Mass public shootings in the United States have generated increasingly urgent efforts to understand and prevent active shooter scenarios. After the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, government officials tried to no avail to identify a demographic profile of those who might become active shooters. Confronted with the limitations of identifying potential shooters in advance, government officials, mental health professionals, criminologists, and others interested in preventing active shootings have shifted their focus to guns, mental health, and location security. However, the terrain of each of these topics is murky and exposes additional uncertainties. The sheer number of readily available guns, the prohibition of gun violence research by federal public health and justice institutions, and the variance in attitudes toward and laws about guns in the United States inhibit clear and consistent gun policy. Further, linking active shooters with mental illness risks stigmatizing the vast majority of mentally ill individuals who are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. Because different locations vary in design, function, funding, resources, and vulnerabilities, no organization or institution can guarantee total security despite extensive and costly efforts. While political and social changes can lead to incremental and important improvements in each of these areas, the problem of active shootings is large, multifaceted, and evolving. Adding to the urgency is the increasing number of U.S. states voting to allow concealed and/or open carry of firearms on public college and university campuses.
In the absence of certainty and in recognition of contextual differences, government agencies and educational institutions recently have promoted variants of a “run, hide, fight” approach to active shooter situations, and many schools, workplaces, and other sites have subsequently adopted these tactics in their active shooter training messages. From a rhetorical perspective, pentadic analysis (Burke, 1969) of “run, hide, fight” and its variants reveals the complexities of trying to prevent active shootings. “Run” and “hide” demonstrate both the possibilities and challenges associated with the scene, or when and where an active shooting might occur. “Fight” implies the ambiguities of agent and agency, that is, who gets to fight and how, in debates about gun-free zones, concealed and open carry, and on-site and off-site law enforcement. Meanwhile, the multimodal nature and often disturbing content of active shooter training messages sensationalize the act of active shootings, making them seem more real and present despite the low probability of such an event occurring in any particular place at any particular time. Given these complexities, active shooter training messages as a whole illustrate a tension of purpose in that they presumably attempt to alleviate fear while simultaneously producing it. By looking at a variety of government documents and workplace active shooter training messages, this analysis will explore uncertainties, controversies, and lingering questions about the content and consequences of active shooter training messages and how the producers of these messages frame active shooter scenarios as well as efforts to prevent and respond to such occurrences. No previous studies of the rhetorical or communication dimensions of active shooter training have been conducted, and no archives yet exist that cull such training materials for purposes of comparison, contrast, and analysis in the aggregate.