Conventional wisdom says a 12-gauge shotgun is best for home defense. I disagree with this conventional wisdom. To my way of thinking, the best gun for home defense is (drumroll please) … the gun you can get to quickly and use efficiently.
Whether or not that’s a shotgun, a rifle, or a handgun depends entirely upon you and your circumstances. But there are some strong reasons to consider the handgun as a good tool for a home defense gun.
A handgun is easily transported around the house, invisible to friends and casual callers but still within your direct control at all times. It is easy to answer the doorbell armed with a handgun, without anyone being the wiser. The handgun can even be drawn, discreetly concealed behind one leg as you open the door. Unlike a long gun, a handgun can always be available for instant use without unnecessarily threatening legitimate callers.
Handguns are also most easily kept accessible to adults but out of the hands of small children, more so than shotguns and rifles. As I’ve written elsewhere, when our children were very small, I soon began to develop a well-earned skepticism about my ability to know what the little darlings were up to in the next room. The kids, bless their active little hearts, gave me more than a few exciting little lessons about why I should not trust “child-proof” locks, or (worse) simply rely on their good natures to stay out of trouble. And the day I found a two-year-old sitting on top of my refrigerator, I realized that putting things “up high where the kids can’t get it” was just a sick little joke.
“He’ll never look there!”
My harrowing parenting experiences soon taught me that if I wanted the kids to stay out of something, I should not rely on anything less than a lock designed to keep adults out of that thing. A gun locked inside a sturdy safe would frustrate an adult thief, and so I could also trust the lock on the gun safe to keep my children out. But a gun balanced on the top shelf of the closet, hidden between the mattresses of the bed, or leaned casually against a wall in an off-limits bedroom would be just as easily accessible to a determined child as to an adult thief. If the gun was out of my sight, it had to be stored in a way designed to defeat an adult thief.
With children in the home, the gun that is out of adult sight absolutely has to be locked up. But it is really a lot slower and less certain to get at the gun in a hurry if you have to force your terrified brain to remember a combination, or persuade your trembling fingers not to drop the keys or fumble them. When faced with an immediate and deadly danger, even split seconds count.
Keeping the home defense gun out of my children’s hands was problem one. Problem two, of course, was being sure I myself could get to the gun quickly enough if the unthinkable happened. I kept thinking about this second problem, and the more I thought about it, the less happy I was.
Experts generally agree that the best plan for a home defense situation is to get yourself and your family behind a single locked door, such as in the master bedroom or some other “safe room.” Then you can hunker down behind some large piece of furniture and await events with gun in hand. If the police arrive first, they can deal with the intruder for you. If they don’t, you can protect yourself until they do arrive.
So it did seem to me that the sensible place to store my home defense shotgun, if I got one, was behind a good lock somewhere in my bedroom. Maybe it would be out of sight too, but definitely locked up where the kids could not get it. The inherent slowness of a lock worried me, but once I got the gun unlocked, it would be readily available if I awakened to the sound of a home intruder.
But what if I wasn’t in my bedroom when an intruder entered? What if I was, instead, in the front room with the children? Would I leave my children in the same room as the intruder in order to go fetch the long gun from my bedroom? What if, as soon as I bolted for the firearm, the intruder picked up one of my children and simply … left? Perish the thought!
I found myself thinking, There has to be a better way.
There was. Rather than struggling for ways to store and then to quickly release a long gun locked up in some out-of-the-way location at the back of the house, I could instead keep an easily accessible handgun in a holster on my body when I was at home. That solved both problems.
First, while I might not know what my active little sweethearts were up to in the back room when the house went suspiciously quiet, I would always know whether or not their little fingers were prying the gun out of the holster on my hip. In this way, the loaded and easily accessible handgun on my hip was actually more secure than the “securely locked” long gun in another room.
Second, with the gun on my belt (or in a fanny pack) at all times, there could be no question of having to abandon the children to the tender mercies of an intruder while I ran to fetch a gun. The gun would be with me and instantly available.
At this point, some of my readers are probably wondering how in the world I keep a handgun on my body when I sleep. I don’t, of course.
At night, I habitually lock my bedroom door. I have done this ever since my children were very small. We used to have a row of baby monitors, one for each of the kids’ rooms and one for the living room, lined up on my dresser at night. If one of the kids awakened in the night, I would know it — and I would know it before the adorable munchkin dropped a full cup of juice on my face as I slept, or vomited onto my pillow just as I opened my eyes. 1
Behind my locked bedroom door, the gun is secured in a fanny pack placed inside an open safe. Inside the fanny pack, there’s a flashlight, a charging cell phone, and a spare magazine with extra ammunition — any of which I might need in a hurry if an intruder is in our home.
If something awakens me in the night, I can quickly pull the fanny pack on over my robe. Looks goofy, but it works. If I don’t want to take the gun with me, I simply swing the safe door shut and lock it before opening my bedroom door.
During an emergency,you can easily carry a handgun in one hand, and you can easily shoot it with one hand. This emphasis on one-handed use might sound a bit silly to someone who does not expect to get injured during a crisis. Why would you need a gun which can easily be fired with one hand?
An injury to one hand or the other really is not outside the realm of possibility. But even if we set that aside and do not consider it in our planning, you may very well need one hand free to do things like open or close bedroom doors, tote the phone, keep a tight hold on a child’s hand, or carry a baby across the hall to the safe room. Any or all of these things may need to be done during a home invasion, and few of them can be done well (or at all) while carrying a long gun.
It is a good idea to study close-quarters retentions. 2
A handgun is also more easily used in tight quarters than a long gun is. If an intruder rushes you in the hallway, you may not have room to bring the long gun to bear before he is on you. But the handgun can be fired while it is very, very close to the body, and needs very little room to use.
Whether you decide to use a long gun or a handgun for home defense, it is really a good idea to get some practice in close-quarters work. That means learning how to defend the gun from a sudden and unexpected grab, and also how to get the gun away from an opponent who has already gotten his hands on it. Which is easier to defend against a grab, a long gun or a handgun? That all depends. My personal experience has been that it is easier to prevent a handgun from getting grabbed in the first place, but if there’s room to work, a long gun provides a lot of wonderful leverage to help you defeat the grab. Neither defense is instinctively natural, and both have to be learned from someone who knows the secrets.
It is generally a bad idea to move through the home when intruders are present. As mentioned above, experts strongly recommend you just hunker down in a safe room with your family rather than wandering around looking for someone to kill you. But realistically, this hunkering-down is not always immediately possible. You might need to grab a young child and bodily move her to the safe room with you, for example.
If you do need to move through the home with gun in hand, handguns are generally easier to deal with while moving around corners and in tight spaces. Remember the intruder could be hiding anywhwere, and may be waiting for the opportunity to grab you or the gun. Even people who are highly trained sometimes have a hard time moving around corners with a long gun, without allowing the barrel of the long gun to precede them around the corner. This is less likely to happen with a handgun.
Money was an issue too. I’ll admit that right up front. An important budget item to consider for any defensive weapon is training. I trust my handgun because I have trained extensively with it. I know how to load it and unload it. I know how to shoot it accurately, how to clear jams, how to reload it, how to fire accurately while walking, running, moving, hiding behind cover. I learned all those things in classes where talented (and stubborn) instructors taught me the most efficient ways to do them. And I have practiced with the handgun so much that it feels very nearly like an extension of my hand when I am holding it.
Could I get all that training and do all that practice with a long gun? Of course I could! But I already had the handgun, and was already getting handgun training. Although from the size of this website, you might think I’m a little obsessive about firearms, the truth is that I have a whole lot of other things to do with my time and money. Learning a new firearm as well as I already knew my handgun, would have literally doubled the amount of time and money I spent on training. For me, given my budget and time constraints, it just made more sense to focus all my training time and training money into learning one system really really well.
If you are a concealed carry permit holder, you probably consider the handgun an acceptable defensive choice while you are out and about during the day. All other things being equal, it will be less expensive and simpler to just use that same defensive firearm at home at night, too. The handgun might produce less overall power than the shotgun or the rifle, but it is no less effective at home than it is when you are out and about. And you trust it with your life when you are out and about.
But if carrying a handgun at home seems too much of a hassle to you, and if you do not have small children to complicate the issue, or if you are able to secure a long gun in such a way that you are confident you could get to it in a hurry, then a shotgun or carbine may indeed be the best choice for your home defense.
Reasons to Avoid a Long Gun
Rifles and shotguns do have a lot going for them: power, ease of aim, and the intimidation factor. Shotguns offer another important benefit, which is the huge versatility of ammunition choices. But long guns are also bulky, do not lend themselves to being discreetly carried to the door when someone knocks after dark, and are not easily kept quickly accessible to responsible adults while safely secured from children and the clueless. They can’t get dropped into a fanny pack and it’s difficult (not impossible with adequate training) to operate a long gun one-handed. These drawbacks are worth taking into account too.
The myths about a shotgun not needing to be aimed, or about the mere sound of it driving intruders off, are just that: myths. Don’t bet your life on those! But like all myths, both of these have a small germ of truth hidden inside them: a long gun is easier to aim than a handgun, and shotguns are powerful enough that a marginal hit may be enough to do the job anyway.
As for the sound being enough to drive an intruder away, if you have not squarely faced and accepted the notion of killing someone else to defend your own life, a firearm — any firearm! — is nothing but a dangerous nuisance. If that’s a factor for you, you need to get your own ethical/moral/religious issues worked out before you arm yourself with a deadly weapon.
The best gun for self-defense is the one you can get to in a hurry and use efficiently. For me, that was a handgun. For you, it might be something else.
Whatever you choose, take careful thought to how you will safely secure the firearm. Purchase appropriate accessories for it. And get training in how to use it effectively.
- Not that any of my wonderful children would ever have done either one of those things. Of course not.Perfect angels, every one of them. It could be worse, though: Dave Barry once wrote a very funny column about a poor man who woke up with an ear full of SuperGlue. The kid was three or four years old. I’ll put a link here later, if I can find the column online anywhere. If I can’t, well, take it from me: kids can get into a lot of trouble when their parents foolishly doze off for a few minutes. A full-volume baby monitor really does help a lot. ↩
- The firearm in the photo is an aluminum-cast dummy gun, incapable of firing. ↩