Active shooter or rampage attacks get a lot of media attention for a variety of reasons. Traditional weapons such as firearms and explosives are too often the only recognized terrorist tools facing our communities. Firearms may be readily available and improvised explosives can be quickly assembled with common materials and a small amount of internet research. However, a motor vehicle is a weapon that few agencies truly contemplate as a rampage weapon. Despite their previous lack of recognition, vehicles have repeatedly demonstrated that they are more difficult to stop, more readily available and, therefore, potentially more dangerous. They demonstrate why the term “active shooter” is not ideal and “rampage” or another similar term is more accurate.
Motor vehicles can be manipulated just as skillfully by a disgruntled teenager, a mentally ill subject or an ideologically-driven terrorist. A driver’s license is not required to perform the physical action of driving a vehicle and there is no background check. There are not any unique purchases required that might tip off local retailers or law enforcement that a rampage attack is pending. All the attacker needs is a vehicle and random targets walking down any sidewalk. Large crowds, such as those at an outdoor community event, parade or race present particularly appealing targets.
These types of attacks create a number of unique issues compared to attacks utilizing other weapons. Locating the threat may be difficult due to the rapid mobility of the attacker compared to an attacker on foot armed only with firearms, explosives or edged weapons. By the time officers arrive on scene, the attacker may have already left the area and be a few miles away. Unfortunately, that also means that the attacker may have gone to seek out additional victims at another location. The crime scenes may be scattered for blocks or miles.
For the purpose of this article, I’m primarily referring to attacks where the vehicle itself is utilized as a weapon with the purpose of running over pedestrians. Such attacks have occurred in many countries. Many of the same concerns arise anytime we are discussing a shooter that has gone mobile and continues to actively shoot targets at different locations. Here are just a few incidents:
Chandler, Ariz.: On Dec. 18, 2005, a 24-year-old disgruntled Home Depot employee claimed he was angry at plans to “build a wall along the U.S.–Mexico border.” He originally planned to blow up the Home Depot where he worked, but instead crashed his car through the front doors and drove through the store, narrowly missing people. He stopped and set fire to his car in the paint aisle where he was taken into custody. No one was injured.
Chapel Hill, N.C.: On March 3, 2006, a University of North Carolina student who identified a 9/11 hijacker as his “role model,” claimed he was going to “avenge the deaths of Muslims worldwide” and to “punish” the United States. He drove a rented Jeep Grand Cherokee through a crowded area of the UNC campus, injuring nine people before surrendering to police.
Fremont and San Francisco, Calif.: On Aug. 30, 2006, a 29-year-old immigrant from Afghanistan intentionally drove a black Honda Pilot SUV toward pedestrians at 11 different locations in Fremont and San Francisco. He struck 18 people, killing one. The attacker backed up the vehicle to intentionally drive over two victims a total of three times each. He was taken into custody by law enforcement.
Jerusalem, Israel: On Sept. 22, 2008, a terrorist drove a BMW into a group of off-duty Israeli soldiers wounding 19 before the terrorist was shot to death. This was the third such vehicle ramming terrorist attack in the Jerusalem area in three months.
Isla Vista, Calif.: On May 23, 2014, a college student stabbed three people in his apartment, then went on a mobile rampage shooting some victims and running over others with his car. He killed six, injured 13, engaged in two brief gun battles with police then killed himself. This was the second vehicle rampage in Isla Vista. The first Isla Vista attack occurred on Feb. 23, 2001, when a college student claiming to be the “Angel of Death” deliberately drove his vehicle at pedestrians killing four and wounding one more before exiting his car voluntarily and being taken into custody after bystanders confronted and detained him.
Nantes, France: On Dec. 22, 2014, a 37-year-old man rammed his car into a crowd of people, then began stabbing himself. He injured 11 people. This was the second vehicle attack in France in two days. A separate attack in France the previous day had injured 13 people.
Stopping the Threat
How are we going to stop a 4,000–6,000 pound threat? We’d obviously prefer to prevent an attack than try to stop it once it’s already begun. Intelligence information is undoubtedly a valuable pre-attack weapon but too many lone-wolf attackers run under the radar. Barriers may work to restrict vehicles for events at some fixed locations but we can’t surround every sidewalk, crosswalk, street and park with concrete walls. In most of the cases cited above, the attacker stopped on their own, but we cannot depend on that. You have to be prepared to take action to stop the threat.
Tire deflation devices won’t work in this scenario. A deploying officer has to actually be ahead of the attacker and have time to safely deploy the device. Also, tire deflation devices don’t immediately stop the suspect vehicle, as evidenced by the countless videos of cars continuing to flee at high speed on shredded tires. Pursuit Intervention Tactics (P.I.T.), or ramming, sound good to some administrators, but are also not likely to succeed. While such tactics are more effective at actually stopping the attacker’s vehicle, they will require time and space to maneuver your patrol vehicle into a position where you can contact the attacker’s vehicle without running over more victims.
What’s left? It may not be a perfect option, but your firearm is currently the only tool at your immediate disposal that has any realistic chance of stopping the threat. The firearm is the best option, not because of its overall effectiveness against a mobile threat, but because it is readily available to the officer, quick to deploy, more effective than just being a witness and easier to utilize in a crowd than other methods of stopping a vehicle rampage.
Some would argue that firing at the attacker in a crowded area is too dangerous to the public, or that firing small bullets into a vehicle at the driver might hit a bystander, however, trying to maneuver your patrol car through a crowd to ram the attacker or allowing the attacker to continue their assault will definitely result in more casualties. Too many agencies jumped on the bandwagon to prohibit their officers from shooting at occupied vehicles where the occupant(s) aren’t shooting back. That shortsighted mindset ignores the deadly threat posed by a motor vehicle and leaves officers without any realistic options.
Your firearms can be effective against the driver of most vehicles on the road, but we are still woefully unprepared for the occasional attack using heavy construction equipment such as the “Killdozer” in Granby, Colo. (2004), multiple backhoe and bulldozer attacks in Jerusalem (2008–2009) or the infamous rampage using a stolen National Guard tank in San Diego, Calif. (1995). Press reports following the Granby and San Diego incidents stated that agency administrators were trying to contact the military to request anti-tank rocket launchers or helicopter gunships for support when the attackers each got stuck and were killed by officers or committed suicide. Calling in an Apache helicopter sounds like a cool idea, but it is not realistic for numerous reasons, including but not limited to limitations posed by the Posse Comitatus Act, the time required to get approval and the time required to actually mobilize and deploy the necessary equipment. In short, military assistance is not likely to happen. If an attack like those in Granby and San Diego happen again, we need to have a better plan than calling the military or expecting the federal 10-33 program to start handing out anti-tank hardware to agencies.
Preventing a vehicle rampage is not likely unless you happen to get very lucky with timely intelligence. Protective barriers or fortifications are not going to realistically be deployed in a manner to prevent an attack either. A car driven into a crowd at high speed is very difficult to defend against and could potentially affect many more people than a bomb if the victims have nowhere to run due to area design and crowd congestion. Be vigilant when working large outdoor events, practice shooting into vehicles when you go to the range and work with your EMS and fire service and practice for mass casualty incidents (MCI). A vehicle rampage is truly a scenario where the “thin blue line” is all that protects our citizens.