Theater seating and self-defense

(Image by

People say that any hypothetical defender at the Aurora theater would have run the risk of hitting innocent bystanders. The risk existed but consider how typical theater seats rise rise towards the back. It’s the classic “second rank fires over the heads of the first” musketeer arrangement. A perp near the screen would have been on the receiving end of all armed theater patrons simultaneously…had any armed people besides the attacker been present.

As for the aiming in the dark: gun lights exist for a reason. Moreover, in a smoky atmosphere, laser beams would have become visible and pointed to the attacker most prominently. Green lasers in particular provide enough scatter to light up the target fairly well. Worst case, the combination of screen light and muzzle flashes would have provided some idea of where to shoot — and the viewers eyes had time to adapt to the darkness.

So it would have been a tough fight but far from impossible — certainly not on the level of Beslan school takeover.

This entry was posted in light/laser, rkba, self-defense, weapon and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

46 Responses to Theater seating and self-defense

  1. Another thing to think about, stadium theaters don’t usually have any exits above the top rows. There are generally two or three exits, the one you came in at, and one or two emergency exits on either side of the screen, down at the bottom of the seating.

    If you look in the photo, in the extreme top right there is a railing and a half wall. That’s the top of the tunnel entrance. The seats, of course, face the screen. Initial reports say that the shooter entered via one of the emergency exits. That means that everyone in the seats was trapped. If they ran away from the shooter they also ran away from the exits and were trapped at the top of the stadium seats.

    The exits were build with fire codes in mind. Two separate exits in case one is blocked by fire. Generally the emergency exits go straight outside, so it would be near impossible to block both with a fire. There isn’t really enough inside a theater to cause such a raging inferno that the patrons couldn’t run past and get to one of two or three emergency exits, so having all exits start from the same side of the theater makes sense from a fire code point of view.

    I suspect that the shooter recognized this and took advantage of it.

  2. The comments I have heard are mostly negative about being able to respond. Guess what? Even if it is pitch black and all you can hear is screaming and gunfire, move towards the gunfire, use the muzzle flash or sound to locate the threat. He may have night vision and my just cut you down, but that was his goal anyway and your actions may have saved one of the sheep.

    • Oleg Volk says:

      Seats don’t offer much cover but they offer concealment and support for the gun. The situation wasn’t as hopeless as something except for the whole unarmed part.

    • Tom says:

      I applaud your call to “move toward the gunfire”. It is an aggressive and heroic attitude.

      Meanwhile, I will try to keep me and mine down and safe, while seeking opportunities to exploit for the defense or escape.

  3. The situation wasn’t as hopeless as something except for the whole unarmed part.

    Absolutely. We usually go to a movie once a week and always sit in the last row giving me (aisle seat) command of the theater. Posted.

  4. ColonelColt says:

    I’ve had to explain to people before why I carry a gun, especially to places like a theater. What can happen in a theater? This is what can happen. It’s a poor tactical environment: Reduced mobility, visibility, constant loud noise, filled with people who are going to panic if something goes wrong. I always sit at the back since if something like this were to happen I’d rather be further from an exit than closer to a point of attack. However, this situation isn’t all bad: You’ll be firing down on any attacker, it’s likely that they’ll be at least partially backlit by the screen, and it’s likely that they’ll be near the limited points of entry. There’s also the human factor to consider. In a cold, hard sense, all of those hapless people around you act as a huge distraction and obstacle to any bad guy intent on harming as many as possible. I’m not advocating that you’re constantly on edge in every situation, that you worry excessively. Simply be mentally prepared for the fact that you may have to defend yourself in any situation no matter how unlike a firing range it is.

  5. David says:

    The theater was posted gun-free-zone, a free fire slaughter house. No law abiding armed citizens were present. I would be VERY surprised if that didn’t enter into his cold blooded calculations.
    I agree, lasers and lights on some sidearms could have made a difference, but I would have been happy if some kid with a beat up Hi Point had been in the right spot!

    • LarryArnold says:

      I’d settle for a little old lady with a 5-shot .38; much more likely in my neck of the woods.

      We always get, “OMG! Imagine how much worse it would be with MORE guns around!”

      Unfortunately we don’t have to imagine what happens in these “gun free zones.”

    • Paul Koning says:

      Let’s make it a habit ALWAYS to call this by its proper name.
      It’s not a gun free zone.

      It’s a disarmed victim zone.

  6. Scott says:

    This is something I’ve had to point out to people already. Also that people are likely to respond to the shooting in one of two ways: 1) they will prone out and hide or 2) they will run out of the aisle and from there up or down the steps to an exit. This means the space over the seats should clear of people after just a few seconds. My response in this situation would probably go like this:

    Prone out when the shooting starts

    Wait for everyone between me and the wall to flee, or if they are hiding, tell them to stay down and advise them that I have a gun

    Crawl to the wall end of the aisle

    Peak through the gap in the seats with my gun

    Engage him

    From this wide out position I’ve minimized the possibility of hitting an innocent bystander (my bullets are travelling as close to the outer walls as possible, where there are least likely to be standing people), and also have an angle on the attacker such that bullets striking him in the torso may well impact on his side where many ballistic vests have no armor.

    The smoke works both ways of course, and me having a handgun and him a rifle means I will be giving off less muzzle flash and noise than he is. He will be firing constantly allowing me to zero in on his location. I will be silent and practically invisible until I decide to engage.

    These events have certainly made me think it might be a good idea to invest in an FN-57 or a rifle caliber pistol (like a PLR-16) to keep in a shoulder bag when visiting places likely to be targeted by mass shooters like movie theaters and malls.

    • LarryArnold says:

      advise them that I have a gun

      Not. The last thing you want is someone pointing at you and yelling, “This guy has a gun, too!” Or worse, heroically tacking you. There’s nothing about you that says “good guy” until you shoot the bad one.

      as close to the outer walls as possible, where there are least likely to be standing people

      The outer walls are where the aisles and exits are. That’s where you’ll find the most people. I think I’d rather be in the middle of the seating. I’d rather shoot at a large angle to the wall so any bullets will go through him (or miss), hit the concrete, and not ricochet.

      OTOH in this case at least one of the bullets (it didn’t say whether it was pistol or rifle) penetrated into the next auditorium. Given the soundproofing necessary between auditoriums, I’m kind of presuming a .45 HP won’t do that.

      I will be giving off less muzzle flash and noise than he is

      Shorter barrel usually means more muzzle flash, not less. And the sound will be echoing.

      But YMMV. Everyone gets their own tactics, and each situation is unique.

  7. Rat says:

    1 armed man can’t control a theater. Worst case, rush him. He can’t look everywhere at once.

  8. cramer says:

    I *really* wish there was a camera in there to show you just how chaotic the situation becomes when people panic. Pulling your gun is much more likely to make things worse — “he’s got a gun, too” — as the people around you don’t know your intentions. (you *could* be an accomplice.)

    If 10-50% of the people were armed (and *trained*) then it would be very different; by the time he got off a dozen shots, there’d be many guns pointing back at him. Unfortunately, studies have shown even the well trained (non-military) panic to some degree, compromising their ability to respond effectively. Even seasoned LEO’s falter in these situations. Only military personnel tend to react without panc, because they’ve developed a reflex to being shot at by people aiming to kill them — as a direct result of being shot at regularly.

    • Yes, people do panic, to some extent, but many of us cool down pretty fast even in panic situations. Given a gun friendly theater it may be that more than just you are as well. If you do carry a gun, you might find the courage and opportunity to return fire, without a gun, you might have had the opportunity (if you had a gun), you might have had the courage and the cool head, but you still doesnt have a gun. Not everyone uses the fireextinguisher next to them to stop a small and easily extinguished fire either, but you still dont argue against fire extinguishers.

    • Flint says:

      LEO’s typically have less training than is common among civilians who carry on a regular basis. Imagining that /they/ represent what would happen is ridiculous.

    • Few military people have ever been shot at regularly, but they do train for it, sometimes.

  9. cramer says:

    Have you, by chance, seen 20/20’s “If Only I Had A Gun”? The RKBA crowd will certainly argue with it’s content, but 20/20 presents very clean evidence.

    • TheIrishman says:

      None of those they gave an airsoft or simunition gun(can’t remember which) had ANY kind of training. The one they pushed as an experienced shooter had fired a few guns on a square/static range. They also gamed the scenario by making everyone wear shirts that damn near reached their knees(try drawing from under one of those, especially while sitting on it). And lastly, if you don’t think it was gamed, why was the first person shot in every test the one with the gun? Simple, they sent the “training officer” in knowing exactly where the armed defender was.

      20/20 presented no such “clean” evidence. Send some random dude in there, not knowing who is capable of defending them self, and randomly shooting like a real situation. Let the defender choose his attire, much more likely to allow drawing of the pistol. Let him go against any “hobby” IPSC/IDPA shooter or someone with even a modicum of real defensive training and then tell me the results.

      • Oleg Volk says:

        Having drawn very rapidly on incoming dog packs, I disagree. Even a moderately trained person will react with enough speed and determination to make a difference vs. fleeing or trying to hide.

      • Roadkill says:

        I once wore a very long shirt to an IDPA night shoot as cover. I never did that again. I’d like to see that entire segment done again. With proper compact autos, various types of cover garments and different holsters and attackers of different abilities. It is a wonder no one has.

    • JSW says:

      ROFLMBO… 20/20 as evidence?
      Maybe if they start telling the truth, not that they’d know it if it punched their nose.

    • Uncle Lar says:

      Yes, I’ve watched that presentation several times.
      It was a typical put up job designed to give the result the director wanted.
      The defender was dressed in a long shirt to hinder access.
      He was given minimal training in the use of the weapon provided.
      He was seated down front in a tiered classroom and since the attacker immediately targeted him upon entry it was apparent that the attacker had been told beforehand that an armed student was there and his specific location.
      I’ve seen professional stage plays that were less well structured and choreographed.
      In a real world case a shooter would have no prior expectation of armed response and would likely focus on the professor as the primary authority giving an armed student a few brief seconds to draw and target. At a minimum I’d say 50/50 chance instead of the slam dunk the show presented.

    • styrgwillidar says:

      Well, here’s a website with college folks unfamiliar with firearms acting as perps. They draw and fire faster than a police officer can respond in the much simpler scenario of responding to a light signal.

  10. cramer says:

    Actually, the professor at the front of the room is the first shot. The armed person in the crowd is quickly taken out because they stand out. They don’t dive for cover, they stand up and then fumble around trying to draw their weapon. The point was to show how people panic. They also point out how little (if any) training is required in many places to get a CCW — open carry has no requirements at all. (if you can legally own a gun, you can carry it.)

    The point I’m making… none of us are trained for this. Competition shooters are firing on a closed range at static targets that aren’t shooting at them. Hunters are in a wide open setting firing on game animals that don’t shoot back. It’s a very different reality when there’s lead flying *towards* you, with the intent to harm you.

    (by that mark, any study like 20/20’s is nothing but a game. No one is really panicking, no one’s life is in danger, they aren’t using real bullets, and the paint pellets don’t really hurt. As far as sims go, even in a relaxed no-real-danger situation, none of them followed their recent training to react in a calm, controlled manner. I would certainly hope the people who’ve been carrying for many years would react better, but a panicked mob is a significant variable.)

    • Z says:

      The shooter 20/20 used was a firearms instructor and was told in advance that there would be armed resistance. Preventing the breaking of his OODA loop. In other words, he wouldn’t be surprised for 1-3 seconds at someone trying to draw on him. Instead, he was prepared and able to react quickly.

      In actual mass shootings, the shooter does not expect armed resistance, as they consistently select “gun free” zones, which prohibit carrying by law. All of the past mass shooting events have revealed consistent trends:

      • 98% of active killers act alone.

      • 80% have long guns, 75% have multiple weapons (about 3 per incident), and they sometimes bring hundreds of extra rounds of ammunition to the shooting site.

      • Despite such heavy armaments and an obsession with murder at close range, they have an average hit rate of less than 50%.

      • They strike “stunned, defenseless innocents via surprise ambush. On a level playing field, the typical active killer would be a no-contest against anyone reasonably capable of defending themselves.”

      • “They absolutely control life and death until they stop at their leisure or are stopped.” They do not take hostages, do not negotiate.

      • They generally try to avoid police, do not hide or lie in wait for officers and “typically fold quickly upon armed confrontation.”

      • 90% commit suicide on-site. “Surrender or escape attempts are unlikely.”

      With the exception of the Ft. Hood shooting, the mass murderers have not been trained for force-on-force combat, and thus physically and mentally crumble when faced with armed resistance. About 90% of them committed suicide upon meeting opposition.

      In the remainder of the cases, just one or two armed good guys have been enough to stop the killer, despite often being outgunned. This is the entire reason why police response to mass shootings no longer involves SWAT, but instead the nearest patrol car.

      The evidence found from actual incidents does not match up at all with 20/20’s setup or its results. Its methodology of “If Only I Had A Gun” is so horribly invalid that it can only be taken as propaganda and should not be taken seriously at all.

    • xpo172 says:

      “The point I’m making… none of us are trained for this.”

      Many of us ARE trained for this. There are lots of ex-LEO and former military with real close combat experience. And they go to movies too. Don’t take the guns away from those guys, I want them beside me when the SHTF.

    • Flint says:

      You don’t stand up, then “fumble” drawing your weapon.

      You draw it smoothly, while still down, /then/ you stand up and engage in one motion.

      And, if there are some untrained punks who just so happen to be armed, and they do what you described, then I can shoot him while they’ve distracted him. They may die in doing so, but at least they’ll die like adult humans, rather than mere animals.

    • Paul Koning says:

      I think you need to talk to some people who do IDPA, because it’s clear from your comments you don’t even know it exists, yet alone what it’s all about. No training for this sort of thing, forsooth.

    • styrgwillidar says:

      They couldn’t follow their training. They were forced to wear specific clothing that they would not have chose based on their training. That’s why they’re getting up and struggling. Again though, I refer you to the Force Science website:

      A perp unfamiliar with firearms (who isn’t forced to wear inappropriate attire) can draw and fire quicker than a trained officer with their weapon deployed can react. Note, those times are probably best case as the perp motion times were expected to become faster with practise and the officer times were based on a shoot/don’t shoot reaction to a simple light decision. In a tactical environment he would expected to be slower (OODA loop).

  11. xl_target says:

    You will also find that in a darkened area like a movie theater, you will have a tough time finding your sights. You might see the shooter if he is silhouetted against or backlit by the movie screen but you will have a real tough time finding your sights against his darkened body. Many hunters will be familiar with this kind of situation. In the very early hours of the morning, you might be able to clearly see a deer but there isn’t enough light to see your front sight yet.
    This is where night sights would shine.

    • You do not have black iron sights on a defensive pistol (unlessyou are a newbie or stupid, still, hitting a man sized target at up to 20 meters is not a difficult job under any circumstances i have tried it. Of course, i havent tried it in an “active shooter situation”, but still, just the fact of returnfire should limit the shooters effectiveness considerably, most likely he would focus on trying to kill me, leaving the sheeple ample opportunity to escape.

      • Flint says:

        Indeed. Sights are almost irrelevant in close-range defensive scenarios. They are a crutch, and they cost lives in many cases. You should still have them, for the human shield scenarios, but in an ordinary, one-on-one situation, you should not look at them.

      • Mark says:

        Have night sights, and/or a weapon mounted white light, for just this situation.
        A movie screen mid showing can put off plenty of light to shoot by depending on the scene, the issue would be target discrimination, which is what the weapon mounted light is for.
        From the reports I have been reading, there were people un-injured in the rows he walked past as he went up the isle, so why didn’t they all gang tackle this guy? He had on a gas mask, and could hear nothing thanks to the rifle, so he would have been oblivious to anything behind him.

  12. Ted N says:

    Thanks for writing this, and to the commenters. I’ve been grinding my teeth down at some of the assinine, “Thank goodness there weren’t any CCWs in there, they’d have just made it worse,” type comments, some of them(I’ve seen) from veterans.

    Even if it’s dark and smoky, even if you can’t pull a decent sight picture, even if you can’t get a perfect clean shot, put some rounds over the guy’s head.

    These shitbags fold like little punks whenever they get return fire, you don’t have to be the hero, you’d just have to scare him.

    It’d be a hell of a lot better than fingernails and harsh language.

    • xpo172 says:

      Ironically, Bloomberg is trying to outlaw the only weapon that was available in that theater. The giant softdrink!

  13. Pingback: Oleg Volk on Armed Response to Midnight Movie Massacre: Why Not? | The Truth About GunsThe Truth About Guns

  14. the other Flint says:

    Couple of thoughts.

    From everything I’ve read – the shooter didn’t exchange fire with the police. And he was taken straight to jail (didn’t have to be hospitalized) – so we really have no idea how the shooter would have reacted if he was subject to return fire.

    But I believe that he probably would not have done well. Nothing we have learned about this guy so far has given any indication that he had any history or experience with firearms.

  15. Pingback: Oleg Volk on Armed Response to Midnight Movie Massacre: Why Not? « New York City Guns

  16. Cargosquid says:

    As for a school shooting, many victims knew that the shooter was near. They could hear shooting in the next class. Some were “hiding” in the class for over 10 minutes until Cho shot them at VT.

    If I can’t leave the class via a door or window, I’m doing something that will surprise the shooter. Anything. Pocket knives are good as an ambush weapon. Piles of desks in front of the door. Breaking locked windows. Organizing those willing to fight. Something can always be done. It may not be effective, but neither is lying under a desk until you’re shot.

    The theater….that was a lose/lose scenario. Darkness, panic, smoke/gas, rapid fire, crowds, and a funnel……talk about difficult decisions.

    But, people were still able to react logically. Three men died putting themselves in harms way to protect girlfriends. One teen boy save a mother and children after her (hopefully EX) fiance ran off. Others stopped to help wounded.

    Are people seriously considering that those with a MODICUM of training could not return fire? They are idiots.

  17. Pingback: License To Carry Could Have Made A Difference | Gunalizer

  18. Pingback: SayUncle » Movie Massacre: Gun Stuff

  19. Bob G says:

    I have a Trijicon Big Dot night sight on my carry pistol. It might have been useful in a movie theater. Move to get a clear shot, place the glowing dot on the upper part of the dark shape of the goblin with the gun, press trigger. I had it on me when I saw The Dark Knight Rises — in an IMAX cinema that looks a lot like the photo that Oleg posted.


  20. Pingback: Busy weekend. « God Guns and Politics

  21. dwall says:

    We need a culture change from victims to defenders. A shooter needs to know they will be gang tackled, as others said, and beaten to death. Might deter some but not all of the attacks. A few men stood up and protected those close to them. Others had time to attack the psycho but were not in that mental attitude.

Comments are closed.