These particular classes are about gunfighting. These are classes were we work to impress upon students the reality of self-defense with a handgun. It’s fast, it’s ugly, it’s full of pressure. You have to perform at a high-level, usually starting from a deficit, and you must make split-second decisions (these classes are often a sobering reality and wake-up to students).
It’s that last part – split-second decisions – I want to talk about.
Let me explain the context of class.
In DPS-2, we run each student through a shoot house scenario. The intent of the exercise is to introduce students to the notions of moving through structures, use of cover and concealment, and target discernment.
You see, upon our hip we have a hammer – but we must realize that the world contains more than nails. What complicates matters is some things may appear to be nails, but really are not. Furthermore, we are “good guys”; which means we operate within the constraints of the law, both the laws of men and the laws of morality.
In terms of a curriculum progression, certainly it makes sense to first teach people general marksmanship as well as basic default response to a threat; you have to teach foundational and fundamental skills first. Once people begin to understand the fundamentals, you progress to more complex, complicated, and advanced concepts. One of those is target discernment.
In this particular run of the shoot house, the situation was framed that you have pulled up to your home in your car and parked in the driveway. You get out of your car and you see… this. The “this” starts out with 2 targets across from you: one is a reactive target (i.e. if you shoot it properly it will fall down) with a threat indicator (a gun), the other is a reactive target with a not-threat indicator (hands up). The student begins by analyzing what they see and responding accordingly.
The student is then to move “into the house”. As they approach the opening, they see way down the hallway – about 15-20 yards away – this target:
When you look at this picture from the comfort of your office or living room, with no pressure, no need to make a decision, as you casually read this article, you can probably figure out what it is that you are seeing.
But when it’s 15-20 yards away, when you have a split second to make a decision, when you are under pressure, it’s not so clear.
Discernment – is this a threat or not – is difficult. Just because it is difficult, doesn’t mean it isn’t important; in fact, it means we need to work harder at it.
With about a dozen students in class, responses were wide and varied.
Some people immediately extended their gun and shot.
Some people started to extend their gun, but realized they weren’t sure what they were looking at. (some thought “a grenade?”)
Some people stepped aside (out of line of sight, behind cover/concealment).
Some immediately questioned what they saw.
Some where not sure what they saw and what to do.
From there, responses continued typically with my interaction (i.e. me playing the part of either a “narrator” or role-playing the target).
Of those who wondered or weren’t sure what they were seeing, I asked them what they thought they should do. The basic idea? If you don’t know what it is, work to gain more information so you can become more certain about what it is. Some people wanted to get closer, and while that’s an understandable reaction, it’s not necessarily the safest tactics. What else could they do? They could shout commands, like “DROP IT!” If they did this, I roled-played the target and he dropped it. Of course, another solid response is “don’t go in the house at all; back out and call the police” (that’s really the best general response, but for purposes of the exercise we continue forward).
Of those that were quick to go to guns, I asked them why they did so. Some said “he was in my house”. One gentleman didn’t have his contacts in and wasn’t totally sure what he was looking at, but the general appearance and context was enough for him to perceive a threat. Generally afterwards, showing them what the target actually was caused a bit of reconsideration.
What’s key here is how people perceived the (total) situation, how they assessed threat, and how they chose to respond.
I’m not going to fault any student for whatever their response was. This is class. This is the place to come to make mistakes, to learn, to become better. One of the hallmarks of training is how it provides a forgiving learning ground to learn what to do and what not to do, so when you actually have to do something in the unforgiving real-world, you can do it better and minimize chances of doing it wrong (and risk making things worse).
There’s a few take-homes here.
First, realize how situations can unfold. This scenario started with a context of “trouble”, so human nature is going to expect trouble to continue. When you see something else that’s abnormal – in this case, a strange person supposedly within your home thrusting an object towards you – when a split-second decision needs to be made, we process the situation based upon what information we have.
Take for example a recently released dashcam of an Opelika, Alabama police officer shooting a man on the side of the road in 2014. Every police officer knows that road-side stops are one of the most dangerous events in police work. It’s dark. Pull up on scene, man goes to exit his vehicle. As he exits, he turns towards the officer, something dark in his hands, and he clasps his hands together.
As the situation is unfolding, what might that officer be thinking?
Here’s a freeze-frame from 0:23 into the video. What does that look like?
If you are someone educated in violent behavior (as police tend to be), that certainly looks like someone holding a gun, preparing to extend their arms to shoot. And not just shoot, but shoot at me.
It’s only in hindsight, it’s only with the benefit of sitting in our armchairs, that we can speak otherwise about this event. You can watch the full dashcam here.
I’m making no commentary on that specific event. What I am trying to point out is how there is reality in situations, how they frame events in our minds, and then how it affects our perceptions, especially in the seconds as events unfold. As well, simple objects that aren’t a weapon may not be so obviously-not-a-weapon as situations are unfolding.
We must work to be certain, or as certain as we can be.
Second, rid yourself of absolute mindsets. By that I mean mindsets like “if they’re in my house, they’re getting shot”. I hear this expressed far too often, with people proudly exclaiming how any unknown person in their house is getting shot, no questions, no discerement, no nothing. This is a recipe for trouble.
Deputies found a 32-year-old man who said that he and his wife were sleeping when they heard a noise in the kitchen.
The husband took his handgun and walked in the kitchen area, where he shot the victim.
After the shooting the husband recognized the victim as his younger teenage brother.
Something as simple as shouting “Who’s there?” could have prevented tragedy.
(Aside: I highly recommend reading anything and everything Claude writes; if you need a place to start, start with his series on Negative Outcomes).
There’s a time to go to guns, and there’s a lot of times not to. Even if we don’t shoot, pointing a gun at someone is aggravated assault. I’m not saying not to point guns at people when that needs to happen, but we need to be as certain as we can that it actually needs to happen. Because whatever happens, it’s likely it will become necessary for you to articulate why you did what you did. To be able to validly express the ability, the opportunity, the jeopardy of the situation.
At this point in one’s training, one must learn discernment. One needs to move beyond the simple physical skills of “point and click” and work to first engage the brain. In a sense, we should be reluctant to go to guns, but we should be eager to acquire the knowledge necessary to know if we should go to guns – or not.
Because in an instant, what will happen will happen and you cannot take it back.