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Making the decision to carry a concealed weapon is only the first step in a process which includes purchasing a handgun that’s appropriate for one’s personality and life, training, regular practice, and adapting one’s thinking to the habits necessary to safely carrying a handgun on a daily basis. Safety, however, does not consist primarily of not accidently shooting oneself or others, or of avoiding accidently leaving one’s handgun in a public restroom, among other monumental mistakes. Most important is ensuring that one will never have to use a handgun, which is done primarily through developing and maintaining situational awareness . . .

Situational awareness might be described as the ability to be aware of one’s surroundings, to anticipate potential trouble, and to avoid it before one is confronted by actual trouble, forcing a reaction. Those with a high degree of situational awareness, such as police officers or combat soldiers, often find themselves virtually “outside” their bodies, as though watching themselves function in real time. While this may sound mystical, perhaps even a bit flakey, it describes real perceptions, and the development of real skills, primarily being actively, in a relaxed and confident sense, aware of what is going on outside the arms-length personal space “bubble” of most Americans.

Unfortunately, there is an invention that makes active situational awareness for many people more difficult than at any time in history: smart phones. I developed situational awareness at a very young age, long before that kind of distraction was invented. My first cell phone, used in the later part of my police days, was a bag phone, and technology progressed rapidly from there. Now, an amazing portion of the population is out in public in the functional equivalent of smart phone catatonia. Consider this 2013 AP report from San Francisco: 

“The man drew the gun several times on the crowded San Francisco commuter train, with surveillance video showing him pointing it across the aisle without anyone noticing and then putting it back against his side, according to authorities.

The other passengers were so absorbed in their phones and tablets they didn’t notice the gunman until he randomly shot and killed a university student, authorities said.

Before that moment, footage showed the man pull out the .45-caliber pistol and once wipe his nose with the hand holding the weapon, authorities told the San Francisco Chronicle in a story on Monday.

‘These weren’t concealed movements — the gun is very clear,’ District Attorney George Gascon said. “These people are in very close proximity with him, and nobody sees this. They’re just so engrossed, texting and reading and whatnot. They’re completely oblivious of their surroundings.”

San Francisco police officials say people who pay too much attention to digital technology are also vulnerable to theft.

“Oftentimes when you interview people who get their phones stolen, when you ask them to describe where the person came from, what he was wearing, they have no idea,” said police Chief Greg Suhr.

Ironically, if people saw the killer, who was eventually arrested, earlier, it may have caused a panic which could possibly have resulted in more deaths. Due to California’s draconian gun laws, few, except criminals, are armed. However, in much of the rest of America, criminals must take into account that citizens can be, and likely are, armed virtually anywhere.

Criminals are not generally the brilliant, quirky masterminds of the movies and police novels. Most aren’t terribly bright, but they do have a feral intelligence that leads them to look for easy prey: those that are weak and unaware.

It is the lack of situational awareness, exacerbated by distractions such as smart phones, that helps killers fire many shots into crowds or classrooms before anyone is aware of what is happening.  In the aftermath, people say: “he came out of nowhere,” or “it all happened so fast.”  Few people consciously develop situational awareness, and women, constitutionally and because of their lack of strength and size relative to men, are particularly vulnerable. While there are no absolutely definitive studies, some surveys have suggested that women are more likely to text than men. If so, this only contributes to a lack of situational awareness.

Criminals are more likely to stalk a small, distracted woman than a large, fit man. That’s why it is particularly important for women to not only consider carrying a concealed handgun, but to work consistently to develop situational awareness.

The late Col. Jeff Cooper, founder of the famous Gunsite training facility, developed a color code system that describes the necessary mental state.

CODE WHITE: This describes most people: no situational awareness at all, face down in a smart phone.  In this state, one is essentially unaware of what is happening outside their bubble.  They can’t anticipate and identify potential danger and have virtually no chance of dealing with it effectively. Predators see them as a walking piece of meat with a flashing neon “eat me” sign.  Think about all the smart phone zombies to understand the joy, and easy picking, of criminals.

CODE YELLOW:  This is the awareness level anyone carrying concealed must develop and maintain.  It is an enhanced level of awareness.  While remaining relaxed, one is constantly on the lookout for potential danger.  Personal space is expanded far beyond arm’s length and danger can be avoided or confronted without surprise or hesitation. This level of awareness is not stressful and can be easily maintained without danger of physical or psychological deterioration.  Perfect situational awareness isn’t possible–we’re only human–but it is the goal.

CODE ORANGE:  Because of situational awareness an imminent potential threat has been recognized.  Perhaps a nearby man thrusts his hand into his coat in the manner of someone reaching for a handgun in a shoulder holster.  An escalation from yellow to orange is immediate–-until he pulls out a checkbook–-allowing the equally quick shift to yellow. An escalation from yellow to orange will probably not be noticeable by anyone not used to maintaining situational awareness. This may or may not result in an adrenaline dump, but remaining in this state for long periods of time may result in stress damage.

CODE RED:  This is the reaction to a definite, imminent threat, but there is still time to consider options.  Approaching one’s car in a parking garage there is a man slouching against the trunk. He looks and feels wrong, out of place. The heat of an adrenaline dump surges; decision time: Flight or fight?  Is a direction change and walking away without provoking a pursuit possible, or is a confrontation unavoidable?  If unavoidable, what must be done to gain and retain a tactical advantage?  Remaining in code red for more than a short time is debilitating for most people and will likely be physically and/or psychologically harmful.

CODE BLACK: This is actual combat and it must be assumed, in any confrontation outside the sparring practice of a martial arts school, that it’s potentially–even probably–a life and death struggle, particularly if attacked by a stranger on the street. Adrenaline is pumping and Tachypsychia (seconds seem like hours) is common, as is narrowing of the field of vision commonly known as “tunneling.”  Hearing may become very dim or temporarily disappear.  Fine muscle control is diminished, even lost.  This is a debilitating physical and psychological state and those who experience it are often physically and emotionally exhausted after a confrontation that lasts mere seconds.  Without situational awareness, caught unaware and by surprise, one is at a serious tactical disadvantage and may be hurt or killed. Obviously, it is best never to experience code black.

Learning to observe one’s surroundings and to ask “what if?” is vital. It is the anticipation of trouble, and prior planning based on that observation, that enables us to avoid most trouble.

Fortunately, developing situational awareness does not take expensive professional training. It does, however, take a beginning awareness of the necessity, and daily practice, practice that begins when one leave the front door of their home each day. It also takes an awareness of human nature.

Most people do not look around them, or focus their vision much beyond a distance necessary to avoid tripping over objects a step away. They allow their thoughts to completely distract them from an awareness of anything outside the personal space bubble.  It takes little time watching people wherever they congregate to see just how shockingly unaware most are.

When people approach, they may do no more than glance briefly upward to see if they know them, and perhaps to make momentary eye contact. People virtually never look up. They don’t gaze higher than eye level unless looking for a sign, and are often amazed at what they’ve missed when they accidently look at the second stories of buildings they pass every day.

Few look behind them. Few examine the area around their cars as they approach them. Few look up and down the street, except to avoid being hit by cars, before pulling out into traffic. Few take a few seconds to examine the area around their cars and the path they plan to take, before leaving their cars. Women are particularly bad about spending seconds, or minutes, stationary, hunting for car keys in a purse, leaving themselves vulnerable. Few look around as they drive down their street–the same way every day–or approach their driveway.

On the first day of each school year, I tell my new students that one of the hardest things to do is to learn to concentrate, to pay attention to what is happening right in front of one’s face. It is a skill that takes effort, constant effort, but it pays off. Consider that we spend, through sleep, 1/3 of our life unconscious. Living to 90 means spending 30 years asleep. How much more of a life are we willing to lose to an inability to pay attention, to the dimly shining screen of a smart phone, that we may actually experience more fully the wonder of life around us?

Oh, but people who carry guns and run around thinking about “code yellow” and “code red” are paranoid. They’re nuts! They’re dangerous! Actually, their work at paying attention, at developing situational awareness makes them more alive, more aware of their world and their life, helps them avoid ever having to use their handgun, and if they do, makes it more likely they’ll survive to enjoy those additional years of inspirational awareness. They are, particularly women, dangerous, but only to predators. We can use more of those women–and men.

Mike’s Home blog is Stately McDaniel Manor.

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  1. I have a lot of situational awareness. Some folks would call it paranoia…that is their problem. I haven’t been in a traffic accident for many years-despite driving on Chicago expressways. Part of awareness…constantly scanning. And avoiding stupid people/places(it’s hard)…

      • I’m really really good…and Jesus loves me. I also have been in some harrowing scrapes in my 60+ years…i was an awful driver in my younger years too. Being an “entertainer” and a salesman in home taught me how to get from point A to point B quickly and in one piece too…

    • From living in CA all my life, most of it just a stones throw from SF, I have heard this quip so many times.

      This is the first time that I didn’t vow to fight harder to liberate this state, I just got a little depressed.

      I hope Peruta eventually turns out right. It will restore a little faith in our country, and it will rub so much dirt in the face of this state.

      • Peruta will fail the en banc and SCOTUS will not grant cert. Allow me to look in my crystal ball….Oh wait, that’s right, they already said open carry is the right and concealed carry could be banned.

        • Everything you said is true.

          You omitted the fact that California bans open carry which should be the reason that the higher courts should strike down may-issue concealed carry with “good cause”. Of course the same situation applies to New York, New Jersey, and Maryland where the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and/or 4th (I forget which specific three of them) Circuits should have struck down may-issue concealed carry with “good cause” … and where the U.S. Supreme Court should have granted cert to hear any one of those cases.

          Aaaaannnd … we all know that none of those Circuit Courts of Appeal or the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the United States Constitution in their respective cases. Hence my declaration that the Circuit Courts of Appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court are illegitimate.

          But the courts will tell us that their actions, inaction, and decisions are A-okay because PUBLIC SAFETY. Oh, and they will also probably say that they struck down may-issue concealed carry because the U.S. Constitution does not (in their tortured reasoning) protect concealed carry. Then they will wink at us and tell us to sue to overturn laws that ban open carry since the U.S. Constitution does protect open carry — knowing full well that almost every single private and public business establishment will forbid open carry on premises.

  2. Very true – all of it. As an avid outdoorsman, I’ve frequently noticed that my urban companions, even though they profess to enjoy hiking and nature, are usually oblivious to all the happenings around them. Conversely, any friends of mine who has been involved with either hunting or mountaineering (a relatively high-risk activity that also requires situational awareness) are much more focused on the hike and their surroundings. They are also a lot more fun to hike with, since there’s a mutual desire to watch for wildlife, etc.

  3. If I’m totally honest with myself, I’m “pale yellow” most of the time. I don’t do the smart-phone thing except at work, but I’m also not as situationally aware as I should be. I try, but I’m also lazy and set in my ways.

  4. Something I try to do to maintain situational awareness is to just look around and I think to myself, what is that person’s story? I had read somewhere that this is an awareness technique that street cops use. Usually I can do this in a relaxed scanning fashion, largely with peripheral vision, without feeling like a paranoid weirdo. It helps me quickly unusual and potentially hazard indicating behaviour (don’t forget to notice what they are doing with their hands), and also has a nice side effect of helping me notice nice seeming or interesting seeming people (often I smile or say hi to those people 🙂

  5. I took about a 5 year “break” from hunting. After getting back into it again, it’s amazing how your observation skills go into the toilet in short order when not practiced.

    • I went on a hike over ten miles long a couple months ago. It’s amazing how much a few months’ laziness can degrade years of training.

  6. I’ve always had higher than average SA. I’m the sort to notice new haircuts or if a coffee mug’s handle is facing a different direction than when I left the room previously. I don’t always point those things out. By which I mean never, unless it’s relevant. I think it’s something that can be taught, but it has to be ingrained early on. I’ve had a lot of friends try to surprise me by sneaking up on me, only to be disappointed by my knowing they were there.

    The other side, yes, smart phones. As a 30-something student, I frequently observe other students on a collision course with me on campus. I usually stop dead, because dodging usually results in them dodging the same way, and I’m lazy. And when I don’t dodge, they run into me. I’ve yet to have one try to play the victim, so that’s something of a plus. I’ve mentioned on this very website how young ladies are often extremely impressed by someone stopping to hold a door for them, I think the phone absorption is related.

    So, instead of making this longer than the original article: I’m one of those “If you clear leather, you should shoot” types, I favor 10mm for carry, I consider some of the worst parts of Detroit to be relatively safe, I’ve been in many situations where I would have been well within my rights to shoot, and I’ve never even drawn on someone. I’ve always de-escalated and talked my way out of any potential violent confrontation. No one has ever attempted to call my “bluff,” and I hope it never happens, but I’m ready. I’m not going to drop my guard or lessen my readiness because I’ve had other techniques work 100% of the time so far.

    I had another, extremely sarcastic, comment here. I realized it could be used out of context by the opposition. So, I did delete it. Because, even late at night, even with a glass of wine in hand, even safe at home behind locked doors, I’m listening to whats going on around me and thinking about how my actions could affect the outside environment.

    Incidentally, this comment was delayed by the new Justified, where there was a significant gun misconception involving carrying a single action revolver with hammer on empty chamber both explained and demonstrated wrong. I even give a pass to the SxS making all sorts of noises while being moved because entertainment (my own, beloved, Russian, SxS is pretty damned silent until you pull the trigger), but how do you pull the hammer back, drop it, and then say you never carry on a loaded chamber? Did you not have a single consultant? Should I drop out of college and try to find work as a consultant? I already know more than a lot of the “experts” on TV, and I’m more than ready to learn more instead of flashing a self-printed “expert” card in front of critics. On second thought, I guess I’m too open minded for Hollywood.

    • Actually on a number of antique cowboy guns you do indeed have the hammer resting on an empty chamber. This is because without a safety notch system the firing pin from the hammer will hit the casing if the gun is bumped. Its a pretty nasty design defect and the only way to overcome it without sending the gun back to the factory and have a replacement sent out at the gun maker expense was to tell people to have the hammer resting on an empty chamber.

      • Of course to do that you had to cock the gun, rotate the cylinder and then pull the trigger or pull the hammer to a half cock then pull it back some then press the trigger while it was on the empty cylinder.

        Buy a NAA mini revolver. You have to lower the hammer into a safety notch in order to carry the gun around because being bumped is enough to dislodge it from half cocked or hit the primer if on a chamber. People have shot themselves or items in their home because they botched the procedure of putting the hammer into the safety notch and were not outside with the gun pointing at the dirt.

  7. Whats extra dagerous is people who think they have great SA but have none. I have a family memeber who brags about how perceptive she is, but does not even realize when she is about to bump into someone with her cart or is completely blocking an aisle.

  8. An acronym I teach in the motorcycle safety course is SIPDE. Scan, Identify, Predict, Decide, Execute. This is my life philosophy in all interactions, not just driving or riding. It really gets you thinking about what others are likely to do next. Try picking one person out of a crowd. Try to predict what they will do next and see if you are right. It takes time to hone, but you may be surprised just how easy people are to predict. But every now and again someone does the completely unexpected; gee I didn’t see that coming…

  9. “I have been teaching the Color Code for about 30 years now, but I have not been teaching it well. I keep seeing something handed back to me which purports to be what I have taught, but which is not. Clearly I am not as much of a teacher as I would like to be.

    I believe I can speak freely of the Color Code because as it applies to defensive pistolcraft I invented it. I cannot, of course, say that what I think is right, but only that what I have preached is just that – what I have preached. It works, and it satisfies me, but not all the time. I have scores of cases now from men I have taught and who have reported back to me that their understanding of a Color Code saved their lives. This, of course, is very satisfying, but I do wish the matter were more clearly understood.

    The Color Code refers not to a condition of peril, but rather to a condition of readiness to take life. Fortunately most people are very reluctant to take lethal action against another human being. Most people are reluctant to shoot for blood on a harmless game animal, until they become used to it. To press the trigger on a human adversary calls for a wrenching effort of will which is always difficult to achieve and sometimes apparently impossible. Thus we live our days in Condition White, which may or may not have anything to do with our danger, since quite frequently we are in deadly danger and do not realize it. Any time you cross directions out on a two-lane highway you are at the mercy of that character coming towards you in the opposite direction. Usually he is okay, but when he is under some sort of chemical influence, or is psychologically upset, he may only twitch his wheel to produce a multiple fatal accident. Most of us would prefer to live in Condition White permanently, and many do, but those who are more aware of the nature of things are often in Yellow, which is a condition in which we are aware that the world is full of hazards which are human, and some of which may be obviated by our own defensive action. When one is in Condition Yellow he is aware that today may be the day. He is not in a combat mood, nor is he aware of any specific situation which may call for action on his part. There is a vital difference between White and Yellow, and it has to do not with any specific enemy or a set of circumstances, but rather with your awareness that you individually may have to take decisive action on this very day. If you are attacked in Condition White, you will probably die, or at least need a stretcher. If you are attacked in Condition Yellow, you will probably win, assuming that you are armed, awake and aware. The difference does not lie in the deadliness of the hazard facing you, but rather in your willingness to take a very unusual action.

    If in the course of events you become aware of the possible existence in your presence of a lethal adversary, you switch from Yellow to Orange. The difference lies in the specific nature of your presumed antagonist, not in his evident competence or attitude. In Yellow you say to yourself, “I may have to shoot today.” I may actually have to press my trigger on a human adversary, but I don’t know who or where.

    When you detect the presence of a target who may be the one you will have to engage, you shift from Yellow to Orange. In Yellow your mind-set is ‘I may have to shoot today.’ In Orange it is ‘I may have to shoot him today.’ At this point your normal reluctance becomes easier to overcome. Legal and moral aspects of the conflict are lowered and have been dismissed from your mind. Your attitude is dictated by the presence of that enemy standing there. You may have to shoot him, now, today. What is needed is a trigger. The trigger is the act establishing that the situation is indeed a matter of lethal conflict. This is Condition Red, and in Red you have solved the psychological problem and have no further concerns beyond the technical. In Red you are go, and your mind is concerned only with front-sight and surprise.

    Moving from the various Conditions into each other is easy to accomplish once it is understood. If you are attacked in White you will lose the fight. In Yellow you will have the advantage of initiative response over your antagonist. In Orange you are pretty safe, provided you are armed, alert and aware. In Red you win. Simple, isn’t it? Clearly you cannot go any further than Red because in Red you have already made the lethal decision. Complications are unproductive.”

    Jeff Cooper’s Commentaries
    Previously Gunsite Gossip
    Vol. 13, No. 1 January 2005

  10. I have the same level of SA in public as when I’m in my truck. Just as I regularly scan a 360 while in my vehicle, I do the same while out of my vehicle.

    Any time I transition from one environment to another; coming out of a building or Going into a building, getting out of or getting into a car, I do quick scan in condition yellow bordering into orange.

    Once I’ve got a feel for if there is any dangerous situations or people, I go on about my business in a low yellow.

    Then I just keep track of the my environment to see if it changes. When I’m sitting in a restaurant I’ll usually look for ,a chair with my back against a wall where I can see the front doors and I look to see where the emergency exits are.

    What I believe is different for me than many people is that I delivered Pizza in the war zone while going to school. I had constant exposure to recognizing a human predator on the hunt, now, it’s like a predator has a flashing light on their head, they stand out in a crowd.

    This is also why I carry a gun now,; one of those HP tried to mug me. Luckily I had trained I’m martial arts and I was and still do work out quite a bit. I won barely, but a gun is the great equalizer.

  11. The five level SA scale is actually the basis for the DoD’s FPCON (Force Protection Condition) scale. There is another sliding scale that Defense Intelligence uses to allocate ISR for warning. It’s called the Watchcon. Watchcon is generally increased when the perception of a possible threat increases. It is useful to apply concept in your day to day life. Since you cannot maintain 100% alertness 100% of the time you need to scale your alert level to possible threat. If you live in a very low crime area you don’t have to be on edge. You can scale things back to a more sustainable level by looking for people and situations that don’t belong. It doesn’t mean that every such instance is a threat but it allows you to increase your alert level when then happens. You shouldn’t to walk through your North Arlington neighborhood with the same level of SA as you do carry the receipts from your business in SE DC.

    • Yes, that is a photo shop of the long deceased Megaladon shark, the prehistoric ancestor of the great white shark. a couple of really bad movies made from the beast, suppose to have be 70 feet long and 20 tons.

  12. Increasing urbanization where the sameness and alleged “safety” are influencing people to pay less attention to what’s going on around them is a major factor. And it’s the reason we have to have articles promoting greater situational awareness. We’ve all seen it: the person who’s so involved with their cell phone that that they run into other people (and objects). Frontiersmen and indian scouts had situational awareness – they knew the natural environment held keys that meant the difference between life and death. Situational awareness is also more fun than going through life as if we lived insulated from everything. Being insulated from everything is what’s boring.


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