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Using Force in Self-Defense

When it comes to armed self-defense, a lot of gun owners talk a good game at the gun counter of their local gun shop. Truth be told, flipping the switch between passive and aggressive, peaceful and ruthless, doesn’t come easy. A life-long cultural aversion to seriously harming another human being makes it difficult to poke them full of holes. Could you commit ghastly violence?  If so, what would it take to provoke it?

I’ve been teaching defensive handgun classes for two decades. Occasionally I run across students – usually the fairer sex – who say they can’t and won’t use deadly force in self-defense. “What if a bad guy is going to hurt your baby?” I ask. Well that’s different! I’ll gently point out that if they can use deadly force to save their young child, they can use deadly force to save themselves. “Your child needs its mother, not a foster parent.”

A Real world example

Before their divorce, Dennis and Linda talked about home defense and personal protection strategies at home. After their divorce, Linda answered the door around 10pm during a thunderstorm. Looking out her side window, she thought she saw her neighbor on her porch. She opened the door and a man forced his way in, saying “they’re trying to kill me!”

Linda retreated to her bedroom. She got her Smith & Wesson K-framed .357 revolver and her cordless ‘phone. She called 9-1-1.  The dispatcher kept her on the line as deputies screamed down the highway. Mr. Intruder came into her bedroom, repeatedly saying “don’t hurt me” and “I’m scared” as he walked closer and closer. As I’d taught her, she warned him not to proceed. “I’ve got a gun!  If you come closer, I’ll shoot you! I’ve called the police! Leave now!”

A pair of deputies rushed into the home in the nick of time. They tackled the guy just as he reached out and touched the muzzle of Linda’s revolver. Linda simply couldn’t shoot her intruder that night; I shudder to think what could have happened if the deputies had arrived five minutes later.

Using force in self-defense

Saving innocent life?

When it comes to flipping the switch from passive to aggressive, you never know until you know. Some people will only attack an attacker to defend themselves or their loved ones. Others have no problem acting to saving an innocent stranger. Yes, defending an innocent third-party is fraught with risk. The downside to not getting involved? You have to sleep with yourself every night for the rest of your life.

In another life, I espoused the “not my circus, not my monkeys” view of third-party self-defense. Until one of my students raised his hand and asked, “What if that was my daughter working the counter at the Stop and Rob? Wouldn’t you do what you could to save her life?”

I thought about it. What if that was my daughter that walked into a bad situation? Wouldn’t I want someone with the knowledge, skills and attitudes to stop the bad guy? By the same token, if I’ve got a newborn in my arms, I will look for the nearest exit and become scarce at the first sign of trouble.

If you haven’t given serious thought about when and whether or not you can use deadly force, I encourage you to do so now, before that bad person with evil in their heart comes into your life.

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  1. I grew up around guns, and hunted as a youth and young adult for many years. When I could legally buy a pistol and get a CCW, I bought a Colt Commander and carried it frequently. I’m fairly certain that I could have used it in self-defense, if necessary.

    However, upon my first formal self defense training, when we were presented with printed human targets and were requested to really visualize an actual event, I have to admit that was the first time I’d really placed myself into a situation like that, albeit a simulated one. I certainly didn’t freeze and finished the course with flying colors, but that adrenaline dump of placing yourself into a situation is very enlightening. Further training – both live fire and force on force – does a great job of inoculating you against such stresses. Although I don’t believe training should be mandated, the right kind of training closes the perceptual gap between “shooting a pistol” and “shooting a pistol at a person.” There are very real differences.

    • I’ve always liked simunition rounds or even airsoft for force on force practice. Even shooting at a paper target gets you into the mindset of it’s paper and a paper target never moves to cover or tries to grabs a hostage/shield or returns fire.

      • You’re right- even if it’s just plastic bbs on the two-way-range, it’s a game changer. You learn quickly to shoot and move, usually simultaneously.

        • Indeed. There’s no substitute for force on force training, and airsoft is the most cost-effective manner of that. Plus it’s a lot of fun!

  2. maybe im being naive but i cant imagine having a hard time using lethal force ro protect myself or my family.

    btw, props to using screen grab from israeli tv show HOSTAGES, actually in middle of watching it now on netflix!

    • “maybe im being naive but i cant imagine having a hard time using lethal force ro protect myself or my family.”

      Most likely because you’re not female.

      Women’s emotional responses tend to be wired differently than a guy’s…

    • I think most people wouldn’t have a problem using force against an intruder in your own home. I might hesitate to make sure it’s not someone I know (not that I’d expect anyone I knew inside my house without permission), but I think the ‘defend the lair’ mentality has been hardwired into our reptilian brains for eons.

      Outside, though – especially if the threat is directed towards a third party – I think most people instinctively (and justifiably) try to stay out of other people’s business. If I saw somebody being mugged, I think I’d be more inclined to go for my phone than to draw my gun.

  3. Lots of “tough guys” out there. Lots of folks who will talk trash to anyone who says they would think twice about getting involved over a third-party. Lots of folks with money for very good lawyers, I’d guess. And if you lose in court, YOU might spend many years in jail, locked up with actual dirtbags who will quickly learn why you are in there. They aren’t going to think very highly of you. Can you survive jail, locked in with murderers, rapists, armed robbers, gang members? There are times to get involved, and times to stay out of things and call 9-1-1.

    • By “out there” do you mean that have commented here on this article or out there in the world?

    • I have prepaid legal advice on gun laws and legal representation from a law firm out of Houston. If saving a life gets me in trouble with the law I can live with that.

      • I take a more practical view. Evan aside from the whole potential legal consequences thing, there’s the very real did-I-do-a-good-act thing to worry about. Example:. I’m in convenience store, rooting around in the cooler for an Arizona iced tea that’s actually cold. I hear a commotion from up front. I scoot around a shelf, get a visual on the counter, and I see a large scruffy looking black dude pointing a gun at a young woman behind the counter, who has her hands up, and he’s shouting VERY angrily at her to get out from behind the counter, while she is cringing, hands up, looking terrified. Do I shoot? Well, when that exact scenario played itself out in front of me, I did NOT draw my gun or get involved other than to dial 911, and its a damn good thing too. Turns out, the girl (drug addict) had walked in, stuck a gun in the face of the store owner (the black guy), walked him out form behind the counter and started rooting around in the register and grabbing cartons of smokes and such. While distracted, store woner had disarmed her, and was trying to get her out from behind his counter. The sudden turning of tables, very real possibility of death (and probably some emotional stability issues form her drug use?) threw her over the edge and she broke down, terrified and crying. Another example (this one a hypothetical): you come around corner to see thuggish looking dude with gun stuck in the back of the head of a nicely dressed young man, as he roots around in his victims’ pockets, obviously trying to find a wallet. Orrrrr, maybe that guy is an undercover cop, and his “victim” is a dangerous criminal he just tackled, and he’s looking for the guy’s weapon, or his ID.

        Moral of story? Even when you THINK you know the whole story, odds are you don’t. I am not willing to risk killing an innocent person because I was mistaken, or mis-read a situation. The ONLY time I’m going to risk killing someone is if I’m in a situation where the only two options are (a) shoot this guy or (b) myself/my family/my loved one gets seriously hurt/killed. It’s literally my last resort action.

  4. “Mr. Intruder came into her bedroom, repeatedly saying “don’t hurt me” and “I’m scared” as he walked closer and closer.”

    Man, that scumbag really knew how to push the right emotional hot buttons on that woman.


  5. “What if that was my daughter working the counter at the Stop and Rob? Wouldn’t you do what you could to save her life?”

    First, ask him: what has she done to save her life? What have you taught her about saving her life?

    For me, at least, ‘getting involved’ is on a continuum. If you are right there and see a situation develop such that you are sure you know what is going on that’s one thing. Often it’s not so simple.

    • “If you are right there and see a situation develop such that you are sure you know what is going on that’s one thing.”

      That is key. If you walk into the middle of a fight, you really have no way of knowing which person was the attacker. Any apparent disparity of force, weapons in hand, or one person beginning to prevail tells you absolutely zero.

      Personally, if I happened upon a fight in progress, I would stand-by: be a “good witness” and prepare to intervene if it looks like one combatant stops fighting (due to surrender or incapacitation) and the other combatant transitions to executioner.

  6. It is a fairly difficult thing to actually play out in my head. It’s hard to find a scenario where it’s called for and I wouldn’t, and the opposite. I really try to put myself in one of those “either way, either choice is a good choice” options, and see how and what my first instincts are.

  7. Impossible to say, until you’re facing that situation.
    Honest people risk being in a hot situation with the hand-brake pulled.
    I personally really don’t know.
    The only thing I know is that my country would be the first to put me in the meat-grinder if I defended myself or my family, and that’s a giant obstacle.
    I’d be arrested and sued even by the family of the outlaw, with almost sure conviction and big bucks to pay for the “damage” inflicted to a f….ing bastard.
    I really don’t know………

  8. This is why force-on-force training is a good idea. No training is 100% “real” or can prepare you for every situation, but force-on-force allows you to ask important questions in real time and to more realistically assess your decision making under stress.

  9. Been reading On Combat after having read On Killing. What ever the answer is, I am still woefully unprepared. This spring or summer I will get to some FOF and other sorts of training finally done.

  10. I’ve been in two real-world use of force incidents and God knows how many in the military. I went to fists in the first in defense of a third party-I was 19 and did not own a pistol- and the second I’m damn glad I didn’t even take the safety off because it was a kid actually asleep at the wheel that crashed her dad’s SUV into my front porch. The worst she got from me was a flashlight to the eyes, and some very surprised and angry yelling.

    Oddly though, my first simulated firefight sticks with me as what not to do. I was on perimeter security and a sim-local tried to snatch my m16. He ran and got blank-shot in the back by me. The OC said I was good because he demonstrated intent to harm my buddy and I, but I still see that as what not to do.

    I know this is long n wordy, but experience is the best teacher. As Pat McNamara said in TAPS- your training builds your responses for the fight. Near as I can tell, that’s why the military trains the way we do- we put our leaders into positions where they have to answer the hard questions: do you accomplish the mission and rescue the wounded pilot or break contact and save your Troopers’ lives? You can’t ever predict exactly how you’ll respond in reality, but you can build pre-set patterns of behavior with your training.

  11. First: I can easily imagine letting the bad guy just one step closer, because maybe he is on autopilot, maybe he doesn’t realizing he’s getting closer, maybe he didn’t hear me … any number of rationalizations. I would have to set *myself* a black-and-white limit — the edge of the rug, corner fo the table, whatever, not just “5 steps, no 4, maybe 3”, and ignore whether I tell him that limit or think he has not quite understood me.

    Second: Defending some random stranger is not as easy as someone you know, because it’s easier to believe your acquaintance didn’t do anything to get into that bad situation. Of course, a stickup man at a gas station counter is a bit easier to diagnose; it’s a street situation you coem across unexpectedly where you have no background to really know who is the bad guy. Now if I knew I could get all involved to lay down on the ground and wait for the cops, it would be an easy decision. But what if one refuses, reaches for his pocket, comes towards you, gets behind a tree or car, etc? Do I really want to put myself in the situation of covering several potential bad guys by myself? It gets really difficult for a split second decision.

  12. I’d have no problem shooting. And my beautiful wife who taught self-defense to goofy white women wouldn’t either. You’re in my home especially…ever shoot anyone TTAG’ers?

  13. So this chinese policewoman doesnt seem too fazed by capping a guy who was holding a hostage…classic laugh after she kills him…

    • Colonel Grossman is/was a liar. It’s easy for a human being to kill. We have to drill aggression out of our young children and try to instill a conscience in them, not the other way around.

      • I think you ought to substantiate that. His research largely squares with my experience. Aggressiveness is not the same as killing. A lot of people will fight. Not many will kill, so long as they have any other option.

        • I think in most cases, there is no option. Woman vs. Manthug or old man vs. Manthug or young man vs. 3 Manthugs….you can’t option to hand to hand combat, wrestling skills, or your back-up. You only have one option because Manthug sets it up that way.

        • Cain and Abel!
          2nd generation people, 1st gen murderer.
          It’s innate in us by virtue of our sin nature.

      • Have you read the book, or other books on the topic of conditioning humans to kill? How about the studies that look at how many soldiers in warfare (especially before modern times) tended to not even fire their guns in combat? Aggression is natural. But unless you’re going to show me a terrifying experiment (Chicago doesn’t count) where you basically let kids grow up independent of any of our norms and they start killing each other off, your statement lacks much evidence.

        • I remember an article about WWII. Searched and could not find it. Comment was that the “company only had 2 or 3 real shooters.”

        • Hannibal, why on earth does Chicago not count? It provides the textbook example of conditions which make killing OK in the minds of young me: They gain approval from a subset of leaders and potential girlfriends. They keep turf and gain money.

  14. “If you haven’t given serious thought about when and whether or not you can use deadly force,…”. This needs more than serious thought. This question(s) must be answered. Then committed to for the rest of your life. Yeah, its THAT serious. When the moment comes, you’ll know what to do.
    Oh, I suppose one could decide to have a gun and to not shoot the rapist, but why bring your own gun for the rapist to turn it into a murder of convenience?

  15. At issue is the malleable mind. We are taught that killing is wrong and against the law. Step in a 18 year old training with Army or Marines and in 10-13 weeks you have a capable well controlled killer.

    Youngsters in Mexico see killing and its part of their culture, hand them a gun and coin, instant killer.

    Do I need force on force training, no I’ve had enough of that in the military. I will say this blog has done more for me evaluating the legal ramification of lawfully protecting myself.

    • This, I think, is essentially true. Fear of the law and reputational risk induce most young men to avoid crime, and murder. If killing were rewarded, encouraged, by the leaders and the women folk, young men will eagerly go forth to blood their spear or gun.

  16. My biggest fear:

    Will I do it if I’m in the situation to require it!? I know it will likely be fast and I hope I don’t get stuck in the ooda loop. Whatever happens I’m fairly certain it won’t happen like I’ve played out in my head and in my training.

    My second fear: that I linebacker tackle the guy instead of draw aim shoot. College fights taught me that I revert to my high school football days when in a confrontation. Effective in that circumstance—but not really advised for many many others.

    Two good reasons I need to do more better training when time and money allow.

  17. A lot of thoughtful commentary, a few internet hardasses. I’ll just say this: The vast majority of infantrymen won’t kill someone unless absolutely forced to, and often not even then. And these are young, tough, violent men who have trained extensively force on force, and are conditioned to be aggressive. The human resistance to killing another human is very great. There’s a small, small percentage of people who simply don’t have that resistance. But were I you, I wouldn’t count on being one of them. You won’t know until after it’s too late.

    Get your mind right now. Know what your red lines are. Train until it ain’t fun. And hope you never have to use that training. But if that day does come, do not hesitate, don’t say shit, don’t even pause to aim that little extra bit. Get on target, get on the trigger, and don’t stop shooting until the target stops twitching or the slide locks back. Hesitation is death.

    • “But if that day does come, do not hesitate, don’t say shit….”

      We were taught that in any situation except where one’s life is in immediate danger, giving a warning is required in Oregon.

      One gal in that class yelled “Armed citizen, motherfucker!” when it was her turn.

      • If you have your gun in your hand, your life better be in danger. If you have reason to draw your gun, you have reason to fire your gun. If you have reason to fire your gun, you have reason to fire it twice.

  18. I have thought about it a bunch (30 years or so). Won’t know for sure until the balloon goes up.

    I have taught my family to give order to an antagonist, look at their actions and ignore what they say. Stop means stop.

  19. He who hesitates often gets much worse than having to kill someone. Think Charles Manson, the BTK killer, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ottis Toole… you never know who is breaking into your home. You had better make the right decision.

  20. It is my experience that, when seriously pushed, most people are capable of some pretty serious violence. There are those that simply are not. However, most people who don’t resort to violence when logic dictates they should forgo said violence not because they are not capable of it but because they are stuck unable to make a decision due to fear or due to being totally out of their element.

    You can refer to this latter group as “incapacitated by fear” or “stuck in the OODA loop” or whatever but ultimately they seem to me to be incapable of making the decision of how to act. They know they should do something but what is that something?

    Interestingly to me you see something similar in martial arts that aren’t just striking where movement can be used to create options. Grappling, like BJJ, puts people into uncomfortable situations from which there are escapes but one must know those escapes. Movement is severely limited so when people get into a situation where they don’t know what to do the basically stop resisting and just kinda sit there. They know they should do something but they don’t know what it is. If you ask them about it they’ll tell you they were waiting for the other person to do something. Further questioning reveals that they were waiting for the other person to do something to which the response is known. They’ll tell you that they were waiting for the person who has the advantageous position to “give me something I can work with”. [This becomes somewhat amusing with two new people sometimes since one doesn’t know any more defense and the other doesn’t know any more attacks so they just sit there and neither does anything.]

    When you ask them why they didn’t just try something relatively basic to force their opponent to do something that might open up some options they’ll tell you it never occurred to them to do such a thing. They revert to what they know, which is “perfect defense” and then they just sit there until something familiar or relatively familiar comes along.

    “Pushing the envelope” isn’t something people do regularly without instruction on how to do so or at least instruction on how to think though how to do expand their options. Rare is the person who looks at the situation and says “Let’s see what happens if…” rarer still is the person who can sit there in a very uncomfortable situation and come up with a novel way to get out of it, which often as is simple as making the other person uncomfortable. That’s just my personal observation.

    • “They revert to what they know”
      Reminds me of the ‘superdud’ superbout in UFC, I think 4. Between Joyce Gracie and Ken Shamrock? Let’s just lie down on the canvas for 35 minutes and call it a draw?

  21. One never knows what they are truly capable of until the time of affirmation arrives. Some can’t even believe it afterwards.

    • In one aspect, you are correct. Sometimes a person can explode in furious anger and……. well you know the rest, but it’s true, A person can be surprised at the extent at which they can react. I’ve done in more than once. I’ve been astonished at how I reacted to someones insolence that was directed towards me. I’ve exploded like a pissed off wolverine on meth, surprising even myself. Afterwards you wonder, “where did that come from”
      Other folks, especially older males who have seen and done it, are dangerous. They have no qualms whatsoever of putting a hurting on someone. Be it a matter of right or wrong, life or death, whatever it is that violates that persons safety net and inner circle. The dangerous people will be the ones that have the ability and don’t care.

      • I’ve “exploded” only once back when I was 28 and I went to jail for it. I don’t like having an arrest record and in my personal experience losing control of my emotions almost always turns out badly…for ME.

        I’m an older guy now and Mother Nature is reminding me more and more that in spite of whatever I USED to be physically she still gets the last laugh. Remember Muhammad Ali ?

  22. Make everyone you encounter unscertain about whether you have tremendous indifference about the value of their life. I profess openly that all other’s lives aren’t worth half a wet tick turd (doesn’t even have to be true, just has to be an expensive lottery ticket). Wanna throw in negative value of threats or violence to that equation? Go ahead.
    Also, warning shots should be delivered to a perp’s bodily area that immediately causes their focus to shift to obtaining their own emergency care. Wanna play ‘test the line in the sand’? Hold this bath mat over your scrotal arterial bleed first. And shoot the lookout driver in the face, mf’s are too chiken sh_t to do the wet work, their lives get discounted. Either way, assume the perp brought help, assume the help brought help, assume secondary attack, tertiary attack, attack of troll law enforcement and abulance chaser lawyers who are all against you. Act accordingly.

  23. I’ve had this conversation with myself many times, it was always short and ended with “yep, I could kill a man or men without a second though or much trouble if they were out for my blood or that of my loved ones.” I’m not averse to blood, guts, ect and human life is a sliding scale thing to me with the position of any given person’s life on that scale being directly determined by how they interact with/treat me. Leave me alone and it’s live and let live, attack me and your life ceases to have any value to me.

  24. I’ve defended myself before and I’ll have no problems doing it again if I have to.

    And sure, I’ll defend your daughter — if she’ll pay my defense fees and my medical and hospital costs if I get hurt helping her.

    What? She’s not going to do that?

    Sorry, pal. It doesn’t work that way. She’s on her own.

  25. “………defending an innocent third-party is fraught with risk…”


    Though the desire to render assistance to someone in peril is strong in many of us the danger of becoming the target for both the attacker, the apparent “‘victim” and any of their associates/family members/friends nearby is a possibility. How many times have we heard reports of the tables being turned on a “good Samaritan” or member of law enforcement where the “rescuer” becomes the target of BOTH the attacker and “victim’s” anger?

    Best to reserve our good will and extend our protection to family, good friends, close neighbors and business owners/customers though if you see a child or female being forced into the back of van or trunk of a car it’s your decision whether to act immediately or gather “intelligence” (info) to provide to law enforcement.


    ALWAYS and I mean ALWAYS watch your 6 (back)!

  26. I’ll answer, using the words of our previous, glorious leader:

    “Not really…maybe…that’s classified.”

  27. I’ve had dreams where someone I care about is in danger and I never hesitated at all to put down the attacker. I’ve had dreams where there’s a rope swing and I check it to be sure it’s strong enough before using it.

    Dare I conclude from this that my subconscious is confident I won’t hesitate?

  28. Supposing, and only supposing, I ever killed anybody. The ‘switch’ went from off to on, there was no dimmer setting. I can not say how many see it in vid games today, in movies, on TV, best hope that is all you see. I was not the only one, more than a few of us were trained, muscle memory, while the rest of the brain looked ahead. As a civilian, after all these years? I may hesitate, but, I would not bet on it.

  29. You can run a million practice scenarios over and over in your mind but if you ever have to take a human life, that’s the one that will run over and over in your mind for the rest of your life. You may have to justify your decision to the police, prosecutors, a jury (or two), but most of all you have to justify it to yourself.

  30. It takes a “special” (supposedly unarmed) person to keep advancing on an intended victim who is pointing a loaded gun at them.

  31. I’ve mentally prepared myself for killing another human in self-defense. That being said, I don’t think anything can prepare me for the daily nightmares that will follow due to taking a human’s life.

  32. I think a better question is when will you initiate lethal aggression? Killing someone or something that threatens your life is basic; animals do it all the time. Will you kill over principles? Will you kill over threats that are real but are much less direct? Will you kill over taxes? Yeah taxes. Cuz America’s Founding Fathers did just that and for less than we pay now. And it was pre-penicillin, stab you in the heart w/ a bayonet kind of warfare. If tyrants or terrorists hid behind children to protect themselves and advance their cause would you kill those kids to get them?

  33. Is it training or where you are at that is the key. The me that just got out of the military is a far different person than the old man now. I’ve done violence but long ago. I have had a recent observation that my ability now is far different with the silver years. I’am well aware of not appearing to be a threat to anyone. But I know I carry a pistol more now, just being aware of my abilities. It used to be called situational awareness. I’ve got that for sure. God grant that my violence stays in my past.

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