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Rabbit Trail: What if it doesn’t lock open?

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” – John Muir

As I’ve said many times before, one of the challenges I face as a writer is knowing when to stop writing. Sticking with just one big idea per article can be a tough gig. That’s because, as John Muir observed, everything in the universe is hitched to everything else.

If you were a writer given an endless supply of time and reader patience, you would find that there’s always at least one more thing you could add to every single thing you wrote. Always. No matter what the subject, no matter where we start or where we intend to end up, there’s a truly endless list of possible rabbit trails we could explore.

A discussion of how to deal with guns that cannot lock open was one of the rabbit trails I firmly resisted while writing the Bullet Surprise article a few days ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. It is. Maybe I’ll write a longer piece on this subject later, but for now, here’s the skinny.

For guns that don’t have a slide lock lever, you have two options you can use when you need to check the gun’s unloaded status to be sure it really is empty:

Option 1

  • Remove full magazine.
  • Rack. Rack. Rack. As you rack, watch for the round from the chamber to come out of the gun. After it does, rack the slide at least twice more. (This is your double-check to be sure you remembered to remove the darn magazine.)
  • Feel the empty hole at the base of the magazine well to be sure there’s really truly no magazine hiding there. Never skip this step, since it’s astonishingly easy to miss seeing the magazine when you don’t expect it to be there, and since that’s where nearly all Bullet Surprises come from.
  • Hold the slide open by hand and (this is key!) really look into the chamber while you hold the slide back.

Note: Because there’s no backup to looking and seeing the chamber, you cannot  trust this technique in poor lighting. 1 This is not a minor problem. 2

Option 2

  • Remove full magazine.
  • Rack. Rack. Rack. As you rack, watch for the round from the chamber to come out of the gun. After it does, rack the slide at least twice more. (This is your double-check to be sure you remembered to remove the darn magazine.)
  • Grab an empty magazine. As you pick it up, use your eyes to look at the bare follower in the top of the magazine, and run your thumb across the feed lips to be sure that this magazine is really, truly not holding any rounds.
  • Insert the empty magazine. Then pull the slide to the rear, allowing the empty magazine to hold the slide open for you.
  • Drop the empty magazine. On guns of the right design for this trick, the slide will stay locked open.
  • Check both magazine well and chamber by sight and feel. Look to be sure the chamber is empty, then poke your pinky finger into it to be sure it’s an empty hole instead of a hidden round. Look to see light down the magazine well, then poke one finger into the well from the bottom to be sure there’s no magazine hiding in it.

Note: This technique is possible on some guns without slide lock levers, but not others. It just depends on whether the gun has an internal slide lock. Some guns use the magazine itself to hold the slide open, while others use the magazine only to engage the slide lock. In the latter type, the slide lock will keep holding the slide open even after you remove the magazine. It’s easy enough to check: on guns that won’t let you use this trick, the slide will fall forward the moment the empty magazine comes out. For those guns, use Option 1.

Ritual and reality

No matter which of the two options you choose, it’s important you build a solidly reliable habit of doing it just that way every time. The exact ritual you use to double check the gun’s status probably doesn’t matter much. 3 What does matter is that for the rest of your entire life, whenever you unload a gun, you’re never ever ever again going to let your brain relax until you have carefully checked to be sure your unloading process worked as you expected it to.

That’s the habit.

And it should be such a deep habit that it leaves you with a deep brain itch if you even think about skipping it.

Human nature being what it is, if you often switch between guns with and without slide lock levers, you will sometimes find yourself tempted to do things the lazy way when you’re unloading the one without the slide lock lever. You’ll be tempted to yank the slide back and just barely glance and go, without slowing down to really look or to carefully check everything. Because face it — both the options above are kind of a hassle and it’s just easier to take on faith that your extractor and ejector both did their jobs than it is to properly check.

Or maybe you’ll generally use the careful method. Just not always. Sometimes you’ll be tempted to glance and go “just this once.” And you’ll do it. It’s easy to forget how habit-forming “just this once” can be.

For that matter, even with a gun that easily locks open, you may run into something similar if you shoot a lot of competitions. It’s especially likely to happen if you sometimes feel impatient with the whole ritualized rigamarole that happens when you’re done shooting, like there’s this excited little voice inside your head saying, “Okay okay enough already, I’m done shooting so let’s go check my SCORE now now now come on let’s go!” And the risk gets even more intense if your club’s ROs often give off a similar hurried vibe, like maybe they’re impatient to get you holstered and scored so they can move to the next customer. Either way, that pressure means you might sometimes be tempted to barely glance-and-go rather than changing mental gears, slowing down, and really looking to be sure the gun is truly unloaded Every. Single. Time. Without. Fail. No exceptions!

Given the nature of human behavior patterns, any casual or sloppy approach to checking the gun’s status may come back to bite you in the foot some busy weeknight at home, when you don’t have anyone else looking over your shoulder to act as your second set of eyes while you unload the gun.

Good gun handling habits have to be just that: habits. It should take a conscious act of the will for you to do anything sloppy or rushed or half-hearted when you’re handling the gun. It should be hard work for you to take on faith that a gun is empty, even if you’ve just dropped the magazine and racked the slide. It should be much easier to check the gun’s status thoroughly, following your habit, than it is to do it any other way.

The only way you ever get to that point — or stay there! — is to deliberately build good habits, and then do the work it takes to keep those habits in place.


  1. Poor lighting isn’t just “in the dark,” though that was the phrase I used when addressing this one on Facebook. It also refers to times when the lighting is generally bright but also full of harsh shadows, or when it’s not safe to change the direction of the muzzle to get a ray of light into the area you need to see.
  2. And there’s another potential rabbit trail!
  3. As long as you do use one. And as long as it’s a true double check, and … there’s another long rabbit trail. But when the math teacher tells students to “check your answers,” the smart kids all work the problem from a different angle than the one they used the first time. They divide to check multiplication, or subtract to check addition. They don’t do the same thing again in the same way, because that’s not a true check.
Bullet Surprise and a bonus

Wrote a new article yesterday: How to Win the Bullet Surprise. Really owe a thank you to my son Timothy, who came up with a reasonably catchy title for it when I came up dry. You should probably go read it.

It’s hard for me to put up new articles. Not because there’s not a lot to say. On the contrary! Even after 15 years of studying this stuff, I still find new things to think about every single day. One reason I’m so taken with the entire field of firearms and self defense is because although it initially might seem a bit narrow, there’s always some new vista opening up just around the next bend. Always something new to learn, always some fascinating new way of looking at things we thought we knew, always something happening in the world that will stand everything you’ve been doing on its head and kick over the box that holds all your preconceptions. So it’s not that.

It’s just … well, there’s this little problem I have with perfectionism. The perfect article, I think, would always include everything that you or anyone might need to know about a given topic. I’m a detail person. I like details. But you know what? There’s just not enough time in the world to make that happen. The pixel mines don’t run that deep.  ;)

Never quite sure how much I can get away with when it comes to not-wrong but maybe-blurry approximations, either. I don’t like to do it, but sometimes in the interest of saving the poor overworked dwarfs laboring deep inside the pixel mines, I’ll resort to approximations anyway. Not incorrect, but … you know. Incomplete.

Here’s a case in point: the picture of the stovepipe malf in the new article. (Did I mention there’s a new article? You should go read it.) My inner perfectionist will probably need to  replace that picture, later. It beautifully illustrates a stovepipe, but … it’s a blurry approximation of what really happens. 1 There are nuances that didn’t make it into the picture.

Stovepipe malfunctions can be caused by a broken ejector.

In a modern polymer gun, a stovepipe doesn’t usually happen in quite this way.

A true stovepipe like the one shown in the picture really isn’t how Glocks and other modern polymers usually present the same symptom. Oh, sometimes they do. The picture isn’t outright wrong. Not really. Besides, we still call what they do instead a “stovepipe.” It just rarely looks like that. True stovepipes, with the case sticking straight up as shown in the illustration, are almost exclusively a 1911 thing. That’s why old timers say, “Oh, don’t bother with a tap, rack for a stovepipe! Just brush the brass off the top of the gun.” They could do that, reliably, with that style of gun because that style of gun produced that style of malfunction almost exclusively. Brushing it off was the obvious and easy fix.

But when a modern polymer does the same basic thing for the same basic reason, the case usually doesn’t stand up like that. It doesn’t look like a stovepipe sticking out of a log cabin’s roof. Instead it lies flat along the ejection port with its case mouth toward the muzzle end of the gun. You’ll still see visible brass on top of the gun, which still stops the slide from closing by clogging the ejection port area. Here’s the kicker, though: that sharp open mouth of the case will skin a very painful 9mm stripe of skin right off the palm of your hand if you try to “just brush the brass away” with that type of not-really-a-stovepipe-stovepipe malfunction.

Add to this that the art and science of defensive handgunning has come a long way in the past three and a half decades. We now know that it’s a lot more efficient and a lot more reliable to give people a single technique that they can build a lot of practice time with, that they can always use to clear the gun whether or not the lighting allows them to really see what’s going on, whether or not the situation allows them to take their eyes off the threat, whether or not they’re carrying this type of gun or the other type of gun, and so on. So most trainers no longer teach students to brush the brass away when there’s a stovepipe. Because our understanding of how people learn physical skills has advanced, and because we use many different types of guns that weren’t on the market before, it’s an obsolete idea now even though it was once best practice. 2

Could’ve added all that to the article. Or some of it. Maybe. But … well, one of the hardest truths any writer has to learn is this one: something can be the absolute best stretch of writing you’ve ever done in your life, about the most important subject you’ve ever addressed, and it can also at the same time still not belong in your current piece of work. That’s a tough fact to swallow.

Maybe I’ll revisit it another day.


  1. And not that you need to know this, but I’m kicking myself for using the wrong gun to show it in the first place. Since I wanted a stovepipe-stovepipe, I should’ve used a 1911. And I didn’t. But I was on the home stretch by the time I realized it was going to be a problem. I’d already taken all the other pics and tweaked them too and that was a lot of time spent, and besides I wanted it all to be a visually matched set so the readers didn’t get too lost in an article that was already annoyingly tech heavy, and by then I couldn’t take an entirely new set of pictures in the time I’d given myself, and the bottom line is, I was no way no how going to not finish yet another article, leaving it to clutter my hard drive and my psyche with all the unfinishedness of it. Again. No. Just no. So there we are; instead of obsessing about the perfection I couldn’t achieve, I went ahead and ran with what I had. But my inner perfectionist is still being a whiny little snot about it. Can you tell?
  2. Best practice now is tap, rack to both diagnose and clear any stoppage, followed by unload/rackrackrack/reload if tap, rack doesn’t do the job.
Give them what they want

This woman apparently believed that the criminal who approached her at the ATM wanted to steal her car. Which, he did.

But that’s not all he was after.

After he told her to get out of her car (she did), he told her to open her trunk (she did), and then he told her to get inside the trunk (she did).

And he drove away.

With her in the trunk.

Happy ending: she got away, later. Dude drove around for awhile with her trapped in the trunk, forced her to give him more information so he could steal more money from her at other ATMs, and eventually parked the car with her still in it. She was able to force her way out of the trunk to report the crime. 1

She was lucky. She wasn’t one of the rare crime victims who vanish without a trace. She wasn’t one of the 2000 Americans each year who go missing and are never found. 2

What can we learn, here?

As I’ve said in the past, the only thing worse than a scary, horrible event is a scary, horrible event nobody learns anything from. So let’s learn something from this one. In order to do that, I’m going to ask you to do something surprisingly tough: I want you to watch this video carefully, and think it through.

It’s the thinking it through that’s the hard part. If you’re anything like most people, you’ll feel a strong temptation to comfort yourself with denial, or with judgmentalism, or with soothing but unrealistic beliefs about … well, about a lot of things including your own natural and very normal behavior. You might want to make some kind of point in your head about how you could never be the innocent person in this video for whatever reason.

Avoid all that, if you can. Don’t shelter your ego or smother your best thoughts inside a comforting blanket of smug sympathy. Be brave and put it all on the table. Risk that kind of honesty with yourself.

As you get ready to watch the video, you may also need to remind yourself of some hard truths. Truths like this: sometimes bad things do happen, even in your own neighborhood. Sometimes, even smart, alert people — people just like yourself — do fail to see trouble coming. Sometimes even otherwise good and well-trained awareness fails. Accept those possibilities and admit these negative realities with an open mind but without fear. You’re doing this, not to discourage yourself or bring yourself down, but so that you can put yourself in the best place to learn. You want to see what’s happening in front of the camera from an honest position of gentle understanding about how it might happen that way… even to someone as smart as you are, even to someone who lives in a neighborhood as good as your own. Tell yourself that you will consciously be courageous enough to put yourself in this person’s shoes as you watch.

You can use the questions below as a jumping off place to explore your own thoughts. Please, don’t just shout at the screen with the “right” answer. Try instead to find the real answer, the one that fits your personality, that matches your daily lifestyle and everyday social patterns. The right answer for every single question I ask below is the one you can live with and that fits into your life or into the life you’re willing to live. That’s it and that’s all.

Just so you know, I’m not going to insult either one of us by telling you that there aren’t any wrong answers here. Of course there are. But here’s the twist: for this post, I am going to define “wrong” in a very specific way and it’s not what you think.

The wrong answer to every question below is a quiet little half-truth or a dodging denial. It’s the answer you give not because it fits you and the way you want to live, but because it’s more comfortable to say it that way. Maybe you say it because it’s what you would like to do, like a New Year’s Resolution that you won’t ever carry out. Or because you think it’s what you should do. No matter how good that thought might be, it’s the wrong answer because in your heart you know you probably wouldn’t really do it that way or be the kind of person who could do that. It just …doesn’t fit you, for whatever reason. 3 Those kinds of answers are wrong not because there’s no such thing as better or worse choices (there are but that’s a subject for another day). It’s just because you have to let go of the idealized dreams in order to fit better safety into your own real world.

In the beginning

First, at the very beginning of the recording, after you see the car on screen but before anything else really happens, freeze the frame and just look at the entire scene for a few minutes.

  • Which direction do you believe is most likely for a criminal to use if he wanted to approach a driver at this particular ATM? Why that direction? What are some reasons he might not come from there, and which other direction might be a good alternative?
  • If you were the criminal in this scene, where would you choose to stand while you waited for customers and potential victims to pull up to the ATM? How would you avoid alarming other people while you waited for your victim to come along? What would your hands be doing? Your body? Would you crouch and slink behind things so people didn’t see you at all, or would you be more casual and try to hide in plain sight?
  • Bring it home: based on your answers above, think about your own bank and the ATM you use most often. Which direction(s) do you think would be most likely to cause problems for people using your favorite ATM? What are some ways you could minimize your own risk of not spotting someone in that area when you approach the machine?

“Should’ve seen that coming…”

Next, play the video and freeze it at the moment you believe the driver should have seen the man approaching her car. Then let it play just until she does see him.

  • How close is the criminal when you think the driver should have seen him, compared to how close he was when she did see him? Why do you think she didn’t see him earlier? What things were distracting her or keeping her from seeing him?
  • If you were the criminal, how would you approach someone at a drive up ATM? What would your body language look like when you got close? How would you avoid alarming your intended victim before you were ready to act? How would you prepare to move first and move most quickly when you did attack?
  • Is it reasonable to expect that every pedestrian walking anywhere near an ATM while we’re using it actually has the intent to rob or attack us? If not, what are some ways we might predict dangerous intent?
  • Would it be realistic to expect her — or yourself, by extension — to simply drive away at the first moment she “should have” seen him, at whatever distance that was? … or when she does see him? (Would your answers change, if  your bank card was still in the machine when you spotted the potential criminal?)
  • If driving away early on isn’t a realistic answer for you, what would be a realistic and reasonable thing you would be willing to do when you first see trouble coming toward you, even before you know for absolute sure that it really is trouble? (Bonus: do your answers change if the potential criminal is a different race than you are? Would you respond more slowly if the person were someone who might take offense at you rolling up a window or giving them a hard look?)
  • Bring it home: how often do you spend a little time rearranging yourself, or settling down your kids, or making sure that you put your wallet back into the right pocket of your purse, or fixing your makeup or calling a friend or balancing the checkbook, before you pull out of a parking space? When you do those little tasks, how likely are you — really, truly likely — to have your head on a swivel so you’re consciously aware of events happening outside your car?

 Counting the cost

Let the video keep playing until the spot where the criminal is standing at the driver’s side window, pointing a gun directly at her head. Note that we do not have audio for this event and thus do not know what he said to her. We only know what we see happen next: she got out of the driver’s seat and into the trunk.

Watch that. Think about it.

This part is tough, and it’s going to get tougher. These are the questions no empathetic person really wants to ask herself. But for someone interested in self defense, they’re crucial.

  • When you see the criminal point the gun at the woman’s head, what’s the first thing that goes through your mind? Does it make you angry? Frightened? Disgusted? Do you instantly start thinking coulda-woulda-shoulda? Close your eyes for a moment and explore those thoughts and the feelings that go with them. Emotional reactions to danger are part of self defense, and sometimes they’re the reason people freeze up or don’t respond as quickly as they’d like to respond in a crisis. There’s no way to guarantee that a freeze won’t happen to you, but you may be able to reduce the size of the road block by exploring potential emotions beforehand so that you can put them in perspective.
  • According to Dr. Vincent J. M. DiMaio, former chief medical examiner in Bexar County, Texas, and the author of several books about gunshot wounds and forensic pathology, if you get shot and make it to the hospital with your heart still beating, there’s a 95% chance you’ll survive. 4 With that in mind, would you be willing to hit the gas and drive away if someone walks up to your window, points a gun at you and tells you to get out of your car? Would you be willing to do it instantly, without pausing to think about it?
  • If you did decide to drive away, would you realistically be able to do that quickly enough, if you were taken by surprise? Do you habitually keep the car in gear while you’re using an ATM from the driver’s seat? If not, is that a change you’d be able to fit into your life? Or is it realistically something you’re not going to change?
  • Related: if you are willing to drive away in order to get out of trouble and away from danger, are you willing to run somebody over in order to escape that way? Legally, deadly force is deadly force, whether it’s applied with a gun or with a motor vehicle. But as you think it through, you might find that you hesitate or balk at one of those ideas but not the other. Think it through.
  • Watch the video carefully. It’s a little tricky to picture the speed that things happen with all the stop-frame jumps, but do you think this woman would really have had time to draw a gun while she was in the driver’s seat with her seat belt fastened? Bring it home: have you ever practiced drawing from your everyday carry holster 5 while you’re seated … in a car … behind the wheel … with your seat belt on? If so, what do you think: would you realistically be able to get the gun up and in use fast enough or sneakily enough (or both) to avoid getting shot by the guy at the window?
  • If drawing isn’t an option, and driving away won’t work for you, what’s your next best plan? Would you be willing to get out of the car? Would you be willing to risk staying in the car? (Does your answer change if family members are with you?)
  • If you did get out of the car, would you immediately run to get away from the area, hoping that the attacker would stay with the car instead of following you? If so, how good are you at sprinting and how far can you sprint? 6 Would you be tempted to maybe run ten steps, then stop and look back to see what happened?
  • Related: have you ever practiced drawing the gun 7 from your regular carry holster while you’re running? This one might be an especially critical concern if you carry in a nonstandard location such as in a purse, or on your ankle, or in a thigh holster, or in a shapewear based holster — and it might be completely pointless to even discuss it if you often leave the gun at home.

Final thought on this whole thing. Runs through some very personal territory indeed. For me, for myself, a long time ago I decided that I’d rather take a bullet at close range or catch a shot in the back while running away — and perhaps die bleeding right there on the spot — than to embrace a futile hope and risk a slow death by torture in a secluded location. 8 That’s the bargain being offered by the gruff command to get in the trunk: fight death now, or face torture later.

Which would you choose?


  1. You can read the Arlington PD press release by clicking “more” on the information line of the embedded video’s YouTube page.
  2. Not wanting to leave you with a distorted understanding of either the odds or the stakes in events like this, let’s put some numbers in perspective. According to NCIC, over 600,000 people get reported missing every year in this country — that’s around 50,000 every month and more than 1700 missing people every single day. Most of the missing people are underage children, and nearly all of those are taken by relatives in custody disputes or similar circumstances. But “most” isn’t the same thing as “all.” The FBI usually has around 85,000 active cases of missing people open at any given time, and there’s a pretty steady turnover of those cases. So in the big picture, out of a much bigger pool of possibilities: only 2,000 of the people who go missing this year will never be found. Almost all of the ones who disappear forever will be cases like this one, though a few may be undetected car accidents in remote areas and similar things. Take from that what comfort you can.
  3. Funny part is, I can’t even see your face and won’t ever know what your answers were, so who would you really be fooling with one of those?
  4. Quote from New York Times, “One Bullet Can Kill, but Sometimes 20 Don’t, Survivors Show,” published April 3, 2008 and written by John Eligon.
  5. Using a dummy gun first, please!
  6. Friend of mine is a firefighter who thinks it’s ridiculous that so many firefighters run marathons. “You need to run out of a burning building, you need to sprint,” he says. “It’s anaerobic and you need fast twitch muscles to do it. We should all be running wind sprints, not jogging.”
  7. Using a dummy gun first, please!
  8. It’s not the worst of these cases, not by a long shot, but if you want an example of the type of outcome that haunts my personal dreams, Google the name of Meredith Emerson — a woman who fought back barehanded and did her very best to survive. Then read the transcript of the detectives’ interview with her killer, and ask yourself which door you’d rather use when you exit this world.
Awkward Conversations

One of the things that most bothered me when I was a new gun owner was this idea I had that all my friends were judging me for it. Maybe it’s easier for new shooters now, since so many more women own guns than they did back then, and because so many more states have good concealed carry laws than they did back then. Or maybe not; some social situations never seem to change.

Anyway, I had this feeling that all my friends would hate me if they found out that I liked to shoot. Even though it later turned out that many of my friends were completely supportive of the whole thing, some weren’t. So my fears weren’t completely groundless.

Not too long after I started writing about my armed lifestyle, a friend and I were taking a road trip together. We hadn’t really talked about it much, but I knew she knew about my firearms because she’d seen one of my articles in a magazine at my house.

As we got into the car, she said — did I hear a note of scorn in her voice? — “I expect you’re carrying your gun, huh?”

Well, yes. I was. But it wasn’t something I really wanted to advertise. On the other hand, we were going to be spending three days together, and … I’m not all that fast at thinking on my feet. So I just nodded.

She nodded back and started the car. Didn’t say anything else. I breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe it would be okay.

A few miles later, I was looking out the window when she suddenly asked, “So who are you going to shoot?”

“Uh, what?” Maybe I didn’t hear that.

“I said, ‘Who are you going to shoot?'”

“Shoot?” Maybe if I play dumb, she’ll drop it.

“Yeah, shoot. That’s what guns are for, right? Shooting people. So who are you going to shoot?”

Oh boy. This is awkward. “Nobody, I hope.”

Silence. Was she rolling her eyes? I couldn’t tell. She was driving, after all. We both kind of stopped talking for awhile. I was worried that I was about to lose a friend. And … well, we were about to spend three days together in the car. That’s a lot of awkward silences to fill!

More silence.

Maybe ten or fifteen minutes later, after I’d decided that she probably wouldn’t pursue it after all, my friend kind of sighed. Then she said, “Kathy, I really do want to know. You carry a gun. You have to have a reason to carry it, and the only thing I can think is that you’re carrying it because you’re going to shoot someone. So — who are you going to shoot? And why?”

And at that point, I realized that what I had felt as her complaining or judging was actually just … looking for information. In a really awkward and socially scary way. The conversation that followed was really good, and very thoughtful. We talked about guns, yes, but we also talked about husbands and children, about safety and life choices, about morals and ethics and law.

That wasn’t the first time I had an initially-awkward conversation with a friend about guns. Nor the last, by any means! But it was maybe the first time I realized that my feelings (of defensiveness about my choices) were getting in the way of helping my friends make some smart choices of their own. That’s when I decided that I’d figure out some good ways to answer some common but awkward questions, and maybe even write those answers down so I could remember to use them when someone asked. 1

My first answer to my friend’s question, about who I might shoot, was deeply true. Nobody, I hope! But the longer answer is that I’m willing to use the gun to defend myself if I’m ever in a situation where there’s an immediate, otherwise unavoidable danger of death or grave bodily harm to an innocent person. There’s a world of great conversations (and some important legal concepts) tucked into that one brief sentence. So much information that people really want and need to know. So much deepening of friendships in exploring the ideas there.

But I had to be brave and step past my own social fears before any of those great conversations could happen.


  1. This website came about partly because of that decision.

As armed citizens, our job is to stay safe and keep our loved ones safe. That’s the core of self defense. It’s not about justice, it’s not about fairness, it’s not about what anybody “deserves.” It’s just about staying safe and keeping our loved ones safe.

Capturing criminals is not your job. (Of course you already know this! But bear with me… there’s a point coming shortly.) You might, incidentally, catch an offender for the cops or send a real bad guy to the morgue while you’re defending yourself, but apprehending lawbreakers really isn’t your job. We cheer when it happens, but we also know it’s not the real goal. It’s just a sometimes-this-happens positive side effect of good people protecting themselves from violent crime.

By the same token, protecting your life, or the life of any other individual person, really isn’t the cops’ job, no matter what it says on the side of the car. Their actual job is simply to catch people who have broken the law, and bring those people in front of a judge. The officers might, incidentally, protect you from harm when they catch a particular bad guy, but as the courts have repeatedly found, protecting you is not their job. 1 We cheer when it happens, and every good cop loves to save lives, but that doesn’t mean it’s the primary job. It’s not. It’s just a sometimes-this-happens positive side effect of the police enforcing the general orderliness of society by catching criminals.

When someone builds their mindset, tactics and training around giving bad guys what they “deserve,” that’s bad. It’s not bad for some snooty moral reason, but because it puts the focus in a dangerously bad place. That misplaced focus on doing the cops’ job means that all too often they neglect their own job of staying safe and protecting the people they love.

Emotionally satisfying but tactically unsound, this misplaced focus makes good people more likely to fail, more likely to die, more likely to hurt people they don’t want to hurt.


  1.   A nuance here: cops who want to keep their commissions do have a “duty to act” to save lives where possibleAnd good people in law enforcement (there are many!) take their oaths to serve and protect very, very seriously indeed. Still, you as a private citizen have no reasonable expectation that any officer or agency will protect you personally, nor can you sue them or fire them for failing to save you if something criminally horrible happens to you — even if it happens right in front of them, even if you called for help and they didn’t lift a finger to help you because it was shift change, even if your neighbors told them repeatedly that there was an intruder who had trapped you in your home and that you needed to be rescued, even if you called 911 again and again, for hours, as your friends were being beaten and raped to death and you were sure you were going to be next, even if you had a restraining order that they failed to enforce and the violator of that restraining order killed your babies while the cops failed to do anything about what was happening. My law enforcement friends get cranky when bloggers take the shortcut of saying “it’s not the police’s job to protect you,” because they know they are required to act — by the agency and the terms of their employment and almost always by the strict wording of the black letter of the law in their jurisdiction. They know they’re not allowed to just drive on by when there’s trouble and that they’ll be in deep stink if they do. And they do take those oaths to heart. But. The courts have repeatedly said to private citizens, even in the most horrible of instances: Forget about all that. You’re on your own. Protecting you, individually, isn’t their job.
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American Ninja Warrior

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance. It is the illusion of knowledge.” ~ Stephen Hawking

There I was, sitting in a friend’s living room with a group of people watching a television show called American Ninja Warrior. The show features buff young people working through a series of increasingly tough obstacle courses that obviously take a lot of upper body strength, physical coordination and athleticism to complete.

As we watched yet another competitor lose his grip on the upside-down climbing wall thing — after first defeating the swinging rope stage, the jump-for-the-spinning-styrofoam-thing stage, and the stage where contestants used an unattached gymnastics bar to swing themselves upward on a ratcheted ladder — people in the room were both cheering and groaning.

“Aw MAN!” shouted one of my friends as a competitor failed and plunged into the water below the obstacle. “I could do better than that fool. How hard could it be?”

Then he took another swallow of his beer and settled himself more comfortably into his well-worn end of the couch.

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Count the Cost

Here we have the story of an Indiana man who used a firearm in response to a home invasion, and was criminally convicted for it. (Read the story and an earlier account with more quotes.)

This is where politically-focused gun sites (there are a few of those, aren’t there?) start ranting about the unfairness of the system, the wrongness of convicting someone who’d never done anything criminal before, and the political implications of coddling thieves at the expense of homeowners and small business owners.

Not my focus here. Because frankly? Learning to defend yourself with a firearm isn’t about politics. Oh, of course I’m in favor of good people having guns that they can use to protect themselves and their families. And I’m equally against laws that make it more expensive, more difficult, more elite to carry a gun. Self defense is a basic human right that should be equally available to everyone, no matter how much money you have or don’t have, and no matter what kind of neighborhood you live in. The right to stay alive is not just for rural rednecks. It belongs to everyone.

Nor am I going to second guess the choices this man made in the heat of the moment. Of course we could do that. It’s easy to pick apart news accounts with imaginary blow by blows. We could talk about the ethics of shooting someone as they’re running away, or about the physical, practical difficulty of hitting a moving target. We could discuss the importance of being sure of your target and what’s beyond it — which was one of the things that landed this man in legal hot water. 1

But instead of all that, I want to focus on this one heartbreaking sentence from the linked news article. Here it is:

The defendant …said after firing the gunshots he “prayed to God” his bullets had not struck their intended target.

 People, if you’re going to carry a gun at all, you owe it to yourself and to your family to count the entire cost of doing that. Good outcomes and bad ones. Don’t indulge in fantasy. Think it through, thoughtfully and maybe even ruthlessly. Think about evil, had-it-coming-to-him thugs … and also about emotionally disturbed people, teenage attackers, maybe the neighbor’s drug addicted grandkids. Think it through. You don’t get to choose who your attacker might be or what the circumstances might be. The only hope you have of getting it right in the heat of the moment, under life threatening stress, is to think it through as much as you can beforehand.

Are you willing — are you really willing? — to outright kill someone in order to protect your life?

Under what circumstances?

Under what circumstances would you hold fire, even at the cost of your own life?

If you haven’t thought through these ideas and aren’t willing to ask yourself the hard questions, a deadly weapon isn’t the right tool for you… because you never want to be standing over a dead body, praying for a do-over that life won’t give you.


  1. It turns out that the Four Rules are rules to live by even during life threatening encounters, and not just a mantra we chant on calm days at the range.
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Greedy scoundrels, part 2

You want to know what motivates me, as an instructor? You want to know why I say you should get some good training, and repeat it on a regular basis? It’s not money and it’s not just self-serving twaddle.

Here it is. It’s that I don’t want you to become this guy. Or this woman. Or this one. Don’t want you to have to explain something like this to your child.

You should know how to live with the gun safely. You definitely don’t want to become one of the people here.  When you have a gun in your home, you should definitely know how to handle the gun at home as well as on the range.

But as far as using it on the range? I certainly don’t want you to become an internet laughingstock, like this guy did. (Who should get full credit for being brave enough to put his story up, as should this one.)

Nobody should ever laugh at your incompetence like they laugh at these women. Nor should anyone be laughing anyway, because of how dangerous that stuff is.

If you ever teach someone else to shoot, even casually, you should know how to avoid this. If you teach other people to shoot, you should know how to avoid this, too.

As far as self defense goes, I don’t want this horrible thing to happen to you. And if you ever do have to defend yourself, I don’t want this to happen.

There aren’t any guarantees in life, and sometimes bad stuff happens to good people. You know this — that’s why you’re here, after all! — but sometimes we forget how fast the bad stuff can happen. Sometimes we don’t realize how sudden violence can be. None of us are born with all the strategies we might need to avoid it, and that’s why we learn from other people.

So if a crime does happen to you, I want you to know what to do about it. You should have both the information and the skills it takes to survive and prevail during a violent crime.

Training isn’t for ninjas. It’s for real people, ordinary good people with boring ordinary lives who love their families and just want to stay safe.

So that’s my goal: to help you be as prepared as you can reasonably be to survive an unexpected encounter. You should be able to survive the tough stuff, and help your family survive it too.

That’s why I recommend good training, regularly repeated.