After San Bernardino: self-defense considerations

Now that some serious information is finally emerging about the San Bernardino terrorist attack, it’s time to begin to assess how it might impact our preparations for self-defense.  Here are a few initial thoughts.  I’m sure many readers can (and, I hope, will) contribute their own ideas in Comments.

One aspect that moves right to the top of our concerns must be the public response to any perceived attack.  I stress the word ‘perceived’.  There may or may not be an attack in progress;  but stimuli such as the sounds of what might be gunfire (but might also be a nail gun from a nearby building site, or a car backfiring, or the like) may cause some people to leap to the conclusion that an attack is in progress.  (In other words, they’ll panic.)  This holds great dangers for those of us who are lawfully armed.  If we reveal our weapons in any way – not necessarily drawing them or holding them in a ready position;  merely exposing them by careless movement, or someone detecting them by bumping into us – this might trigger an assumption that we are either terrorists, or their accomplices.

What if a bystander calls 911 and breathlessly informs the dispatcher, “Shots fired at my location!  There’s a man with a gun!  He looks like this!  He’s dressed like this!”  You may be sure that after San Bernardino and other such incidents, responding officers will be hyper-alert to possible danger.  They may not be willing to proceed slowly and calmly to verify our bona fides.  Instead, they may cover us with their own weapons, and open fire at even the slightest hint of non-compliance or any delay in our unquestioning obedience to their orders.

There’s also the risk that other legally armed citizens may react too strongly to a perceived threat, whether or not that threat is real.  I’ve seen discussions online about a scenario where an individual enters a church carrying a long gun (a rifle or shotgun).  Some respondents advocated instantly firing on that individual, on the grounds that one can’t afford to take a chance about his/her motives.  Others point out (rightly, IMHO) that if we have no idea who they are or what they’re doing, that might be nothing less than murder.  What if it’s a plain-clothes police officer responding to a called-in alert?  That’s only one possibility.  There are many more.  What if we’re in a shopping mall that comes under some form of attack?  It might not be terrorism, but a robbery, or a criminal flash mob, or something like that.  Do all of those possibilities justify an armed response from us?  If we prepare for trouble, including drawing our weapon, will others around us recognize what we’re doing . . . or will they perceive us as part of the problem, and their own legally-carried weapons as a potential solution to the ‘threat’ we appear to offer?

I think it’s more important than ever to re-emphasize the need for discretion in our response.  Assuming it’s legal in our jurisdiction, we can defend ourselves if the attack is immediate and otherwise unavoidable, and provided that our response is proportional to the danger involved.  (Shooting an old man or woman who’s waving their walker at us is unlikely to be proportional!)  Therefore, if we’re not in the immediate vicinity of an attack or criminal incident, it may be the soundest response to simply evacuate the area as quickly as possible, taking our loved ones with us.  There will doubtless be those who regard that advice as cowardly, and who want to intervene to save innocent lives.  To them I can only say, read my comments above.  Any outsider trying to intervene runs the very considerable risk – if not the near-certainty – of being mistaken for one of the ‘bad guys’, and treated accordingly.

Another consideration is the need to be adequately armed.  If we’d been in the Bataclan Theater in Paris during the terror attack there last month, we might have had to shoot at terrorists at anything from point-blank range to several dozen yards away, across the length or breadth of the venue.  In the latter case, a small pocket pistol or revolver would have been unlikely to prove adequate to the need.  A larger gun with decent sights, that we can shoot rapidly and accurately at extended ranges, would have been required.  In the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, what’s being called the ‘Paris drill‘ has been widely discussed in firearms circles on the Internet.  I’m a trained, experienced shooter, and I can assure you that getting it right – 3 head-shots on 3 opponents at 25 yards range in 5 seconds, starting with your weapon holstered and concealed – is extremely difficult.  It may be impossible in such a high-stress situation with a small handgun offering only tiny or vestigial sights, such as a snub-nose revolver or a pocket pistol.  The use of a laser sight might make it easier to get hits with such a weapon . . . but it’ll also make your own position and actions more apparent to terrorists, as the beam is a target indicator in both directions.

The recent attacks have also strengthened the case to carry a cartridge or caliber that’s an adequate performer against human targets.  The old saw about .38 Special being a minimum effective caliber in a revolver, or 9mm. Parabellum in a pistol, is once again being bandied about.  (For what it’s worth, I agree with it.)  Consider, for example, what Buffalo Bore, a specialist ammunition manufacturer, has to say about the lowly .380 ACP cartridge, often chambered in pocket pistols:

The 380 auto inhabits a valuable and useful place in our society, mostly because of the easily concealable, tiny pistols chambered for it. HOWEVER, because of the very limited size of the cartridge, it is plagued with limited power and therefore most of the existing ammo in 380 auto suffers from not being reliable as a man-stopper. We’ve studied and played with nearly all of the existing available 380 ammo and find it wanting as a reliable means of self defense, especially against a large, insane, drugged up/pain free, determined attacker.

I’d add “such as a fanatical terrorist” to the end of that last line.  Buffalo Bore goes on to provide (in graphic detail – it’s not for the squeamish) details of what such a bullet may do (and fail to do) to a determined attacker.  (I might add that my own ‘carry load’ in .380 ACP, which I regard strictly as a backup round to a larger primary weapon, is Buffalo Bore’s 100gr. hard-cast flat-nose lead projectile, because I agree with their summation and I want the penetration that bullet offers.  No, they’re not compensating me in any way for mentioning their products:  in this cartridge, it’s simply what I use, and I’d like my readers to know about it in case – God forbid – they ever need it the hard way.)

Given the increased likelihood of encountering armed terrorists in more sensitive locations (and I’d include most larger cities and towns in that category), I think a case can be made for accepting the inconveniences involved and reverting to a medium-size or full-size handgun as one’s primary defensive weapon.  It’s harder to conceal its bulk, and it’s heavier to carry, but it offers greater ammunition capacity, better sights and (usually) a better trigger, and other advantages compared to a small pocket pistol or revolver.  I’ve discussed this in an earlier article, and the arguments in favor of it have now become even stronger.

Also, whilst I like the performance of larger, heavier cartridges such as the .45 ACP, I also agree that ammunition capacity has now become a very important consideration, justifying the use of 9mm. Parabellum or .40 S&W instead.  Fortunately, modern ammunition design has improved the performance of their smaller bullets to the point that they’re a viable self-defense option.  However, in a small pocket weapon, I’ve come to believe that a heavier, harder-hitting cartridge may be even more important.  That’s because the ammunition capacity of such a weapon in any caliber is necessarily limited;  therefore, each cartridge should be as effective as possible, so as to ensure one gets the maximum benefit from the reduced capacity.  (See Jim Higginbotham’s comments, quoted in this article.)  I’ll be reverting to .45 ACP cartridges in a Springfield XD-S pistol for pocket carry whenever possible.  I find it the most controllable in my hands of the smaller pistols currently chambered for that cartridge.  There are several alternatives.

I think we have to accept that the risks of being in certain places at certain times are now significantly higher than they have been in the past.  Consider:

  • Shopping malls offer terrorists a very ‘soft target‘ – consider, for example, the Westgate attack in 2013.  I’d now regard them as places to actively avoid.
  • Sports stadiums are also very attractive targets for terrorists.  One was attacked in Paris last month, and only the vigilance of security guards at the entrances prevented a bloodbath there.
  • Restaurants are also risky venues.  Four were targeted in Paris last month.  Most of the casualties there occurred at restaurants with outdoor terraces and seating.

There are other obviously risky venues, such as cinemas, theaters, etc.  One can’t possibly avoid going to all of them, but I think it’s worthwhile to have a plan to deal with trouble if and when one does.  It’s hard to defend oneself against a suicide bomber who detonates his weapon while standing behind one in an elevator, or next to one on the dance floor, but one can choose one’s seating position with an eye to maximizing security and increasing one’s chances of escape, evasion and survival.  (Many who’ve had military or law enforcement experience already do so automatically, to the resigned amusement of their families and loved ones.  Last month, while visiting Lawdog and his partner, the ladies teased us when he and I, without even thinking about it, seated them first, then took our places in locations that allowed us to see – and, if necessary, react to – anyone entering.  It’s as natural as breathing to us.)

Finally, I repeat John Farnam‘s sage advice, which I’ve given here before.

The best way to handle any potentially injurious encounter is: Don’t be there. Arrange to be somewhere else. Don’t go to stupid places. Don’t associate with stupid people. Don’t do stupid things. This is the advice I give to all students of defensive firearms. Winning a gunfight, or any other potentially injurious encounter, is financially and emotionally burdensome. The aftermath will become your full-time job for weeks or months afterward, and you will quickly grow weary of writing checks to lawyer(s). It is, of course, better than being dead or suffering a permanently disfiguring or disabling injury, but the “penalty” for successfully fighting for your life is still formidable.

Crowds of any kind, particularly those with an agenda, such as political rallies, demonstrations, picket lines, etc are good examples of “stupid places.” Any crowd with a high collective energy level harbors potential catastrophe. To a lesser degree, bank buildings, hospital emergency rooms, airports, government buildings, and bars (particularly crowded ones) fall into the same category. All should be avoided. When they can’t be avoided, we should make it a practice to spend only the minimum time necessary there and then quickly get out.

“A superior gunman is best defined as one who uses his superior judgment in order to keep himself out of situations that would require the use of his superior skills.”

That says it all.



  1. After the Garland Tx attack, I read another blogger (who I can't recall at the moment) changing from a pocket pistol to a full size double stack with 2 back up magazines – in that case, from available information it appears the guard needed 15 rounds to stop the 2 attackers. Of course, an event like that is the epitome of a "stupid place"!
    I agree that staying away from crowds and charged events (whether politically, emotionally, etc) is a great idea.
    Keep in mind that a pocket pistol is still better than none, and any weapon, particularly a distance weapon (e.g. pepper spray) is better than none.
    To be justifiable defense in public, you have to know without a doubt that there is a threat; in some cases, unfortunately, the only way to be certain of this is to let them get off a shot that shows your intention…
    Keep up the good work Peter,

  2. Minor bitch with your piece:
    "it'll also make your own position and actions more apparent to terrorists, as the beam is a target indicator in both directions."
    The only way you get a "beam" from a laser is if the air is filled with fog/dust. Under all normal conditions, you simply get an illuminated spot at the far end of the "beam" where the light stops.

  3. Peter,

    I am very disappointed. You have again given the best example how people can let these terrorists win, almost hands-down. "Restaurants, cinemas and malls are risky venues, so don't go there!" Congratulations. That EXACTLY is one of the major goals of terrorists. They do know that they are completely unable to harm even 1% of the people in the western world. But they can terrorize millions of people so much that they are no longer able to enjoy the freedom of their (western) culture. And you, Peter, helped them a lot to reach their goal. Say, how many people follow your blog? Face it: you ARE a force-multiplier!

    You are living in rural U.S.A., so the population density is less than one tenth of the average over here, and your borders are far better guarded than ours. That means your real risk of being a terrorist's victim is ridiculously small compared to ours. So I am curious: what would be your advice to us Europeans? Lock our bunkers doors from the inside and stay there? Verily, the mind doth boggle (oops, stole it, but it fits).

    Anyway, I understand that "prepper" and "paranoia" are synonymous, but – please – make a difference. Hurricanes and islamists both are real, but don't help the latter. They only can win if YOU and me let them. I certainly won't!


  4. Reactions to weapon sightings vary greatly with jurisdiction.
    Here in hypersensitive Silicon Valley, the county hospital was on lockdown for two hours on Thursday (my commentary) after someone was seen leaving the premises with a holstered gun.
    Emergency room unreachable; police on high alert with weapons at the ready amid variously sick, confused, crazy, and non-English-speaking bystanders; non-emergency patients missing appointments and having to reschedule, possibly a month or more later. There's no possible harm from this sort of overreaction, right?
    That some departments apparently don't train in recognizing active-shooter situations (report of black man with gun in Wal-Mart toy department: responding officers charge right past the greeters and shoppers, fail to note the complete absence of panic, find the subject, and start shooting) is not the least bit reassuring.

  5. Looks like wisdom to me, but… I agree with HD above.
    I REFUSE to stay away from the Mall. I WILL attend the next T.E.A. Party meeting.
    Your caliber advice hit home though. The .32 Beretta will go back into hibernation.
    The Glock 26 is gonna get out more often.

  6. @Hansjorg: It's your call. You know as well as I do that such places will be targeted again. That's not "may" – that's WILL. Given that inevitability, if you wish to expose yourself to that danger by frequenting them, you're free to do so. My choice will be to avoid them as far as possible, to improve my chances of survival.

  7. Extrapolate for a bit- Sooner or later, this is going to flip- people can avoid, they can hide, they can keep their heads down for a long time. But after a certain number of incidents, when it becomes glaring obvious the "authorities" cannot protect the populace, , it is going to change into a hunting scenario instead of a hiding one. This will likely spark a multi-sided civil war.

  8. Thank you Peter for another great article. I have been thinking over the impacts of this attack on my Family and how we "carry on" with our lives. However I didn't consider how this could affect my legal carry. Making sure I'm really concealed and how to evaluate a outgunned situation and what are the options in dealing with it.

  9. @Anonymous: Well, you know: no risk, no fun!
    (I just wanted to leave a comment that is equivalent in it's doofidity to all these "redneck" postings)…

  10. I read this article more as saying that you need to be aware of the risks inherent in any chosen course of action and determine if the risk is acceptable to you. I thought it was a pretty decent article myself.

  11. Micheal Bane has been talking in his podcast about going back to Glocks- specifically, a G-26 w/ an RMR red-dot, backed up by 15 or 17 round spares, and maybe a 30-rounder in the bag w/ the trauma kit. Torso hits at 60 yds. AINT shabby, nor head shots at 25. My answer is keep my fat crippled ass home, since I really can't afford to go out anyhoo….

  12. Peter, right on target. I am sending this to a number of people I know, including a few in law enforcement.

    It frankly scares me no little bit that firearms sales continue to set records each month (six months in a row now). Only a tiny minority can possibly have had professional training in and real-world experience of firearms.

    I am afraid that for many people, guns may be magickal thinking: "I have a gun so I must be safe." But the only way to be safe carrying a gun is:

    1. If you buy a gun because you think you might need one in some of the places you go, then maybe you should not go to those places.

    2. Using guns in an emergency and legally and effectively and without collateral damage is damn hard, and if you have not thought about it ahead of time, you won't. More than thought about it, of course: Have you had shoot/no shoot training? How many lives rounds have you fired, including at moving targets? How many dry fires? Was your teacher credentialed or was he just some guy you know who owns a gun?

    3. When I was learning to fly, my instructor demanded that at any given moment, upon being challenged, I could immediately point out the window to where I would land the plane if the motor quit. Anyone who goes armed in America today needs to understand that they have to be constantly be doing threat assessment and playing what-if scenarios in their head.

    I may be wrong, but I do not think that most of this is being done by gun owners. They may be a well-armed militia, but they are certainly not well prepared. (Again, IMO, and I hope I am wrong.)

    Haven't been to your blog in awhile, good to be back! Followed the link from American Digest.

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