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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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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The OODA Loop and the Analysis Paralysis Trap

I was listening to Ben Branam’s latest Modern Self-Protection podcast. In this third episode, Ben talks about the OODA loop and its implications for self-defense and training. He has lots of great stuff to say, and I’d encourage you to take a listen, but I wanted to touch on an aspect of the OODA loop Ben didn’t talk about.

The OODA loop is a model developed by US Air Force Col. John Boyd to understand how we react to circumstances in our environment. The four stages of the OODA loop are: We observe an event unfolding in our environment, we orient ourselves to what’s happening and place it into a mental context based upon our cultural conditioning and training, we decide how to respond, and then we act. The reason the process is described as a loop is because the outcome of our action – or our inaction – can trigger a new circumstance, which then starts the loop over again.

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Hardware or Software?

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m going to be getting a bow for my birthday. I’d done a fair amount of digging online, and thought I’d identified what I wanted. But then, I discovered there’s an archery store about 20 minutes from my house. I dithered. Should I go over there? I asked myself. Surely I know what I want, and anyway, the price will be better online.

In the end, I decided to go. After all, it was only 20 minutes away, and I had an appointment nearby anyhow. So, I left early for my appointment and drove over there. Boy, am I glad I did!

For one thing, I was able to lay my hands on several different bows, and thereby to clarify my thinking about some features I needed (and didn’t need), accessories, and so forth. I was able to be properly and professionally measured for my draw length and weight, and to shoot a few bows on the store’s indoor range. I was able to answer some questions about stance and technique.

Better yet, the store had a special going on a bow that was of much higher quality than the one I’d been looking at, and will be able to essentially match the online price I’d found but deliver a better product. The bow is one or two model years old, a fact that bothers me not at all but which enables me to pick it up for a great price.

But do you know what? Even that fact isn’t a deal-clincher for me. What sold me was that the shop offers a free lesson with every bow purchase, as well as good prices on training and range time.

I’ve said this before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: My gun, knives, flashlight, and (soon) bow are just tools. But the real weapon is the grey thing between my ears. Without our amazing human brains driving our perception, motions, reflexes, and responses, my bow is just a chunk of aluminum and composite. My gun and knives are just lifeless pieces of steel and polymer. Without my brain, all my efforts toward shooting, self-defense and safety are for nothing. Without the brain, I might as well not even bother.

Consider this next time you catch yourself saying, “I can’t take that class – it’s too expensive!” Think carefully next time you’re planning a new gear purchase. Do you really need that fourth gun, sixth blade, third bow? Or will you get more bang for your buck by spending that money upgrading your software to better use the tools you already have? I can justify buying a bow, because it’s a useful tool that I don’t already have. But you can bet that once I buy it, I’ll be spending some time and money on training and practice before I buy a second one.

The pages of American Handgunner and Bowhunting and dozens of other magazines are full of glossy full-color ads showing us all the latest and greatest guns and bows and gear. Their call is seductive: “Buy one of THESE, and you’ll shoot better.” And you know what? It might even be true. But is it really the best use of our money if we’ve not maxed out the capability of the weapons we already have?

Buy all means, buy that new gun or bow or scope or whatever, if you can afford it. But along with the new hardware, add to the software that is your brain and spend the time and money it takes to become proficient with the new gear. You’ll see huge dividends in the long run.

Modern Self-Protection Podcast

I wanted to pass along a great new resource: Ben Branam over at Modern Self Protection has joined the world of podcasting. If you do the whole podcast thing, you owe it to yourself to check out his show. The first episode is about mindset, and it combines a lot of good information with Ben’s no-nonsense straightforward style.

Check it out at

Magical Thinking

I had a challenging conversation yesterday about my interest in safety and self-defense, and the end result left me feeling frustrated and bewildered.

“I believe in the Law of Attraction“, this person declared, “and by focusing so much attention on this negative and scary stuff, I think you’re attracting danger and violence into your life. If you don’t spend so much time and energy thinking about bad stuff happening, it won’t happen.”

I was momentarily stunned into speechlessness. It was clear from the conversation that the person I was talking to genuinely believed what he was saying. It was equally clear that he had no idea how absolutely ridiculous this idea sounds to my ears. The empirical evidence is vast, it seems to me, to support the proposition that trouble finds us whether we expect it or not, and that it’s better to have it find us prepared than unprepared. And besides which, all the evidence I’ve seen suggests that being aware and confident and prepared makes us less attractive targets for the predators, not more attractive. When I’d regained the ability to talk, I said so.

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Where Do You Draw the Line?

Over at Active Response Training, Greg Ellifritz has a terrific post today about where we draw the line in terms of decisions we might make in the face of a violent crime. Do we hand over our wallet? Our car? Our clothes? Our children?

These are decisions we should think about ahead of time, because prior thought and planning displaces the “fight/flight/freeze” response that arises from circumstances catching us off-guard.

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In my last post, I mentioned the ride-along I did two days ago with my local sheriff’s department. I learned a lot from this experience, so I’m sure I’ll have more than one post about it. But for this post, I wanted to talk about a specific call we responded to, and some of the lessons I learned.

I’m necessarily going to be a little vague about some of the details of what went down, because they’re not important and because I don’t know what tactical information I observed that might be sensitive. In the broad strokes, we received a call to a local school for “shots heard”, and what we discovered were several improvised explosive devices. (I’m not going to help any other teenaged miscreants by talking about the exact construction of the bombs, but suffice it to say that they were made with relatively common household objects, and they would have been quite dangerous to anyone close to them when they went off.

We found and identified a couple of these devices and I accompanied the two deputies while we searched for others. After the search, the deputy with whom I was riding called his supervisor for advice on what to do with the devices. While he was on the phone, a third explosive device we hadn’t seen detonated less than sixty feet behind us. By the end of the night, two of the devices had exploded – with considerable force – on their own, and a bomb squad member had arrived and disabled the third (much larger) device.

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Choices vs. Options

How do people respond when faced with violence? The default response in our society is usually submission: “Give the robber what he wants and he’ll go away.” Or, “cooperate with the rapist, and he won’t kill you.” If you talked with people who have been in that place, they might say something like “I didn’t have a choice – he had a gun” or “I had to give him my wallet or he’d have stabbed me.”

But did you have to?

I’d like to talk about the difference between choices and options. A choice is a decision we make to take a certain path. Options are the range of possible decisions we could make in a given situation. Suppose you’re facing a would-be mugger who points a gun at your face and says “give me your wallet or I’ll shoot you!” Do you really have no choice but to submit to his demand?

In fact, you do have a choice: You can submit, or not submit. And then he has a choice, too: He can shoot you, or not shoot you. You might be choosing from a difficult and unattractive set of options, but you do have a choice. And he has a choice.

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