bullet-hole-2-2Here in the United States, shootings are on most of our minds right now. Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights … the list goes on. Many people have died. And many more are trying to come up with methods to prevent future shootings.

But, in this flurry of massive media coverage, I haven’t seen anyone explain what to do if you or someone nearby is shot. There are solid steps you can take—ones that not everyone knows—that could save a shooting victim’s life.

These steps are essential whether first responders are on their way or not. But we’re seeing right now that there’s a very real chance they could be delayed. When protests block streets, which some have done lately, emergency personnel may not be able to get to you as quickly as normal. Or, if you’re in the middle of an active shooter situation, first responders may have no choice but to wait it out.

It’s not always possible to save a shooting victim’s life. Even experts with the best training and equipment often have patients die. But if you do what you can, at least you’ve helped give the person a fighting chance.

Here are some steps you can take to help save a shooting victim’s life.

Step One: Act

  1. Ensure your safety. If there is a chance of more shooting, you must protect yourself. If you get shot, you become another victim unable to help anyone.
  2. Take action. Never assume someone else is going to step in. Do what you can. If someone else has taken immediate charge, ask what you can do.
  3. Call 911. Recruit someone else to do this if possible. Then have them come help you take care of the victim.

Step Two: Treat

The three immediate problems to look for are usually, in order of importance: no signs of life, heavy bleeding and a collapsing lung.

Remember, HIV and hepatitis may be caught from blood. So you and your helpers should use gloves or plastic or anything that can be a barrier between your skin and the blood.

  1. Look for signs of life. If there are none, begin chest compressions. Start them as quickly as possible but again, only if there are no signs of life, such as breathing. Note: If the person is in a car, remember that you have to get them onto the ground to give proper chest compressions.
  2. Have your helper put pressure on any areas of bleeding. (Or you can do this if you’re not performing chest compressions.) In addition to an entrance wound there may or may not be one or more exit wounds, and they’re not always where you think they should be.
  3. Apply a tourniquet if the wound is on an extremity (arm, leg, hand or foot), bleeding is profuse, and it’s not slowing with direct pressure.
  4. If the experts still haven’t arrived, plug any gunshot holes. Stuff them with a small wad of cloth or a tampon if available. Not only will that stop some of the bleeding, but if the bullet has injured and collapsed a lung, this step could keep the lung collapse from getting a lot worse.

Advanced tip: If you hear hissing or see bubbling from a chest wound, consider placing a credit card or something similar over it instead of plugging it with cloth. Click here for more on why; see the box titled “How to Make an Occlusive Dressing out of a Driver’s License.”

To expedite the arrival of expert help, onlookers should allow emergency vehicles to pass.

When first responders arrive, follow orders on how to continue to help. If nothing else, you may be able to help allow enough room for treatment and transfer.


 To recap, these are the basic steps to take when someone is shot:

  1. Ensure your safety.
  2. Call 911.
  3. Begin chest compressions if needed.
  4. Stop the bleeding (look for entrance and exit wounds; use direct pressure and/or a tourniquet).
  5. Plug gunshot holes with cloth or a tampon.

Next week I’ll post on what to do if help is not on the way at all. I’ll answer questions like, can I perform surgery? Should I get the bullet out? Subscribe below to be notified when that post is published. And for more tips on what to do in various situations when you can’t get expert help right away, check out my new book, The Survival Doctor’s Complete Handbook.

Have you ever seen someone get shot? What did you do?

Bullet hole photo: Flickr/István Berta, “IMG_20140722_081039,” shared via CC BY 2.0.

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