The Cornered Cat
Context matters

Defensive firearm skills are not learned in a vacuum—or they shouldn’t be. The context where we intend to use the skills really dictates which skills we need, how well we need to learn them, and how we prioritize our time in learning them.

Ordinary people use firearms for self-defense in very different contexts than law enforcement and military people do. That’s because they have different missions, different rules of engagement, and different available resources.

The mission for ordinary citizens is radically different than the mission for the military, and somewhat different from the mission for law enforcement.

  • Military mission: kill people and break things.
  • LE mission: track down criminals and bring them to justice.
  • Citizen mission: stay safe and keep your family safe.

The difference in mission means that both law enforcement and military, to some extent, go through times when they fully expect to come in contact with people trying to kill them, and often, they actually set out to make that happen. But an ordinary person who wants to protect her own life will do the opposite: rather than seeking out dangerous people, she will avoid people, places, and circumstances that might put her life in danger. The ordinary citizen’s only contact with violent criminals will therefore be at a time and place of the criminal’s choosing, during circumstances most advantageous to the criminal and most dangerous for the good person.

The other day, I was talking with Rory Miller (author of several excellent books, including the new Scaling Force: dynamic decision-making under threat of violence, which he co-wrote with Lawrence Kane). Rory pointed out that law enforcement officers usually get very, very good at talking to people and at dealing with situations where low- to mid-levels of force are appropriate responses. That’s what they do most often, and it’s what they know best. Ordinary people don’t often face any violence at all, even that low level of violence, and they aren’t experienced at interacting with criminals. On the other hand, when an ordinary citizen does interact with a criminal, it will often be in very extreme circumstances—circumstances where the skills involved, and the difficulty of performing those skills, may be far beyond what a law enforcement officer might ever expect to need at work. Ordinary people might have to deal with a violent criminal attack from the standpoint of the intended victim, during a time when they are caught off guard. That’s a very different thing from dealing with a crime from the standpoint of someone assigned, after the fact, to find out what happened and who did it.

The rules of engagement are different.

  • Military ROE: may easily include killing every human being in a given area.
  • LE ROE: use of necessary force to bring the offender to justice.
  • Citizen ROE: use of reasonable force to defend self and loved ones.

For more about the rules of engagement for ordinary people, see the booklet, “What Every Gun Owner Needs to Know,” written by Marty Hayes of the ACLDN. You can also find a somewhat briefer overview, written by me, right here: using deadly force in self-defense. That’s an entire field of study on its own—a critical one that has too often been neglected or glossed over.

The available resources to accomplish the mission are totally different. “Bring all your friends who have guns” applies very nicely to a military combat unit, and it works somewhat well for a law enforcement officer who can call for backup before serving a warrant. But it does not work too well for John and Jane Doe in their everyday lives.

  • Military resources: soldiers have instant communications between multiple units; armed buddies often within yelling distance; long guns and grenades and lots of other goodies; body armor that includes helmets and flak jackets; all firearms are carried openly and instantly accessible, including keeping long guns within arm’s reach at all times within danger zones.
  • LE resources: even a solo patrol has instant radio communication with backup personnel who will drop everything and come running if the officer gets in trouble; most have long guns available, in addition to a handgun and a backup handgun, both with multiple magazines; bullet-resistant vest, pepper spray, Taser, baton, and training in unarmed defensive tactics; the full-size handgun is carried openly on belt with a Level 3 retention holster, but long guns are typically kept in the vehicle so officer must retreat to obtain weapons with longer reach (and sometimes must wait for the boss to arrive on scene with the rifle).
  • Citizen resources: may or may not be able to dial 911, and 911 operator may or may not understand urgency to get help immediately on its way; typically, handgun (often a compact or sub-compact) is carried in a concealment holster, and except in the home, no other weapons are immediately available; typically, citizen has either no reload available or just a single reload, and no body armor at all.

Obviously, the differences in mission, ROE, and available resources tend to dictate that different techniques and different tactics are appropriate for these different groups. For example, if we took a guy straight out of military combat in Afghanistan and put him to doing law enforcement work in an American city, that guy would find that a lot of what he learned overseas just did not translate well to domestic police work. It isn’t that it would necessarily get him in trouble; it’s that most of the skills he had used as a soldier operating in a war zone simply would not apply to the new task. Knowing how to launch a grenade at an enemy combatant isn’t going to help him when the task is to talk a confused drunk into complying with a roadside sobriety test; being well-practiced at transitions from a slung long gun to a handgun in a thigh holster doesn’t help him one bit when the rifle is either in his trunk or locked up back at the station under his supervisor’s control; knowing the proper military protocol for organizing an area engagement doesn’t help when the mission is to find and arrest a single individual. It’s just a different mission, with different resources on hand and different rules for using those resources.

The physical skills required to manipulate a handgun under stress remain the same, no matter who you are and not matter what you’re wearing. Or do they? Change the full-size handgun typically carried by law enforcement and military people for a compact or sub-compact model more typically worn by concealed-carry folks, and you might find yourself making some changes in how you hold or manipulate the gun. Carry just a few rounds, as many ordinary people do, and you might have to make hard choices about your priorities in some situations—choices that wouldn’t be faced by law enforcement or military personnel. Carry a spare magazine in a pocket rather than in a pouch on your belt, and you’ll find that the physical act of reloading has become a very different thing—especially if you are crouched or seated when you need to reload. Law enforcement trainers sometimes recommend a specific stance based on the presence of body armor, which is a factor that does not apply to most ordinary citizens. That specific stance might still be a good choice, but we can’t simply accept it without looking at other reasons for it that would apply to our own context. Military trainers often recommend a specific reloading technique because it’s critical that their people maintain control of their magazines at all times, never leaving a bit of equipment behind them on the ground. Does that apply to ordinary people in a civilian setting? Almost certainly not—and yet some teach the same technique without considering whether their non-military students have the same need.

All of this means that while we may learn a lot from military and law enforcement trainers, we also recognize that their needs are not always the same as our needs—and that our needs aren’t always the same as theirs. When someone recommends a technique, we should always look carefully at the context it came from and the need it was designed to meet. Then ask, “Does this technique work within my context and meet my needs?” If not, look elsewhere!

5 Responses to Context matters

  1. larryarnold says:

    Amen. Military and LEO experience is NOT a good qualification to teach civilians.

    Yes, I’ve known some good civilian instructors who have worked for the state, but it’s because they get past the differences you laid out.

    Another factor I’ve experienced is that many military/LEO instructors spend their time doing RE-qualification of soldiers or officers, and thus very seldom teach a beginner.

    I have a student next Wednesday. She’s a new widow (last April) who inherited her husband’s gun collection. She has never fired a shot. She found two handguns, one a “cowboy kind of gun” and one a “police kind of gun.” Both were loaded, so she carried them next door to her neighbor so he could unload them. One has “little bullets” and the other “great big bullets.” She wants to take the CHL class I have scheduled next Saturday.

    The last thing she needs is MilSpec re-training.

    As for her husband; well, I won’t speak ill of the dead.

  2. Tom Walls says:

    In the defensive and tactical handgun classes I teach for a large Northwest training facility, my students always hear the same initial answer to “what kind of ______ should I use” be it gear, tactics, or HTH technique. The answer is a question: WHAT’S THE MISSION ?. First define your objective and needs. They will then help define the tools and application. “What’s the Mission” is a wonderfully focusing question.

  3. says:

    Great article. Quick story: my wife (also a firearms instructor) and I met some friends and we were introduced to a “high speed” ex-military type, very nice guy. He’s obviously been in bad places and is a true hero, so I don’t mean this in any sort of negative way. I introduced my wife and myself as firearms instructors and his very first question to me was “what did you do in the military?”

    I didn’t really read a lot into the question, but my wife later told me she was very taken aback, even outright offended at the mere premise of his question, which was “since you obviously had military training to get to where you are now, how does your training measure up to my mental standard of adequate training?”

    How does one handle such questions?

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