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I was pleased to see that my earlier post on off-body carry seems to have spawned a bit of debate on the topic. Although some of the people who replied raised some good points, I still think that if one wanted to play the numbers, sticking to on-body carry would be best in most situations for almost everyone Why? Well, people tend to be creatures of habit. I’m sure this is, evolutionarily speaking, a net benefit: when there’s a certain task you do on a daily basis the details of which are intimately familiar, people go on autopilot when doing it. The actions and responses just flow automatically, freeing your mind to work on other problems. If this wasn’t successful for us on some level, we wouldn’t do it . . .

Things get tricky, however, when we’re in a typical, everyday situation that we normally address with habit but with one or two variables changed slightly. Not enough to take us out of our comfort zone, but just enough to mean that our automatic responses aren’t able to fully comprehend the new situation. That’s when we get into trouble.

Mostly this has to do with knowing my own limitations; I know from experience that if a distraction comes along at the wrong moment, something slightly out of the ordinary, things can go sideways fast. Like the time in high school, when I was so distracted by helping a friend with a broken leg into my dad’s Cadillac El Dorado that I drove off with a stack of textbooks on the roof (chaos and a flurry of paper ensued, not to mention a fairly abysmal grade in chemistry that year).

The El Dorado looked kind of like this, but it had a lot more rust. Also not pictured: chemistry textbook, chemistry homework, friend with broken leg, and chemistry teacher who wasn’t interested in any of my [expletive deleted] excuses.
There was also the time I was at Gunsite Academy and picked up an extra pistol that someone had thoughtfully left for me in the outhouse. Yep, despite the fact that everyone there took firearms very seriously, and that the instructors warned us at least two or three times to be careful about such things, someone still left one behind. And yes, I returned it to its rightful owner without causing her too much embarrassment.

Or there’s the recent case of a security guard in Hong Kong.

Embattled security services firm G4S yesterday made its second blunder in less than two months after a guard left a fully loaded shotgun beside an automatic teller machine….

At about 7am, a guard was seen leaving a Remington shotgun next to the ATM in Nam Shan Estate. The weapon was later retrieved by the firm….

A G4S spokeswoman confirmed yesterday’s incident and said the gun had been retrieved.

I don’t know exactly what played out here. But, assuming there was no malicious intent or drug-induced impairment involved, the general pattern sounds all too familiar. With two simple tasks done everyday, but not necessarily together (carrying a shotgun safely as part of a job and getting money from an ATM) as the setup, I can envision a likely scenario:

The shotgun is in the way when reaching for the wallet. Maybe I’ll just set it down for a second. Wait, that’s the wrong card, I need the one from Bank of America. Oh, there it is. Punch in code. Press one for Cantonese. No I don’t need any stamps. HK$100. Yes, I agree to the fee–co-worker in truck yells, “Hey are you done yet? Dispatch just called, we need to make a pickup!” “Yeah, almost done!”–grab the cash, grab the card, okay now quicklyrunbacktothetruck, jump in, slam the door, drive off….

Shotgun still leaning against the booth.

Seems like an easy enough thing to remember, doesn’t it? I mean, carrying a shotgun around is something even more awkward and bulky than a small handgun. It’s not something easily forgettable, like what you had for dinner last Wednesday, or whether or not your helicopter was shot down by an RPG.

These sorts of memory lapses seem to be common enough that people such as NASA Scientist Robert Key Dismukes publish articles in peer-reviewed journals on the topic:

Failures of prospective memory typically occur when we form an intention to do something later, become engaged with various other tasks, and lose focus on the thing we originally intended to do. Despite the name, prospective memory actually depends on several cognitive processes, including planning, attention, and task management. Common in everyday life, these memory lapses are mostly annoying, but can have tragic consequences. Every summer several infants die in hot cars when parents leave the car, forgetting the child is sleeping quietly in the back seat….

Many examples of prospective memory involve intending to do something at a particular time, such as going to a doctor’s appointment, or on a particular occasion, such as congratulating a friend the next time you see her. However, much of what we intend to do in our everyday lives, whether at home or at work, involves habitual tasks repeated over time. And when it comes to these kinds of habitual tasks, our intentions may not be explicit. We usually don’t, for example, form an explicit intention to insert the key in the ignition every time we drive a car—the intention is implicit in our habitual routine of driving.

…[I]nterruptions and disruptions to habitual processes, which are irritating enough in everyday life, can be fatal…. In fact, several airline catastrophes have occurred because pilots were interrupted while performing critical preflight tasks – after the interruption was over, the pilots skipped to the next task, not realizing that the interrupted tasks hadn’t been finished…. [W]hen a problem arises with whatever task we’re currently focused on, we become vulnerable to cognitive tunneling, forgetting to switch our attention back to the other tasks at hand.

Dr. Dismukes mentions a few ways to help people remember to focus on whatever dangerous task they’re engaged in — avoid multitasking, use checklists, complete critical tasks first. And while I’m sure astronauts, pilots, and surgeons find those suggestions helpful, I suspect they’re not so helpful when we’re talking about people going about their day, juggling phone calls, grabbing meals, getting cash from the ATM, dealing with recalcitrant children, and all the other must-dos we find necessary, but for which we don’t quite have enough time in the day to complete. We’re lucky if people do a press check on their handgun before heading out the door or checking the tire pressure and oil level in their cars on a monthly basis.

So, when it comes to introducing a tool that has potential to cause great harm if misused into the hectic daily mess of my own life (and, I suspect, others’ lives, too) I think keeping things simple is the best policy. And here, that means gun on body in easily accessible location, not someplace where it can be easily forgotten.

Of course, in the right context, everything I say can be wrong. But you knew that, right?


(FULL DISCLOSURE: The chemistry teacher mentioned above is a composite of several different teachers I had in high school. Also: the author is fairly sure that missing one homework assignment isn’t what put him on the road to an abysmal grade in chemistry.)

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  1. As they say in aviation, FLY THE PLANE! Regardless of what ever else is going on (troubleshooting some issue, what have you), remember, you need to keep flying, not fly into the ground, and not run out of gas.

    In this context, if the gun isn’t in it’s holster on your person, it needs to be really high in your priorities, and you need to check it every time you change something in your environment.

  2. I got a real kick out of your references… and then I wondered how many I missed.
    I tend to agree with your point because I can forget what I’m doing when I walk through a doorway. The simple act of leaving a house with 4 kids is fraught with peril.
    I have never left a baby in the car tho. They seem to be always on my mind.

    • I almost bought a car just like that, red and all. There it was in the showroom, I had the money to pay cash, everything was perfect until I realized I had no use for it, and my wife would be displeased. So it was 2011 before I ever got a convertible.

  3. Very well written article, and I agree completely. No matter how you choose to carry, it needs to become habit. For example, I’ve made a habit out of checking myself whenever I enter or leave a building: I physically check myself for my EDC stuff: wallet, phone, keys, gun, spare magazine, knife. It’s a habit that has served me very well.

  4. Agreed, but it seems pretty likely that the shotgun was left by a guard while filling/emptying the ATM. Those crews often have one guard with a SG, the rest with pistols. Still can’t imagine leaving it behind….

    • I live in Hong Kong and I can say that similar incidents have happened before. Most of the time only one round is chamber in it, and each 4-man crew only had one ‘armed’ guard while others simply dont carry. You guys may be amazed by the way our guards treat and handle firearms, but since robberies, not to mention armed robberies, are so rare that the gun basically became a prop to them. Most of the stuff people left behind are things that have no immediate use to them, i.e. people always leave umbrellas behind at stores/restaurants when it isnt raining anymore when they leave, and the same rationale can be applied in this case.

      • I recall seeing “armed guards” in the Philippines with a bandolier of shotgun shells, where the bandolier was too big for the shells, so someone had wrapped each shell with masking tape until it was the diameter which fit. Stunning.

  5. Of the few dozen folks that get caught by TSA every year “trying” to board an aircraft with a concealed gun, I’m sure that the largest percentage really had no intention to do so and just had the gun on them – totally habituated.

    After a couple of multi-tool confiscations and some harsh words about a loaded magazine that had escaped my attention in carry-on, I’ve learned to methodically and without interuption go through my carry-on stuff meticulously. And then leave it alone before I head off to the airport in case I accidentally put some sort of contraband back in the bag!

    • What’s wrong with a loaded magazine in carry-on? You have to declare a gun. To my knowledge there is no requirement to declare a magazine.

      • A loaded magazine presumably would contain live ammunition. I’m pretty sure live ammunition normally isn’t allowed in carry-on luggage on planes.

  6. The question then becomes How to keep a proactive accounting of your weapon without telegraphing, printing , or brandishing etc. ? ( I assume this would vary by carry method.)

  7. I have never left a shotgun by the ATM machine, but I have misplaced my glasses more than once. Which is a difference of degree but not of kind.

  8. My buddy found a diamond back. 380 on the tank of a public toilet. he called the sherrif to ask the protocol and was told that it was his weapon unless otherwise claimed and that it “happens more than you’d think “

  9. The word you’re looking for is “complacency.” A former buddy, with far more on the job experience than I ever gained, got nearly thirty staples on his scalp after he walked into an AIM-9 fin because there usually wasn’t a jet parked there. This was despite annual training to remind everyone working on the airframe that it was out to get you. You know what Flare looks like when accidentally triggered on the ground? It’s amazing, you both can’t look at it and can’t look away, and it’s hot enough to melt the tarmac a little. The only way that happens is when someone pushes the button assuming all the safeguards are working 100%.

    When you carry a gun, either professionally or as part of your personal life, complacency is a risk. I wish I could put the concept into some sort of obvious mnemonic, but I just can’t. You know when you hear about a greens keeper losing a hand to a jammed lawnmower? That’s complacency. The machine never hurt him before, why should he think it would now? An Air Marshall leaving her sidearm in an airport restroom? She’s never had to draw it, it’s just another part of her uniform, not like it’s her badge or anything vital to daily life.

    It’s easy to run drills for what you’ll do when your pharmacist is robbed while you’re in line. It’s far less interesting to practice when you need to biologically download in a public receptacle. Yet, that latter scenario definitely presents itself far more often than the previous. It’s less of a memory disconnect as it is a false connection. And, all due respect to the author, surgeons, for the most part, hate the idea of checklists.

    • practice when you need to biologically download in a public receptacle

      “Practice”? If you carry all the time, practice is unnecessary, you do it for real a couple times a week.

      • My own private bathroom at home is rather different from a multi-stall public restroom. At home for instance, I can let the IWB holster just sort of flop around on the waistband on the floor if I want to. If I’m in a public restroom I have to be considering who might A.) see and B.) try to grab that same firearm under the edge of the stall, which means I have to be much careful about where the holstered gun goes when I drop trou.

        • Now there’s an argument in favor of shoulder holsters. On the show Barney Miller the Fish character (Abe Vigoda) spent a lot of time using the facilities, was the only one that didn’t carry one of those cute little snubnose badges of office, and wore a shoulder holster.

    • Surgeons may hate checklists, but nurses don’t… we’re the ones who must account for things and keep the show on the road. 🙂 I fell in love with surgical nursing when I discovered that most distractions are not allowed in the OR. The patient can provide some, of course, but there are no phones to answer or people dropping in to chat, demanding you drop everything and attend to them. 🙂 Floor nursing, however, is 90% distractions, from ten different directions at once… for a 12 hour shift. Maddening. Try keeping things straight when ANYONE is free to interrupt you at any time, for any reason.

      My answer to any distraction or interruption of a task, however benign, is to mentally start over, go through the steps needed until I reach the point at which I was distracted, then carry on. A mental “checklist,” if you will. Works like a charm.

      With that training in my background, keeping track of my gun is not so difficult.

      • Of course I have forgotten who wrote it (a doctor, I think) but “The Checklist Manifesto” is worth a read if you are interested in such things.

  10. You walk into a room and forget why you’re there. After extensive study, a university (name forgotten) was able to prove that the reason is simple: your brain resets itself.
    Well written. Thanks.

  11. Just last weekend, I left my home in a rush to travel to another location. When I arrived at my destination, I realized that I left my handgun secured at home. That is the first time that I forgot to bring my handgun along in about 5 years. It can happen.

    The key here is multiple levels of security so that you cover your butt even during a “failure”. For example my habit/routine is that I always secure my handgun at home when it is not strapped to my body. That way, if I forget to take it with me, it is secured … like last weekend!

  12. Nobody’s perfect. My neighbor said “Hey Michael! Do you have a Glock 9mm? I said yes. He found a mag pouch with a full Glock 19 mag lying in the road a few yards down our street.
    See, what had happen was, Friday morning I was going to take my wife to work. That is one change in routine. I am off recovering from shoulder surgery. That is two changes in routine. She was working half the day so I could do some shopping and kill some time at the gun shop near her work to kill time until she got off work. I decided to carry an extra mag and also bring my AR. I went to her car to put the AR in the trunk. The trunk won’t stay open unless you hold it open and I only have one arm that is good right now. So I set my Glock mag on the bumper while I used an umbrella to prop the trunk open. There was wire shelving from my sons dorm room that he did not want and I decided to empty the trunk before putting my rifle in there. Distraction number three. After doing this, I was thinking that I needed to do some on line shopping and maybe I should stay home and let her drive herself. I took my rifle back inside and asked her if she would let me stay home. I was thinking about bulk buying ammo for the first time with my profit sharing money just deposited. I got 1,000 rounds of Blaser 124g 9mm and 1,000 rounds of Wolf Gold .223. But back to the story. Remember the mag I put on the bumper? I didn’t.

    • You’re lucky your neighbor was honest.

      A lawyer I know told me a very similar tale. Went to work one day and found his Sig on the roof of his car, right where he left it.

      I told him he was real lucky a bum collecting cans on the side of the road didn’t get a nice early X-mas present…

  13. i know a competitive shooter, who left his $18,000 shotgun on the gun rack, outside. 2 days later one of the range guys bought it in out of the rain, put it on an inside gun rack, not knowing whose gun it was, 2 days after that the range guys noticed the Krieghoff was missing AND 3 days AFTER that, the owner came by to see if anyone had seen his shotgun, a full 7 days after he left it…… this is wrong on so many levels……….but i forgot why i started this……….

  14. Just can’t be complacent when dealing with firearms. I have a mental and written checklists and use some reminders (like switching my wedding ring to the other hand) to help make sure I don’t forget things. Not foolproof, but when it comes to carrying a firearm, I haven’t found that check list necessary.

    Serious question: why do people take their guns off in the restroom?

    I use belt holsters with some form of retention, never needed to remove the pistol.

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