I was in law enforcement prior to the term ‘Active Shooter’ became an accepted way to describe someone bent on hurting people, and before Columbine forever changed how police will respond to acts of mass violence.

In fact, I remember when it was standard practice for law enforcement trainers to exhort citizens confronted by a firearm to remain calm, be completely compliant and do nothing threatening. The goal, obviously, was to remind people confronted by a mugger or armed robber that the criminal was motivated by profit; that the violence they offered was simply leverage to get the wallet, ATM withdrawal or fancy watch they wanted from you. Our goal, on the other hand, was to give them what they wanted as quickly and calmly as possible, and avoid the violence from occurring.

That mindset is what gave birth to the term ‘Active Shooter’. When America started experiencing (or, depending on the statistics you choose to use, started hearing more about) acts of violence carried out for their own sake, that advice became genuinely dangerous. Telling someone to offer no resistance to a person whose only desire is to hurt or kill them had truly dire consequences, and those of us training both law enforcement and non-law enforcement populations realized we needed to differentiate between a common street mugging and a mass shooter.

This is an important distinction, since the responses to the two types of incident are essentially diametrically opposite. In an act of threatened violence, where the violence is offered to obtain your property, compliance is truly the safest, most effective plan for escaping unharmed. Of course, in an active violence situation, the accepted response is some variation of ‘Run, Hide, Fight’ as taught by the Department of Homeland Security; the opposite of compliance, since compliance only makes the attacker’s job easier in these situations.

If we all know this, why am I belaboring such an obvious point? It’s because I’ve found that, with more and more employers, schools and even media discussing how to respond to an ACTIVE threat, the distinction between that and THREATENED violence is getting lost. It’s easy to demonstrate. During an active violence training session, show a photo of a person threatening another with a pistol, and ask if that constitutes an ‘Active Shooter’. You’ll get an overwhelming majority of folks responding that it is.

Because we live in a world that contains both active shooters and muggers, I think it’s important that any training session on coping with violence makes this distinction, and discusses the difference in response each should elicit. Ensuring that your audience knows the difference between active and threatened violence ensures that the people who attend that training walk away knowing that not everyone displaying a firearm is an ‘active shooter’, and that when we discuss ‘Run, Hide, Fight’, we’re not talking about the proper way to deal with a mugging.

Training people to deal with violence is never easy, or comfortable. It makes us talk about things we’d rather not think about, and makes us confront the darkest side of human nature. But ensuring our audience walks out with a clear understanding of what an active shooter is, and also what they are not, needs to become part of our lesson plans.