Photo by Chris Casella

How to Survive a Mass Shooting

Is there a man in the office with a gun? I didn’t have the answer to this question, asked by my editor over the phone while we were both at work on an unseasonably warm day near the end of 2014. He was outside having a smoke when someone told him that a man with a rifle had been seen walking toward the front of the building. I had to figure out if an armed attacker was already inside.

I stood up and began walking around the office. I tried to be quiet. I didn’t want to alert the potential attacker that I was looking for him, and I didn’t want to panic my coworkers and accidently send them running right to him. Our office isn’t very large, and I figured I had only a short time before he would find me or someone else. I knew the side door was probably unlocked so I moved quickly toward it, checking as I went. As I approached the storage area near the door, a thought popped in my head: what the f*ck do I do if I find him?

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I’m in a gym in Hilliard, trying to find that answer. The atmosphere is primal; three dozen people take turns straddling pads that represent downed attackers, beating their cushions into submission against the rubber-matted floor. The combat room fills with the rhythm of knuckles, palms, elbows, and forearms onto padding. Some participants grunt or growl with exertion, putting their full weight behind the blows.

“Fighting is not that complex. Breaking people’s faces is not that complex,” Aaron Jannetti says as he paces between the groups scattered around the room. He’s the co-owner of the gym, Endeavor Defense and Fitness, and this active shooter training class is largely his show. Jannetti may be the perfect instructor for this sort of subject: blunt, profane, and passionate, but with a personality that leans toward childlike enthusiasm and quick humor. It provides levity to an otherwise disturbing subject. “No selfies and shit while you’re beating them on the floor,” he quips.

The active shooter class dates back to 2009 when it was focused on school shootings. Jannetti’s background in self-defense began a year earlier when he started training in Krav Maga. He’s now a two-time black belt, and he has practiced other disciplines like Muay Thai, jiu-jitsu, and defensive firearms. As the class evolved over the years, the Endeavor crew has borrowed from other experts in the fields of self-defense and firearms training to make it more robust. The course now covers information about demystifying guns and how to defend against them, a basic outline of trauma care, how to assess environments in an attack, and when to run, hide, barricade, or fight.

Jannetti isn’t shy about the main purpose: fight. Taking cover—hiding—is temporary, and he hates the “hide and hope” strategy. They don’t need to spend much time teaching people to run, that’s easy. Barricading is easy. Fighting is another story. “It’s not easy to fight,” he says, “It’s simple, but it’s not easy psychologically.”

And so here they are, his students for the afternoon, pounding and beating. Jannetti shows them how to inflict as much damage as possible: stomp the attacker when he’s down, knee him in the side to snap a rib into a lung, hit him where he’s weak and vulnerable. The mantra is “break the computer.” The fight is over when the attacker’s brain shuts down—when he’s unconscious or dead. For all the faux brutality and physicality, the class is mostly mental, a psychological mountain Jannetti says. If someone arrives with the intent to kill you and those nearby, you need to be prepared to do the same.

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The phantom attacker at our offices never materialized. We still don’t know who he was, or where he was going, or if he had any malicious intent at all. We also don’t know enough, as a nation, about our ugliest current phenomenon. We do know that it’s incredibly unlikely from a statistical standpoint that you will die in an active shooter incident. But recent reports from the Congressional Research Service and the FBI also pointed to a troubling trend—the frequency and deadliness of these shootings continues to creep higher every decade.

The spate of recent mass murders—particularly those in Paris and San Bernadino—has fueled attendance of Endeavor’s active shooter training. There are about 36 people here today, and there are at least another 30 on a waiting list for the next one. Each month, the gym holds one free class for the public, which lasts two to three hours, and the staff also travels around the city and the country for private sessions with employers. They don’t charge for classes locally, and bill only for expenses when they travel. To Jannetti, his Millennial Generation doesn’t take accountability for themselves, and self-defense is each person’s responsibility. His obligation is to share his expertise.

He stands in the center of the room and calls everyone over. “We’re not telling people to go be heroes,” he says as he begins the class. “I hope to God you don’t have to use any of this shit.”

He covers an outline of the strategy—run, hide, fight—that forms the basis of active shooter defense classes everywhere. There isn’t an order to this approach; the key is to continually assess options and make the best decision with the information available. Running is always the ideal choice, though. If Jannetti’s somewhere and a gunman enters, he won’t fight simply because he knows how, especially if he’s with his pregnant wife. If he’s near a door, he’s gone.

He discusses hiding, which means hide then barricade or hide then run. Lastly, he talks about fighting. This type of fighting is not about form or style points. It’s not even about inflicting pain; no one feels pain under the adrenal stress of this situation. It’s about gross motor, raw aggression, using weapons. “Fair fights are stupid,” Jannetti says—spray them with a fire extinguisher and bash them in the head with the canister.

Then the session moves into the interactive portion, and participants work the pads, unleashing their fury. As the training continues, they begin tackling each other, feigning the submission blows. The more the students practice on their partners, the gentler the session becomes. By the time they get to the exercise in which one person hits a gunman high while the other goes low, the whole thing appears to be in slow motion. Schoolyard tag is more violent. People are laughing, having fun.

But Jannetti has a plan for this inevitable slide toward decency. As a paramedic named Jon Grabo talks about plugging bullet wounds, other staff members suit up in tactical gear and arm themselves with semiautomatic assault rifles, modified for safe training. Jannetti tells everyone that they will run through some realistic scenarios to test everything they’ve learned, with staff serving as the attackers. There are two choices: run or fight.

“If you see someone come through that seems like a threat,” he says, “f*ckin’ deal with it.”

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It’s amazing how fast people drop their guard. Jannetti tells everyone to do so—an attack of this nature is always an ambush, and if everyone turns off their brains it will be much more realistic. Cliques form immediately and people strike up small talk, just as they were instructed. A couple minutes pass.

Then Rob McKeeman, the gym’s co-owner, slips his muscular forearm across a woman’s neck and holds a gun against her temple. He screams for everyone to get down. He’s in gym clothes, not tactical gear, and he has a handgun rather than an assault weapon. No one saw it coming. They all begin to back away. He moves toward the door, forcing her along, and begins firing the gun. People snap into action, some running for exits and others running toward McKeeman. He’s eventually tackled to the ground and held there by a dog pile of bodies while he struggles to break free.

With each new scenario, the responses from the participants grow swifter, more decisive, and more complete. As the training session comes to a close, the common mood in the room appears to be relief, empowerment. I talk to two college students, Rachel and Shelby, and both of them sing the class’s praises. They feel better afterward, more prepared not just for an active shooter attack, but for any situation that requires self-defense.

Before the session began, I overheard a third-time participant named Josh tell a newcomer: “I’ve done it a couple times; I think it would work.”

He thinks—therein lies a problem Jannetti knows too well. The odds are infinitesimal that anyone will put this information to use, but even if they do, the class provides no guarantees. It’s not foolproof, and any instructor who says otherwise is full of crap. “People want a clear-cut answer,” Jannetti says. “They want me to sit ’em down and say, ‘If you do this training, you will survive.’ But that’s not the reality of self-defense. That’s definitely not the reality of the active shooter stuff.”

It’s the bleakest truth of a bleak training. Do everything right—whatever that may be—and you may still be a casualty. If you’re the first victim, you’re almost certainly dead. It’s unsettling, but to hear Jannetti address it is refreshing. He’s not trying to sell some miracle survival system. His relentless honesty and realism about the deadliness of the situation actually make the idea of successfully rushing a gunman seem more achievable. He’s trying to impart some nugget of useful information to remember in an awful chaos. He’s here to remind people of an unspeakable reality, to offer a few things to consider, a couple basic tactics, and to let you know that you are capable of more than you think. If everything else fails, you can fight.

During one of the scenarios, everyone escaped the room except for Rachel and an older man, who writhed on the ground after getting shot. Shelby ran because that’s her natural instinct. She survived. Rachel was left alone with the attacker, and she charged him even though she was closer to the door. Her instinct is to fight. She got to the gunman and hit him low. But he repelled her and stepped back, leaving her exposed. She was probably dead then, except in this simulation he didn’t shoot her. So she got up and charged again, hit him again, and this time he fell. Two others ran back into the room and immobilized him.

There are no guarantees. And she probably made the wrong choice. But she survived.


Endeavor also offers classes on Krav Maga, CrossFit, yoga, defensive firearms, HitFit, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and Olympic weightlifting. For more, visit endeavordcf.com.

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