What is Your Mission?

Suppose you arrive home and notice your door ajar. You might even hear noises inside, or – God forbid, the screams of a loved one who’s been taken hostage or is being harmed by the bad guys. Do you grab your gun and go looking for the criminals, or do you retreat to safety and call 9-1-1?

Kathy Jackson had a great post about the subject of house clearing over at the Cornered Cat blog today. Although I’ve written here before about the limits of our training as armed citizens, and about why we shouldn’t go looking for intruders on our own if we can at all help it, I wanted to revisit the subject in light of Kathy’s post.

Kathy wrote, in part:

The idea of staying out of unnecessary danger didn’t sit well with the tactical crowd. Many wanted to immediately rush in and “clear the house,” playing hide-n-seek with a potential intruder. Some people feel that calling the authorities would mean they were too wimpy to take care of their own homes, and many didn’t (and don’t) realize they could literally die of embarrassment if they let their fear of social awkwardness dictate their actions.

You should definitely visit her post, which includes a great description of how the police respond to a 9-1-1 call for possible intruders in a home – and why an armed citizen shouldn’t attempt alone what the professionals do with special training, equipment, and backup. I want to talk about the subject from a different direction, and discuss why trying to clear your house by yourself may be a bad idea in that light.

Back to our imaginary scenario. Your front door is ajar. You hear noises inside, then maybe a scream. To understand why I think there’s rarely if ever a good argument for trying to “clear the house” on your own, let’s talk a bit about mission.

A cop’s mission is to investigate crimes (usually after they’ve occurred) and apprehend bad guys. They train extensively to complete that mission, which requires them on a daily basis to advance toward danger. To mitigate the risks of that danger, cops can call upon radio-equipped backup units to assist. They have body armor and often lots of firepower, and they even have useful tools (like night-vision goggles and FLIR cameras) to help them find the bad guys inside a residence or office. These technological tools are nice, but the primary strength cops have in a barricade situation is the ability to marshall a coordinated response by multiple armed officers. And despite all those technical and human resources, cops are still killed in the line of duty – an average of 55 or so every year.

A soldier hunting insurgents in a battle-torn city has a similar mission: To apprehend or kill the insurgents. Their mission also involves advancing toward danger. They have great tools to help them find, contain, capture and kill the bad guys. They have extremely effective body armor, enormous firepower (including air support) and all manner of technology. They have outstanding training, and the ability to call for backup and to coordinate action with other soldiers. And despite this, thousands of our troops have been killed or wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What about the private armed citizen? Our mission is different. Our job isn’t to advance toward danger or to go looking for trouble. Quite the contrary, our primary mission is to get ourselves from a place of danger to a place of safety, and our secondary mission is to safeguard our loved ones. I divide things that way because, bluntly, you can’t safeguard your loved ones if you get yourself killed or incapacitated in the process. You have to assure your own safety before you can help others.

Viewed from that vantage point, what do we gain by going into the house after an unknown number of barricaded assailants? We give up a place of safety, and there’s no guarantee we get anything in return. Suppose for a moment that the bad guys are attacking your wife or husband, or one of your children. What happens when you draw your weapon and go through that door?

Well, maybe you can heroically kill the criminals and save your loved ones, like you do with the cardboard bad guys on the IDPA stage. But, maybe the bad guy who’s hiding behind the couch in your living room puts two bullets into the side of your head the second you cross the threshold, and then steps over your body to join his friends in the assault. Harsh, but all too plausible. What have you accomplished then besides simply adding one to the body count?

Look, it would be absolutely horrible to be outside your house, waiting for the police and listening to a loved one’s screams inside. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be, and I hope to god never to be in that situation. But self-defense isn’t about the romantic notion of being an action-movie hero or heroine. The real world is a harsh, unforgiving, messy place when it comes to violence. Good people don’t always prevail, and the good guys don’t get to wipe off the fake blood and go out to dinner when the cameras stop rolling. As noble as saving your family might be, there’s no nobility in dying senselessly, and there’s no nobility in handing the bad guys another victim.

There might be a case where a private armed citizen would want to try to clear a house solo, but I just can’t think of one. If I was already in a place of safety and there were intruders in my house, I’d secure any loved ones I could reach without jeopardizing myself, and then I’d assume a barricade position someplace defensible and call the cops. With superior numbers, training and equipment, they stand a shot at clearing the structure and getting out alive. One armed citizen against an unknown number of potentially armed criminals doesn’t stand a chance.

Photo credit: stock.xchng (by tome213)


  1. What a great thought exercise. If its just your stuff inside there really is no reason to go inside. If its your family, that could be another story. I’m not your average person since I use to do this for a living and now teach self defense and firearms, but I couldn’t live with myself if there was anything I could have done. So I would go inside after my family understanding that my mission was their safety even over my own at that moment. When you keep your mission in mind tough choices become easy.

    • Thanks for this, Ben! You’re right that we each have to be clear about our capabilities – and, I suppose, our personal Rules of Engagement. For someone like you, with military and LE training, the decisions may well be different. But clarity about our mission is important to making them.

  2. For women, layers of preventative measures are most preferred. The best home defense is a medium (20lbs or so)black dog that can bark… or if you cant have a dog, put a dog bowl marked “Zeus” out side your door. It will look like you have a dog. Next to the dog bowl, some Man’s size 11 dirty work boots you can pick up at the thrift shop to make it appear a man is home. An inexpensive alarm system on your vunerable doors and windows and lastly, my good companion, a Ruger SP101 .357mag revolver.

    • Thanks for reading and for your comment, JP! Deterrence steps are indeed important, as is having a “Plan B” if deterrence and evasion fail.

      I’ve never shot a Ruger SP101, but I’ve heard good things about them.

  3. Powderman says:

    Hi! I just read your post, and it does raise some sobering questions, and one heck of a dilemma.

    As I mentioned on the Cornered Cat blog, we (LE) are trained in clearing houses and buildings. And we don’t do it alone, as a rule.

    There are, however, some exceptions to the rule.

    One exception for us–the ONLY exception, in this case–is if someone is in mortal danger–or we believe they are getting hurt.

    It is the same as the response to an active shooter–when you get there, you make sure your radio is on, your body armor is secure, rounds chambered, and the radio on. You say a quick prayer, take the safety off, go inside and get to work.

    If there is someone in immediate peril, I’ll get in that house quick, trust me. Yes–there are a few things we do to hopefully lessen the risk that I won’t go into here. But we do go in.

    Now, I cannot sit here and say that if a loved one is inside and you hear them scream that you should just sit. But–neither will I tell you what to do.

    That is a decision for you to make. Yes–think about it before hand. But it is still your decision.

    • It’s a tough call, isn’t it? And that more than anything was my point: I the real world, things can be awfully ugly and un-romantic, and we have a responsibility to think those things through ahead of time. As an almost-40-year-old woman, without specialized law enforcement training, I have a hard time envisioning a situation where my entering my house with barricaded bad guys and a hostage wouldn’t make things worse. I won’t claim that to be true for everyone, but I think being honest about our capabilities and limits is vitally important.

      Thank you for your comment, and for what you do. Stay safe out there!

  4. AGirl says:

    I actually had this happen a few months back. With my gun on my hip, I arrived home to an open door and no alarm set. It was dark and my 3 kiddos were with me. I staged somewhere safer and called the cops. They arrived in about 5 minutes, cleared my house, all was well. The cop knew I had a gun on my hip and applauded me for not taking matters into my own hands. I was not in immediate danger, so why go looking for it? Among the many things that could have gone wrong, the two I kept thinking were, if someone was in my house and my kids had to witness either my getting shot or shooting someone else they would have a lot to live with. I decided to stay with my kids and let the cops do their job.

  5. Matthew Brooks says:

    Are there are important differences in the amount and type of training that law enforcement officers receive versus what the typical armed citizen has? Yes.

    Is there a difference in knowing you are the only one going in and clearing an unsecured home versus a LEO waiting for support units to arrive and clearing it with a team? Yes.

    Is there a difference in knowing an intruder is in your otherwise empty home where only material goods are at stake versus an intruder in your home where your child or other loved one is as well? Absolutely.

    I must agree with Mr. Branam’s comment in this situation, and would like to add that there are times, training or no training, when it is time to act. Yes, you may be injured, and yes, you may die. But there are things worse than dying, and among those things would be the knowledge that I stood by while a friend or family member was hurt or worse while I waited.

    There are things that I will willingly lay down my life and die for without a moment’s hesitation; one of them being a situation where I have knowledge that someone for whom I am responsible is in danger. I would rather take the initiative, take the chance, and place myself in harm’s way, training or no training, than give someone or something one-more-moment to do harm to those I love.

    Yes, I will take the few precious seconds to call 911 and tell them my location, describe what I believe is happening and give them a description of myself and declare to them my intentions. I will then place my phone, line open, in my pocket and get to work.

    At this point I would like to point out the mottoes of several special forces-type military units. First, “Who Dares, Wins” is the motto of the British Special Forces; second, “That Others May Live” the motto of the United States Air Force Para-Rescue unit. These mottoes exemplify the attitude that the men in these outfits exude in all situations: Yes, we may die or be injured, but you know what? Lives are precious and worth the risk. I would submit to you that the men of these units would carry this belief with them no matter their occupation or their training. They will take the chance because they couldn’t live with themselves knowing that they stood by, idle, while others were in jeopardy.

    In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare wrote, “Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once.” Choosing to do nothing in a situation like this means that I will relive my inaction a thousand times a day, every day, for the rest of my life. I simply could not do that.

    I will take the chance.
    I will take the initiative.
    I will act.

    My family is worth the risk.

    • I totally understand and respect the decision you’ve clearly made about your personal Rules of Engagement. Knowing myself and the limits of my equipment, training and capability, I would very likely draw the “act/don’t act” lines in a different place than you do. That’s kind of my point. Each of us has to make that choice, but it should be an eyes-open, carefully considered choice that you’ve thought about before you land in that situation.

      One other thing to contemplate: You wrote, “I would rather take the initiative, take the chance, and place myself in harm’s way, training or no training, than give someone or something one-more-moment to do harm to those I love.” Is there harm that would accrue to your loved ones by your death, assuming they survived the violent encounter and you didn’t? Not saying this would (or should) change your personal analysis, only that it’s a factor that needs to be considered.

      I’m not trying to tell anyone what their personal Rules of Engagement should look like. I am encouraging my readers to think about these issues ahead of time, and to fully consider how, when and why they might respond to such a situation. For me, the benefit of saving a loved one is balanced against the possibility of making a bad tactical situation worse (by adding to the hostages or body count) and the possibility that if I die and my loved ones survive, they’ll surely suffer harm from having to cope with my death and their lives afterward. Given the totality of these factors, I have a hard time imagining a circumstance where taking on barricaded bad guys would be the best choice I could make. Intervening when I could actually make a difference is one thing; given my knowledge of my own capabilities and limits, reckless suicide is something else entirely.

      Other people may make a different choice, and we all have the right to make that choice for ourselves. But if we’re going to make a different choice, it needs to be with a full consideration of ALL the factors, and not just from a mindset of “I can clear a structure on an IDPA course, so I’m prepared for this.”

      Thanks for reading, and for your comment!

      • Matthew Brooks says:

        I couldn’t agree more with you on several points you’ve made here.

        First, as you’ve noted, clearing a building in a controlled environment like IDPA, while great training, is nothing like clearing a building that houses a potential threat to you other another.

        Second, and more importantly, people who choose to take responsibility for themselves and others by carrying a firearm or other article of defense must plan things out ahead of time. They must game-plan and play the what-if games and ask themselves, what are the scenarios and situations where I will risk it all?

        As for your point about the consequences of my actions upon the future well-being of my wife or child or person for whom I’d lay it all on the line: I am confident of their well-being, as I have done all I could to convey my values to them before leaving this earth, and I have every confidence in the integrity of those around me, friends and family both, to care for them in the future.

        If my absence affords him or her the opportunity to continue living their life, then I have accomplished that which God placed me on this Earth to do.

        I would truly hate to miss my children growing up and going forward with their lives, but as a father and husband, those are things that I am willing to accept missing, knowing that they will be cared for by those to whom I would entrust their upbringing in my absence. If my death or injury keeps provides for them a future of any sort, then, like Lt. Worf from Star Trek The Next Generation would say, “Today is a good day to die.”

        Every one should examine their own RoE and prepare themselves ahead of time so when the time comes to act and lay it all on the line, they are ready to do what needs doing.

      • It sounds like you’ve given a lot of careful thought to these issues, Matthew, which is really the important thing. God willing, none of us will ever have to find out what we’d do in that situation…but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think it through ahead of time. In a country of 330 million people, statistics tells us even a “one in a million” scenario will happen a few hundred times a year to SOMEBODY.

        Thanks for the discussion on this issue – I know it’s given me a chance to deeply consider my personal RoE, and I’m appreciative of that. And thanks for reading!

  6. Yes indeed, it’s a tough call and one that can only be made at the time by the people involved. In some places, it has proven more deadly to call the police. The nine innocent bystanders shot in NYC a while back being one small example.

    I’d say the best way to avoid the situation is never to leave anyone alone in the home who is incapable of self defense. Locking doors, not opening them to strangers, and all of the other common sense barriers to home invasion are far more important than any notion of “clearing the house” afterwards.

    Almost anything is possible, of course, but the better we prepare, the less likely it becomes.

    • You’re absolutely right that, underneath all of this discussion lies the old saw about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure. In that vein, it could be argued that if we HAVE to clear the house to save a barricaded loved one, we’ve already lost the largest part of the battle.

      Rory Miller wrote something like “it is better to avoid than to de-escalate, better to de-escalate than to run, better to run than to fight, and better to fight than to die.” Any way you slice it, if we’re in a situation where “clear the house” is on the able, we’re already in a high-stakes, high-desperation place.

      And you’re right that the ability of the cops to intervene effectively depends in part on the quality of your local constabulary. I’ve seen my local SWAT guys perform, and think an NYC-style “shoot the bystanders” outcome unlikely with them. But I can’t say that is true of cops everywhere, unfortunately.


  1. […] itching to yank gun from holster and rush into any conflict. I’m very clear that my mission is to get myself and my loved ones to safety if I can, and to engage the threat only if I […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: