Don’t learn your lessons from the movies. Dirty Harry isn’t real. And you’re not a cop.
So there you are. You’ve surprised three felons about to burglarize your property. Fortunately, you have your handgun with you, and when you confront them as an armed homeowner, the three felons very sensibly turn tail and flee.
Great. So far, so good. Bravo.
But what happens next can completely change your day if you’re not careful. There you are – heart pounding, blood surging, adrenalin levels off the scale, full of righteous anger, and your gun is in your hand. Maybe you even have some vague fuzzy perception that it is legal to shoot after felons, perhaps because you are ‘in hot pursuit’ or something like that.
Do you shoot after the bad guys? Or do you carefully holster your handgun and call the police?
Don’t just answer this question in the calm and comfort of where and how you’re reading this. Try and really put yourself in the scene, and understand how you’d be thinking and reacting.
Now – the answer. Would you shoot after the bad guys?
If you answered ‘yes’, go take a cold shower. Then come back and please continue reading.
If you answered ‘no’, congratulations, but don’t relax. Drill that ‘I must not shoot’ thought hard into your brain, so that when the situation actually occurs and you’re operating more on instinct and emotion, your rational self can still fight away the blood lust and desire for vengeance and correctly guide your actions.
Don’t just take our word for it. Read this short news item about a homeowner in a scenario pretty much as we just depicted. He did the wrong thing, and got locked up for it, and now is facing an expensive journey through the legal system, with the only certain thing in his future being tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, many sleepless nights full of worry, and possibly – probably – a criminal conviction on his record and maybe even some prison time.
Two things to remember :
First : Your state may or may not have a long laundry list of situations in which it might be legal to use lethal force. But the only one of these which is likely to be unimpeachable is when you or your loved ones are staring certain death or severe injury in the face, and you have absolutely utterly no way to avoid that outcome, other than to use the least amount of deadly force possible. All the others are less black and white, and you can find yourself trapped in very unpleasant grey.
As soon as you retreat away from that ‘worst case’ scenario, you start to facing a growing subsequent alternate worst case scenario – either criminal and/or civil action against you after your shooting. Depending on the jurisdiction you live in, your state’s laws on deadly force may be interpreted permissively or restrictively, and concepts such as ‘what would a reasonable man be expected to do in the circumstances’ could be answered – in a court of law – in very different ways.
Remember also that juries are fickle. You can never guarantee what verdict a jury will reach. Get a couple of vociferous anti-gun people, a few others who believe that ‘nothing can ever justify taking a human life’, and have the others basically conciliatory and passive, and before you know where you are, you’re guilty of whatever the prosecutor has decided to throw at you.
Maybe the local community is currently experiencing a backlash against some gun tragedy somewhere in the country, and it is just your bad luck to be the recipient of that backlash. Maybe you are white and shot at black criminals, and the case has been perverted into a cause celebre for ‘black rights’ and you are made to look like a racist rather than an ordinary homeowner. And so on and so on.
The bottom line : Any shooting may have extremely unfair criminal and civil consequences. Avoid the risk of such consequences, by avoiding the need to shoot.
Second : Go stand in your driveway and imagine yourself doing like the guy in the news story did, shooting at the would-be burglars as they make their getaway. Now look carefully at what is in the background. What do you see – and also what are behind the bushes and fences that you can’t see (but which your bullets can reach)? Houses. Apartments. Cars. And, most of all, people.
In most residential areas, there’s no such thing as a safe direction to shoot in. Even if your shots hit the bad guys, they might still travel through and on and cause other damage elsewhere. Police departments regularly average $10,000 and up, for every shot fired by their officers, in terms of the costs they incur repairing the damage from the rounds expended. You can expect the same, and it will be money out of your own pocket, because your insurance will refuse to cover you.
Here’s the unfair thing (and – get this – everything about these types of situations is unfair, right from the get go). If you hold your front door open for the burglars and help them carry away all your gear; insurance will reimburse you as per the policy you have. They see that as an accident or event you have no control over.
But if you protect your property and shoot at the burglars, the insurance company won’t thank you for acting to reduce the amount of loss they have to pay out. Instead, they say this was a deliberate act on your part, not an accident or random piece of bad luck, and they’ll refuse to reimburse you any of the costs you might incur as a result of where the bullets went and the damage they caused.
Dirty Harry never had to worry about these things. He was a policeman, more or less acting, on duty, as employed to do. Sure, the mayor and his superiors would often berate him for the damage he caused, but Harry never had to pay any of that himself. The city and the police department, and all their attorneys, would run interference for him.
You have none of this behind you. Instead, it will all be ranged in front of you and against you.
Bottom line? Don’t shoot, unless you have no choice, and it is the only option open to you, and necessary to save you or your loved ones from imminent and severe harm or death. And force yourself to stop shooting as soon as the situation changes.
Update : The citizen who shot at the fleeing burglars ended up agreeing to a plea bargain. He has given a guilty plea, and is receiving a $700 fine, must take a weapons safety class, and has been required to forfeit his handgun. Maybe he got off lightly, depending on your perspective. Add the incarceration, now having an arrest and criminal record, and thousands of dollars in attorney fees, and those two shots truly changed his life. Details here.
The new Smart 911 service allows you to provide whatever information you want to the 911 Dispatch service to help them respond to your calls in the future.
A new service – Smart 911 – is slowly rolling out across the nation. You can join it now and it is free, and hopefully sooner rather than later your local city/county 911 Dispatch Service will sign up for it too.
It works so that when you call in to a participating 911 Dispatch Service from a phone you’ve registered with Smart 911, the operator’s screen will fill with a lot more information about yourself, your residence, your vehicles, your medical conditions, other people living with you, and so on – all information that you’ve previously loaded into the Smart 911 database.
Now, for sure, some of us hesitate before giving any more information about ourselves to ‘The Man’ than we need to, but you can choose what you want them to know and what you’d rather not share, and if you think it is more likely that you’ll be needing help from The Man rather than hiding from him, you’ll find this very useful.
Normally when you call 911, the operator will only see the phone number you’re calling from, the name and address it is registered to, and perhaps some location data about where you currently are (if using a cell phone). That’s not a lot to go on, and there may well be situations where you can’t conveniently spend five minutes having a relaxed chat with the operator about exactly what your needs are. In such cases, the data you’ve preloaded into the Smart 911 service could well be a life-saver – it could well be your life-saver.
You can add a lot of information that might make all the difference when fire, paramedics or police are sent to respond to your call for help. You can include photos of the people who live in your home to aid in identification, and a photo of your house too.
The photos are great. It can help reduce a problem that few people think about. When the police respond to a burglary call, they don’t know who the burglars are and who the lawful residents are. If they respond to other – eg DV – calls, it can be even more confusing as to who should be living in the property and who should not. By having your pictures already in ‘their’ database, you’ve helped establish your legitimacy, and so when they see you, their fingers will relax a bit and they’ll not be pulling on their triggers quite so anxiously.
We also recommend keeping some family pictures on display somewhere in your home, so you can point to those when the police are trying to work out who the good guys are. Pictures of the group of you standing in front of your residence are particularly helpful for that type of purpose.
You can also add information about medical conditions to help paramedics know what they might need to prepare for or respond to, information about pets, cars, and all sorts of other information.
I’ve had problems with first responders having difficulty finding my place in the past. This new service is sure to help. Best of all it is free. So go and join now. It might save a minute or two of confusion, and that might literally mean the difference between life and death – for you and your loved ones.
This 18 yr old has now been arrested and charged with six felonies after assaulting a 93 yr old man and raping an 84 yr old woman in their home in broad daylight.
We’ve written before about how your seemingly safest place – your home – can actually be full of unexpected dangers. Our assumption of safety and our relaxation of our normal alertness upon entering our front door means we risk being surprised by already present intruders.
This last article suggested that any time you return home and expect other people to be properly present there, you call out to them and exchange all-clear code phrases – things that sound ordinary if intruders are present, but which allow you all to confirm your respective safety. Calling out ‘It’s only me’ as a signal you are safely entering the house without others coercing you, and replying ‘I’m in here’ or something for the at home people to indicate that they are in a safe situation too takes no time, no effort, no energy. It will be more bothersome for you to work the button of your garage door opener than it will be to do this simple all clear exchange each time you return home.
The downside, if you don’t, can be horrific. In addition to the example in the previous article, here’s a new example of how a burglar broke into a house, and during the course of working his way through it, came across a 93 year old man who lived there. The burglar beat the man, robbed him, and tied him up.
And then the man’s 84 year old wife came home. It was broad daylight – early afternoon – a very ‘safe’ seeming time of day.
As bad luck would have it, she’d just been to the bank and withdrawn $400 in cash. She heard her husband moaning upstairs, and so did what most people would instinctively do – rushed up without pausing to think, to see what was wrong with him.
Big mistake. The intruder tied her up too, robbed her, and also raped her. Details of this sad story, here.
If the husband and wife had arranged a code-word exchange, this could have been prevented. Don’t let it happen to you. Arrange a code word system with everyone who lives with you – for your safety and for their safety.
But there’s one other dimension of danger to be aware of. This is perhaps counter-intuitive – the danger of entering your own home, yourself, when returning from any absence (whether as short as going over to the mailbox or as long as a several week journey out of town).
Have you ever thought about the possibility of walking in on burglars while they’re in the middle of burgling your residence? This does happen, and more often than you might think. Here’s an example of how a bunch of girls came home to find three bad guys already in the house.
Maybe you’ve learned about situational awareness and the color code of mental awareness – good for you. And perhaps you do a reasonably good job of being in condition yellow while out of your home. But, for too many of us, what happens as soon as we put the key in the lock and walk inside our home? We switch off, and drop down to the sleep-walking unaware state that is condition white.
This might be a big mistake. Stay in conditional yellow for just one more minute, please. Just a few simple procedures will help ensure that there aren’t any uninvited guests waiting for you as you walk in your front door.
Before You Enter
First, as you approach your home, keep an eye out for unusual vehicles nearby (this of course works better if you live in a free-standing house rather than in an apartment/condo building).
If you see out of place vehicles, notch up your awareness level one notch. There’s no need to do anything more at this point, but go from condition yellow to condition orange.
Second, as you get close to your home, look at the doors and windows. Do they all look normal, or are there signs of forced entry or anything else out of place.
If you see signs of forced entry, don’t go inside. Retreat to a safe position where you can keep an eye on the house and anyone who might be exiting it, and call the police.
Upon Entering With Other People Home
If you are expecting someone to be home, call out as you enter the dwelling to announce your arrival. It doesn’t matter what you say – ‘Honey, I’m home’ or ‘It’s me’ or whatever. The key thing is that you have a pre-arranged safe-word or phrase which people in the house will then call out back to you.
If they are fine, they’ll respond with the exact all-clear word/phrase – maybe it might be ‘Welcome Home’ or ‘I’m in here’ or whatever. But if there are problems, they’ll say anything else at all, or add to the all-clear word/phrase if by some coincidence their captors required them to say exactly that.
If you get no response at all, try calling out more loudly. If still no response, or if you get a response that isn’t the all-clear code phrase, immediately leave the house and retreat to a safe position. It isn’t your job to engage in any type of ‘hostage rescue’ scenario (they are very difficult at the best of times) and most of all, you don’t want to find yourself in the classic movie situation where the bad guy confronts you with a gun at your loved one’s head and demands you surrender and become an additional hostage/captive.
In the case of no response, try calling whoever it is you expect to be at home on their cell phone, or if they don’t have one, at least call the home’s main landline. If there’s no response, then you have to make a value judgment as to the significance of this. If the missing person is your wife, and you know she often goes over to visit the neighbor, and is always forgetting her cell phone, then that’s probably a low risk event, and you could check in with your neighbor. But if you have credible concern and expected the person to be home, and you know they’re almost always with their cell phone, you need to consider escalating matters. If there is an unusual vehicle on the street, this should add to your level of concern.
Maybe you simply wait five minutes and try calling again. But at some point, you’re going to have to resolve the mystery either by talking to the missing person or by calling the police.
If you got a non-safeword response, clearly you’ll be dialling 911 just as fast as you can, and waiting in a safe location for the police to show up.
Upon Entering With No-one Else Home
There’s a simple procedure you can adopt when entering your house in cases where you expect it to be empty. We’re not suggesting you ‘clear’ your house in a full-on drill every time (indeed, we suggest you should avoid ever doing this other than as part of a multi-person trained team).
Once you get inside your house, quickly move a short safe distance away from the door, but not too far. Being right in the doorway is a tactical mistake – any bad guys in the house may have seen you approaching and may be ready to ambush you at that point.
Then simply stop, stand still and do nothing except use all your senses to see if you can detect anything out of the ordinary.
Listen for any strange sounds. Smell for any strange smells. Look for anything unusually out of place.
It is amazing the type of clues – even unconciously sensed ones – which you might pick up. You might hear an unusually loud sound from outside, suggesting there is a door or window open somewhere else in the house. You might notice something out of place. You might sense the slightest whiff of an odor that you’re not familiar with. The house might be unusually hot or cold. A light might be on that you didn’t expect to see on.
You might pick up on one of these clues without even consciously realizing it – you might simply sense that something is wrong. Hopefully you’ll instead feel comfortable and can then proceed on inside and become successively more and more relaxed with each passing minute.
But what say something does feel wrong to you – something you can’t quite put your finger on? Of course, if there is something specific out of order or out of place, you should immediately evacuate the premises and retreat to a safe place where you can call the police.
But if you just have a vague sense of unease, you can’t really expect the police to respond to that. We have a simple suggestion. Continue to stand perfectly still (this is assuming you’re in a position where no-one can creep up from behind you, and where you might have a bit of cover/concealment, and hopefully you’ll have a gun in your hand by now.
If someone is in your house, they’ll either have heard your arrival or not. If they didn’t hear you, then before too long, you’ll certainly hear them moving about. If they did hear you come in and are themselves hiding in ambush for you, then – assuming they can’t see you where you are – in a very short while, they’ll start to get curious and anxious as to what you are doing. And although you can stand there for as long as you like, they can’t do the same thing. They’re in a vulnerable location, and now that you are doing something unexpected and unknown, their tension level will rise to the point where they’ll almost certainly end up doing something that gives their presence away.
If after this period of still silence, nothing eventuates, you’re probably okay. But if you’re still a bit anxious, leave the house, locking the door behind you, and carefully check the exterior, all around, for signs of forced entry, and also of course, looking in windows as you walk around.
The Sound of Silence
One point which may or may not be obvious from the preceding.
You should not leave the house with any noise sources operating. Or, alternatively, if you want to perhaps leave the television on so as to convey the impression of the house being occupied, turn it off prior to entering the house, with some sort of a remote control. Some televisions can be controlled through a Wi-fi app on a modern Android or iOS phone, others can simply be controlled by using a simple X-10 remote control system to turn them off.
When you go into a totally silent house, you can hear any significant noises that might be stealthily made by intruders. Any noise at all will mask their sounds, giving them the advantage.
Anytime you leave your home, you have no way of knowing what might happen during your absence, and you have no way of knowing what to expect when you walk back in again.
There’s no need to be paranoid, but it does make prudent sense to follow some simple precautions whenever you return back home.
Rats hunt in packs; and so too do bad guys. Expect multiple intruders/attackers.
When someone talks to you about intruders in your house, what does your mind immediately picture? How many intruders do you automatically think of being in your house?
Some people will say one, others two. A few might say three, but how many would say four?
I ask this question having just read an article about a retired police officer who woke up after a mid-afternoon snooze to find four intruders in his house. One of the bad guys immediately came at him with a crow bar.
Fortunately, the retired police officer had a gun with him, and he shot and wounded the attacker (who died subsequently in hospital) with the other three ran off.
The article doesn’t say, but being as how the retiree was having a mid afternoon nap, my guess is that he may have not actually been tucked up in his bed. Maybe he was sleeping in his favorite reclining chair in the lounge. But – wherever he was – he had his gun with him, which was clearly essential when he woke and almost immediately was under attack. So, confirming our immediately previous article about being prepared at home, make sure you have a gun wherever you are in your home, not just in the bedroom for nighttime protection.
The second moral of this story – be prepared for more than one intruder. You need to expect any break-in or indeed any encounter of any nature at all with bad people involves more than one bad person. Think of this phrase ‘Rats hunt in packs’.
You know that if you see one rat somewhere in your house, that means you’ve probably got an entire family of who only knows how many rats living somewhere in your property.
It is the same with bad guys. They like to have a bit of mutual support, backup, encouragement, companionship, and safety while they are ‘working’ too.
So whenever you realize there is someone in your house, don’t stop upon hearing the first sound. Keep listening and looking, and see if you can hear or see other bad guys too.
Now for the key point : If you find yourself in a situation where you are forced to confront one bad guy, don’t focus only on that one person. Where are his (or her) accomplices? Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there; it just means you haven’t seen them yet.
Try and protect your rear by getting a wall close behind you, so you can’t have someone creep up behind you. Listen intently, and – as best you can – keep looking around you as well as straight ahead. And if you come across the first bad guy, you need to get them out of the fight quickly while maintaining a defensive posture in case the first guy’s buddies come to help him out.
Note that ‘getting them out of the fight’ doesn’t mean shooting them. It means proning them out – ie getting them to lie down, lying facing away from you, hands with fingers interleaved on the back of their head, legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles (or, if space allows, spreadeagled wide, arms and legs all stretched way out from the body). That way they can’t suddenly leap up and at you again without at least some advance warning.
Once you’ve done that to the first person, you can’t leave them alone, of course. You then maneuver yourself into a safe defensive position where other people can’t creep up on you and where you can still see the bad guy on the floor, and concentrate on waiting for the police to arrive.
Lastly, how do you feel now about having a five or six shot revolver for home protection? Maybe you don’t get attacked by four intruders, like this retiree was. But even if you have ‘only’ two or three, and if we allow that perhaps half your shots will miss, and if we further say you’ll need to hit each person three or four times to stop them, that means you’ll need perhaps 24 rounds to be sure of stopping a three person attack. That’s a full revolver cylinder of six rounds, plus three reloads – and you’re for sure not going to have time for any reloading at all in such a close quarters attack.
At least with a semi-auto you can have 10 – 20 rounds in the gun to start with, allowing you to send anywhere from three to six rounds to each of three attackers before needing to pause briefly for a fast under 1.5 second reload and then continue the fight. You’ve got a good chance of winning with a semi-auto, but a bad chance of losing with a revolver.
It is a vital topic, for two reasons. First, for most of us, it is the place we spend more time at than anywhere else. We probably spend half our lives; maybe even more, at home. That is one of the main reasons why ‘more accidents occur at home’ than anywhere else, and it is also one of the main reasons why you are most at risk at home – simply because you are there more than you are anywhere else.
The second reason is that our home is usually also the place we feel most relaxed in. It is our refuge, our ‘castle’, the place where we feel we are in control of our environment, and it is the place where we can relax and – oooops – let our guard down.
Think about this. We’re driving somewhere in our car, and while stopped at a light, someone steps off the sidewalk and walks over to our car. We respond with caution and concern, instantly recognizing the event as a possible threat. But if we’re at home and the front doorbell rings, we respond instead with a frisson of excitement – ‘Oh, I wonder which of my friends is visiting’ or perhaps ‘I wonder what the UPS guy is delivering for me’. About as bad as it gets is ‘Aaagh – damn door to door salesmen calling when I’m in the middle of dinner yet again’. Note the total lack of caution in all these responses.
Okay, so you’ve read our articles on the danger of opening your front door to strangers. Good. You’ve closed that point of vulnerability. But that’s not all. Oh yes – maybe you also have a gun by the bed, too, so you’re sort of prepared if someone breaks in late at night while you’re asleep.
But what happens if you’re seated at the dining table having dinner when suddenly CRASH! Someone kicks in the front door and bursts into your house. Now tell me how useful the gun in your bedroom is, while you’re at the dining table, and potentially the bad guys are standing between you and your bedroom.
Similar scenario for if you’re outside mowing the lawn. Or in the laundry. Or maybe relaxing on your deck on a warm sunny summer afternoon. The gun in your bedroom is only good while you’re within arm’s reach of it, also in your bedroom.
Not all bad guys are going to politely knock and wait for you to open the door for them. Some are less patient.
Now for the curious contradiction. The chances are, based on the fact that you’re reading this article, that you probably will carry a concealed pistol sometimes when outside your house. But – what do you do when you get home? You take the gun off, put it somewhere, and go from ‘Condition Yellow’ to ‘Condition White’ (read our articles on Situational Awareness for more on these terms).
Big mistake. We all know that concealed carry is a bit of a hassle, requiring us to accept compromises in terms of comfort, convenience, concealability, and caliber/power. We accept such compromises in return for the massive boost in safety and security we get in turn. Now, when we’re at home, we don’t need to worry about concealability. We can wear a nice comfortable on-the-belt range style holster, and wear a dual magazine holder on our other side, too, and carry as big a gun as we wish to.
It should be easier for us to have a gun on our hip at home than anywhere else.
There’s another thing to consider as well, and it comes back to the condition yellow/white thing. Not only are we (and probably unavoidably so) in more of a condition white situation at home, but a threat can suddenly appear without warning, no matter what condition we’re in. If the first sign of a pending home invasion is someone chucking a trash can through our sliding doors and rushing in through the shattered glass immediately behind it, we’ve only got a couple of seconds to respond before the bad guys have taken over the house and are controlling us.
If you don’t have your gun on your person when something like this happens, you’re probably not going to have a chance to go and get it. Even if you have multiple guns hidden around the house, you’ve only got a some chance of safely getting to one such location and extracting the gun from its hiding place before the bad guys are (quite literally) on top of you. Your best preparedness, at home, is to do the same thing you do away from home. Have a gun on your person.
Some people might think ‘Oh, this would never happen to me. I live in a good neighborhood.’ But, from a criminal’s point of view, ‘good’ neighborhoods are the best places for them to visit. The chances are there are more valuables inside homes in a good neighborhood, and – sad to say – the chances are also that ‘good’ people are going to be more trusting and less likely to be suspicious and ready to defend against a sudden surprise attack.
Do you commute to work? Guess what. So too do the criminals. It is actually considered impolite for criminals to attack each other; and they’re more fearful of recriminations if they should do so. But they all know that if they do a reverse commute out into the better ‘burbs, they’re going to find street after street lined with tempting tasty targets.
It seems that the prevalence of violent ‘home invasion’ type burglaries might be slightly increasing. Home invasions – when the criminals don’t care if there are people home or not (or, worse still, if they expect and are pleased to find people at home) are extremely dangerous for the home occupants, because the criminals have the privacy of the house they’ve taken over, and the luxury of uninterrupted time, during which they can do anything at all to the house, its contents, and its occupants.
Here’s an example of how home invaders suddenly swoop down on a house. Note, in this story, that the police, while promptly called by a girl already in the house, didn’t arrive until much later. We mean no disrespect to the police at all when we repeat the mantra that you must understand, accept, and build into your planning : When seconds count, the police are only minutes away.
Are you ready to respond, right now, if your home is invaded?
Let’s revisit the subject, and this time from a more scientific attitude. We promise not to make any more snarky comments about police officers shooting at a guy 71 times (and hitting him 60 times) and definitely we don’t suggest that should be your objective, either, even if only for the reason that very few of us carry 71 rounds with us. I sometimes have 61 rounds with me, but never 71, and absolutely would never expect to use more than a small percentage of those rounds in an exchange with a single adversary.
Indeed, just to set the scene realistically, most gun fights occur at a range that is much to close for comfort, and with insufficient warning. You’re starting off at a tactical disadvantage, and – perhaps because of that – are forced to desperately try and regain control of a bad situation.
The ‘rule of threes’ is sometimes quoted. This suggests that most gun fights occur at a distance of about 3 yards (or less), last about 3 seconds (or less), and involve about three shots fired (or more).
But let’s start our analysis a bit prior to that – hopefully you’ve been sufficiently alert as to notice a deteriorating situation and have had time to prepare and plan your response. So –
What about a Warning Shot First?
Do not fire a warning shot. That bullet is going to go somewhere. If you fire it down into the ground, it might ricochet off the ground and go in who knows what direction – even maybe directly back at you. Even if you are shooting into dirt, for all you know, there’s a huge rock half an inch under the dirt.
If you fire it up into the air, well, guess what. What goes up must come down again, and that bullet is going to plunge to earth at about 300 mph (450 ft/sec) – fast enough to do appreciable damage if it hits a person or property when finally reaching the ground.
Hopefully you have already given a verbal warning/command in a very loud voice (not only so you are sure the bad guy has heard you and realizes you are serious, but also so any other nearby people can testify they heard you warn the bad guy away) such as ‘Stop!’ or ‘Go Away!’, followed by drawing your pistol and a ‘Stop or I Shoot’, followed by sighting in on the person.
At this point, the person has been verbally warned, and also sees you have a gun pointed at them. If that isn’t enough to make them turn away, a warning shot won’t add any more force to your request. It might endanger you or some other person, and it pre-occupies you with something that might allow the attacker to close the distance and get into contact with you.
So, if your first shot isn’t to be a warning shot, –
Where Should You First Aim?
Assuming you have a clear view of the bad guy, your first shots should be aimed into the attacker’s chest. It is the biggest and easiest target to hit, and also a moderately vulnerable part of the bad guy’s anatomy.
This is sometimes referred to as their ‘center (of) mass’, and because it is the biggest part of their body, you can aim into the middle of it, and still hit them even if you miss the exact center by a reasonable margin. It goes without saying that in the stress of the moment, you’re not going to be shooting as accurately as on the range.
Of course, if the person is obscured by something, you’ll have to redefine the appropriate ‘center of mass’ based on what you can and can’t see/shoot at.
Better shooting schools teach you not just to shoot into the center of the person’s torso, but instead into the center of their thoracic cavity, which can be considered as the center of their upper chest – where the lungs and heart are. Shots into this area may have a more rapidly disabling effect.
Which brings up the essential issue of what to expect when you get rounds on target – ie, when you are hitting the bad guy with your shots – and how many times you’ll need to shoot him to get him out of the fight.
How Many Shots Does it Take?
As (nearly) always, the movies get it wrong. Forget everything you’ve ever seen in the movies, and on television. When you shoot a bad guy with a pistol, almost certainly, there are three things which you might expect to happen (based on the movies) but which will not happen.
The first thing is the person isn’t going to immediately collapse, all movement stopped, instantly dead. Quite the opposite. The probabilities suggest that he may likely not react at all to the first shot hitting him. Indeed, some people go all the way through a gun fight and only subsequently discover they’ve been shot. Good trainers teach their students at the end of an encounter to check themselves all over for wounds, because in the heat of the moment, they might not even realize they’ve been shot.
The second thing is the person isn’t going to fly through the air ten feet backwards. He probably won’t be knocked about much at all – the ‘best case’ scenario is that the bullet is hitting him with no more momentum than the recoil you experienced when you fired your pistol milliseconds before. The recoil didn’t force you off your feet, and it will have the same or less effect on the person the bullet hits.
The third thing is that blood isn’t going to suddenly and dramatically start spurting out of the person every which way. Indeed, assuming the person is wearing a couple of layers of clothing, you might not notice any evidence of the bullet having hit them at all – no blood, no big hole, nothing.
So put these three things together. The person doesn’t collapse or move at all, and you don’t even notice a bullet hole or blood after firing your bullet. Goodbye, Hollywood. And welcome to the real world! In other words, you probably can’t tell if you hit the person or not – and even at very short ranges, you’re as likely to miss as hit (there’s a classic situation of a gun fight in an elevator between a law enforcement officer and a bad guy, with over ten rounds fired and neither person being hit by any of the rounds).
Even in the very unlikely event that all your rounds are landing on target, the sad truth is that pistol rounds, no matter what their caliber, or what the bullet type, are woefully inadequate and are most unlikely to solve your problem with a single generic hit to the center of the thoracic cavity.
So it is recommended practice that you shoot at least twice at/into the center of the thoracic cavity. Maybe one of the two shots missed entirely. Maybe one was a ‘lucky’ shot (depending on if you are the attacker or defender) and one was not. Indeed, while you don’t want to consciously shift your point of aim, it is a good thing if the two rounds land into different parts of this zone, so as to spread the disruptive effects over a broader range of body parts.
But what next? That depends on the bad guy. Is he still posing a threat – is he still coming towards you? Or did he collapse, perhaps even out of panic and fear and surprise? Did he surrender to you? Did he turn tail and run away?
If the immediate threat has stopped, you must stop shooting. You no longer have any legal justification to shoot at the person now they are no longer an immediate imminent threat.
But if the person is still coming at you, then you need to keep on solving the problem.
Continued Shooting at the Thoracic Cavity?
If the bad guy is still some distance from you (but not too far, of course, or else they may not be sufficiently a threat to justify shooting in the first place unless they have a weapon) then you probably have time to fire a few more shots into their thoracic cavity.
Maybe either or both of your first shots failed to hit him entirely, in which case maybe some additional shots will actually land on target.
Why Thoracic Cavity Hits May Not Immediately Stop an Attack
Unless your pistol bullet travels through the thoracic cavity and severs the bad guy’s spine, it will not immediately incapacitate your attacker (note that high velocity rifle rounds more commonly have a very much greater immediate effect).
Even if the bullet goes through the bad guy’s heart, it will take some measurable time for the guy to lose sufficient blood pressure and bleed sufficiently out to cease to be ‘in the fight’. How long? Best case scenario – perhaps 30 seconds. Worst case scenario – many minutes (assuming that he doesn’t survive the encounter completely, even after taking multiple hits).
Some people will collapse in a type of faint from the shock and surprise of being hit. This is a ‘false’ collapse – it is mental rather than physical, and when they come to, they might re-enter the fight. That’s not to say you should shoot someone when they’re on the ground and not moving! But you need to watch a person very carefully after they go to the ground. They might be just pretending to be incapacitated, and might surprise you as soon as they feel it tactically advantageous.
Other people – especially if on drugs – will not be slowed at all, even by hits that will cause their certain death in only a few minutes. The drugs have in essence disconnected their brain from their body, and their brain doesn’t even realize they’ve been hit, so their body keeps responding to the brain commands as best it can.
Lastly, and probably the least likely scenario, maybe the bad guy is wearing some type of body armor. Bullet proof vests can be legally purchased by civilians, and do a very good job of preventing pistol bullets from penetrating through the vest and into the person wearing them.
Don’t forget, of course, that all these reasons why your shots aren’t stopping the bad guy from continuing with his attack are also assuming that your rounds are landing on target. Chances are some/many/most of them are misses – even trained police typically miss more often than they hit when in a gunfight. That’s why you shoot at least twice into the center of mass.
A Front Sight target made into a yard sign, showing the zones they define as the thoracic and cranial ocular cavities
Plan B : Failure to Stop Shooting
So, you’ve fired your gun you’re not quite certain how many times at the bad guy, but he continues to press his attack and is getting very close to you.
This is where you have to switch targets. For whatever reason – and it is irrelevant why – your center of the thoracic cavity shots aren’t stopping the attack. Time for your ‘Plan B’.
You need to now switch to head shots. A bullet in the brain is the most certain way of quickly stopping any attacker – big or small, on drugs or not, and with or without a torso protecting bullet proof vest.
We don’t recommend your first shot(s) should be to the head for the simple and obvious fact that the head is a smaller target than the chest, and is likely to be moving rather than standing conveniently still. It is also less ‘politically correct’, and as unfortunate as this is, you need to be sensitive to how the police and potentially a jury (as well as friends, neighbors, and reporters) will respond to the circumstances of your use of deadly force.
But if the body shots didn’t work, and particularly if the person is getting closer, thereby also making their head a larger target, you have no choice but to switch to head shots in what is sometimes referred to as a ‘failure to stop’ drill.
Don’t just shoot anywhere on their head. Much of the head has its own armor plating – the skull and jawbone in particular. So you want to aim from sort of the eye brows down to the bottom of the nose, and from side to side in line with the outer sides of the eyes – about a 3″ x 5″ card sized target.
Sure, it seems even more distasteful to shoot at a person’s head, but – hey! You didn’t start this fight, the other guy did, and he refused every possible opportunity to end the confrontation; indeed, by the time you switch to head shots, the guy has even continued his attack notwithstanding you shooting into his chest multiple times. There’s no time to be squeamish or hesitant, you need to be at least as determined and certain as your attacker is proving to be.
How Many Head Shots
How high is up? How long is a piece of string? And – oh yes, another question with no certain answer – ‘how many times should I shoot him in the head?’.
The answer should be obvious – until he stops. Until he ceases to be a threat to you.
The good news is that this is probably going to require only a single shot, but the downside to a head shot is that it is a smaller target, and you might miss, so don’t fire a single shot, then relax and assume the game is over. Fire a single shot, bring your pistol immediately back on target, and shoot a second time, unless the guy is collapsing in front of you.
Continue repeating until your gun runs dry or the bad guy stops.
How About A Kinder and Gentler Approach? Shooting to Incapacitate?
One of the great things about the internet is that we now get a chance to see how many people react and respond to news of a shooting. Many newspaper websites have the ability for readers to post comments alongside the news stories they publish, and for sure, whenever there’s a story of a shooting (usually the police shooting a bad guy) you’ll see plenty of comments (most commonly from ‘armchair experts’ who have never held a gun in their lives) suggesting that the police should have shot to ‘shoot the gun out of his hand’ or in the foot, ankle, or knee, so as to cause the guy to collapse and no longer be able to move towards the policeman.
Slightly more knowledgeable people will suggest shooting at the person’s pelvic girdle, causing them to fall over.
These are well intentioned people (who may well become jurors, so it is relevant to understand how uninvolved people react to shooting situations) but their suggestions are dangerously naïve and impractical.
Your desperate struggle will be at a too close range, in a position where you probably do not have any sort of strategic advantage or time buffer up your sleeve, and you are confronting the imminent probability of the bad guy attacking you, grievously wounding you, and possibly killing you.
You don’t have the time to try for some trick circus style feats of marksmanship – target shooting of a level you probably could not achieve on a calm day with no time or situational stress acting on you at a range with a static target, let alone in a dark alley late at night with the bad guy rushing towards you.
If the situation has got to the point where you need to use lethal force to stop a threat, and that is a lawful act on your part, then you need to do exactly that. Your prime concern is stopping the threat and saving yourself. The only effective way of doing that is shots to the center of mass, possibly followed by shots to the head.
Anything else is giving the bad guy a ‘bonus’ card in the match. And there’s no law or moral justification for making it easier for him to win and you to lose.
Kinder and Gentler Part 2 : Shooting to Wound?
A close cousin of the ‘shoot to incapacitate’ theory is the ‘shoot to wound’ theory. But follow the ‘logic’ of this thought process through carefully : ‘The bad guy was frightening me, threatening me, in some way harming me, but he didn’t really deserve to be killed; so I just shot him in the leg/arm/whatever’.
If you say this to the police, you’ll not be hailed as a hero. You’ll be locked up and charged with unlawful use of deadly force, and your own statement in the preceding paragraph will be the statement that guarantees your conviction and the extended jail term that follows.
Think through what you just said. To paraphrase, you said ‘The situation did not justify using deadly force, but I used deadly force anyway, albeit in the hope that the deadly force wouldn’t be fatal’.
Guns don’t have dials on them that you can set to ‘mild’, ‘medium’, or ‘full’. While we were talking before about how the chances are that a single shot won’t kill a person, there is also a chance that a single shot might. A bullet could hit an artery, sever a nerve cluster, or whatever else.
Even if a single shot doesn’t kill the person, it might grievously incapacitate them for years or the rest of their life, and it might cost millions of dollars in hospital care and ongoing at home care for the rest of their lives (costs that you might end up being liable for).
You never shoot to wound a person – but you also never shoot to kill them. All you do is you shoot to stop the threat they pose. Never say ‘I realized I had to kill the guy’, because that’s a faulty realization. The only thing you realize is that your life is being directly and credibly threatened, and that you have no other way to protect yourself than to use your firearm to stop the threat being presented at you. The threat will end when the bad guy surrenders, runs away, or falls to the ground. Living or dying (or wounding or incapacitating) has nothing to do with it.
So – the Bottom Line?
If and/or when you end up in an extreme situation with no alternative but the lawful use of deadly force, first shoot at least twice into the attacker’s central thoracic cavity. If this does not end their attack, transition to head shots into the center of their cranial ocular cavity. Only stop shooting when they’ve ceased to be a deadly threat to you.
Very bad things can happen, even in very nice places
A sleepy quiet little town of 220 people in rural Washington state with the unusual name of Humptulips, described by writer Terry Pratchett as his favorite place on earth (although it is far from clear if he has ever visited). A law-abiding couple in their 80s, well known locally for how fastidiously they cared for their house and garden, who have been living there peacefully for many decades.
Evil seems a long way away from such an idyllic scene.
Maybe you are fortunate enough to live in a similar environment – your own house and land, a nice quiet crime-free town where the most exciting action is the neighbor’s cat getting stuck up a tree. Or, if not you, maybe your parents, or your brother/sister – anyone you know – lives that type of lifestyle.
If so, you probably feel there’s little need for any degree of alertness or preparedness. And if you see a stranger coming towards you, you approach him as a friend and ask how you can help.
Besides which, you have a local police force who everyone knows has almost nothing to do apart from operate a couple of speed traps and occasionally give warnings to local teenagers for under age drinking. If anything ever did go down, they’d be on top of it faster than you could dial 911.
If you find yourself nodding in agreement, prepare for a surprise. Read this horrific story of the elderly couple described above, and read what happened when a deranged 31 year old man unexpectedly entered their lives. The husband was killed by this madman, and the wife hacked up with an axe (at the time of writing it is uncertain if she will survive or not).
Read one more thing too – even after the killer told a friend what he had done, even after he told the police the same thing, it took the police 18 hours to get to the house and discover the critically wounded 83 yr old lady lying and dying on the floor.
Lessons to be Learned
Most of us consider our home to be our ultimate ‘safe’ place – but not so much from a security point of view, instead from a state of mind point of view. And so we let our guard down, and our level of mental alertness slips to the lowest ‘white’ level, which (perhaps paradoxically) makes our home a risky place to be.
Additionally, our instinctive reaction to be friendly and helpful when a stranger approaches blinds us to the unknown risk factors and the potential threat that any stranger poses.
The report doesn’t go into the specifics of how the madman shot the 88 yr old gentleman with a crossbow, but it does indicate that there was at least some period of time when each was visible to the other, and a crossbow is a hard sort of weapon to conceal and also a hard one to instantly deploy. If the victim had been more alert, if he had more of a defensive mindset, and if he was armed, even while ‘safely’ pottering around in his own beautiful flower garden, it could have been the madman who died, not him, and his wife would still be in perfect health, too.
Instead – and excuse us for being brutally blunt – this man’s complacency not only cost him his own life, but also may lead to the death of his wife, too; while the state and legal system now has a lengthy, complicated, and expensive case to prosecute and a criminal to hopefully incarcerate for many decades to come.
It is probably too much to expect a couple living in a ‘safe’ township to lock their doors and secure their windows, even in the middle of the day while one is in the garden and the other in the kitchen, but it is an unavoidable thought that if the house had been secure, the woman would have been saved.
Lastly, you have probably heard the expression ‘when seconds count, the police are only minutes away‘. In this case, it should read ‘when seconds count, the police are only 18 hours away’.
It is impossible to understand how it took the police 18 hours to discover the wounded woman inside her house. The offender had said he had killed two demons. The husband was dead in the garden. The wife was nowhere to be found. Hello?
A Better Approach
If the elderly gentleman had responded cautiously to discovering a stranger walking up his driveway, he could have taken control of the situation. An assertive authoritative demeanor might have discouraged the madman.
Alternatively, by ‘drawing a line in the sand’ – ie, by telling the stranger ‘STOP’ and, if he didn’t stop, presenting his weapon and saying ‘STOP or I shoot’, and if he still didn’t stop, shooting the attacker, he would have been in control of the situation – he would have been managing the OODA loop – and he would have merely been protecting himself and his wife and their lives.
The reason we present these types of real life examples (there are others in our archives) to you is because they vividly indicate how sudden, deceptive and deadly danger can be, especially in places where we mistakenly perceive ourselves to be relatively safe. The things unaware people take for granted can get them brutally killed and injured.
Actually, many of these things should be done more often than every six months, but the chances are they tend to be overlooked and forgotten, so each daylight savings switch is a good time to review through this list.
Our list is of course far from complete. There’s a lot more to do with not just weapons based defense, but more general defense and emergency planning, too.
For example, we talk about checking batteries, but if you have an emergency generator, you should be giving that a test run at least every six months too (and replacing its fuel too). And checking the pressure/level in your fire extinguishers (and your vehicle spare tires). And so on and so on.
Use our list as the start of your own six monthly checklist of things. And feel free to recommend items we should add to our own list.