A Gun Will Not Solve All Your Problems
The Case for Leaning to Use Avoidance Strategies, De-escalation Techniques, Empty Handed Close Combat Skills, and Less than Lethal Weapons
Note: Average Joe is not an attorney and the material that follows is not legal advice and should not be considered legal advice; I am merely offering my perspective. I accept no liability for anyone taking actions based upon what is written herein without conducting their own legal research. Questions regarding use of force and other legal issues should be discussed with your personal attorney, addressed to the attorney general of the state in which you reside, or queried to your local county prosecutor’s office .
Buckle up; this is going to be a long ride. The material you are about to read is the most lengthy piece I have every written at well over 5,000 words and there aren’t many photos to go along with this article. However, I do feel that the material covered here is worthy of consideration by anyone who carries a handgun for self defense. So…let’s go:
Quite a while ago I wrote an article about the importance of getting proper handgun handling training and advanced training in self defense/tactical shooting skills. I do truly feel that anyone who procures a handgun for self defense (whether they legally carry it outside of their residence or not) is doing themselves a huge disservice if they do not get the most comprehensive training that is available to them. If you haven’t read that piece please search “The Importance of Training” in the search box located in the right sidebar.
As my study of shooting has continued I find it also important to learn avoidance strategies and de-escalation techniques to stay out of a shooting situation in the first place. It is equally important to learn empty handed close combat skills and weapons retention techniques. Avoidance strategies, de-escalation techniques, empty handed combat, weapons retention techniques and tactical shooting skills are all a part of a well balanced personal protection training program. Unfortunately, you will be hard pressed to find one training facility that incorporates all of these skill sets. You are going to have to do your research to find instruction for all of them. While engaging in your search here are some things to take into consideration.
Presenting Your Concealed Weapon Is Not Always Appropriate
My first premise for writing this article is that the use of your handgun is not appropriate for all situations in which you feel threatened. A common condition that must be present in order to present your weapon (which shows that you intend to use deadly force) is that you must be in fear for your life or in fear of great bodily injury (and by great bodily injury I am referring to serious physical damage from which a person may not completely recover). If you wind up using deadly force and there is any question as to the legality of your choice you will probably find yourself in court with a jury of 12 people judging your actions against the Reasonable Man Doctrine. Basically this means that the jury will be contemplating your use of deadly force and saying “is this what a reasonable man would have done under the same circumstances?” If the answer is “no” there is probably prison time in your future. Therefore it is important to understand when deadly force can be used, have some less than lethal options and avoidance/de-escalation strategies.
I am always saddened when I see a news report where a concealed weapon permit holder is in trouble because they responded by shooting when the circumstances did not warrant it, usually firing their weapon in response to verbal harassment. This is due to a lack of understanding the laws surrounding the use of deadly force and not being trained to employ any other options.
In order to consider whether the use of deadly force can legally be employed in response to verbal harassment there must be a threat or a statement of an intention to do harm. If someone is calling you names, making racial slurs, or questioning the morals of your mother as long as there is no statement of an intention to do you harm there is no threat. Even if there are statements of an intention to do you harm you may not legally be able respond with force unless the instigator not only made the threat but also has the means to imminently carry it out. If someone is threatening to kill me and they are brandishing a gun I am going to assume that they intend on using the gun and be in genuine fear for my life.
On the other hand, threats that are vague, implied, or not realistically possible may not be cause for the use of deadly force. If you are told that “someday you are going to get it” that statement in and of itself alone, does not pose an imminent threat.
Avoidance and De-Escalation; The Art of Staying Out of Trouble
Part One: Avoiding the Wrong Kind of People
It seems that all my life I have encountered people who have a hard time staying out of trouble. Earlier in my life they were kids in school who always seemed to pick fights and later they were college acquaintances who drank too much (and then committed acts of vandalism, insulted the wrong person, or made a pass at girls whose boyfriends were nearby). As an adult I realized that there were people who thrive on creating drama wherever they go that could occasionally escalate into physical confrontations. All of these people have one thing in common: they are always stirring up the pot. They are experts at creating turmoil where turmoil did not exist, and dragging others down with them. Trust me on this; you will lead a much happier life if these people are not in it. Avoiding them, avoids trouble.
Part Two: Staying Out of the Wrong Place At All Times
Whenever possible stay out of places where you know trouble likes to visit. If there is a small corner tavern where four generations of your family have gathered every Friday night to celebrate the end of another workweek then it is understandable that you want to continue to participate in this tradition. However, if this corner tavern has become a hangout for undesirable elements resulting in frequent visits from local law enforcement to break up fights, bust drug dealers, and mop up after assaults and periodic homicides, then it is time to move your family tradition to another location. Avoiding these places avoids trouble.
This is probably best illustrated by a fellow student in the tactical shooting class who told us that, on the prior week, he decided to take a short cut home through a higher crime area. While sitting at an intersection waiting for the green light a man in a hooded sweatshirt came bursting out of a convenience store on the corner and ran past the front of the student’s car. A second later another man burst out of the convenience store’s door; he was presumably employed there, and was brandishing a handgun. This man fired at the man running who spun around and returned fire. In the flash of a second the student’s mind began calculating possible scenarios and his probably options. Fortunately the shootout was over quickly, the light turned green and the student drove off while fumbling with his cell phone to call 911. From this point on the student took the freeway. Although it was not as direct of a route there were no late-night convenience stores that were prone to robbery along the highway.
Part III: Getting out of the Wrong Place at the Right Time
Although we don’t necessarily want to go to the wrong place sometimes we find ourselves there. Your child comes down with an ear infection and high fever at 1 AM and you have to go to the emergency room; an hour later you find yourself at the all night pharmacy getting the prescription for an antibiotic filled. The pharmacy may be in a high crime area but you can still utilize skills to help keep you out of harm’s way.
One of the best works on personal survival is a book titled “The Gift of Fear, Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence”. It was written by Gavin De Becker in 1997 and was published by Little, Brown, and Company. It is available in paperback and should be stocked in most bookstores if not, Amazon.com carries it. Gavin De Becker’s company, Gavin De Becker & Associates, offers fantastic training. Aside from the book they have a number of DVDs and other training material along with live training seminars. Their training seminars are normally not open to the public but if you work in a profession that has “a need to know” such as law enforcement, security, executive protection, social work, counseling, etc. they are happy to share their knowledge with you.
De Becker states that everyone is born with a very powerful survival tool called intuition. Frequently men refer to it as a “gut reaction or gut feeling”. Intuition quite simply is “knowing something without knowing why” and in the context of what we are talking about it is “knowing that something is wrong without immediately knowing why”. Unfortunately all of your life you have been socialized not to pay attention to your intuition. You have been told by your parents and taught all throughout your schooling not to “judge a book by its cover” and to deal in facts, not emotion. Unfortunately many people wrongfully conclude that intuition and emotion are the same, but they are clearly not the same thing. Intuition is your subconscious mind recognizing danger signs and communicating that to you before your conscious mind evaluates the situation and provides you with the hard data.
Let’s go back to the scenario mentioned above; it’s 2 AM and you find yourself at an all night pharmacy getting a prescription filled for your child. As soon as you open the door to the pharmacy you see someone talking with the Pharmacist and you feel uncomfortable, nervous, your stomach begins producing too much acid (hence the origins of the “gut feeling”) and you are a little confused because you feel that something is not right but you are not immediately able to detect the cause of that feeling. Your subconscious, in a split second evaluated the facial reaction of both the pharmacist and the customer when you opened the door, it evaluated their body language, what the customer was carrying, whether or not the customer’s appearance was appropriate for the surroundings, and the whether his clothing was compatible with the weather conditions and many other factors that you cannot immediately recognize.
Your intuition is telling you to leave; will you listen to your intuition or suppress it?
Gavin De Becker’s book has a lot of excellent material in it. Please purchase a copy or borrow it from your library. Chapter four, “Survival Signals”, details seven methods by which an attacker may try to ingratiate himself with his intended victim so that the victim will let their guard down and ignore their intuition. This chapter also lists 13 messengers of intuition to help you understand the form in which your intuitive survival signals may come to you. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Part IV: De-Escalation Techniques
De-escalation techniques can be effective if used early in a confrontation when it is still in the talking stages, well before it turns physical. Even if the person you are dealing with is not completely rational trying these techniques will at least show that you attempted peaceful alternatives before force became necessary. If physically attacked, respond accordingly, but if the encounter begins with words, see if you can give these techniques a try.
To de-escalate a confrontation I follow what I have termed the A.C.C.O.R.D. process which stands for:
Acknowledge that they are upset.
Show some compassion for their perspective (even though it may not be justified or rational).
Try to find some common ground between you.
Or, if the above techniques are not working
Redirect and Deflect their anger toward something else.
Let’s look at an example involving “parking lot” rage.
Let’s say that you’re at a crowded shopping mall and as you pull into a aisle a car pulls out and you park in the recently vacated space. As you exit your car you see that another vehicle has pulled up behind your car. The red-faced driver jumps out of his car and aggressively approaches you spewing all sorts of salty language. You calmly acknowledge that he certainly seems upset and ask him why. In between his expletives and spitting you ascertain that he had just passed this space as the previous driver was getting into his car. Your new agitated acquaintance drove around the aisle to get back to this space just as you were pulling in. You show some compassion by stating that you understand why he is upset. Looking for Common Ground you ask how long he had been circling the lot looking for a space. He tells you 15 minutes. You could apologize stating that you did not know he had “seen the parking space first” and you offer to move. Hopefully by now you have de-escalated his rage and he declines your offer to move. Even if he doesn’t wouldn’t it be worth moving your car to keep from becoming entangled in a physical altercation?
If these techniques don’t work then I would try to redirect his anger and deflect it onto some other issue. Try to get the person to agree that the reason this happened was due to some factor other than you. For instance, I might try to get him to agree that the reason for the shortage of spaces is because of all the empty handicapped spots available in the lot and tell him that after you move your car you are going to march right into the mall’s office and give them a piece of your mind (and I would march right to the mall office but only to tell them what happened and give them a description of the man so that their security staff can be on the lookout in case he is intent on causing other problems while in the mall).
One of the keys to controlling and de-escalating these types of verbal encounters is how you react to and treat the other person. Treating them with dignity and respect won’t hurt and may help diffuse the situation; treating them with sarcasm and anger will probably only escalate the situation. Please note: treating someone with dignity and respect should be done with focus and control so that it is not perceived as fear by the other party. Try to conduct yourself with a gracious but command presence. In his book Gavin De Becker explains that “fear is the currency” of the person making the threat. This is a simple but very important observation. The more fear you show when threatened the more threats and verbal harassment you have just purchased from the instigator. If the person can see that their harassment or threats have had an impact on you, you are bound to get more of them. I like to follow a process (are you ready for another acronym?) I refer to as “C.E.R.T.” which stands for Calm Control, Eye Contact, Relaxed, and Tactful. C.E.R.T. is all about “maintaining” yourself; maintaining your calm control over both your temper and the situation, maintaining eye contact with the person (this shows that you are in control and not afraid), maintaining a relaxed appearance (showing a tense appearance will only create more tension in the situation), and maintain tact in your responses.
A long time ago a Cook County, Illinois Corrections Officer that I was working with taught me a great technique that was my basis for C.E.R.T. This officer, who was charged with controlling the worst of the worst in the City of Chicago and County of Cook faced threats and verbal harassment from gang bangers, degenerates, and the criminally unstable on a daily basis. He told me to pick a spot on the instigator’s forehead and stare at it while they are spewing their verbal garbage. This will give them the appearance that you are looking them in the eye without having to see (and possibly react to) their facial expressions. Then, make yourself yawn. Nothing shows a complete lack of fear any more than a yawn. The icy stare and the yawn have helped me suck the wind out of many a blowhard.
Part V: Retreating
One sometimes overlooked avoidance strategy is to retreat. In a stressful situation some people get confused and do not recognize that they have an opening to retreat while others get their adrenaline flowing and disregard the option altogether. Some jurisdictions legally mandate that you retreat if that opportunity is available. Other jurisdictions believe in the “your house is your castle” doctrine and do not require you to retreat if you are in your home. A few states have passed legislation that do not mandate retreat under most conditions. While you need to understand the legal limitations on the use of deadly force in your place of residence my perspective is that discretion is the better part of valor and if retreat is available and does not put anyone else in danger then take it. Why run the risk of a physical or shooting encounter if it is not necessary?
Part VI: Less than lethal options and empty handed combat skills.
All threats are not equally serious. There are times when you may need to defend yourself but the use or even presentation of a firearm may be considered excessive force. In these instances empty handed combat skills and less than lethal weapons may be more appropriate. Just a few days ago someone asked me for advice on less than lethal weapons for a relative that had no interest in firearms. First of all it is important to understand what is classified as less than lethal. Some people think that it is anything outside of a firearm and this is incorrect. Lethal weapons could include any implement that could cause death or great bodily injury such
as expandable batons, knives, and blackjacks and may also pertain to tools designed for other purposes but used as a weapon such as hammers, nail guns, letter openers, and box cutters (remember on 9-11-2001 we incurred a major terrorist attack that was primarily perpetrated at the beginning of the attack by the use of box cutters).
Less Than Lethal Weapons
I have not really had any experience with most less than lethal weapons but, like most internet writers, I have an opinion that I am more than happy to share; unlike most internet writers however, I am happy to own up to my lack of experience. So let me run down the most common less than lethal weapons and my feelings toward them:
- Mace or Pepper Spray. I am not a big fan of sprays for a couple of reasons:
- I am aware of them being used in retail establishments causing the establishment to have to close while the fire department’s hazmat unit comes in and blows out the building with their fans.
- I am aware of them being used in a high school where many students not involved in the altercation, especially those with asthma, had to be treated at a local hospital.
- I have seen episodes of “Cops” (here’s where my lack of experience really shines) where the perpetrator was inebriated and the Mace/Pepper spray had little effect.
- In other episodes of cops it was sprayed on a perpetrator outside and several of the officers had to be treated because the wind blew the spray into their faces.
That being said, there are important differences between Mace and Pepper Spray. Chemical sprays like mace take 5 to 30 seconds to become effective; they cause pain & irritation to the mucus membranes, but rely on pain compliance to be effective. So drunks, people on drugs, people on an adrenaline high, or those with extremely high pain tolerances might not be affected by mace/chemical spray. Pepper spray (as the name indicates) is made from peppers and not only causes a burning sensation, but also creates inflammation of the airways. When a person is sprayed with Pepper Spray two things happen; his eyes involuntarily slam shut (and if he is able to open them he can't see because the ingredient, Oleoresin Capsicum, dilates the capillaries of the eye causing temporary blindness) and an immediate fit of uncontrollable coughing doubles the person over and often sends them to their knees.
As mentioned above my fear is that sprays can cause too much collateral damage indoors and outdoors it might be blown right back into your face. Kimber has two fairly new products that have been designed around these concerns called the “Pepper Blaster”and the “JPX Jet Protector”.
The Pepper Blaster is a small handheld unit that gives the user two measured blasts with an effective range of 13 feet. These blasts of Pepper Spray are delivered at a velocity 90 miles per hour. The velocity helps in several ways: it makes the blast less likely to be affected by wind and blown back into your face, it improves the accuracy, and the velocity helps penetrate clothing etc. The JPX Jet Protector
is a polymer handgun looking device that also provides two measured blasts with an effective range of 23 feet at an increased velocity of 270 miles per hour. The problems with the JPX is that it is another holster carried implement, is not all that concealable, and is fairly expensive. I cannot attest to their effectiveness but from some YouTube videos of people using them on each other they appear to be a cut about the normal Pepper Spray. There are a couple of things to keep in mind; one is that with any chemical weapon is that there is usually an expiration date so you if you purchase one you will want to make sure you get one with the longest shelf life. The other issue is that both the Pepper Blaster and the JPX Jet Protector give you two blasts of the concentrated chemical; if you miss with those two blasts you’re done.
- Stun Guns. I am not a big fan of these because they are a close quarter weapon. You have to push the electrodes on the device against the attacker. If the stun gun is not fully charged or the attacker is wearing heavy, thick clothing it might not have the intended effect. If this is the case you are up close and personal and in position to be pummeled by the attacker.
- Tasers. In my opinion Tasers are a step up from sprays and stun guns. They allow you to use them at some distance and are usually (but not always) effective. The two negative aspects of the Tasers are their size (again they are another belt holstered weapon) and price. Good ones run from $400 to $1,000.00.
Another thing to bear in mind with Sprays, Stun Guns, and Tasers is that they are not convenient weapons with which to practice. Bear in mind that in a stressful situation muscle memory wins the day. During an attack is no time to learn to use a new weapon system. Even though they are simple devices to use fine motor skills disappear under extreme stress. Remember the tactical student mentioned above who witnessed a shoot out just in front of his vehicle? I wrote that as he drove away he fumbled trying to dial 911. Under normal circumstances he can drive, dial, and talk on the phone very easily. Add gunfire to the equation and this normally simple process becomes anything but simple.
- High Intensity Flashlights. Now these I like. In the 1970’s every cop in Chicago carried a large aircraft aluminum Mag Light, many times in place of their traditional hickory nightstick. They were big, heavy and wouldn’t break. They also provided a good amount of light. Fast forward to today and every cop carries a small high intensity flashlight. They are lightweight and take up little space on the officer’s belt. They are still made pretty darn indestructible but they have a huge advantage over the large Mag Light; they produce high intensity, blinding white light. The most prolific manufacturer of these items is Surfire and years ago when they first introduced their lower priced polymer G3 with an output of 80 lumens I picked one up. One night a storm knocked out the power and my Surefire G3 was in easy reach so I picked it up. I was making my way down the hallway and, without thinking opened the bedroom door. The 80 lumens of light hit the bedroom mirror and shown back in my face. I was immediately blinded and somewhat disoriented. For a few seconds I wondered if my eyesight would return. I learned from that how powerful these little lights are. I have learned to respect their power and keep one with me. I may not be able to take my handgun with me to New York City or Los Angeles but flashlights are still allowed. These days I carry the Browning Pro Hunter Tactical flashlight shown at the right in the photo below.
Leaning Empty Handed Close Combat Skills
You May Not Be Able to Get to Your Weapon
The attack may begin at close quarters. Ever heard of the Tueller Drill? Salt Lake City Police Sergeant Dennis Tuller was working as a training instructor when a police recruit asked him how close he should let a charging assailant come before using force. Tueller assumed it would be about four paces but decided to find out. Knowing that it took the average officer 1.5 seconds to draw and fire from a duty holster Tueller decided to find out how much ground someone could cover in that amount of time. He was surprised to find that the answer was 21 feet. That’s a pretty fair amount of real estate. If someone within 21 feet is charging with a knife, a club, or even their fists, they will be on you before you can draw and fire especially if you are carrying your weapon in deeper concealment than a uniformed police officer. Do you have the close quarter fighting skills to ward off this attack until you can get to your pistol?
Also pulling your handgun at close quarters may not be a good idea unless you have some training to learn how to protect the draw. As one gun writer (whose name I have long forgotten) once said “when you and your assailant are at arm’s length away from each other the pistol belongs to both of you”. If someone has the will to do it, it is not difficult to disarm someone holding a handgun. If you grab the slide of a pistol and push it slightly to the rear it will not fire. If you grab the cylinder of a revolver and hold tightly the trigger cannot be pulled unless the hammer is already cocked. Once someone has a hold on the handgun it is a simple process of wrenching the pistol against the joint of the trigger finger and wrist, usually breaking the finger as the pistol comes free. Prison inmates have been noted practicing this in their exercise facilities. Do you know how to protect, retain, and properly present your weapon when you are up close and personal with an assailant?
Do you know how to create the space needed to draw and fire under close quarter combat distances by throwing a powerful kick with the weak side foot or by shoving your weak side palm into the sternum while digging your middle finger into the trachea and violently pushing the assailant backwards? If so, do you practice these techniques regularly enough to develop the muscle memory needed to make them happen automatically? Do you regularly practice handgun retention techniques?
The Need for Competent Instruction; My Choice is Krav Maga!
Everything mentioned above is a part of the curriculum of Krav Maga.
While I stumbled into Krav Maga it turned out to be an excellent choice of empty handed combat training for the shooter who is licensed to carry a concealed weapon. Krav Maga is the hand-to-hand system taught to the Israeli Defense Forces; the words Krav Maga are Hebrew meaning “contact combat”. The reason that Krav Maga is an excellent choice for me is because it is a modern fighting system which incorporates modern weapons and firearms into its scope of training. Krav Maga was developed by Imi Lichtenfeld in 1948. Lichtenfeld was born in Hungary and grew up in Czechoslovakia. His father, who was a police detective and self defense instructor, had Imi studying wrestling, boxing, and judo throughout his youth. In the 1930’s as fascism began to rear its ugly head in Czechoslovakia gangs of young male fanatics began roaming the streets beating Jews. Lichtenfeld organized his community and taught people to defend themselves. He escaped Czechoslovakia and fled to Palestine in 1940 where he fought with the British in their Middle Eastern campaigns. After the war he stayed in Palestine. When Israel became a State Lichtenfeld was already there teaching Jews the close combat skills he had developed over the last 18 years. He very quickly was appointed as the self defense instructor to the Israeli Defense Forces.
Back in Czechoslovakia during the 1930’s Lichtenfeld found that his training in boxing, wrestling, and judo had not prepared him for street fighting. Boxing, wrestling, and judo are competitive sports; there are rules, you only fight one opponent with whom you square off in the middle of the mat or ring, the opponent is not armed, and there are time limits on the rounds. In a street fight the opposite of all of the preceding is true. There are no rules; you will frequently have to fight multiple attackers who sometimes “come out of nowhere”. There is no time limit and your attackers may be armed. Krav Maga trains their students for all of those conditions. Many martial arts that incorporate weapons training (both uses of and defenses against) utilize weapons from the period when the martial art was created. Being an amateur historian I certainly appreciate and applaud these arts for preserving traditions and teaching their classical weapons but there aren’t that many street fights involving samurai swords, lances, etc. While many of these classical techniques can be adapted for use against modern weapons, the midst of a street fight is no place to begin to develop that adaptation.
Krav Maga is based upon instinctive movements to respond to attacks. Imi Lichtenfeld kept it simple as he knew that the fine motor skills deteriorate under stress. Because of the effect of stress on one’s ability to execute their training Krav Maga incorporates drills designed to increase the stress level as Lichtenfeld knew that the only way to overcome the effect of stress was to train for it. In Krav Maga you learn to fight in your first class. Krav Maga also incorporates aggression drills to bring passive people out of their shell and prepare them to react to an attack with the speed and force necessary to defeat their attacker.
Krav Maga was developed to get students (originally military recruits) to a basic level of proficiency in a very quick time and you can devote many years to continued training gaining advanced levels of expertise.
I realize that recommending a martial art is as controversial as recommending a particular firearm. Somebody is always going to take issue with your suggestion. Let me say this: what you carry and what fighting style you study are not nearly as important as what YOU are prepared to do with them. You can own the finest and most accurate handgun in the world but if you can’t bring yourself to pull the trigger when being attacked it has done you no good. Similarly you can be an expert in any martial art, but if you are not mentally prepared to fight back and stay focused while responding with aggressive finality, then your training has done you no good. Like most things in life your successful deployment of your survival skills is a 70% mental and 30% physical proposition. This is the reason you must find a competent instructor who provides realistic training for both your shooting and fighting skills.
In conclusion (and not a minute too soon)
The piece has discussed subjects that I have wanted to write about for quite a long time. I cannot completely cover everything within the confines of this blog, nor do I know “everything” that should be discussed. My intention has been to provide you some food for thought. Hopefully this discussion will inspire you to do your own research to provide more options and expertise to your personal self defense program. If it has done that then I will feel very satisfied for having written this article. I hope you are never attacked. If you are I hope you make it home safely.