The Element of Surprise

470636_85894802If you are ever the victim of a crime, I can make this prediction with some certainty: Whatever happens will catch you off-guard. You will be taken by surprise, and you will have to move through the reaction loop before you can respond to it.

This news is probably not a surprise, but there are implications to this that bear thinking about. But first, we need to talk about why you won’t be ready for the criminal assault.

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Force of Habit

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At first, I didn’t even notice I was doing it.

I was in the restroom, getting ready to do…umm, restroom things. The holster my M&P usually rides in (an appendix carry rig from Crossbreed) rides somewhat high on my waistband and, consequently, has a tendency to flip over my belt when I undo my jeans. So I’ve gotten into the habit of grabbing it with one hand, lest it dump my gun out onto the floor at an inopportune time.

But the other day, while doing the dance of clothing and gun belt, I noticed something interesting. When I’d taken hold of my gun, my right index finger had – without conscious thought – settled on the top of my belt, holster, and jeans, extended straight out just as as it would have lain along the side of the frame were my pistol in my hand. The habit I’d drilled into myself, the one I drill into those I teach, held firm even with a holstered gun. “Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target and you’re ready to fire,” the little voice inside my head said, and automatically my muscles moved to obey.

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A Flashlight on Your Gun?

Two posts at Autrey’s Armory, What’s the Deal with Tactical Flashlights? and How Do You Hold This? sparked a dialog, and then some serious thinking on my part as well.

I start, as always, by considering my own place in the self defense continuum, and any potential hazards. Not every technique, piece of gear or tactical idea is right or necessary for everyone, but most of them are certainly worth considering. I won’t be repeating anything much that is in the articles, so please do read them if you would like to join the discussion here.

First, then, is thinking about potential attacks in your home or during the evening or nights when you are out and about. Close your eyes and imagine as many as you can. And I mean real possibilities. Nobody can anticipate everything.

In how many of those potential attacks would having a light be imperative to locate, identify and aim at your target? How might using that light make you MORE vulnerable, more of a target? If you have not been to a comprehensive tactical class, you might want to consider taking one because a lot of these questions are covered.

Of course you don’t want to put yourself into the position of possibly shooting anyone unnecessarily or, heaven forbid, a family member, so the second consideration is making sure your plans for lighting are integrated with all of your other self defense necessities: barriers, alarms, and so forth. The neighborhood drunk going into the wrong house isn’t going to be a problem for you if you always lock your doors. The family member, guests, renters coming home late at night would have a key, turn on lights, and convey agreed on signals to demonstrate that he/she is not an intruder. Children who can’t be trusted to do the same probably shouldn’t be going out alone at night anyway, I’d think.

Where light would be an absolute imperative, can you think of anything besides a flashlight that would do the job and not work against you? Motion detector lights on entrances, with smaller ones (and/or regular night lights) in hallways would be good if you have people wandering around at night.

If you must be out of the house at night, either in the car or walking, what precautions could you take to minimize being alone in the dark? Where would you need a flashlight, and would there be any way to avoid that place and time? If you had to draw your gun, would you have time or presence of mind to draw a flashlight as well? If you had the flashlight already in your hand, could you draw and fire without hesitation or fumbling? See an older article of mine to consider the necessity of being able to shoot well with one hand.

One suggestion in Autrey’s article is to mount a flashlight on your carry or home defense gun. She goes into the problem of that making you a greater target, of course. My contention is that I would not want, ever, to point a gun at someone before I had identified them as a threat; as one I would be willing to actually shoot. Some folks might be more comfortable with that possibility than I am.

Holding the flashlight in the other hand is the subject of the second article. Lots of good ideas and plenty of expert input there. Try them all, and see how they might fit into your own self defense program.

Lots to think about, and plenty of things to try. What would you do if you found yourself in a situation where you needed to be holding both a flashlight and a gun? Or, even better, what has worked for you so far? Any real life experiences to share?

Self Defense or Revenge?

Man Faces Prison for Shooting Carjackers 
A Houston man is facing a pretty severe penalty for defending his property, after shooting and killing one carjacker and wounding another.

He’ll probably be ok under Texas law, but this was clearly not self defense. Since they had the drop on him, he did the smart thing and let them have what they demanded. Now, if he’d been openly armed, they probably would never have approached him, of course. But that’s a separate issue. He may have had no chance to access his gun during the confrontation, though many do… and succeed. He’s the only one who knows what the actual threat was at the time.

Fail on several other counts, however. He let his situational awareness lapse, for a big one. Houston is a big place, and I have no idea what the reputation of that particular area might be, but it’s probably not all that wise to go out alone, in the evening, and not have someone to watch your back.

Shooting up your own car doesn’t really seem like a good idea anyway. I’m assuming he was insured for the loss. Since the criminals already had everything else… what was the point? Revenge alone accounts for it, not self defense.

Now, whether or not he should face any particular penalty for this, I won’t be the judge. He needs to answer to his own community and family for it.

Do you think this was self defense? What would you do?

Preparing for Self Defense – The Next Steps

We’ve talked about why a person needs to defend themselves, and more recently we’ve covered quite a bit about gear and dry fire exercises. But there is so much more.

Those who own a gun, and especially those who carry it for self defense, need to do at least the minimum necessary to develop and keep skills relevant. A comprehensive class and no less than one range session a month is seriously minimal, but I doubt many even go that far.

Owning a gun makes you ready for self defense about as much as owning a horse makes you a cowboy.

First, have you made up your mind that you WILL survive, that you WILL fight as long as you can breathe, and that you can and WILL do whatever is necessary to the criminal in order to stop the attack. Have you decided that you are NOT a victim?

No matter how well (or how often) you shoot at targets, your gun will be of little or no use to you if you don’t develop the other skills needed for self defense. If the bad guy gets his hands on you, gets close with a gun or other weapon, or grabs your children… you have lost any advantage the hardware might have given you.

Tactical training is another step in learning gun handling. You get a physical work out, and a much better idea what it is like to be in a shooting situation. The ideal tactical training would include possible situations in your home, office, shopping and other aspects of daily life. I’ve only been to one such session and, I’m afraid it was more geared to things MEN and cops might encounter and wasn’t too helpful to me. So I had to come up with my own. In any case, few of us could afford either the time or money to attend one of these expanded classes very often, yet the skills are no less perishable than shooting accuracy. They need to be practiced at least some every day or as often as possible. So, even if you enjoy such classes and participate often, you might want to consider this practice on your own.

Are you ready?

Situational awareness

Are you aware of your surroundings every day, every time you hear a knock on the door, and especially every time you leave the house? Have you taught your children and others about this vital skill? Or is it simply an intellectual acceptance of an idea, but not something you practice seriously? I’ve covered the subject in detail at the link. Take some time to read it and come back.

First do the drills outlined in the Situational Awareness instructions above for a while. This will give you the basic idea and some experience doing this kind of drill as you go through your ordinary daily activities. As good as a “tactical class” might be, and as terrific as it is to go to the range, real life attacks will be very, very different… they will come out of the blue, when you least expect it, and while you are doing other things. So, it makes sense to prepare, to practice your responses WHILE you are going about your everyday life. And, since you are not apt to get much warning under the best of circumstances, you need to be prepared with as many options as possible.

Possible home invasion is probably a good place to start. You are familiar with your home, its strengths and weaknesses. You are comfortable there, and the actions of an intruder and others who might be involved are easier to imagine than they would be most anywhere else. It’s a learning process, so take it slow and build as you go along.

Think about the power of visualization.

Can you remember the dress you wore to your first Prom, your wedding, or other memorable occasion? Can you remember what you did or didn’t do? If you made a major goof or were embarrassed, I suspect you remember it and all the moves you made very well. And, if you think about it, your mind uses those memories to help you avoid similar negative experiences later.

You can use the power of your mind, the very real benefits of your imagination and memory, to prepare yourself for self defense situations. It is important to plan this some, to avoid becoming obsessed or paranoid about it, of course, but it can be used as a very effective training aid.

So, think about the way your house is laid out, access points, physical barriers and any cameras, alarms or other security measures you have. Oh, you were not thinking that they could do the job alone, were you? Time to rethink all of those things if you’ve been counting on them to keep you safe without having to be a vital part of the whole. These things can be very good, but are no earthly use without serious human involvement. And, as with all tools, they may fail. It’s important to have a backup plan, and a backup plan for that one.

Start with an easy one. Just imagine that you hear glass breaking in the back of your house. You are home alone, it is night, and you don’t expect anyone to come until morning.

What now?

Do you have a “safe room?” (Send for my book if you don’t know what that means.)

Briefly, a “safe room” is one with a reinforced door and deadbolt locks that would resist an intruder.There should be something solid and heavy you would stay behind, in case the intruder fired a gun into the door or the lock.

In that room, quite possibly your bedroom, you would have a gun (if you don’t carry it), ammunition, a cell phone, some water and other things that might be needed if you had to stay there a while. You might want to have a spare gun and ammunition in that room, even if you carry all the time.

If you don’t have a safe room, and can’t think of any way to create one, what would you do if you saw or heard signs of an intruder?

Either way, imagine what an intruder might do. You also need to think of what you might do in each case, his possible reaction, and what you might do next. What might he do that would cause you to shoot? Why wouldn’t you shoot? What would make the difference? You absolutely must have thought about this and practiced it. A mistake in the midst of an emergency could be costly, or fatal.

What would you do next? Imagine it going many different ways, concentrating on what you think might happen and how you might respond. And don’t neglect to imagine that you had to shoot someone! How would it look? How would you feel? It’s a shock and horror to any normal person, but you can’t let it destroy your awareness or your caution. The person you shot might be “playing possum” and overwhelm you if you got too close. He/she might have an accomplice or four, just waiting for you to be distracted and overcome with emotion.

And don’t lose sight of the fact that your attacker could be either a man or a woman, a teen or any other age. Imagine having to confront and defend yourself against even the nice seeming neighbor down the street, the little group of teens with their baggy pants and snotty attitudes, the lady who says she just needs to use the telephone, or almost anyone else.

Do you have a cell phone? Where is it right now? Do you carry it in your purse? Is the purse in the kitchen now? Where might an intruder gain entrance? The kitchen? That plan needs some work, doesn’t it? When would you call 911? Most areas are set up for 911, but some still are not. Do you know for sure about your location?

I don’t have a cell phone (too deaf to use one), and an intruder might cut the land line telephone first thing. I have specific plans made for that possibility. I don’t rely on getting help from outside anyway, and calling 911 FIRST is not something expected here, but it may be very different where you live.

Then, if it was possible, when would you call? What would you say to the dispatcher? Should you tell them you have a gun? The answer to all of those might be very different in various places. You need to know what is best to do long before you need to do it. And you need to practice doing it so you won’t miss things, do things to increase the risk, or say things that would hang you later.

Think about why TV and movie plots are a very poor thing to base this practice on.

Next time we’ll take to the streets and parking garages with our imaginations. But you don’t have to wait for me. Tell me about the imaging you do to prepare for self defense.

Get Off the “X”!

20130212-070606.jpgAlthough the temperature was rapidly dropping toward freezing, he wore only faded jeans and a loose T-shirt. But that wasn’t what set off alarm bells for me. It was, I think, the fact that he wasn’t acting like he was cold, and if his story was true, he bloody well should have been.

I locked eyes with my friend, who’d gone inside to pay for the gas we were putting in her car and was approaching from behind me. I could tell that she’d gone to heightened alert too, even before she heard the young man’s story (”I just walked five miles in the cold, can you give me a few bucks for something to eat?”) But my attention was focused on him, and on the fact that he kept inching closer and closer to me.

I stepped back and over, keeping the car between me and him and also giving me a clearer escape path. Behind me, my friend did the same. “Sorry, I can’t help you,” I said, polite but firm. He took another step toward me, and I moved again. My eyes stayed locked on his hands, which hovered near the pockets of his jeans. As long as you can see his hands, you can tell what he’s doing, I thought to myself. He continued to try to get close to us, and my friend and I kept moving – not back, mostly, but sideways. After a minute he gave up and approached another motorist, who gave him some money. And just like that, he vanished in the night. If I’d had to guess, I’d say that money wasn’t going to be spent on food.

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Situational Awareness Fail

20130207-065247.jpgI might not have see the dog, even if I’d been paying closer attention. He darted out from behind a large trash can and a low brick wall, and his nose was nuzzling my fingers before I even knew what was happening. Luckily, his intentions weren’t hostile, and I was able to just walk away. But there’s no guarantee that will always be the outcome.

I was out for a “road hike” when it happened. I’m going backpacking with a friend semi-regularly now so I’ve added a small pack of about 15 pounds to my routine when I go for a walk. It’s good exercise, good practice, and a chance to troubleshoot my gear. When the stray dog approached me, I was two miles into a 3-1/2 mile walk. I had a good pace, good rhythm, and I was feeling relaxed and confident. And just like that, relaxed and confident, I let my guard down and my attention drift, for just a minute.

Lessons learned?

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Group Tactics in Public

20130114-182245.jpgI felt my friend C.’s hand brush against my hip and across the handle of the knife I had clipped there. “Just making sure I could reach it too,” she said. “You see him…at your four o’clock?” I nodded, my eyes tracking him, unsurprised that she’d noticed him too. The newcomer was young, dressed in a dirty jacket and jeans. But it was the way he moved, and the way he stared at everyone female in the restaurant, that had set off my alarm bells.

We were at a a fast food restaurant on the way home from the range after Ladies Night, and had decided to get a drink and a snack. The man C. and I were now watching sat perched on the edge of a table near the door. His body was never still, his eyes scanning in a hungry, desperate way. His movements were jerky and awkward. If I had to guess, he was either mentally ill, high, or up to trouble. Maybe all three.

A moment later, he leapt up and bolted out the door. I thought I saw him stop behind a concrete garbage can just outside the door, but a glare on the window made visibility hard. The third member of our group sipped her coffee, oblivious to the stranger’s actions and to the whispered conversation between C. and I. “Let’s get out of here,” I murmured. C. nodded agreement. “D. in the middle,” she said. “You take rear, since you’re armed and I’m not.” She turned to D. “Let’s get out of here.”

We stood and made our way to the car. The stranger was there, behind the garbage can, and his eyes fixated on us as soon as we got outside. C. and I both made eye contact with him, and something in our expressions made him hesitate. It was all the opening we needed to get past him and to the car. C. watched the man while I unlocked the car and D. and I got in. Once we were inside, I locked the door and we left without incident.

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Safety in Numbers?

777060_28725674There’s a persistent myth in our society that “there’s safety in numbers”. “Go out in a group”, conventional wisdom tells us. “There’s danger in being alone,” it says. Conventional wisdom left out an important caveat, though: Just like being alone, there’s only safety in a group when the group is alert, oriented to and aware of its surroundings. Otherwise, the only thing being in a group does is to create a bigger pool of ready victims for the predator.

In fact, that’s sort of the origin of the expression “safety in numbers”. Think about a school of trout swimming upstream. Without warning, a bear plunges his hungry maw into the water and snatches up three fish. There are a zillion trout in the school, so the odds of the bear taking any particular fish are pretty low. Add more fish, and the individual risk of being selected drops slightly more. But this is no comfort for the three trout who – because of inattention, age, infirmity, or just plain bad luck – landed in the bear’s mouth.

So, how can we increase our odds of staying safe when we’re out in a group? Here are some suggestions:

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Why We Make the Choice

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s funny, sometimes, how the most ordinary of moments can remind you of the most profound truths. It was New Year’s Eve, early in the afternoon, and I’d been invited to a friend’s house for a potluck. When I arrived, my friend had gone to the store and her teenage daughter, “T.”, was home washing dishes and watching her young brothers.

T. is a sweet young lady and someone who, like her mother, matters very much to me. Although I know this is so, I don’t spend a lot of time consciously thinking about it. Both T. and her mom go shooting with me sometimes, and when we’re together we have an easy, comfortable relationship. They’re definitely people I consider family, despite not being blood relations.

When I arrived, T. greeted me with a broad smile and a hug. I stowed my contribution to the potluck in an overfull fridge and grabbed a dishtowel. T. washed and I dried, and then she tidied up the living room while I grated a block of cheese for enchiladas. I made a bowl of ravioli for her brother, she tidied up a stack of videos and XBox games. We didn’t talk much, merely enjoyed each other’s company while we worked.

And then, it seemed as though the zoom lens of life shifted focus, and I experienced the strangest sense of crystal clarity, almost vertigo-like in its presence. It felt like looking up at an IMAX theater screen, somehow impossibly large and disorienting.

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