The Survival Triangle


Who hasn’t heard this old saw repeated at least a dozen times, in person or on the Internet: “It’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six”. Or, “my goal is only to survive the gunfight, and I don’t care about the rest.” Perhaps you’ve heard people say, “if it’s a justified shoot, there’s nothing to worry about.” But is this really so? Or are there other dimensions to self-defense and the use of deadly force that we need to be paying attention to?

I’ve been reading Deadly Force Encounters: What Cops Need To Know To Mentally And Physically Prepare For And Survive A Gunfight by Loren Christensen and Dr. Alexis Artwohl. The book is a great resource, not just for cops but also for armed private citizens, and I’ll have lots more to say about its lessons when I’m done reading. But for now, I wanted to share the idea of the “survival triangle” and talk a bit about the reality of what surviving a lethal force encounter means to me.

Christensen and Artwohl talk about three main aspects or areas of focus when it comes to surviving a deadly force encounter:

  • Physical Survival – This is the one people think of first when it comes to surviving a criminal encounter. Obviously, if you don’t make it through the fight alive, the other areas of concern are of less import. But even in this case, I don’t think the other areas of concern are moot, as I’ll explain in a minute.
  • Legal Survival – If you’re forced to use deadly force to defend yourself or another, you may well expect criminal charges to be filed. This depends on the political tenor of your local area, of course, and on the circumstances of the encounter. But even when no criminal charges are forthcoming, you may face a lawsuit from the predator or his surviving family, and this lawsuit can sometimes come months or years after the fact. (In California, the statute of limitations for wrongful death lawsuits is generally two years; other states may allow three or more years). In both the criminal and civil arenas, you can expect tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, win or lose. And then there’s the cost of losing a criminal case and your freedom – just ask Jerome Ersland about that one.
  • Psychological Survival – If you make it through the fight, you’re going to deal with a host of psychological stressors. You may experience post-traumatic stress symptoms, of course, but you might also experience isolation as your friends and community struggle to figure out how to relate to someone who’s killed another human being. You might lose your job or friends, be the subject of unwanted media attention, or spend months (or years) dealing with the legal aftermath of the encounter. All of these exact a psychological toll on you and, even if you’re ultimately vindicated, you still pay that toll in the meantime. (I was involved in a long, ugly civil court battle a few years ago, and even though I ultimately won, it was the most psychologically and financially costly victory I’ve ever gained.)

The trouble with focusing on the physical survival aspect to the exclusion of the others is stark: Suppose you employ deadly force in self-defense, and the worst happens. You’re convicted of manslaughter, sentenced to ten years or so in prison (where you’ll be locked up every day with violent predators you can’t necessarily avoid.) The resulting civil lawsuit and legal fees bankrupt your family, and when you finally get out of prison you’re a convicted felon, unable to own firearms and at a desperate disadvantage in the job market. Worse yet, you’re a pariah in your community, isolated from friends and former co-workers, left to come to terms with the oincident and its aftermath with precious little support.

Is this really the kind of victory you want to hope for?

And if you think I’m being hyperbolic here, I offer exhibit A once more: Jerome Ersland. Exhibit B is George Zimmerman, whose guilt in the eyes of the law remains unknown as of this writing but who’s already paid an enormous psychological, social, and financial price for what happened that night.

Will all of these things happen to everyone who employs a firearm in self-defense? No, of course not. The vast majority of the time, research tells us, defensive gun use incidents end with no shots fired. In a substantial fraction of the incidents that remain, no criminal charges will be filed and home or other insurance policies might pay any civil judgment. The odds of this worst case “your life as you know it is over” outcome are undeniably low. But then, the odds of having to actually shoot a violent predator are, objectively, fairly low as well – and none of those odds matter a bit if it happens to YOU.

For me, physical survival is a hollow victory if I lose my freedom, financial resources, family, friends, community, livelihood and mental health in the process. I can’t afford to ignore these other dimensions of survival, and I submit you can’t either.

So, by all means, pay attention to physical survival. Acquire the equipment, skills and training you need to safeguard your safety. If you choose to own and carry a gun, learn to use it effectively and train with it. But be prepared for the legal and psychological aftermath, too. Find a lawyer you can call upon if you’re ever involved in a deadly force encounter. Join the Armed Citizens Legal Defense Network. Talk to your family and friends about what they can expect, emotionally, socially and legally if you ever have to use your weapons to defend yourself. Prepare for those eventualities too, because although they aren’t as much fun to contemplate as running your gun through an IDPA stage is, they’re just as critical.

Above all else, keep your eye on the goal. Some might say your goal in a defensive encounter is merely to survive, and all the rest can work itself out after the fact. To me, this is a dreadfully short-sighted view of the problem. MY goal is simply this: If I am ever involved with an encounter with a predator where I have to use lethal force to defend myself, I want to emerge from the encounter with as little physical, emotional, social, financial and psychological cost to me and my loved ones as I can possibly manage, and with my liberty intact.

If your goal in a defensive encounter is anything less than this, consider that you might be missing an important dimension of the problem. It’s absolutely true that physical survival is vital, but the toll a defensive use of deadly force takes doesn’t end when the gunfire does.

Photo credit: stock.xchng


  1. Gabriela says:

    Hi, where can I buy this book ?

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