We are civilized people. In the face of a violent, deadly threat, whether at home or on the street, if we could just push a button and make the attacker go to sleep long enough for the police to arrive and haul him away, we would do so. But the truth is sometimes good people have to do terrible violence if they want to survive.

Contrary to what we see in the movies, it is very difficult to stop a determined attacker with gunfire, and the key word is stop. Bullets do terrible damage to the body, but an assailant does not have to stop unless he loses consciousness through a hit to the brain (a difficult and well protected target), loss of blood pressure (which takes time), or if sufficient damage is done to physically incapacitate, such as a hit to the spine or pelvic girdle (also very difficult to target).

It’s probably true that most fights involving shooting are over in just a few shots. But this is generally not because the attacker has been disabled or killed but because he runs away or gives up – after all, he was not expecting nor wanting to get into a gunfight. Bullets do cause pain, but the pain may be minimized or absent altogether if adrenaline is present or if, as is often the case, the guy is on drugs. You cannot afford to rely on any of these factors stopping the fight when your life is at stake. You must be ready and able to continue shooting until the attacker is no longer a threat.

You never hear in the news that there was “a gunfight.” It’s always “a shooting.” But if you are in a fight for your life you are, for all practical purposes, in a gunfight. “The first rule in a gunfight is: have a gun,” a popular saying in the gun culture. Though it may last no longer than a few seconds or minutes it will seem like an eternity. Due to the effects of adrenaline time seems to slow down, and you may not know at the time, nor remember afterwards, how many rounds you fired. You may not hear what’s going on around you (audio exclusion); you may be strongly fixated on the threat (tunnel vision). These are well-known effects you need to be prepared to expect. In this fight there may be good solid hits, wing hits, and outright misses. Add to this scenario multiple attackers and you can start to imagine how many shots you might have to fire to win.

“A handgun is what you use to fight your way back to your rifle,” another popular saying. The corollary to this is you should not have left it behind in the first place. Or, put to it another way, “If you know you’re going to a gunfight you bring a rifle, not a handgun.” A handgun, in common defense calibers, is an underpowered weapon, in the sense that it cannot reliably stop a human attacker quickly with a single shot or even multiple rounds. A hunter chooses a rifle with the appropriate range and power to take the game he’s after. A deer hunter, for example, may use the popular lever action 30-30, which is relatively moderate in power but adequate, yet much more powerful than the handguns used for self-defense. And the hunter targets the heart and lung area of an animal he takes by surprise (he’s basically a sniper), so you can get an idea what it takes to drop an animal of that size quickly: a solid hit to the chest with a powerful rifle. In combat, we want to be able to stop a vicious meth head predator at point blank range almost instantaneously. This is not easy, even if you have a handgun and do everything right. In general you should expect to shoot more than once. Aim for the chest or next best target, shoot, and keep shooting until he’s no longer a threat. Even if mortally wounded an attacker may still be able to fight long enough to kill.

You can no more tell how many bullets it will take to end a gunfight any more than you can tell how many punches it will take to win a fistfight, especially if there’s more than one attacker. For example, in New York City near the Empire State Building, two police officers expended a total of 16 rounds from their pistols to take down a single gunman on the street in broad daylight. A Georgia mother huddling in a closet in her home with her twin 9-year old children emptied a six-shot revolver at an intruder armed with a crowbar, hitting him 5 times in the face and neck. Yet he was still able to go back down the stairs and get into his car and drive a short distance.

There is really no such thing as too much ammo in a gunfight, just as there is no excuse for running out of ammo before the gunfight is over. By design, the ammo capacity of a defense firearm is a balance between factors such as weight, bulk, and ease of handling. Most semi-auto weapons have a detachable magazine and can be reloaded quickly. What are often called “high capacity” magazines – arbitrarily determined (for now) to be more than 10 rounds – by a compliant media are really “standard capacity.” As usual, the invented rhetoric is driven by the agenda.

A shotgun is much more effective than handgun at close range, but it does kick a bit and is not suitable for everyone. It takes longer to get back on target for follow-up shots which may be needed; a long gun such as a shotgun (or rifle) is harder to maneuver indoors; it’s harder to retain if an intruder manages to grab the barrel end; and if you’re holding him at gunpoint it’s difficult to hold the shotgun with one hand as you dial 911 with the other. Still, if it’s suitable for you and your situation (such as being able to hunker down in a room and let the attacker come to you), it’s an excellent fight-stopper.

It is not hard to become proficient with a firearm. It takes some practice, but it’s pretty straightforward if you learn how your weapon operates, and follow the fundamental rules of safe handling. Take your time, keep at it, and get feedback from other shooters. But what is most important in a lethal encounter is the mental preparation, the willingness to respond quickly with deadly force when the situation demands it. This is something most people can learn if they choose to. It is a human attribute and is not limited to police or others with special training. And while most police may be competent with their weapons, they are not highly trained marksmen by any means, contrary to popular belief. Police and private citizens have different jobs to do but they have the same responsibility: to protect innocent life from harm.

By law, you may only use deadly force when presented with an imminent threat of death or grave bodily harm. In your own home you have more leeway than you do when carrying a weapon outside the home, though this can vary somewhat depending on locale. If someone breaks into a home that is occupied, particularly at night, there is often the presumption is that the intruder intends to deal violently with the people inside.

Everyone who intends to have a firearm for self-defense should be appropriately prepared and trained: know the law concerning justifiable use of deadly force; observe the fundamental safety rules of firearms handling; be proficient with the weapon you choose; and again, most important, be mentally prepared to face a deadly threat and take effective action. The proper mindset is the most valuable tool in your favor, outweighing all other considerations of weapons, tactics, and training.

Odysseus M Tanner

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