Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Speaking of guns...

Gonna change things up a bit, try to cleanse the palate. I want to talk a while about the proper use of handguns in personal defense. I'll try to avoid the question, my answer to which I telegraphed in a recent post, about whether using guns to defend yourself is at all acceptable. I'm going to assume it is for the sake of the argument--the Just War tradition is enough of a precedent for these purposes--and that it's legal in your state and town. Throughout this post you may be motivated to contemplate whether using guns in self defense should be done at all; this question is a good one to try to answer for yourself before leaping into the fray, but first, ask yourself if it's effective self-defense you may be unwilling to engage in, or do you just have a distaste for guns? If the former, I hope you came to that realization before you got a gun and were facing down an attacker; if the latter, I hope you have a black belt.

Before I get to guns, allow me to pass on some advice given to me by a few people I know who have had some training in personal defense. Before you even worry about packin' heat, there are two things everyone can do to minimize the likelihood of becoming a target.

The first is to practice positive situational awareness. The nature and degree of your alertness may depend a bit on your circumstances, but always try to be aware of what's going on all around you. Who's nearby? What are they carrying or wearing? If one of them starts causing trouble, am I near easy egress or some cover, so I can slip away or hide? If I'm getting sized up or picked out as a target, can I do anything to dodge this unwanted attention or protect myself? Does anyone else here seem to be thinking the same thing? Does anything else seem out of place? Does anyone look suspicious?

Don't worry if it seems like a lot of questions to keep in mind. Usually you don't have to go beyond "Who's around me and where are they?" when you're walking down the street; if you habituate yourself, the others will come to mind when appropriate. I'm not saying you need to be paranoid, even alarmed, all the time. Just take it all in and casually keep track of it, like how you should watch out for other traffic and pedestrians when you're driving. You don't even have to react; most people aren't criminals whether they stand out or not, which leads to the second thing you can do.

You can make it apparent that you are paying attention to your surroundings. When you see someone, go ahead and make eye contact, but don't hold it--staring seems threatening--and comport yourself as if you're not threatened by anything around you: you're not overly casual, which would make you an easy target, but you're alert and relaxed and you're not looking for trouble. When asked what kind of people they'd target for mugging, killing, raping, convicts consistently cited folks who appeared clueless or timid or both, regardless of size, build, appearance, age, race, and gender (well, maybe not for rape).

When it comes to using guns, remember that they are deadly weapons, and lethal force is generally not appropriate for defending property. I heard a story about a cop whose policy was, in the case of a break-in, to wait at the top of the stairs with a shotgun and warn the intruders that they could take whatever they wanted before help arrived, but if they came up to where the bedrooms were, things would get ugly very quickly.

Shooting someone is a gravely disordered act. Grave disorder isn't the same thing as sin, though, so you may be justified in doing so when you're reasonably confident that you or your charges will be harmed or killed if you do not act first.

I said "reasonably," not "absolutely." There's no way to be absolutely certain that someone is going to shoot you until he pulls the trigger, and by that time, it's probably too late. You don't have to wait until you're bleeding to death to try to save your own life or the lives of your family members; then, it would probably be too late again.

You might not have to shoot, however. It's possible that drawing a gun is enough of a deterrent. I wouldn't count on it, but if all you know is that someone's in your house, you don't want him to get the drop on you, and if all he wants is your TV, he's not going to be interested in dramatics. Indeed, a burglar who hears you yell from upstairs "I've called the police and I'm armed!" especially if he hears you rack a shotgun, may surprise you with the speed of his departure.

Still, don't count on it. Like I said above, firearms are deadly weapons. Don't carry one if you're not prepared to use lethal force, and don't take it out unless you think lethal force would be warranted. Your purpose isn't to kill, your purpose is to stop him from killing you; his death may be justified under double effect, since his life is proportional to yours, and force sufficient to kill him is necessary to prevent him from exerting force you believe will kill you.

Some people, in the interest of not appearing bloodthirsty or due to incomplete acceptance of what wielding lethal force means and what it requires (and what may require it), may suggest or admit to firing a warning shot, or shooting someone in the leg to incapacitate them. These sentiments are well-intended, but profoundly foolish on multiple levels.

First, if you fire a warning shot, what are you shooting at? Not the intruder. Up into the air? The bullet will come down with the same speed that it left the barrel. Into a wall? Better hope the wall's thick if you're not using hollowpoints, or you might be hitting people in the next room. The floor or something else hard? The bullet might ricochet or fracture, going who knows where. Off in the distance, past the intruder? Better hope there's no one downrange, just out of sight.

If this guy's not intimidated by the sight of a gun, which is common in habitual criminals who've been shot before, especially if they're hopped up on drugs beyond all reason or awareness of pain, he's not going to be impressed by the fact that you're willing to waste a bullet making a big, scary noise. You didn't show him you're not afraid to use it; all you did was show him that you're reluctant to use your weapon for its intended purpose, which means you're a much softer target than you appeared before you fired. If you just missed him, or if he thinks your warning shot was just a near miss, don't wait for him to make the next move; if he's not scared off, you don't want to give him the chance to start shooting back or take your gun.

Second, if you fire away from the perpetrator or try to shoot him in the leg, from a legal standpoint you're saying that you felt using a lethal weapon was appropriate, but actually using lethal force was not. If you're not in a position where putting a perp on the ground is necessary, then taking out your weapon in the first place is a clear and dramatic overreaction. Once you draw your gun, there are only two proper resolutions: you incapacitate him, or he runs off before you get the chance; no theatrics that allow him time to evaluate strategies for retaking the upper hand, no trying to use a lethal weapon contrary to its legal purpose (which is a standard even cans of spray paint are held to).

Shooting someone in the leg might not even stop an assailant. He'll probably go down, but if he's used to the pain, the two arms he has left would still be more than enough to shoot you back, and it's a risk you don't want to take. Ask any seasoned cop, especially one from a city with a gang problem, and he or she probably has at least one good story about "bullet sponges," people who have taken a lot of bullets--even to the head and chest--but just don't go down

Further, if you shoot him in the thigh, you've got a decent chance of hitting the femoral artery, or of breaking the femur, which itself is liable to lacerate the femoral artery (a broken femur may be the only "hurry case" in first aid involving a broken bone because of the likelihood of severe internal hemorrhaging from such a laceration), so your attempt to wound rather than kill may backfire: because of these dangers from a thigh injury, it might be interpreted by the authorities that you weren't trying to stop your attacker (since a shot to a limb is often not immediately incapacitating), but were to give him a mortal wound instead of subduing him.

Finally, some studies show that only 30% of bullets in a gunfight hit their target, even in close quarters with shooters aiming at center of mass. If you're aiming at a smaller target, you're going to be even less likely to hit it, especially if he's walking or running. With the chaos of the confrontation and your adrenaline and the recoil, don't count on having an accuracy anywhere close to what you might achieve under slow fire conditions at your friendly neighborhood shooting range; if you aim for center of mass and miss, you're still more likely to hit some part of him, and while a gunshot to the leg isn't great, it's more effective than nothing.

If you're not prepared to use your gun when you need it, don't even carry it. The last thing you want is someone frisking you, finding it, and shooting you with it. You really don't have to be bloodthirsty, but it's not some game; your mugger isn't a schoolyard bully you can escape by wit or brown-nosing. If I'm asked for my wallet at gunpoint, I'll let him have it; if my wife is told to get in the car with him, I'll let him have something else.

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