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Illustration by Security Management

Using Gunshot Detection Technology to Mitigate Human Fallibility

There were 18,854 deaths attributed to willful, malicious, or accidental gun violence in the United States in 2023, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Of those deaths, 656 were attributable to mass shootings, where four or more people were injured or killed in a single incident, not including the shooter.

These incidents continue despite advances in technology and the security industry, and attackers who are determined enough will plan to circumvent prevention efforts.

Sometimes, “you’re not going to stop someone with a grievance on a pathway to violence that has planned this type of attack,” says Jin Kim, retired special agent for the FBI. “There’s nothing that stops an offender from obtaining a firearm in this country. With a grievance, with retribution on their mind, you’re not going to stop that attack,” he adds.

While he was working for the Bureau, Kim became a subject matter expert on active shooters, starting that branch of his career after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. One common thread he highlights as a key mitigator during active assailant incidents—whether in schools or elsewhere—is communicating to potential victims about where the incident is.

“That to me launches a whole other different avenue and path for mitigation and personal survival,” he says.

Kim, who now serves as an advisory board member to gunshot detection manufacturer Shooter Detection Systems (SDS), adds that human denial is a significant factor at every stage of an attack.

When he speaks with stakeholders curious about audio detection software and infrastructure, Kim finds that organizations and their leaders can be hesitant to install or implement mitigation measures specific to gunfire—as if by installing it, the organization is acknowledging that a shooting could happen there.

“That’s a scary thing,” Kim says. “…But the reality is that there’s no human being on this planet that has any control over that.”

Screening processes and technology can help prevent potential attackers from entering a facility with a weapon. But when a determined-enough assailant does find a way into a facility, the average human being will likely have trouble recognizing the danger for what it is quickly enough to take action.

“Most people in these events, they don’t know what’s going on,” Kim says. “They don’t hear the gunshots. Denial is one huge, strong human element in this. And then you have people that are acting with little to no information that has not been substantiated.… That’s a very big myth that people know what a gunshot sounds like in their environment.”

When shots are fired, sound distortion, distance, and denial can lead people nearby to misidentify the sound—believing it instead to be firecrackers, fireworks, a car backfiring, or something benign. When a small group of terrorists attacked the Crocus City concert hall in Moscow, Russia, on 22 March, some concert attendees believed the initial gunshots may have been part of the show.

In these instances, a gunshot detection product can help in identifying gunfire, separating that specific noise from others in a monitored environment. But Kim insists that identification is only a fraction of the larger solution.

That’s a very big myth that people know what a gunshot sounds like in their environment.

These products should also be able to verify whether a gun was fired, he says. For example, if an organization also uses surveillance cameras that have infrared sensors and integrate data from the audio sensors, then both the audio and visual data can be used to verify each other. When the audio information indicates a gunshot, the video feed can register if there was muzzle flash within that area at the same time. This level of integration can improve response time and send out a mass notification warning sooner to people nearby to shelter in place, evacuate, or avoid the area.

Beyond verified assailant incidents, issues like false alarms and swatting also threaten the security of employees, residents, staff, students, and visitors.

False alarms can cause a different set of problems and demand unique recoveries, Kim notes, such as having to roll back the original alarm and notify others that gunfire did not occur—preferably sooner rather than later to avoid generating unnecessary confusion or panic. False alarms can create future risk by diminishing the organization’s trust in security measures. This can create “scars, and you’re building even deeper denial institutionally,” Kim notes.

Ultimately, it’s up to stakeholders to decide whether gunshot detection technology can provide an effective countermeasure, and much of that decision depends on multiple factors, including risk posture, budget, psychology, and the latest active shooter tactics.

“There’s not a single panacea or one-size-fits-all,” Kim acknowledges. “…In the end it will always come down to human beings making decisions and responses under anomalous, dangerous circumstances. That’s probably the most pivotal factor.”