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How to avoid ‘abject failure’ in your in-progress mass murder response

Initial responding officers must evaluate quickly, move to the sound of the guns, gathering intelligence on the move


The law enforcement response to the Uvalde school shooting was deemed by investigators to be an “abject failure.”

AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills

The law enforcement response to the Uvalde school shooting was deemed by investigators to be an “abject failure.” This is a good time to mentally prepare your response to an in-progress mass murder to avoid being described as an “abject failure.”

In the future, you may be suddenly thrust into such an event by either fate or your dispatcher. When I first began my preparation for my moment and to teach others to prepare for theirs, I looked to what officers did in the past.

Here are a few examples of incidents that I studied that helped me when my time came and may help you prepare as well.

Austin, Texas

On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman started the day by murdering his wife and mother and followed up by carting weapons across the campus of the University of Texas in Austin where he climbed a tower. After killing an attendant, he set up a sniper’s perch on the observation deck armed with a Bowie knife, a 9mm Luger, a shotgun and a 35 mm scoped rifle. Officers called to the scene once the killing started were unable to end Whitman’s shooting spree with their pistols and shotguns from cover. One officer died trying.

As other officers remained pinned down, without orders, Houston McCoy and Ramiro Martinez ran zig-zag across the open space and entered the tower. Once inside they met and climbed to the observation deck, checked the door, and found it blocked but not locked. They simultaneously entered and circled the deck, trapping Whitman between them. Ramirez confronted Whitman first and then McCoy. Both fired until Whitman’s threat was stopped.

By this time 17 were killed, including a full-term unborn baby.

San Ysidro, California

On July 18, 1984, James Huberty, armed with a 9mm Uzi, a 9mm Browning Semi-automatic pistol and a 12 gauge pump-action shotgun, casually walked into a McDonald’s and began to leisurely gun down innocents. Police summoned to the scene set up a perimeter and began to attempt to contain and make contact to negotiate. Huberty continued to kill at will.

SWAT sniper Chuck Foster arrived, saw what was happening and without orders stopped the killing with one well-placed shot.

Sadly, before Foster’s decisive action, Huberty killed 21 and wounded 19 victims between 8 and 74 years of age.

La Crosse/Onalaska, Wisconsin

In 1985, a fellow officer and I dealt with a clearly dangerous mentally ill young man who was convinced that he was sent to Earth by an angel of death to kill. We placed him in a psychiatric facility on a hold believing he would be detained for treatment. Unknown to us, a psychiatrist did not share that view and released him shortly thereafter, whereupon just days later he armed himself, entered a church and gunned down a priest, praying at the altar, a lay minister and a janitor. He was arrested immediately after leaving the church by a lone responding officer.

If he would have been held for treatment instead of released, three people would not have died.

Killeen, Texas

On October 16, 1991, George Hennard drove his truck through the wall of Luby’s Diner in Killeen, Texas, and opened fire with his Glock 17 and Ruger P89 killing all in his cone of violence. Officers responded, and immediately wounded Hennard in a gunfight. Once wounded Kennard killed himself.

Despite the quick action taken by officers, Hennard killed 23 and wounded 20.

The worst in American history

A total of 2,977 people died when terrorists waging Holy War against the United States flew four planes filled with men, women and children into targets. The FBI had one of their number in custody in advance of the event, who had told a flight instructor he wanted to learn how to fly a passenger jet, but not land. The investigation failed to uncover the plot when an FBI Special Agent’s request for a search warrant of the “19th hijacker’s” computer was denied.

Carthage, North Carolina

On March 29, 2009, Justin Garner was patrolling Carthage, North Carolina, a town of 2,000, when he arrived at a “shots fired” call to discover an in-progress killing at the Pine Lake Health and Rehabilitation Facility. Justin immediately entered alone, and gunfire led him to the shooter. As Justin approached undetected the killer exited a room armed with a shotgun. Justin challenged him to drop his shotgun, but instead, the suspect spun and fired striking Justin in the foot. Justin fired as well, dropping the suspect, who would live, but was paralyzed.

Despite an immediate single officer response, the suspect was able to kill eight before he was stopped.

Cazenovia, Wisconsin

On September 29, 2006, student Eric Hainstock entered the front doors of the high school in Cazenovia, Wisconsin, brandishing a shotgun. As he did, a quick-thinking janitor ripped the shotgun from Hainstock’s hands and exited with it, thinking he had neutralized the threat. Eric merely drew a concealed pistol and continued his hunt for humans.

Police were summoned and were only minutes away, but principal John Klang knew death was but seconds away for his students. Klang engaged physically with Hainstock, and during the wrestling match that followed the educator was able to disable the weapon, disarm and restrain the shooter, until some students piled on to hold Hainstock in place until officers arrived to handcuff him.

This could be considered a near-perfect response to an in-progress mass murder by a civilian except that after Hainstock had been disarmed and restrained, Principal Klang rolled off the pile only to die shortly thereafter from the wound he had sustained during the struggle.

Waukesha, Wisconsin

On November 21, 2021, a felon who could have been being held in jail for prior offenses, was freed to allegedly drive through an annual Christmas Parade in Waukesha, killing six and injuring 62. After abandoning his vehicle, he was later spotted and arrested by officers.

Why do they kill

Research and experience have revealed to me that these in-progress mass murders occur because of:

  • Gang wars.
  • Drug wars.
  • Holy wars (fanatical religious or anti-religious reasons).
  • What for! (The person is angry and wants to give someone what has been called in the past the old “What for!”)
  • What for? (The person is mentally ill and their motives leave investigators wondering “What for?”)
  • Top score! (Make no mistake about it these people being killed have lost their human qualities to these killers and have become numbers.)

Is this “gun violence?”

Anyone trying to truly solve the problem of in-progress mass murderers by thinking it’s just “gun violence” is being myopic because these killers have murdered using:

  • Guns.
  • Edged weapons (even box cutters.)
  • Explosives. (This would take a specialized tactical approach during the implementation stage, beyond what is discussed here.)
  • Motor vehicles. (This would take a specialized tactical approach beyond what is discussed here.)
  • Airplanes. (This would take a specialized tactical approach beyond what is discussed here.)
  • Weapons of mass destruction, for example, sarin gas. (This would take a specialized tactical approach beyond what is discussed here.)

Is it just an American problem?

This is not just an American problem because on:

  • December 6, 1989, Marc Lepine killed 10 women and wounded 4 men at the University of Montreal.
  • November 26, 2008, 119 were killed in Mumbai, India.
  • July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik gunned down 77 on Utoya Island in Oslo Norway.
  • March 20, 1995, 12 were killed and 5,000 injured in a sarin gas attack on a Japanese subway system.

Many more could be cited.

A perfect response: Bartlesville, Oklahoma

An example of what may be a perfect response to an active shooter could be this. Sammy Eaglebear Chavez planned mass murder at his high school, but police intervened after being told of his plan by a student Sammy tried to recruit. On December 14, 2012, the same day as the Sandy Hook tragedy, Bartlesville Police arrested Chavez and executed a search warrant on his home, finding his weapons, his plan and everything needed to convict him. No one died!

What I have concluded

The perfect response is possible when parents, teachers, friends, family, law enforcement, lawyers, psychiatrists, judges, etc., pay attention and intervene with an effective and efficient response, when they discover a shooter’s intent, during the:

1. Fantasy phase.

2. Planning phase.

3. Preparation phase.

4. Approach phase.

During these initial phases, lives can be saved. All those previously named need do is to believe what a person says or writes and take effective actions as if lives depend on it as was done following the Bartlesville example.

5. Implementation phase

Once the shooter opens fire, immediate action needs to be taken. History has taught us many lives can be lost during just one minute of indecisiveness. The sooner an honorable gunfighter intervenes in the form of an on/off-duty officer, or citizen with an effective, efficient act of courage, the fewer casualties there will be.

Was Uvalde an “abject failure?”

The lesson coming out of all of these cases, as well as Uvalde, is initial responding officers must evaluate quickly, move to the sound of the guns, or screams, gathering intelligence on the move, using the chaos created by the shooter as a diversion to quietly pass the dead and dying moving into a position of advantage. To stop this mass murder in progress, responding officers will often discover they will have to take the shot and make the shot!

How many officers are needed before intervention?

Three are better than two, two are better than one, but as was demonstrated by Justin Garner, an armed, highly skilled officer determined to save lives while risking his/her own is better than none. Because if armed officers fail to act either people will die or the unarmed John Klangs of the world will act.

To say that the police response to Uvalde was an “abject failure” is not completely true. Those Border Patrol officers who arrived, checked the door, entered the room, and engaged and stopped the shooter did end the carnage and save lives. However, in the future, we must learn from their example and make certain officers with that same kind of skill and determination to save lives, while risking their own, arrive first, instead of last.

Whether that happens, one day could your decision to make, SO PREPARE!

NEXT: 6 simple ways to prepare for the next active shooter incident

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.