Self-Defense – or – Self-Delusion?

It is an American mythology that access to a handgun is equivalent to effective self-defense. No other country maintains the persistent attitude that individuals may not be safe unless they own and sometimes carry handguns.

This subject came up during my last visit to the shooting range. The Fort Crowder Conservation Area has an excellent outdoor range, with 25, 50, and 100 yard stations and a clay-target field. It is a good example of the effective use of public revenues to serve hunters & recreational shooters, practice for self-defense, and law enforcement. There is also a separate archery range.

Some fellows shooting .40 cal and 9mm discussed the difficulty of hitting a target that is shooting back. After a while, I settled into conversation with ‘Doug’ (pseudonym), who is a 75 year-old former policeman. He described having been a former champion in Cowboy Action Shooting. CAS is an awesome sport. Baseball may be America’s Pastime, but CAS, Rodeo, and Lumberjack Competition are the Great American Sports.

Doug made a distinction between private and law enforcement use of handguns. Law enforcement officers cannot have the same options as private citizens. Sometimes, they must pursue a dangerous, armed suspect. Even with significant advantages in training and practice, they are vulnerable to the low-probability shot from a desperate fugitive. If there is some distance between a private citizen and an assailant, this reality dictates that the best defense is additional distance and use of cover.

Even with close encounters, Doug noted that law enforcement officers cannot be assured of effective handgun use. Encounters of 5 to 20 feet distance may result in very few hits on an assailant. Their placement, crucial to effectiveness, is at least as problematic. Doug could not describe how much poorer the situation would be for a private citizen who is not highly trained and practiced in such a tactical situation. My own performance is not especially good under ideal conditions: the 25-yard 17×11-inch target had just 14 hits in 21 shots from my .380 Beretta Model 1934. It was my Dad’s backup handgun (ankle holster) in the Postal Inspection Service. His aim was much better than mine.

After my brief discussion with Doug, I was determined to seek the comments of another Cowboy Action Shooter. ‘Dee’ (his real name!) is a former Army Sargeant with extensive experience. He served in the Persian Gulf War, Central America, and many other places. He was a military competition shooter, trained in tactical operations. He also practices open carry with his dual revolvers.

Dee uses a dual holster with cross-draw on the left. This allows him to shoot with the right hand while reining his horse with the left. With his dramatic handlebar mustache, he certainly looks like a Cowboy Action Shooter!

Dee says what many experts say about self defense (with or without firearms): situational awareness is vital. Self-defense situations are too varied and complex to depend upon any panacea. One generality which he did offer was, “The goal should be to get out of the situation”, with an exchange of gunfire being an option of last resort. He expressed concern that “dilettantes” regard firearms use as comparable to scenes in movies and games, without realistic regard for the danger to neighbors and family. Such folks have, as primary deficiencies, a “lack of committment” and a failure “to assume that whoever you’re facing is better than you”. It is clear that Dee, a person who is prepared to use handguns for self-defense, does not think that very many folks can do so safely, effectively, and with a likelihood of an improved outcome from dangerous encounters.

Dee confirmed my advice about firearms: most people who choose to have firearms at ready should have a 20 or 12-gauge shotgun with birdshot loads. Long-barrel weapons are more likely to be well-aimed under stress, and they are much less likely to endanger their owner or people outside of the nearest walls.

There is much research material for those who are interested in the profound complexities and difficulties of shootings. The New York Police Department has an ‘Analysis of Police Combat‘. The Rand Corporation has also studied the NYPD firearms training & review process. The “Practical Firearms Training” video series by Philip Van Cleave is a cautionary lesson from an advocate of firearms.

Thanks to Dee for his contributions to this blog.


2 Responses to “Self-Defense – or – Self-Delusion?”

  1. 1 Jim
    August 25, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    jim G, thanks for sharing your experience and judgement. I have been fortunate to have learned some from others, such as my Dad, without getting into occupations riskier than Engineering. I hope that you visit my blog occasionally (or more!). jim S

    PS – too bad about the fish tank.

  2. 2 jim Gerard
    August 25, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    As a retired Baltimore police officer who knows from personal experience what it is like to be in a gun fight in an urban area, the thought of a “civilian” armed with a handgun and letting rip with a multi-round semi makes my hair stand on end. Fortunately, in one of my two encounters with “targets” that shoot back, myself and the officers with me were only armed with six shot S&W revolvers, but we still did a lot of damage to house windows, cars, and in my case, a fish tank.
    Oh yes , our human target was shot also, but not as many times as you would think with 3 trained police officers literally on line shooting.

    Fortunately, no one else was hurt during this encounter with a 16 year old armed with a 5 shot revolver, all rounds expended, who did not hesitate to exchange fire with 3 officers- he was a worse shot than we were.

    Shortly after my department gave up the “wheel guns” and went to the Glock 17, the first shooting incident with the new weapon saw 2 officers expend 42 rounds total at a suspect, and not hit their intended target. But they hit a lot of other things, but fortunately no poor soul innocently going about his business caught one of these rounds. Was the discharge justified, yes, but much expenditure of ammo without tangible results, that is a shot suspect.

    At the time of this shooting incident I was working in a staff position in our Headquarters Building and a high ranking commander in whose area of command this discharge occurred asked me, with his head shaking in disbelief, what the hell were they( the officers ) doing shooting 42 rounds ? In reply I mentioned my first shooting where amongst the three of us we had a total of 54 issued semi- wad cutter rounds ( 18 per officer ) . However, the new weapon can hold 18, 9mm hollow point rounds, plus each officer also carried two issued 17 round magazines, for an individual total of 52 rounds, just 2 short of what we three had combined. I told the Colonel, you give a cops this type of weapon and issue that number of rounds,some will definitely let fly because the ability to do so is there.

    The point of my trip down memory lane is a cautionary tale for anyone who may read this and carries a gun legally ,or wants to- you let fly with your weapon and you will be held accountable for the consequences, just as a cop is when the shooting is questionable. But we had a big thing in our favor- we were law enforcement officers with unassailable justification often when it came to shooting incidents.

    If you want to play cop and try to take down some one for whatever reason( even your own protection ) keep in mind the stupid and dangerous fool who in shooting at a car jacker as he drove away, missed, but he did hit and kill a 69 year old Detroit grandmother cooking dinner in her house. Even police officers cannot always be justified in shooting at a vehicle, because if you hit the driver, guess who is driving now? – you are, the shooter. If anything bad results from the driver having lost control of the vehicle because of being shot, you may skate legally, a big maybe, but you will probably definitely get sued. In the case of the irresponsible idiot who shot the grandmother, the shooter was charged with manslaughter. Will he be convicted? Lord, I wouldn’t even hazard a guess given the 2nd Amendment frenzy that exists in the U.S.

    I am all for people being able to protect themselves, but if you want a gun to provide you with that protection remember just because you may have the legal right to carry it, that doesn’t mean you are exempt from acting responsibly and with discretion with a very dangerous consumer product.

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All original material Copyright James R. Stone 2010, except where specifically noted. Some images licensed under Creative Commons, or GNU Free Documentation License, or unlicensed and public domain.

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