The Massad Ayoob Chronicles, Part V

If you’re just now joining the party, we strongly recommend that you go back and start at the beginning with Parts I thorough IV. If you enjoyed Part IV, on flying and the Suarez controversy, sit back and get ready for some more thought-provoking ideas from the acknowledged expert on personal defense. Today, we cover personal defense in the home, and the burning question of the TTAG Armed Intelligencia: What about modifying my gun?

Here’s a controversial one – for the average person, what do you recommend for personal defense in the home?

I recommend if the budget allows and the mindset allows, a minimum of one serviceable   handgun and one long gun apiece per designated combatant. When I say “designated combatant,” the family has sat down beforehand and just like you’ll determine what will you do if there’s a fire in here, have determined what are we gonna do if we experience a home invasion.

The reason I don’t go with just the one, is if you’ve got to be moving, if you’ve got to go down the hall and scoop a baby out of the nursery and bring it to the safe room, you’ve got to go down the other hall where 85 year old grandpa with Alzheimer’s lives and you’ve got to lead him to the safe room, in this situation you’re gonna need at least one hand free.

You’re gonna need a hand free to work the phone, you’re gonna need a hand free to turn doorknobs, to handle light switches. Any time you take one hand off a two-handed weapon, if somebody jumps you out of the dark, you’re gonna lose it before you can retain it. I say that having taught handgun retention for 30-something years now.

The handgun is the easiest of all firearms to retain, one-handed, and that does leave a hand free. If you need to go mobile for any reason, I prefer the handgun. If we’ve counted noses and everyone is here in the safe room with me, and the bad guys are kicking in the bedroom door, now I’d like to have something more substantial than a handgun, and that’s where the AR-15, the Mini-14, the shotgun come in.

If the budget or the situation only allows the one, I’d go with the handgun for the greater flexibility, even though you’re giving up some firepower.

I know it’s probably the last thing you’d worry about in a life-or-death home invasion situation, but being a musician, I alway worry about my hearing, especially when shooting indoors. Any advice on ear protection?

Yes, I always keep a pair of active hearing protectors by the bed. If there’s gonna be time to grab the shotgun, there’s gonna be literally the two seconds it takes to grab those, slap them on your head and turn them on. You can still work a phone, you simply hold the phone near the microphone of the earmuffs. If you have to fire a shot, you’re not going to be stunned out.

If you’ve ever fired a high-powered rifle at close quarters without some sort of hearing protection, it literally rings your chimes. In the next few seconds, if you need to hear a soft footstep on a carpet to determine where the second bad guy is, you’re not going to hear it any more. And there’s the definite potential for hearing loss.

That said, when people say “Well, gee, I don’t wanna cary a gun, cause if I fire my gun inside the car in a carjacking, or I fire my AR-15 in the hallway, I’m gonna lose some hearing.” I ask them, “Look, you wouldn’t have fired unless you believed you’re about to die. How much are you gonna hear in the grave? Let’s have a little sense of priorities.”

So I think it’s a very nice thing to have handy for home defense. I can see it even having some purpose for SWAT teams. They are even available wired-up for communications devices and all that. It’s most unlikely they’ll be available in a field situation. Also in the field, where you’re outdoors, there’s much less likelihood of permanent hearing damage, than firing a powerful weapon in a hallway where the sound tends to reverberate much more.

What about modifications to guns – not just handguns, but pistol grips on shotguns, AR-15s, AKs, et cetera. What are the ramifications for prosecution goes when it comes to modifying a gun?

As far as the whole “evil black rifle” thing, your readers would do well to do a Google search for some of the stuff that’s been researched by Dr. Glenn Meyer. His focus group work with juries and that sort of thing indicates there is a very real prejudice out there in the public, which is the jury pool, against the what some would call the “Rambo-type” weapons.

It can be defeated in court, but it’s going to be more expensive. You’re gonna need to bring in expert witnesses, people from the gun industry, to say nah it’s not the avatar of death. Owning a red Corvette Sting Ray doesn’t mean you’re a chronic speeder, and owning an AR-15 doesn’t mean you have homicidal fantasies, blah, blah.

In so far as some of the gear that goes on it, ask yourself, what do you really need? I don’t see a whole lot that you need, more than possibly something that will carry some spare ammunition on it, because you’re not going to have time to throw on a spare shell bandolier when the burglar alarm goes off, and some kind of a white light as a last-ditch verification of target, which I think is critical.

The [shotgun or rifle] pistol grip only, I don’t like, because it is very difficult to hit well within a reactive situation if you haven’t been able to get yourself exactly set up for it. And if you have to struggle for the gun, again, going back to 30-some years of teaching weapon retention and disarming, it is very easy to get the pistol grip-only gun away from anybody who is not trained in gun retention. It’s going to be very easy to get the AR-15 configuration rifle, even with a fixed stock, away from somebody else.

There’s a certain movement that, at the instant of the attack, jams the base of the good guy’s thumb. You either let go of the gun, or the gun is torn out through the base of your thumb. I much prefer the conventional stock type of gun, possibly with a shorter stock, to allow for fast handling and the different statures of people within the family. The stock you’d find on the conventional 870 for example, or the stock you’d find on a conventional sporting model Mini-14 – anybody who’s been trained in basic stick techniques in a dojo knows how to defend that against a disarming attack.

Generally, as a rule of thumb, anything that will make the gun shoot better for the shooter under extreme stress and poor light is absolutely defensible. And the reason is, if it makes you more likely to hit under those adverse conditions, it concomitantly reduces the danger of a wild shot that might hit a bystander.

The two things I would strongly advise against doing and have strongly advised against doing, would be a trigger pull lighter than the factory recommends, and removal or de-activation of a safety device.

You try not to give weapons to your opponent. If I have an [opposing] attorney trying to nail my scalp to the wall, I’m not gonna give him the sound bite of “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re here to determine whether this man was reckless, and arrogant, and negligent. Ladies and gentlemen, he was so reckless, he deactivated the safety device on a lethal weapon. And he was so arrogant, he thought he knew more about this gun than the designer.” Tell me how you’re gonna get past that.

As far as the light trigger pull, your problem there, number one, is it has historically been linked to unintended discharges. So problem one, under stress, we SAY we’re gonna keep our finger off the trigger.

The trouble with that study done in Europe with trained emergency-response personnel, indicated that several times, the sensors that were put on the test gun picked up a finger touching it [the trigger], when the officers swore that during the high-stress exercise their finger had never entered the trigger guard. It apparently occurs unconsciously, as the mind says “Hey, if we have to shoot this thing, we want to verify we can reach the trigger.”

Second, you can go to court and say “I didn’t accidentally discharge the gun, I always keep my finger outside the trigger.” And they will then hit you with the bomb. “So, you want this jury to believe that you’re incapable of making a mistake? You’re the first perfect human being in two thousand and ten years. Is that what you’re telling this jury?” Now that is gonna be a pretty tough sell.

Where the accidental discharge theory comes, is they know you have a justifiable shooting, but you’ve got either the rare prosecutor that is politically driven and has some political hay to make by hanging you out to dry, or the much less-rare plaintiff’s lawyer who’s trying to sue you or your insurance company for something – mainly your insurance company.

They know there is no such thing as a justifiable accident. They know that in a state like Florida, or many other states now, even on the street, the so-called Castle Doctrine has been extended. Basically, particularly if you’re attacked in the home, the presumption is that you were right to shoot the intruder.

If you read the fine print, you’ll find all those laws are worded so they do not cover negligence. So all the other side has to come up with is say “Yeah, well, but he killed him by accident, and that’s not what this law is about. Our theory is, he accidentally shot him.” The light trigger lends itself to that. And you’ve basically just given them an argument they can use against you.

The prosecutor who is politically-motivated will use that argument, because he knows it’s a very tough sell to convince the jury that somebody like that, somebody like you, a productive member of society, with a clean criminal record has suddenly turned into Hannibal Lecter and decided to maliciously murder another human being for sport. They know it’s an easy, slam-dunk to convince the jury that somebody just like them got careless for just one second, and did something stupid.

So that becomes their theory of the case, and it’s a much easier sell. They don’t get bonus points for convicting you for murder instead of manslaughter. It’s really real simple, pass/fail. If you win the conviction, you done good. If the guy is acquitted, you’ve made an ass of yourself. So a lot of them will go for that low-hanging fruit, and that is where the false theory of “he shot him by accident” comes from. And that’s one of the reasons I don’t want to see a lighter-than factory spec trigger on a defensive firearm.

The other is in the civil case. The plaintiff’s lawyer is not looking for justice – they are  looking for money. There are damn few people who are both so rich and so stupid, that if I won a civil judgement of a million dollars against them, there would be an unprotected, liquid million dollars that I could put my claws on and seize to satisfy the judgement.

Probably everybody reading your blog has a million dollar homeowner liability coverage. The insurance company has the money. And bingo, that’s where they go. If they make their theory that he shot them by accident, it’s homeowner negligence, they can get into the deep pockets of the insurance company. If they say, no, he deliberately, maliciously shot my client to watch him die, the attorney knows there’s not a homeowner’s policy in America that covers you for what’s called a willful tort, the deliberate act that harms another person.

So if they say you deliberately shot him, basically, they are closing off their access to where the money is. So that’s why it’s so attractive to them to say you shot him by accident with a hair-trigger gun. I do not like to leave blood like that in the water for the sharks.

Someone might argue that with a lighter trigger, I’m gonna hit better, so therefore it comes under your thing  it’s safer for the bystanders. Actually, no, it fails to pass another legal test called the doctrine of competing harms. History tells us that light triggers are so often associated with accidental shooting tragedies, that trying to say “Well, I did it for safety,” just is not going to pass muster. It doesn’t pass the balance test.

So what I tell folks is, nothing lighter than “factory spec” in the trigger. Certainly make your trigger smooth, I’ve  never seen anyone accused of having too-smooth a trigger pull, in 31 years as an expert witness, and 39 years of teaching this stuff, and 40 years of writing about it. But what I have seen again and again, is that the trigger is too light, and therefore reckless and negligent, and guilt-producing, and culpability-producing.

If I don’t like the disconnector safety on a Browning, I would get another gun, or have the one I have smoothed up so my problems with it are solved. If I don’t like the grip safety on a 1911, I’d buy a pistol that did not have a grip safety and be done with it. And the other modifications I think are going to be very defensible, and I my experience has been that they are very defensible.

Click here for Part I • Part II • Part III • Part IV • Part VI