4 Hard Truths of Defensive Shooting

by Keith Coniglio

"Defensive gun use." It's a pretty dry, almost clinical phrase, but with heavy connotations. While there are many reasons to own a gun, those of us who carry them do so as insurance against violent attack. Unfortunately, many of us haven't considered the reality of that kind of violence, confusing recreational or competitive shooting with the reality of an aggressive stranger suddenly closing into "bad breath distance," with intent to do bodily harm.

Force-on-force training can give us a taste of this with simulated ammunition, shoot/no-shoot scenarios with live "actors," and actual physical contact. Like an inoculation, it introduces your brain and body to a weakened version of a dangerous threat, allowing you to develop and strengthen your natural ability to defend against the real thing in the wild. But even such training has its limitations. Unlike a real encounter, range safety rules must still be followed and neither instructors nor students would benefit from having to continue the course with an actual stab wound.

It's worthwhile to consider some of the hard truths about the reality of violence and the holes in our skills and plans. Some of them can be mitigated by training as mentioned above. Some fall into "suck it up, buttercup" territory and we can only hope our best is good enough.

Truth #1: It's Not the Range

Whether practicing on our own or getting professional instruction, our training still involves a range and range rules. In an actual encounter, you'll be operating in a very different world. For starters, you likely won't see it coming. Many violent encounters include an interview process during which time you'll be probed to see if you're a good target. Other times, as dozens of videoed "knockout game" assaults illustrate, attacks have no precipitation. Your first clue is a sucker punch to the head.

If you are blindsided in such a manner, expect to be disoriented. Just because you aren't knocked out, doesn't mean you won't have had your bell rung. Further, it might not be a fist that connects — bottles, clubs, bricks, rocks are possibilities, and head wounds bleed profusely even when the injury itself isn't serious. If you haven't bled like that before, it can be shocking; whether or not you have, it can interfere with your vision if the blood reaches your eyes.

Speaking of eyesight, you'll have no eye protection unless you're already wearing glasses — and those might be damaged or lost in the initial attack. Look at any video footage of an indoor shootout and you may see what looks like "gunsmoke" hanging in the air. It's not — it's drywall and/or ceiling tile dust from bullet impacts, waiting to drift into your unprotected eyes. Your own gun will contribute to this debris field, spitting out hot gas and particles from ejection ports or cylinder gaps. It will also provide vision-impairing muzzle flash that you likely have never seen before unless you've engaged in low-light/no-light training.

Oh - you'll also have no hearing protection, so congratulations on your new permanent hearing loss, especially if the shooting occurs indoors.

This all assumes you are even able to free up your weapon. Defensive gun use is predicated upon defensive gun access. In the interest of safety, most ranges — indoor or outdoor — actually prohibit patrons from shooting from the draw. This, at least, can be practiced at home (with an UNLOADED firearm), but how many of us do? It's an eye-opening experience, especially when you add a winter coat. For more entertainment, try to do it with winter gloves.

Truth #2: Your Body May Betray You

We all respond to acute stress differently, both from each other and between incidents. You may do everything exactly right or you may fumble your way into disaster. The effects of stress and the rapid release of adrenaline can cause a variety of unexpected — and unhelpful — physical and cognitive limitations.

You may experience tunnel vision, losing peripheral vision as your brain focuses intently on the immediate threat and blood moves from your head to large muscle groups.

You may lose fine motor control, becoming unable to coordinate the small muscles needed to operate safeties and slide releases.

You may also experience auditory exclusion, resulting in temporary loss of hearing or merely "selective deafness" in which only certain things can be heard.

You may even experience memory loss, never being entirely certain of what was said or done during the attack.

In practical terms, you may end up deaf and partly blind, with flippers for hands and an inability to think straight. And that's without being injured.

This isn't a measure of toughness or "calm under fire," it's a reflexive, physiological reaction. It's out of our control, and our brains may serve us up a different chemical cocktail each time. As investment firms include in their fine print, prior performance is no guarantee of future returns.

I had intended to go into greater depth on this subject, until I came across this article from Chris Hernandez, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a police officer for twenty years, and was deployed as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. It sums things up far better than I ever could, and I highly recommend that you read and absorb it.

Truth #3: You Won't Know the Situation

Once again, this is not the range. Your experience in competitive shooting is irrelevant - there will be no stage walk-through here. Unlike during your force-on-force training, you won't be subconsciously primed that "something is guaranteed to happen." Despite our best efforts, we all have our Condition White moments. Violent criminals are predators and, like any predator in nature, they wait for opportunities to reap maximum reward for minimal risk. Odds are good, your encounter will occur because you let yourself get behind the curve, no matter how briefly.

You may not know how many attackers you're really facing, or where an armed partner is stationed if needed. Even if your attacker has "friends" in your proximity, you cannot say how many of them are threats — a very legal distinction in the case of deadly force. In short, you might be able to estimate the size of the audience, but the size of threat will be an unknown.

Not every attack happens in a quiet walkway or deserted section of a park. Sometimes, they happen in the midst of dozens of people unaware what's happening to you — or merely unwilling to get involved — and bullets have a bad habit of retaining momentum after exiting an assailant. You won't know who, if anyone, might be at risk when you fire until you are about to pull the trigger.

You won't be able to predict the behavior of anyone you're with at the time. Children may grab your arm in fear, interfering with your draw. A companion, underestimating the seriousness of the situation, may attempt to step between you and your assailant. Returning to our "try drawing with gloves" scenario, imagine you are surprised by two men, armed with knives, while you're walking your ADHD canine … while bundled up against winter weather … while standing on ice.

Life is full of endless variations. Don't get fixated on "training scenarios" but, rather, learn to be flexible and to make quick assessments.

Truth #4: You're Going to Need Help

Full disclosure: I write for Second Call Defense, not because "they let me," but because they understand this last truth better than most. Everything I'm about to mention is addressed by their services and I respect them for it. Where they specifically address an issue, I've linked to the page — and I strongly recommend you take the time to read through it.

Surviving the violence of a defensive gun use doesn't just mean "not dying." What begins as a relatively brief struggle can go on for weeks, if not years, as you deal with the injuries you may sustain; the cost of legally defending yourself against criminal charges; the reality of having to have blood, brains, and bullet holes to clean up if the shooting occurred in your home; and the psychological trauma inflicted on yourself and any family members present at the time.

Don't try to do any of this alone. It does not make you heroic; it makes you stupid, it exacerbates each potential challenge along the way, and it extends your victimization long after the smoke clears.

When the police show up, expect to be treated like a criminal. If you haven't called, they may have gotten no more information than "active shooter." If you have called, they still won't know the back story or that you're "the good guy," and they won't want to hear about it. Do not have your gun in your hand when they arrive. Comply with all orders. Do not make any statements aside from requesting a lawyer. Trying to think through all of this during the head-spinning aftermath of a defensive shooting is virtually impossible. Make use of resources to develop a plan now to minimize potentially disastrous mistakes in the moment.

This leads to the next critical piece of advice: have a lawyer. Remember the effects of stress and adrenaline? You may state unequivocally that you fired five rounds — but you actually fired twelve. If this is brought up before a jury, it will sound like a lie — and they may wonder what else you're lying about. If you state that you were confused and disoriented, it will call into question your judgment. Maybe you weren't in the danger you claimed when you fired in self-defense. Don't be rude, but let your lawyer do all your talking.

Expect to be exposed. Your gun may or may not be returned, but it will almost certainly be logged as evidence until you're cleared and your local laws may result in surrendering all firearms you own. Your name and address are also likely to become public knowledge, and you may find reporters — or friends of your assailant - taking an interest in that information. Don't deal with the fear and insecurity. Ask a trusted friend or relative if you — and your family - can stay with them for the short term.

If the shooting took place in your home, it will be a crime scene. There will be damage from gunshots, and biological residue that may have to remain until the scene is released. At that point, you will be looking at dried blood and other matter embedded in the walls, floor, carpet, and/or furniture. There are "biohazard remediation" companies, professionally certified to perform crime scene clean up. Find one and have the work done, as quickly as possible, for both your physical and psychological well-being.

This brings me to our last point. No matter what, get counseling. Even if you did everything right, escaped unscathed, and were hailed a hero by local police and prosecutors, a violent encounter is traumatic and can leave long-lasting scars. You'll not only be dealing with the primary trauma of the attack, but the secondary trauma of social response. People will look at you differently. Some will want every detail, making you relive it; others will withdraw from you, making you feel like a pariah. If you have children who witnessed the events, they'll be dealing with it all as well, but without the adult emotional toolset. They may have nightmares; they may have an unexpected response to violence in movies or first-person-shooter video games.

Seek out and accept support, and consider that Second Call Defense offers plans that can help with all of these needs.

It's my sincerest hope that these "hard truths" will remain nothing more than a mental exercise — a hopefully interesting read and point of conversation, but nothing more. However, several thousand concealed carriers have that mental exercise become deadly reality each year and find themselves living through the nightmare of fighting for their lives and dealing with the aftermath.

Perhaps the final hard truth is, "It's going to happen to one of us — and it might be me." Prepare accordingly.

Keith Coniglio is a father, software tester, NRA-certified pistol instructor, and devoted Second Amendment advocate. He is also the editor-in-chief of Descendants of Liberty Press, a site dedicated to rekindling Americans' passion for — and defense of — their Constitutional rights and personal liberty.