Note: The following is information, much of which is common knowledge, and opinion; it is not legal advice.
The ‘concealed carry revolution,’ as it’s informally called, began in Florida in 1987 and has since swept much of the nation. Where previously only a few states allowed residents to carry a loaded sidearm in public, every state in the Union now has some form of right to carry for personal defense. About 40 states have what are called ‘shall issue’ permits, where any law abiding citizen who meets requirements can get a permit.
While the ‘castle doctrine’ has long helped protect the right of the people to use deadly force against intruders in the home, the right to carry acknowledges that threats can occur not just at home, but wherever people happen to be in daily life. In fact, the risks outside the home are usually greater.
Threats can occur at random, and a potential victim must be ready to defend against an attacker who chooses the time and place. For this reason, people who choose to carry usually do so at all times, and everywhere permitted by law.
Generally the firearm is required to be concealed (though many states also permit some form of ‘open carry’), which means hidden away so others can’t see it, usually covered by clothing even in hot weather, and regardless of physical activity, jackets blowing in the wind, etc. Handguns come in small sizes to help accommodate this, but it is still a big inconvenience carrying a little metal brick around day in and day out, week after week, year after year, always keeping it hidden and in all likelihood never actually having to use it for its intended purpose.
For some, the novelty quickly wears off, boredom sets in, and they stop carrying. For others it becomes a way of life, as natural and important as using a seat belt in a car, wearing a life vest on a boat, or keeping a fire extinguisher in the home.
A citizen who carries a gun understands his responsibility and duty to protect. Not being armed would feel like a shirking of that duty.
Most people can learn to handle a gun responsibly. Contemplating using it for self-defense involves mental preparation more than anything else. Pointing a gun at another human being and pulling the trigger is a hard thing for civilized people to consider, and anyone not willing or able to face this possibility probably should not have a gun for defense.
Whether to be armed or not is a personal decision, and one that ought to be respected. It would be just as wrong to assume those who carry are ‘paranoid’ as it would be to assume those who don’t are ‘cowardly.’ Both attitudes are lamentable.
Naturally, one who carries must have confidence in himself and be proficient with his weapon. Bull’s-eye marksmanship skills are not essential, as we’re talking about combat shooting with a handgun (pinpoint accuracy is neither required nor practicable), and for private citizens engagements will likely be at point blank range or nearly so. Familiarity with basic weapon handling and function, drawing, retaining, and firing accurately enough to fight off an aggressor are essential skills. But what is most important is the mental preparation, the willingness to use force if needed, and only by being mentally prepared will you have the mental focus when the time comes to act effectively.
So know and follow the universal rules of safe gun handling, be proficient with your choice of weapon, and know the law concerning the use of deadly force. Just joining a local range will provide a citizen plenty of help with the first two items, safety rules and weapon proficiency.
As for the law, there is plenty of information available, and as always, check your local jurisdiction for applicable laws. Generally, you are only justified in using deadly force if you are in reasonable fear of imminent death or grave bodily harm. The threat must be imminent: about to happen immediately if you don’t act. The threat must be deadly: you must be in reasonable fear for your life, and this ‘reasonable’ standard is a matter of law – a jury may well decide whether your fear was reasonable or not.
The justification for using deadly force is usually broken down into three requirements: your attacker must have the opportunity, demonstrated intent, and the means or ability to kill you if you don’t draw your weapon immediately. That is, you had no other viable options. If you can get away to safety without a fight that is always the preferred outcome, but this is not always possible or tactically feasible.
Often – indeed, perhaps in the vast majority of cases where a citizen deploys a gun in self-defense – it is enough to ‘present’ the weapon with the clear willingness to use it to get the attacker to break off, and firing a shot is not necessary. If you have the time and space to exercise this option you should do so, and hopefully your attacker will comply – after all, he’s looking for a victim, not a gunfight. But if not, you must be willing to shoot in the next instant. Don’t draw the gun unless you’re prepared to use it.
We’re talking about situations where you either have a gun and you use it to prevail in the fight of your life, or you die – real threats to life and limb and no other kind. The gun is not a magic wand ready to ward off all threats to a person’s dignity or ego.
Besides taking responsibility for your own defense, you are responsible for protecting innocent people from your misuse of the firearm. In fact I would say it’s your first responsibility – not self-defense but protecting others from yourself. I would rather die than kill an innocent person through my own negligence.
And just as lawyers chase ambulances, they also chase bullets – every bullet you fire will have a lawyer riding on it. So know your weapon, know the law, and above all know yourself and your limitations. Staying alive is great; staying out of prison is pretty good, too.
It’s often said, ‘We shouldn’t have to live like that!’ with people carrying guns around ready to use them if they need to. But that’s like saying violent predators shouldn’t exist, murders shouldn’t happen, rapes shouldn’t happen, armed robberies shouldn’t happen, when we all know they do. Now, we might answer with, ‘Live like what?’ Live like we understand our responsibilities – and taking care of one’s responsibilities in life has its own rewards – along with the value of life and our duty to protect it?
And we sometimes hear, ‘If everybody had a gun …,’ but the fact is most people are not inclined to carry a weapon. Besides the obvious inconveniences involved, it is not easy facing up to the possibility of dealing with a mortal threat, and most just prefer to ignore it and take their chances. That is their right, their freedom. It’s not for everyone, but it’s something anyone can consider where permitted.
Numbers vary from state to state, but typically a few percent of people eligible acquire permits, so figure roughly a percent or so will carry on a regular basis.
Anyone actually wanting to be a hero who saves the day with a gun – a perverse desire – would probably end up waiting for an opportunity that never comes. Violent crime happens randomly because it is the criminal – not you – who gets to choose. Therefore, you cannot ‘elect’ to be the hero: you cannot know where to be or when. The chances of it happening to any individual are vanishingly small. And if you go in search of trouble, if you provoke, if you contribute to an escalation that results in you needing to use your weapon, then you could very well find yourself in serious legal as well as moral trouble. You’re not just a citizen with a gun, you’re a well-behaved citizen with a gun, otherwise it’s like driving drunk. Any bad behavior or decisions you made that contributed to an incident will introduce some legal gray areas into your life, and that gray can get as gray as a prison cell.
If you choose to carry you must be willing to avoid unnecessary trouble: ignore petty insults and provocations that could escalate, be a courteous driver, avoid places you think could be dangerous, even avoid staying out too late at night if possible (which is when most of the bad stuff happens). We all know what bullets can do, so there is nothing to prove. You’re ready at all times to respond to a life and death emergency; you must be willing to shake off petty irritations, go about your business with an abundance of caution, and be alert to signs of trouble. You must do what you can to avoid the need to use your weapon, because for you there is only one kind of fighting: someone could die, maybe your attacker, maybe you – there are no guarantees in a gunfight.
If you ever do need to shoot you want it to be a very clear case of self-defense. You did nothing to precipitate or provoke the attack. It took you by surprise and you had no choice. This is important not just from a legal standpoint but morally, and for the sake of your own conscience. You will have to live with the knowledge and the memory of having done grievous harm to another human being. You will have to justify it to yourself as well as the world.
You have a right to defend yourself and generally any other innocents you are with. As for protecting other innocents, bystanders caught up in the situation that you don’t know, you might be able to defend them but you should only act if you are sure of the situation, and that’s not always easy. If you’re in a convenience store and a masked man walks in brandishing a gun, you know you might have to engage the threat. Or if you come upon a scene and you see a guy shoot someone, is he really a murderer, or is he an off-duty cop defending himself?
If you can’t assess a situation, stay out of it, stay back and don’t engage unless you and who you’re with are directly affected. Move away from trouble, not towards it. If you hear shots get to safety or take cover, call 911 and provide whatever information you can to help the first responders. The gun is only the last ditch, the last resort to keep you and your loved ones alive.
The right to carry is not a ‘solution’ to violent crime nor is it even guaranteed to reduce it in any measurable way, though it may provide a deterrent effect, as predators will not know whether someone is armed or not. The right to carry is a civil liberty supporting the right of self-defense outside the home. That is its sole purpose and no other justification is needed. The right does not depend on crime or other statistics and is not subject to any sort of cost-benefit analysis.
In any crisis where there is a threat to life there are what we call the ‘first responders,’ the emergency crews who come to help and provide aid. But the people already at the scene of the emergency when it strikes are the ‘zeroth responders,’ who will be on their own and will have to make do, take whatever action is necessary to cope with the situation until help arrives. And when it’s a deadly assault that can be a very long time.
If it’s a criminal attack against an individual or small group, which is the more common situation, then they will have to defend, generally against violent predators who think their marks will make easy victims.
If it’s the less common case of a mass killing by a deranged gunman, people are often trapped and cannot escape. Sometimes the best they can do is hunker down while the gunman shoots other people, and pray for help.
Either way, the concealed carry holder understands his responsibility as a ‘zeroth responder,’ and has accepted his duty. He is not here to save the day for anyone, or to be a vigilante, or to take the place of the police, the first responders. But knowing he is responsible for himself, and given the choice, he has chosen to be prepared rather than not, and to have the most effective means for defense at his disposal.
Life is worth protecting. It’s the most valuable thing we have, and any time you take on more responsibility, such as learning to drive a car, you become a more responsible citizen, a better citizen. For those up to the task, carrying is a civic duty, a matter of good citizenship.
Odysseus M Tanner
Two short, classic books on self-defense and the use of force:
Principles of Personal Defense, by Jeff Cooper, and
In the Gravest Extreme, by Massad Ayoob
Real-life encounters between armed citizens and violent criminals:
Ayoob Files: The Book, by Massad Ayoob