put distance between yourself and shooting and get out as quickly as possible. If you can put “hard cover” between you and the attacker, you should do so.

Once outside have your hands up and empty and obey police commands.

“I would expect mayhem and chaos,” Gonzalez said of responding to an active shooter. “All I want is if you can care for yourself or help someone else just do it.”

As much as Gonzalez said officers would like to help victims, “I have to just proceed to the threat. Point in the direction (of the threat) and run with your hands up, but don’t grasp officers.”

If you can’t leave where an attack happens, the FBI recommends hiding quickly, preferably behind solid cover. If possible, you should try to reach a different room and barricade the entrance, turn off lights and cellphones and make a plan to retaliate to an attempted entry by the attacker.

As a last resort, the FBI says, you should fight back. You should try to find something to use as a weapon to incapacitate the attacker.

The FBI says, do not fight fair, it’s about life and death. If you can, recruit others and make a counterattack plan, there is strength in numbers. 

According to the FBI, “First responders will be on the scene within minutes. Until then… it’s up to you.”

The numbers

Of the 30 deadliest shootings in the United States, 12 have occurred since 2016, including the top two in Las Vegas and Orlando. All but one have involved the use of semiautomatic weapons.

There are no agreed upon ways to track and define mass shootings, so estimates vary widely. According to the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks all shootings involving four or more victims, not including the shooter, listed more than 278 shootings as of June 20. That’s more than 1.6 per day with the summer, when numbers trend upward, still to come.

The FBI reported 61 active shootings in the United States in 2021, which it defines as one or more people actively killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.

The United States has long been the most heavily armed society in the world, and the gap is widening.

According to a 2018 study by the Swiss-based Small Arms Survey, U.S. gun owners possessed 393.3 million weapons. That is higher than the population, nearly 40 percent of the world’s weapons, and more than the next 25 highest armed countries combined. And that was before Americans went on record buying spree during the pandemic, with the two largest years of gun sales in U.S. history with more than 40 million guns collectively sold in 2020 and 2021, according to Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting. Sales in 2020 exceeded the previous highest year by 64 percent.


According to the FBI, “The successful prevention of these active shooter incidents lies with a wide range of public and private entities all working together.”

The FBI reminds that it relies on all segments of society to work together to “help detect and prevent acts of targeted violence, (by) helping academic, mental health, business, community, law enforcement, and government entities recognize and disrupt potential active shooters who may be on a trajectory toward violence.”

Summing up, Gonzalez says simply and plainly, “It’s going to take all of us to get through this. 

Be vigilant, be observant, be watchful and call things in.”

For more information on indicators and how to report, visit