The “Not If, But When” Fallacy: Active Shooter Preparedness

by Research Group at University of Maryland

The phrase “It’s not if, but when” may distort how certain organizations perceive emergency preparedness, especially in cases such as active shooter threats. This common expression leads to inaccurate threat perceptions and can result in leaders becoming complacent. Emergency managers should be aware of this potential odd pairing of a sense of inevitability with complacency, and be prepared to counter it.

Many places (including Ft. Hood in Texas; University of California-Santa Barbara; Charleston, South Carolina; San Bernardino, California; Orlando, Florida; Virginia Tech; Aurora, Colorado; Columbine High School in Colorado; Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut) are now associated with one of the most horrific kinds of criminals imaginable: the active shooter. Not only are these incidents terrible, but their frequency, by all accounts, is increasing. In fact, active shooter incidents are inevitable, with incidents occurring in the United States for at least 100 years.

However, no particular person or occupational role – an emergency manager, a business owner, or a school principal – is guaranteed to experience one of these incidents at his or her particular jurisdiction, business, or school. In some organizations, though – particularly colleges and universities – leadership has interpreted the constant media coverage of active shooter incidents as a direct indication that their institutions will inevitably face an active shooter. Their perspective essentially states that it is a matter of “not if, but when.”

Origins of the Phrase: “Not If, But When”

One of the earliest recorded uses in the English language of the phrase “It’s not if, but when,” or a related derivative, comes from an 1867 English periodical referencing an Italian politician. Recent American usage of the phrase has often involved describing the inevitability of minor or major disasters, such as cyberattacks, identity theft, terrorism, communicable disease outbreaks, and negative impacts of climate change.

Usage in a subdiscipline of public relations known as crisis management is also quite common. Experts and authors in crisis management, often writing from a corporate perspective, emphasize the importance of being prepared to communicate after an incident that has affected the reputation of an organization. The goal is to counter negative media coverage and ensure that employees and the public maintain as positive an opinion of the organization as possible.

Crisis managers may say, “It’s not if, but when,” when they believe that an organization is going to experience one of these reputational crises. There is a chance that any organization will face some sort of crisis at some point in the future. However, it is possible that some leaders have wrongfully conflated the inevitability of simply anything in an organization going awry alongside the active shooter incident, with its much lower likelihood.

Frequency of Active Shooter Incidents

Understanding the frequency of active shooter incidents must begin with an understanding of related definitions. This article employs three definitions to establish frequency:

  • Active shooter: “an individual or individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.”
  • Mass shooting: “a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered with firearms, within one event, and in one or more locations in close proximity.”
  • Targeted violence: “an incident of violence where a known or knowable attacker selects a particular target prior to their violent attack.”

The definitions above include both incidents when individuals attempted violent acts as well as events that resulted in fatalities. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a shooting is only considered a “mass shooting” if it results in at least four deaths. This definition aligns with what much of the public thinks when confronted with the term “active shooter” and thus blurs the lines between incidents where a shooter attempts acts of violence, and “mass shooting” events where multiple fatalities occur. Using the CRS’s definition, the United States had fewer than three such incidents per year from 1983 to 2012. By the same definition, 2014 and 2015 saw eight mass shootings.

Alternately, targeted school violence – an incident of violence where a known or knowable attacker selects a particular target prior to a violent attack – increased from fewer than 10 per year in the first half of the 20th century, to close to 100 per year by 2008, according to a 2014 presentation by former chief research psychologist for the U.S. Secret Service, Dr. Marisa Randazzo, as part of threat assessment training through Sigma Threat Management Associates. Although this statistic is disturbing, Randazzo urges people to take into account the similarly rising student enrollment rates across the United States in the same period. Indeed, the increase in frequency, when observed in isolation, is alarming. But when placed into context among a commonplace rise in population, the frequency may represent a stable phenomenon, according to Randazzo.

It appears that what is lacking in the public’s perspective is context. Federal Bureau of Investigation research indicates that active shooter incidents in the entire United States have been increasing in frequency, from an average of 6.4 incidents per year between 2000 and 2006 to an average of 16.4 incidents per year from 2007 to 2013. Despite these national averages suggesting a low probability of an incident occurring at any particular location, some leaders still believe these events to be inevitable.

The Psychology

Extensive media coverage of school shootings makes such incidents particularly salient, which may lead to a pervasive public misconception of their frequency. This reliance on easily recalled examples to support decision-making is called the availability heuristic. When concepts are more cognitively available, they are assumed to be statistically more likely than they truly are.

This bias can lead to a phenomenon in behavioral psychology known as learned helplessness, which is a condition of powerlessness observed both in humans and animals when a particular trauma or threat seems unavoidable. The perceived inevitability for recurrence of such threats leads to predictable behaviors that demonstrate feelings of helplessness or complacency.

Exposure to seemingly uncontrollable events not only alters the individual’s ability to see relationships between behaviors and their outcomes, but it can also have a greater emotional impact than that of controllable events. The availability heuristic leads to systematic biases, particularly with regard to repeated events. In context, this likely manifests as overestimations of the probability of an active shooter incident occurring based on the salience of recent prominent examples. If that overestimation results in a belief of inevitability, learned helplessness becomes a possible threat.

The Danger of Catchphrases

Leaders lead, in part, by creating meaning for their followers. It is natural, then, that even good leaders are drawn to catchphrases that seem to encompass important points. Though certainly well intentioned, the phrase, “It’s not if, but when,” is ultimately fallacious when referring to the likelihood of an active shooter incident occurring at any particular location. This misuse of the phrase probably arises from extensive media coverage of public shootings, especially at schools. Ironically, the incorrect belief of inevitability can lead to complacency, rather than vigilance. It is essential that leaders choose their words wisely. Prevention and survivorship elements of an active shooter program must be backed by organized and balanced leadership, or their implementation could become haphazard and ineffective.



This article was written as a collaborative effort by the following authors:

Stephen Maloney, CEM, is an emergency manager with the U.S. Federal Reserve Board. He has a B.S. in geology from the University of Maryland, an M.S. in environmental science and policy from Johns Hopkins University, and is a graduate of the National Emergency Management Executive Academy and Harvard University’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative.

Michelle Rosinski is a strategic communications intern at Stratacomm LLC in Washington, D.C. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a B.A. in English language and literature and is pursuing a career in public relations and communications.

Anthony Vivino is a fourth-year student studying psychology and English literature at the University of Maryland (UMD), aiding the research of both the UMD Clinical and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab and the UMD Dreams, Relationships, Emotions, Attraction, and Morality (DREAM) Lab, and tutors at the UMD Writing Center.