We write in this column about the need to be prepared for an armed confrontation with the proper firearms, the proper ammunition and even the right holster. More vital to surviving an altercation with a firearm, however, is to have the proper mindset, the mental preparation and discipline that allows one to react quickly to the unexpected, and to act decisively and forcefully.
That preparation can be as simple as having the discipline to set aside a time to regularly practice your draw, or your immediate action drills. It can be as complex as considering the mental and emotional toll you will pay in the aftermath of even a successful armed encounter, and readying yourself to deal with that. That preparation has three distinct phases, and for simplicity’s sake we’ll refer to them as Before, During, and After. Let’s examine each individually.
Gunfights and physical altercations are won or lost before the first weapon comes into view. The difference between winning and losing is the readiness state of the combatants, a term that encompasses their training, their skill, and their mental preparedness to use deadly force to achieve their goals. For you and me, that goal would be the most basic motivation known to man—the urge to preserve self and those we love. For those we would face, their goals would different … and in direct conflict with our own.
Defensive Firearms use is, by its very definition, reactive. Our opponents will almost assuredly have the luxury of choosing the time and place of the engagement; we will not. They will act first and we will need to respond to their actions. They will have a definite advantage; it is not, however, a decisive one. Training, preparation, and confidence overcome shock and surprise.
Initial training is best done by professionals; men and women skilled in the art of self-defense and the art of imparting that knowledge to those new to the discipline. Confidence is a product of training and practice, coupled with the one factor that is completely in our hands: our level of readiness.
Get in the habit of reviewing your surroundings, especially those locations in which you spend a lot of time. At home, have a set plan in place for every member of your family to follow in an emergency (this should be done for more than just intruder scenarios – think fire or other disaster). Make sure that everyone understands their role in that plan, and how to execute it. While the need to secure your firearms, especially in homes with small children, is very real, they must also be rapidly accessible. At work, are you able to keep your firearm with you? Is it on you, in a purse, in a desk drawer, in your car? If your workplace were to become the target of an active shooter, would you be able to reach your weapon without exposing yourself to fire? Are you normally close to an exit, or would it be better for you to shelter in place?
These are all questions you should have asked, and answered, many times in your own mind. Create different scenarios for what might happen and visualize how you will react to each situation, mentally practicing what your actions will be. Try to anticipate problems you might encounter, and see yourself solving those problems. The pros call this Crisis Rehearsal, and we should all be doing it, every day. It’s nothing more than role-playing out all the various nightmare scenarios in which we might find ourselves over and over, so that when something does happen, mentally we are ready. The military has a phrase that sums this philosophy up quite succinctly: “Be polite, friendly … and have a plan to kill every son of a bitch you see.”
When an engagement occurs, there will seldom be time for reasoned, thoughtful action. Your actions will have to be as natural and reflexive as flinching from a blow, and as smooth and practiced as reaching out and turning a doorknob. Just as the constant repetition becomes a natural and thoughtless movement, it’s also the process to ensure you properly react to sudden threats in an effective way.
In order to avoid complete surprise, one must develop their Situational Awareness - their ability to keep track of what is occurring around them. Jeff Cooper, one of the most prominent gunwriters of the last half of the 20th Century, quantified the various states of awareness using a color-coded chart.
Originally comprised of four colors, now using five, this system goes from a state of blissful ignorance of your surroundings (Condition White), to actively engaged in the fight (Condition Black). If you carry a handgun, there’s no excuse for being in Condition White at any time you’re out of your home, and few times when you’re inside it. At the minimum, one must maintain Condition Yellow—Situationally Aware.
The one mental aspect of a gunfight that can’t be taught or practiced is perhaps the most important: the will to win. That has to come from within, and you can’t simulate it, you can’t predict it, and you can’t measure it. It’s the determination that, no matter what it takes, you will not lose the fight. It’s what drives wounded soldiers to keep on fighting, and ordinary people to carry out astonishing feats of heroism. It’s the desire to survive and to fight for your life.
If you need to use your handgun to save your life, or the life of another, then the best possible outcome will still leave you to cope with the emotional trauma of having shot another person, perhaps taking their life. Regardless of how justified your actions, or how evil your attacker, good people simply aren’t set up to be comfortable with the taking of human life. While one should never regret acting in self-defense, such action will leave scars.
In that instance, you won’t need the advice of gunwriters or websites, you’ll need the assistance of qualified professionals to help you deal with the aftermath of a violent encounter. And while coping with the trauma of having taken a life will be difficult, it can’t compare with your loved ones having to cope with your loss at the hands of a violent criminal.
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