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Staying Alive

In Ohio this week, a woman defended herself from an attempted abduction by two men — one of them armed with a baseball bat. You can read the whole story here, or watch the video below.

Lots of lessons in this one. Here are a few things you might consider.

1) While many dog owners rely on their animals to keep dangerous people at bay, that doesn’t always happen. In this case, the woman had a big dog — it looks like a chocolate lab in the video — and yet the criminals still approached her. Some criminals aren’t afraid of dogs, which means smart dog owners always have a back up plan for personal safety.

2) Walking paths in urban and suburban locations are often “fringe areas.” This means it’s someplace relatively private, but also has a steady trickle of potential victims for criminals to choose from. Whenever you’re in a fringe area, you should work to remain especially alert to changes in your surroundings and the behavior of other people you see while there.

3) Many potential attackers will flee at the first sign of effective resistance. In this case, drawing the firearm and saying, ‘I have this and I’m not afraid to use it’ was enough to make the criminals run off. Simply drawing the gun was apparently not enough; she also had to verbalize her willingness to use the gun if she needed to.

4) From the article, I can’t tell whether she called police right away. She definitely should have called 9-1-1 just as soon as the incident was over and she was in a safe place. If a situation is serious enough that you need to take your gun out of your holster, it’s also serious enough that you need to take your phone out of your pocket to report it. It’s not just more defensible if there’s a question later, it’s also the right thing to do for the sake of your community. To keep your corner of the world safer, always report crimes committed against you as soon as it’s safe for you to do so.

And here’s the big one:

5) THIS IS A WIN!! No mess, no fuss, no paperwork — and the good person went home unharmed. She did exactly as much as she needed to do in order to go home safe to the people she loves. That’s a win.

That last point is a difficult one to accept. Emotionally, we want self-defense to be about justice. About fairness. About taking out a less-than-human monster who “has it coming to them.” We want it to be about someone who “needed killing.” But it is not.

It’s just about staying alive. It’s about staying on your feet and able to breathe. That’s it, that’s all, end of story.

That can be hard to accept on an emotional level. But on the level where laws interact with the practical world, you cannot lawfully shoot someone unless you are literally in extreme danger of dying. It’s better to avoid putting yourself into that much danger.

And ultimately: civilization is better than barbarism. It’s better to live in a place where criminal offenders end up in court where calmer heads can decide what to do about their offenses, than it is to live somewhere where anyone can shoot anyone else for any reason at any time.



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Walked into the hardware store yesterday to pick up a few items for the house. There on the shelf, I spotted a big display of little LED flashlights – about the length of a hand palm, about the width of a tube of lipstick. Activated by a simple tailcap clicky, on/off. No bells or whistles, just functional little lights. At 55 lumens, they weren’t as “super bright” as the packaging declared, but they were certainly bright enough for most tasks and had decent throw. Since they only cost $4 apiece, I picked up a few to toss into my camping gear and one for my range bag.

Ah, nostalgia…

Almost a decade ago, I was chomping the bit to attend SHOT Show. Problem: didn’t have a dime to my name. Travel is tough when you have no funds. Determined to get there one way or the other, I teamed up with Doug Ritter of Equipped to Survive. (Doug still does ETS, but he’s better known these days for his excellent and highly recommended work at Knife Rights.) Doug was looking for a writer willing to write product reviews in exchange for some help with travel expenses, and that sounded like a match made in heaven to me. We shook hands on the deal – virtually, anyway, as we hadn’t yet met in person – and I set about gathering details. ETS built its reputation on thorough, technical reviews of survival gear, and they needed someone to write about flashlights.

My assignment: find every new LED light introduced at the SHOT Show. Measure each one, talk to the designer about the tech specs, and write it up. Given the size of the show and the time constraints, that was a big task ten years ago, and probably impossible for one person now.

Before we left for the show, I spent some time talking to my friends in the firearms training world. The consensus back then was that LED lights would be handy for defensive use if only they could be made bright enough. Companies were right on the cusp of getting enough brightness and throw from LEDs to make them worthwhile to carry for that use, and there was a lot of experimentation with weird lens shapes, specialized collimators, and fancy wiring to drive the LEDs just a little brighter. Of course, innovation costs money and LED lights were no exception. Only a few, high-end LEDs could be expected to reach the 65-lumen range most defense experts considered necessary at that time, and those often cost multiple hundreds of dollars.

Given those prices, LED lights were really a rich man’s toy. Most cops and defense-minded citizens carried halogen-based flashlights, or ones that used traditional bulbs. These had some significant drawbacks, the worst of which was that you could shatter a bulb if you dropped the flashlight. Not really ideal for someone who might want to use the light in active, scary, violent circumstances.

So I traipsed off to Las Vegas, and ran my feet to blisters getting to every booth. Talked myself hoarse asking questions about throw and battery life, brightness and durability, wiring and construction details. Came home from the show with an amazing little light someone had handed me as a sample. That was an LED flashlight bright enough and with enough throw to actually illuminate the top of the big pine tree in my yard, at least 30 yards from where I was standing! Astonishing! Of course it retailed for more than the trip to Vegas had cost me in total expenditures, making it far outside my means. On my own, I’d never be able to afford such a marvel.

Yesterday, I walked into a hardware store and picked up a handful of 55-lumen, $4 LED flashlights for my camping gear. Of course when I got home, I had to light up the top of the pine tree with one of them, just because I could. Those little lights reminded me how good it is to live in a capitalist society, where rich people drive the innovations that the rest of us benefit from just a few years down the road.

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Summer Reading

Just updated one of my articles, titled Good Books. Why not pick one book from that list and get it read before summer’s over?


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Strength and Weakness

On Facebook, one of my friends linked to Larry Correia’s blog post about the Miss Nevada controversy. As you might recall, Miss Nevada (now Miss USA) is the beauty pageant contestant who suggested that women might want to learn self-defense as she replied to a question about college sexual assault.

Apparently, the idea that adults should be prepared to defend themselves from violence still causes controversy in some corners of the internet, and so it was here; the twitterverse woke up with shrill calls-to-action, and that, in turn, woke the dozing Correia. In his usual Hulk-SMASH! style, Larry Correia wrote:

Let’s take two potential victims, Miss Nevada versus any of the morons yelling at her on Twitter. Both are violently assaulted. Which one do you think has a better chance of surviving the encounter in one piece? The lady who reacts with capable, directed force, or the wishful thinking wuss who demands that this shouldn’t be happening at all? My money is on the woman groin kicking and throat punching the rapist. If criminals wanted to work for a living they’d go get a job.

Now me personally, I’m a fan of guns, because groin kicking and throat punching is hard work, especially when the defender is usually giving up a bunch of weight, muscle mass, and bone density against her assailant.

Can’t really argue with Larry’s sentiment, though my own conversational style tends to be (I hope!) a bit more restrained. Anyway, in the way that Facebook conversations tend to go, someone’s friend of a friend took exception to this. She was upset by it because, she believed, Larry had just said that women are weak and unable to protect themselves without guns. She thought Larry’s words would take away a potential victim’s hope, and sap her will to defend herself. 1 She thought that Larry had just said that women should not even try to fight back unarmed, because men are bigger and stronger than we are.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, because the objector did in fact have a point. And it’s an important one. Here’s what I told her.

I understand what you’re saying in a lot of ways. For self defense instructors (which Larry was, and I am), there’s a very delicate balance as we work with students. The balance is between the student’s confidence and the student’s accurate grasp of the reality of the situation. (See my blog post titled Confidence and False Confidence for more about this. It’s too long to put here, but maybe an interesting side note.)

The physical reality is that women are at a physical disadvantage when fighting against men using only bare hands. On average (with many exceptions!), adult females in the United States are 4% shorter and 8% lighter than the average adult male. On average, women have roughly 40-60% the upper body strength than men do, with proportionately more strength in the lower body – approximately 75% that of the male average. With size, weight, and physical strength all working against us, we do in actual fact have to work harder to achieve the same result. (Charlotte Whitton had it half right, apparently. Where she erred was in assessing the difficulty of the endeavor.) 2

Does that mean we give up, quit and die? Just lie back and enjoy it? OH HELL NO.

It means that we understand the physical reality of the situation for what it is and is likely to be, and work to overcome the difficulties stacked against us. It means that – because humans are tool users – we use tools wherever possible. Yes, including guns if that’s an option for us. It means that we avoid physical fighting wherever possible. 3 And it means that if we have to fight, we’re going to fight like a cornered cat.

Fighting like a cornered cat means fighting all out, ignoring the odds stacked against you and any size disparities you might face. (Ever tried to pick up a feral kitten with your bare hands? I have, and don’t recommend it…. no matter how much bigger and stronger you are than the sweet little kitty, you’re going to draw back a bloody stump where your hand used to be, and probably decide that grabbing that kitty is Not Worth It.) It also means that you’re going to fight with a very specific goal in mind: not “winning”, not “beating the bad guy,” not “teaching him a lesson.” Nope. Your goal is simple and single minded: GET TO SAFETY. That kitty is dangerous because it’s not fighting you. It’s simply doing whatever it takes to get away from you.

Does all of that take away your hope? Tough patooties if so, because that’s the world as it is. In the real world, you’re not bigger, badder, or meaner than the male criminal seeking to dominate and control you. You’re not physically tougher than the rapist, and you will very likely be fighting at an extreme disadvantage – due to surprise, he picks the time and place, due to your relative strength issues, due to any number of very critical social variables. So freaking WHAT?? Do what it takes to get away, get home safe to your family. Avoid, deter, de-escalate, lie, trick, cheat … and if you have to fight, fight like a cornered cat.

Stay safe.


  1. Never mind what Larry actually said, which is not that; but I think it’s safe to say that Larry is quite capable of fighting his own battles about such things!
  2. “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” ~ Charlotte Whitton
  3. “Fighting is essentially a masculine idea; a woman’s weapon is her tongue.” ~ Hermione Gingold
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You’re wrong about stress

When students prepare to measure their shooting skills against Massad Ayoob’s LFI Standards, Mas usually starts the day with a little pep talk that includes some startling information: trembling hands, dry mouth, and a quivering feeling in your gut are all good things. That stressed-out feeling isn’t your enemy. It’s how you know that your body has prepared to fight hard and survive. And when you welcome stress as the friend it is, it can even be good for your shooting skill. “When my hands start to tremble,” Mas says, “I know the adrenalin has arrived. That means I can work harder, run faster, and do better than I otherwise would.”

But do we get the same benefit from daily stress, the chronic kind we all live with? We’ve heard for years that stress is bad for us, that it increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes, that it increases the risk of many long-term illnesses. But it turns out that many of the things we thought we knew about chronic stress aren’t true at all. Just as the stress response helps our survival in extreme circumstances, it also helps us navigate the shoals of less outrageous danger and make human connections that see us through the tough times.

Watch the TED Talk below with an open mind. It’s a fascinating look at what we know about stress.



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Niven’s Law #17

17) No technique works if it isn’t used.  

If that sounds simplistic, look at some specifics: Telling friends about your diet won’t make you thin. Buying a diet cookbook won’t either. Even reading the recipes doesn’t help. Knowing about Alcoholics Anonymous, looking up the phone number, or even jotting it down won’t make you sober. Buying weights doesn’t get you muscles. Signing a piece of paper doesn’t cause a cease-fire, even if you make lots of copies and tell every anchorperson on Earth. Endlessly studying designs for spacecraft won’t put anything in orbit.   

~ Larry Niven’s Laws, 2002 Edition         

It’s amazing how many people think that buying a gun will enable them to protect their own lives at the moment they need it. But it won’t, not if …

  • the gun is locked up at home and you’re 30 miles away from it when you need it most.
  • you never saw danger coming, because you put all your trust in the presence of the gun and never bothered to learn when and where violent crimes happen most often in your environment.
  • you freeze, because you never really expected danger and hadn’t ever really pictured what fighting back might look like.
  • you don’t have the internal resolve to fight back in any case.
  • you can’t bring yourself to pull the trigger when pulling the trigger is what’s needed.
  • you haven’t practiced drawing the gun enough to do so quickly, smoothly, and without any hesitation even when you’re scared and fumbly.
  • you haven’t handled the gun so many times, and in so many different situations, that you can focus all of your attention on solving the problem in front of you, and instead must devote your full attention to remembering how to make the gun work.
  • you don’t have the physical skill to hit what you intend to hit.
  • … and on, and on, and on.

Sitting in front of a computer screen reading an article about self defense might help you figure out your own internal dynamics well enough to solve some of these problems – if you follow up your reading with careful, personal thought about how it applies to you.

Watching someone else do the skills on a video might sometimes help you figure out ways to do the things you want to do – but only if you follow up by making the effort to teach your hands how to do the things your eyes just saw. Watching someone else play the piano on YouTube does not make you a piano player.

In the end, the only way to get up to speed with your gun-handling is to, you know, actually handle a gun. Load and unload your gun often enough that loading the gun doesn’t take all your thought, or even most of it. Practice a smart, safe drawstroke often enough that lazy holstering habits won’t bite you in the leg after they blow a hole in your holster. Practice fast, accurate shooting at realistic targets. Shoot from various distances, from various positions, while moving or kneeling or standing or crouching, while your targets are moving or partly obscured or dimly lit. Practice your skills intelligently enough that you build efficient responses to danger, responses that you can call on even when you’re tired, frightened, overwhelmed, and taken by surprise.

You want the gun to save your life? It won’t. It can’t. It’s just an inanimate object.

Watching other people use guns on YouTube won’t save you, either. Your favorite shooting celebrity isn’t going to be there to save your life when you need it. You will.

Ultimately, it all comes down to you and your skills. Not the skills you’ve read about somewhere. Not the skills you’ve seen others demonstrate. Not even the things you were able to do once, on a lucky day at the range a few years ago. The only skills you can rely on are the ones you’ve practiced often enough that you can do them in your sleep without half trying.

Get to the range on a regular basis. Practice solid, reliable techniques that hold up well under stress. Practice them often enough that you can free your mind to think about other things while you’re shooting, so that your brain can solve the survival problem while your hands do what they know must be done. Practice the right things, often and well.

And every so often, learn something new, and practice that.

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Permission and Normalcy Bias

In almost every class I teach, there’s one lecture portion that’s — well, it’s a little touchy-feely. It’s a segment I have a hard time doing without tearing up a little, and sometimes it gets to my students too. But the emotions are almost beside the point. Believe it or not, there’s a scientific and rational reason I do this emotional thing. And it’s not what you might think.

Before I tell you more about that, let me draw your attention to an excellent article my friend Jeff Meek pointed to a few weeks ago: The Frozen Calm of Normalcy Bias.  The article talks about the way groups of people behave in a crisis, and it’s really a very useful read if you have time. If you don’t, here’s the excerpt I wanted to talk about today. Pay special attention to the final sentence.

This information — that the present disaster will harm you, yes you, so take action — is the hardest to accurately disseminate. People mill, asking for opinions, because they want to be told that everything is fine. They will keep asking, and delaying, until they get the answer they want. In a completely alien emergency situation — such as a downed, flaming plane — people think of the likelihood that they’re mistaken about the nature of the emergency, and the consequences for screwing up if they take personal action. Although early warning systems, alarms, and alerts proliferate, very few things manage to get through to specific people that they are in personal danger, that they are on their own, and that they need to take steps to save themselves.

In my classes, I refer to this human tendency to mill around and ask questions as “asking permission to save your own life.” The tragedy is, not everyone faces a danger that gives them time to do that.

That’s one of many reasons it’s important to think about survival issues ahead of time.

  • How important is it, to you, that you avoid being embarrassed?
  • Are you willing to step outside social norms to get away from danger?
  • How willing are you to speak up and take the lead when a group of people around you seem to be ignoring a danger you believe is real?
  • Are willing to do whatever it takes to save your own life — even if no one else tells you that you can?

It’s that last point that gets me. Remember the story of Sarah McKinley, the young mother who defended herself from a home invasion in Oklahoma in 2012. McKinley, then 18 years old, was home alone with her 3-month-old baby when she heard someone trying to break down her front door. Terrified, she armed herself with a pistol and a shotgun, then called 911. She would be on the phone with the dispatcher for over 20 minutes while she waited for officers to arrive. During that time, she and the dispatcher had the following exchange.

McKinley: “… is it okay to shoot him if he comes in this door?”

Dispatcher: “I can’t tell you that you can do that, but you do what you have to do to protect your baby.”

Yup. With her life in danger, her child threatened, criminals trying to break into her home and no sign that the police would arrive in time, McKinley asked someone else to give her permission to save her own life. And she was amazingly fortunate. Because she had time to ask the question. And because the person she asked was willing to put her own job on the line to tell McKinley what she most needed to hear.

That human tendency to ask permission from others — we all have it. It’s normal. Not weird, not weak, not stupid. Just … human. If we’re going to do something outside the social norm, we want someone else to tell us it’s okay, that it’s the right thing to do, that they approve. We want permission.

Without that permission, some people freeze and many people delay responding to situations they know are dangerous. With it, they’re free to solve the problem for themselves.

Stored Ammunition — Dangerous?

Every so often, someone asks me about the dangers of storing ammunition in the home. Here’s the best resource I know on that subject. It’ll take around 30 minutes to watch, and it’s worth watching all of it.

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