An exercise I sometimes use as an opener for concealed carry class is to have each person name something they do to avoid becoming a crime victim. Situational awareness is the most frequent answer, as it should be. Second to that is usually some variation of “avoid strange or dangerous places,” a point with which I have traditionally agreed in the name of keeping things simple and, on the surface, sensible. With this article and in future classes, I’m abandoning categorical agreement to say that there are times to set foot into danger, a term with different meanings to different folks.
New civilian gun carriers, seeking to keep themselves and their loved ones safe, deserve better information than what they often get about the nature of criminal threats and their options of response. The responsibility of carrying a gun, I believe, includes the added responsibility to explore and plan for the spectrum of decisional moments likely to be faced in one’s daily life. Instructors have an obligation to cover these concepts, matching instruction as closely as possible to each student’s level of readiness.
The recent headline about the Tennessee woman who drew out on a guy who asked for matches to light a cigarette is a fine example of why this is important. It’s not my place or even intent to judge this incident, which the news tells us too little about. This case is one of many that’s been painted in the media as irresponsible use of a handgun by a lawful carrier, and it’s certainly being prosecuted as such. This is also a little personal, since I have family in the Volunteer State, and I am aware that some carry permits, at least, are being issued after a short session of gun-cleaning, a safety discussion, and a brief shooting test. This incident and countless other current events highlight the importance of training for more than just basic safety and marksmanship—a fine and necessary starting point, but by themselves, inadequate and a disservice to lawful concealed carriers and the justice system.
What does “explore the spectrum of decisional moments” mean? It refers to the process of both mental and physical preparation for responding to a criminal threat. There are lots of folks who are ready to exercise a dynamic and appropriate set of responses. There are many more who aren’t. This article is about those who think that just having a gun and a permit is enough, and for instructors who think their own skill development, or that of their students, is done. There is labor to do, and it starts inside the mind—mental preparation for self-defense.
A working assumption here is that our friend situational awareness (SA) accompanies us as much as possible. This term has been tossed around enough that you probably know what it implies. But if not, it’s a relaxed state of awareness coming in through the senses our Creator gave us. It’s not paranoia—in fact, noticing what’s going on around us makes life richer in comparison to walking through life with our mind elsewhere and eyes to the ground. As the self-protectionist hones the art of SA, they begin to register, without much effort, when others in the vicinity are visibly armed or maybe hiding something, and unusual details like an out-of-state license plate, a missing hubcap, or some aspect of a tattoo. That level of detail can only be habitually taken in from a relaxed, not paranoid, state of mind.
Thanks to those who fought and died for our freedom and those who work every day to keep neighborhoods safe, many folks have made it to adulthood without ever having encountered so much as a panhandler, let alone an armed mugger or other violent threat. At the risk of stereotyping, I believe that people who’ve led a life sheltered from individuals and events on the wrong side of the tracks represent a small yet substantial group who tend toward unwarranted fear and premature presentation of a gun (“brandishing,” legally speaking). With inexperience and lack of mental training, their gut reaction is based on overall appearance rather than actual behavior of an individual.
This same subset of people are also the ones who often believe that simply showing the gun, with no plan or intent to shoot, will cause the scary person to run away—that’s a true-or-false question, by the way, in my concealed carry class pre-test. When the scary person at hand really is intent on a criminal attack, this lawful gun owner then risks becoming a victim by having the gun, which she wasn’t committed to using, taken and possibly used against her.
In my college days, safety instructors wanted us to believe this was the inevitable fate of any female who dared arm herself or even fight back in an attack. Thankfully, US Department of Justice research and experience have proven them wrong. But they were correct in terms of talking to the gun owner whose only safety plan is to scare someone off with the sight of a firearm. My advice to that small segment of students is to practice until their fear of the gun is turned into competent, safe handling, or, if they are sure of not wanting to overcome the innate resistance* to pressing the trigger while aiming at a human target, to choose some less-lethal methods and train to use them well.
Good concealed carry instruction should challenge people to imagine likely scenarios based on their daily habits, and develop a general plan for responding to various levels of threat. A lone person standing, hands visible, a car’s length away in a well-lit public location, asking for money or whatever, does NOT (without further aggression) represent a threat that warrants drawing. What responses are warranted? Direct eye contact, a silent plan of escape or counter-attack, a firm and civil verbal refusal, bolstered by body language that conveys confidence and ownership of personal space while also increasing distance if possible.
Obviously, confident body language, a sense of what things and people are in the immediate vicinity, and rapid access to the weapon should be in place before the incident begins. For folks new to self-protection, this level of awareness seems like work. It’s actually a confidence-boosting practice—for some, a game—that keeps a person alert and present in an age where distractions like phones and advertising are ubiquitous.
At minimum, imagine potential or definite threats to yourself and/or loved ones that could occur in your daily life. Likely scenarios for the average American include being approached by a panhandler in a parking lot, being present in a store when an armed robbery begins, or being the specific target of violence from, say, a disgruntled coworker or perhaps an angry stranger encountered in the moments following a fender bender. Of course, none of us are immune from the threat of terror attacks. Learn at what point it is appropriate to index your hand on the gun in concealment, to draw (“a show of force,” legally speaking—different from brandishing), to fire, fire again, to move from an on-target to a ready position, to reholster.
When I first began carrying concealed, it was my plan and belief that bringing the gun out of concealment would never be done unless I was sure of an immediate shoot. Since then, training and life have shown me the error of that line of thinking. A quality instructor will at least demonstrate, and at best have students practice, the act of drawing from concealment and putting sights on target quickly enough to make an effective hit. It takes longer than the majority of shooters think—and when done as a live fire exercise, most aren’t nearly as accurate as they are in their imagination.
Good instruction will include preparing the licensee for what to expect following a shoot, or surrender, or both. There has been at least one extremely unfortunate but necessary shooting by police officers of a citizen who, having performed a justified shoot during a home invasion, was apparently so shocked by the experience that he was unable to distinguish that he was out of danger and could disarm upon the arrival of police. Please, don’t be that guy. If combat experience is not in a person’s work history, chances are mental preparation is necessary for good management of your response both before and after self-defense.
I’ve said a lot about challenging inflated concepts about what a person and their gun can accomplish without regular practice. I’ll balance that with this: a good instructor encourages students to envision WINNING the fight for their life or the life of an innocent whom they choose to defend. Practice is important, as is knowing the envelope of one’s current skill set. Once that’s in place. I like to apply a quote from one of my mentors, CJ Caracci: the will to win is more important than the skill to win. Some people report having gotten so angry at having been attacked that rage saw them through. Others say an eerily calm determination, along with the mechanical motions of past training, took over their actions until they prevailed. Perhaps this is personality-dependent, who knows? The message is, know yourself and prepare mentally to put your best fight on in the moment it becomes necessary.
Physical preparation for civilian self-defense is best served in the same way it’s practiced by progressive law enforcement agencies—through force-on-force training with non-lethal munitions. This kind of training, when well-designed and executed, allows one to feel the effects of psychological stress and executing a response, possibly while being fired upon or otherwise attacked. Shooting competitions are also valuable for practicing marksmanship and gun handling with time pressure and strangers watching. A good instructor can only do so much. The responsible concealed carrier finds ways to work marksmanship, weapon manipulation (safe handling, drawing, reloading, and malfunction clearances, at least), and performance under stress into his or her practice.
There’s almost always one person in any given class who feels his martial arts background, or her personal taser, will likely overpower an attacker and spare them the legal consequences of using a gun. Alternative levels of force come in many forms, and many are effective until there is a disparity of force, like some schmuck bringing a gun to a pepper spray fight. A good instructor will encourage a student’s interest in the fighting arts, whether it includes firearms or not. Having many arrows in your quiver of choices is valuable, but many people lack time or resources to accumulate more than one or two.
Finally, good concealed carry instruction teaches a person to evaluate the actions of potential threats according to legal standards usually described as having the opportunity and ability to cause death or great bodily harm, along with the factor of the innocent person(s) being in immediate jeopardy. These legal terms vary by state, but the nature of them is the same. By the same token, the concealed carrier, once the gun comes out, will be judged by the standard of whether their actions were reasonable and necessary under the circumstances. This is a legal precedent set by Graham vs. Connor, a police case regarding use of force that has also been applied to civilians acting in defense of self or loved ones.
Can what’s “reasonable” perhaps be interpreted differently in different communities? Probably. Give that some thought as you envision defending yourself with a firearm. Extend that thought process to less lethal weapons like pepper spray or a taser. Every choice has its advantages and drawbacks. There is no one prescriptive solution for every person… let your own practice, lifestyle, and the advice of trusted, experienced practitioners, not the flak of internet forums, guide your choices.
Some people have concluded by now this is some sort of gun control argument. That assumption is incorrect! I hold dear the hard-won right to self-defense with a firearm, and believe that self-defense is an inalienable right of all persons. Unfortunately the gun community, including advocacy groups like the NRA, does a disservice to the sustenance of our rights when advocating for the issuance of carry permits that require no demonstration of safe handling or use of force training whatsoever.
There was a time when most people, even suburbanites, grew up with respect for and awareness of guns as a hunting and/or home defense implement. That isn’t true for most folks today, and while misjudgments will happen in any human endeavor, they’re far less likely following decent training. Let’s voluntarily step up our game, as non-victim civilians and instructors alike, and seek opportunities for training that decrease the likelihood of a bad shoot, the details of which can easily evolve into legal restrictions on guns. Let’s give ourselves and society the gift of better judgment and accuracy when the need to shoot—or avoid shooting—arises. Good training preserves our Second Amendment rights. Stupid decisions by untrained individuals erode them.
*Innate resistance is the term used by Lt. Col. David Grossman in his book On Killing to describe the natural resistance of a civilized and untrained person to apply deadly force. This resistance is likely to be present until practice helps one identify appropriate moments to override it.
Safety warning: Eve Flanigan is a New Mexico-based concealed carry and rifle/pistol instructor, and lifelong student of the gun and self defense. Any methods or information described in this article is intended to be put into practice only by those serious about self defense with proper training.