7 Signs a Weapon Is Being Concealed

The ability to tell if a person is carrying a concealed gun, knife or other weapon could save a life. Here are seven signs someone may be concealing a weapon.
Published: July 5, 2023

July 5, 2023 UPDATE: This article that was published several years ago has been significantly updated and now includes new anecdotes and graphics. It also discusses more current events and their impact on weapons concealment.

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.

The student did not go to any of his classes for several hours as he hunted for the gang member he planned to shoot. As he walked the halls and hid in stairwells, he concealed a rifle down one pant leg which went undetected by school staff or the school resource officer whose pant legs could also be seen as the attacker walked right by the officer in security camera footage. When the student opened fire, he missed his intended target and struck an innocent bystander in the neck, permanently disabling her.

This shooting occurred even though the school had a school resource officer and multiple security officers to protect students and employees. Although the deputy was a ten-year veteran, he did not notice the obvious physical behaviors that indicated that a student had a rifle concealed in his pant leg as he walked by the officer. It is also important to note that a teacher had already reported to the officer that she had seen the student in the school after he missed her class that day and that he had been absent from her class numerous times.

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Of greater importance than the large out-of-court settlement in the case was the fact that security camera footage showed many instances over the course of a morning where it was obvious that the attacker was armed. This made it clear that the shooting was a preventable act of violence. Fortunately, the school district did not stop by just settling the case. It took notice of this and other gaps and has significantly improved security measures since that tragedy. In fact, to their credit, their legal counsel has recommended me to other school districts, and they decided to retain me to help them work to enhance school security measures even though I served as an expert witness for the plaintiff’s counsel in the litigation.

Since that time, smart cameras with video analytics such as dwell time and prohibitive zone detection have become more popular to help prevent this type of tragedy. The robust electronic hall pass systems many schools now use would also likely have helped to avert this particular tragedy. I have provided copies of my visual weapons screening training video to companies that make analytic software for security cameras to help them develop software to detect people carrying concealed weapons. Hopefully, their efforts will result in an additional “left of bang” prevention tool. A United States Marine Corps concept, left of bang refers to noticing indicators that an attack may be about to occur so action can be taken before — rather than in reaction to — an attack. While gunshot detection and analytic software are marketed as tools to speed up the response once an attacker pulls or fires a weapon, these are “right of bang” tools that only detect danger after an attacker pulls or begins firing a weapon, in the case of gunshot detectors.

In contrast, visual weapons screening can and has been used to avert many otherwise imminent campus shootings and is a “left of bang” approach. When combined with other security technologies such as smart cameras, access control systems, electronic hall pass systems, metal detectors (when appropriate and with proper utilization), and the highly effective “vapor trail” canines capable of detecting firearms and explosives in crowded situations (e.g. stationing them downwind of entry points at athletic venues), visual weapons screening is a low-key but highly effective tool for the prevention of shootings in a campus setting.

Attacks involving firearms have taken place at and near schools, hospitals and institutions of higher learning. In a number of tragic instances, students have entered K-12 schools, universities, and hospitals undetected while concealing rifles and shotguns before committing multiple-victim homicides.

One valuable tool for campus personnel is the technique of visual weapons screening. These techniques have been used to recover thousands of unlawfully possessed firearms and other weapons and have averted a number of planned weapons assaults. Visual screening is an inexpensive and effective way to help counter campus violence and are especially valuable in interrupting imminent targeted shootings and gang violence. Visual screening is not a theoretical concept, but a proven technique that has worked quite well under difficult field conditions.

Weapons Violators Come from All Backgrounds

Various studies by organizations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the U.S. Secret Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive (ATF) indicate there is no reliable profile of the active assailant and, in some cases, weapons violator in general. People who carry and use weapons unlawfully are White, Black, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, bi-racial, or any other race or ethnicity. They are male, female, and transgender. They wear any type of clothing including expensive clothing, designer athletic wear, suits and formal dresses, and they are from all socioeconomic classes. The ages of those who carry out campus weapons assaults have ranged from elementary students to attackers in their 80’s.

A weapons violator may be a high school dropout or — as we have seen in several university shootings an in an attempted elementary school shooting case I worked on — may have a Ph.D. The violator may at first glance look like anyone else because there is no reliable or viable profile. In short, the weapons violator looks like you and anyone reading this article as well as our parents, grandparents, children, siblings, etc.

In fact, relying on this method can be dangerous. What is consistent about those who carry a weapon unlawfully, particularly a firearm, is the presence of certain physical behaviors. In short, individuals who carry a concealed gun do specific things we can often observe because of their reactions to the presence of the gun or other weapon on their person.

Rather than relying on ineffective and — in our country at least — illegal methods like profiling, police and security personnel should focus their attention on the specific behaviors that may indicate the presence of a hidden weapon. An important rule for visual weapons screening is to focus on what people do rather than what they look like. In other words, pay attention to what I do, not who I appear to be.

Weapons Screeners Must Consider Many Behaviors

Visual weapons screening is a valuable tool that helps officers and others with security concerns spot individuals who deserve closer observation and, when appropriate, a lawful physical search. In some cases, the indicator may be rather weak and will be periodically observed when people are not armed (e.g. the sag of a jacket on one side of the body).

In other instances (such as when the muzzle of a shotgun can be seen protruding from under a trench coat, when the butt of a revolver is visible in a pocket, or, most commonly, when a knife is in a case on a belt or a metal clip is attached to a knife which holds it in position in a pants pocket), we know instantly the individual is, in fact, carrying a weapon. In the case of a long gun, it is likely that the individual is about to use the weapon.

One of the most important concepts of visual weapons screening is behavior clusters. For example, an individual who fails to swing his right arm may be armed and trying to avoid hitting their elbow on the weapon. But an individual who adjusts something under his clothing above the waistline, looks around very nervously, and then walks away while not swinging their right arm when he spots an officer or other authority figure watching them, is far more likely to be armed. The totality of circumstances will dictate the degree of likelihood of an individual being armed.

Apply Concealed Weapons Detection Practices Wisely

Visual weapons screening has proven to be extremely effective, especially if the screener is properly trained. These techniques must be applied with common sense, in accordance with the laws of search and seizure for your situation, and with a careful view of the overall context. It should be noted that some of the following signs do not always indicate the presence of a weapon.

Visual screening techniques are easy to learn, retain and apply as long as those who need to use them are alert and observant. The slideshow features some of the most common indicators that a person is armed.

World-renowned for their weapons concealment and detection training programs, Michael Dorn and Chris Dorn have been teaching these lifesaving techniques for many years. For more information about the authors, visit www.safehavensinternational.org.

Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series