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The Five Stages of the Active Shooter

An active shooter incident (ASI) generally occurs within a school or work environment. In the mind of the potential active shooter, he or she thinks they are a victim. An active shooter (AS) acts out for real or imagined reasons. Harassment, hazing, and bullying are actions which bystanders and authorities must not tolerate.

An active shooter tends to be a white male, quiet, reserved, and does not have a criminal background. He may be suffering from some form of mental illness as well.

Lt. Dan Marcou, retired LaCrosse Wisconsin Police Department and nationally recognized trainer, has identified five stages of the active shooter.  Lt. Dan Marcou has assisted law enforcement cope with and train for Active Shooter Incidents.  The five stages are:

  1. Fantasy stage
  2. Planning stage
  3. Preparation stage
  4. Approach stage
  5. Implementation stage

Fantasy Stage

The shooter exhibits fantasies about hurting others in speech, drawings, writing or as posted online. This is the best time to intervene. A criminal act has not yet occurred. Nobody has been hurt. At this stage, a potential AS is crying out for help. If law enforcement is notified, assistance may be provided without incident.

Planning Stage

The shooter’s thoughts are replaced by action at this stage. He is making decisions about targets, activities, as the when, where, and how are being coordinated. An individual planning an ASI may research topics on a computer or even write and publish a manifesto authorizing death warrants.

Preparation Stage

The potential shooter devotes time to gather needed materials to complete the deadly task. Items can be purchased to construct explosives. Ammunition may be acquired or purchased. The potential shooter practices his moves. The shooter is ensuring that he can carry out the plan. A potential active shooter tends to forewarn friends to stay away. An alert range master, ammunition dealer, or other vendors may be key in identifying a potential active shooter at this stage. If law enforcement is notified of a potential shooter’s suspected intentions, there is a possibility that police can intercede without the loss of life.

Approach Stage

This is a very dangerous time. The shooter is committed to carrying out his plan. He is headed toward his intended target. Most likely, he has his weapons on his person or secreted nearby. Law enforcement may unknowingly engage the shooter by initiating an unrelated traffic stop or may be directed to the shooter based on reported suspicious conduct. This is the last opportunity to overcome the shooter before he acts out.

Implementation Stage

The shooter makes his entry. The plan is in action. The shooting begins. People are being injured and killed. Four phases have already transpired. This is the last one. It is usually at this point law enforcement receives the first call. Law enforcement has become very quick, efficient, and effective at this stage. Unfortunately, this action tends to be too little, too late. The police are on scene when people are already either wounded or dead. The shooter has often taken his life by the time officers respond.


Marcou states time is on the side of law enforcement if the five stages of the active shooter are understood by law enforcement, school systems, universities, employers, mental health care professionals, and the public.

Authorities must intervene during the first three phases of the active shooter to overcome him before he begins. These three first phases are fantasy, planning, and preparation. Once an active shooter reaches the fourth and fifth phases, he is ready and intervention is both difficult and dangerous. He first approaches as planned and then takes action.

See Something, Say Something

If you see something, say something. If someone seems to be exhibiting dangerous behaviors that could lead to becoming a danger to others, please bring it to the attention of authorities. Law enforcement, school officials, mental health professionals and other authorities are able to help prevent tragedy if they are made aware of potential problems. After the events of September 11, as a nation we said, “no more.” We report suspicious incidents. It is time to do the same in defeating the active shooter in a school, the workplace, or the community at large.

For more information, please visit see something – say something.


Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office
Minnesota's First Law Enforcement Agency - Established 1849

Sheriff Matt Bostrom