Armed Citizen Response in Public Environments

Not from ABC News. Author conducted his own experiment and details the results here. Photo: author

Not from ABC News. Author conducted his own experiment and details the results here.
Photo: author

I recently came across a video produced by ABC News a couple of years ago. This video documented what they called a “controlled study” and claimed conclusively that “concealed carry permit holders are fooling themselves if they think they will be able to react effectively to armed aggressors. Most CCW holders won’t even be able to un-holster their gun. They will more likely be killed themselves or kill innocent bystanders than stop the aggressor.”

Needless to say, the only thing about the study that was controlled was the outcome. Without going into too much detail, the news crew gave a brief class on handguns to a few students whom they claimed had experience ranging from “never handling a gun” to “hundreds of hours” of weapon handling experience. Then they picked a student with no weapon experience outside of playing Airsoft and set him up to fail in a recreation of a shooting in a lecture hall at a college in Pennsylvania. Aside from the absurdly obvious anti-gun nature of the experiment, it did inspire me to write this article on an armed civilian’s role in dealing with armed aggressors in public.

First of all, it’s important to note that while there are civilians carrying concealed weapons with little or no training or practice in the deployment of said weapons, it is my experience that individuals who regularly arm themselves do train and practice as much, if not more than, the average law enforcement officer. An FBI study conducted in 2007, Violent Encounters: A study of felonious assaults on our nation’s law enforcement officers, noted that of the officers in the study, the average was 14 hours of weapons training per year. I can say with certainty that there are plenty of departments and officers who do far less than that. In contrast, over 80% of the offenders studied had 28 practice sessions per year.

An anchor point is an area that requires someone to meet certain criteria to gain entrance. Photo: author

An anchor point is an area that requires someone to meet certain criteria to gain entrance. Photo: author

The internal dynamics of deadly force encounters caused by stress, fear, and adrenaline will be similar regardless of venue. However, the external dynamics of deadly force encounters in public areas are starkly different from those that occur in private settings such as one’s home. What I mean more specifically is that in public areas, the chaos resulting from a deadly force situation, whether actual or perceived, can be magnified geometrically by the number of people involved.

Anchor Point

Your home is what we call an anchor point. An anchor point is a place where one must meet some pre-existing requirement to gain access, such as ownership, membership, employment, etc. Anchor points by nature typically are less populated and the environment is familiar to those inside. Because of the restricted access, the individuals in that area are often familiar to one another as well.

Habitual areas like this shopping mall are open to the public with virtually no restrictions. Photos: author

Habitual areas like this shopping mall are open to the public with virtually no restrictions. Photos: author

Habitual Area

Conversely, a habitual area is one where anyone can come and go without restriction. Because of their nature, habitual areas are subject to attacks by all types of individuals. Whether it is a terrorist seeking mass casualties, a gunman wanting to make a public statement, or even a stalker whose only way of approaching his target is when they are in the open, deadly force encounters in the presence of multiple people present specific and complicated dangers for the armed civilian.

Role of Armed Citizens

To identify the role of the armed civilian in a public deadly force emergency, we have to look at the difference in the societal roles of that civilian versus the role of an identifiable (uniformed) law enforcement official. The latter subscribes to what we call a “priority of life” protocol. The law enforcement priority of life protocol places the highest value on the lives of innocent civilians, victims, and hostages. Next in line comes the life of the officer, and last is the life of the perpetrator. It is the duty of the officer to put his life second to those of the people he serves. The officer’s uniform also clearly identifies him and his role to the public.

The priority of life protocol for the armed civilian is monolithic. The only concern should be self-defense. Included in that is the defense of your significant others in your immediate vicinity. While law enforcement is sometimes tasked with going on the offense – moving toward the threat – the armed civilian should (in most cases) be moving out of harm’s way and using deadly force only when necessary for personal defense. This task may prove difficult in public because panicked crowds tend to exhibit “herd” behavior.

Mirror Neurons

Herd behavior stems in part from things called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are the part of our brain that makes us smile when people smile at us, or makes us yawn when we see (or even hear) someone yawning. Mirror neurons help us learn by aiding in the replication of actions that we see. On a subconscious level, in addition to the mirroring of actions, the mirroring of emotions, beliefs and intentions associated with those actions can also occur. For example, when a person smiles at us, the mirror neurons cause us to smile back and can in the same manner create an emotional state that would typically accompany a smile. In the same manner, mirror neurons can account for the rapid spread of mental states throughout entire groups of people.

This image was taken from the author’s experiment. As the person on the right engages the suspect/actor in the far room, the person on the left is moving across his field of fire. These two consecutive frames show the first shot fired and the relative distance traveled by the person on the left in that short time frame. (Click to enlarge images.) Photos: author

This image was taken from the author’s experiment. As the person on the right engages the suspect/actor in the far room, the person on the left is moving across his field of fire. These two consecutive frames show the first shot fired and the relative distance traveled by the person on the left in that short time frame. (Click to enlarge images.) Photos: author

Aside from helping us learn, mirror neurons help us survive. When one bird in a flock flies off in a panic, it is usually only an instant before the rest follow. If one or two sheep, cattle, or horses get spooked, they can create panic in the entire group. Only one or two members of the group may have actually seen or perceived a particular threat, but the others, seeing the fear and its associated actions, mirror that emotion, causing it to spread rapidly through the group. From an evolutionary survival perspective, it is not necessary for every zebra in the herd to see the lion and make a rational, conscious decision to flee. One zebra sees the lion and, within seconds, the entire herd is fleeing based on that one zebra’s decision.

People behave in a starkly similar fashion. A scream, gunshot or other such stimulus can start the panic, and the crowd of people begins to run away. Many in the crowd may not know exactly what they are running from, but they know they are running from something, and that is all that matters.

This causes some very distinct problems for the armed civilian. The first is target identification and recognition. Either caught up in the herd movement or watching it from a close perimeter, identifying the target can be very difficult. Even if you can identify it, being able to engage the target in a rapidly moving, dynamic situation can be nearly impossible.

In any deadly force encounter, we know that we hyper-focus on the threat. This means we focus on the threat to the extent that we block out much of the rest of the environment. Just as it takes a measurable amount of time to pull a trigger, it also takes a measurable amount of time to stop pulling the trigger in the event that something or someone steps into our line of sight. In the chaos of a crowd, you may think you have your sights on the target, but just as you pull the trigger, someone may step in front of you.

First-person view of shot fired in previous image. Photo: author

First-person view of shot fired in previous image. Photo: author

The Experiment

Not long ago, I put this theory to the test in a controlled experiment using law enforcement officers whose training and experience ran the gamut from fresh out of the academy to years on a SWAT team. Using non-lethal ammunition in a force-on-force exercise, we had two students enter a room under the guise of searching for a wanted suspect. (I chose a confined area to maintain control of the experiment.) The first student was an actor in the exercise, while the second was unaware of what was about to happen.

The students would spread out upon entering the room. A role player in an adjacent room would emerge and begin firing at the second student while the first student crossed between the student and the role player. Roughly half the students shot their fellow student in the back. A large number reported they were so focused on the threat that they never saw the other student until after they had pulled the trigger. Several noted that they recognized their fellow student was moving across their line of fire but they could not stop their trigger finger fast enough (or move the muzzle) to avoid shooting the innocent in the back.

The other major problem facing the armed civilian in public is that he or she may be mistaken for the bad guy. An officer responding to a chaotic scene sees you with a gun in your hand. Before you know it, he shoots you, thinking you’re the bad guy. This has happened multiple times in the past. Not only armed civilians, but even off-duty or plainclothes police officers have been mistakenly shot by responding uniformed officers who thought they were perpetrators. Another armed civilian may see you and mistake you for the bad guy as well.

Two consecutive frames of the “fatal” shot being fired into the back of the head of the innocent actor. Protective gear on the back of the head is ruffled by the impact. (Click to enlarge images.) Photos: author

Two consecutive frames of the “fatal” shot being fired into the back of the head of the innocent actor. Protective gear on the back of the head is ruffled by the impact. (Click to enlarge images.) Photos: author

Armed Citizen Responsibilities

Since the principal role of the armed citizen is self-defense, the armed citizen should do their very best to conceal their weapon until the moment they are willing and justified to use it. The armed citizen should also assume the responsibilities of proper and ongoing training and practice to ensure that when it’s time to use that weapon in self-defense, they can quickly and fluidly present it to the threat and accurately engage. As a general rule, the firearm is not a tool for idle threats.

As an armed civilian, I do not want anyone to know I have a weapon until it is time to use it. My intention is that the first notifications a bad guy will have that I am armed are a loud noise and a flash.

In closing, as a citizen exercising your right to carry a weapon for self-defense, you must maintain a constant vigil to keep your skills sharp. Understand your role and make certain that if circumstances require, you are able to assume that role and become a solution rather than a problem.

  • (will not be published)

32 Responses to “Armed Citizen Response in Public Environments”

  1. Wayne Kelpin
    Wayne Kelpin

    An excellent article. Should be must reading for those obtaining a firearms license. I will share it with several friends of mine who carry and think it is smart to “cowboy up” and jump right into a gunfight. Thank you for your insights on this matter.

  2. Jim

    Two comments:
    1) A few decades ago, when I was a federal LEO, we were issued one box (50rnds) of ammo per month for practice. Most of the folks in my dept. gave me their ammo b/c I actually liked to practice.
    2) There has been a recent trend among Police Chiefs and Policed Commissioners to go public, after an officer is involved in a questionable shooting incident, and say that the officer’s safety is their primary responsibility. I guess it pairs well with the MRAPs.

    • Rich Nable
      Rich Nable

      Hi Jim –
      In my department, there are a regular few who show up for their 50 rounds a month. They are definitely the exception rather than the rule.
      Thanks for the comments!

    • Todd

      Maybe I’m naïve, but you’re seriously expected to be proficient based on 50 rounds a month? Is there additional weapons training or is it all self-directed using those 50 rounds?

      I go through 500+ rounds per month and would love to train more.

  3. Greg Raven
    Greg Raven

    Great analysis. The only thing I would add is that as an armed civilian, you really need to monitor your environment at all times, with special emphasis on the fact that the bad guy on whom you are focusing may not be alone. Unfortunately, we just had an incident a couple months ago where a permit holder engaged a bad guy without realizing that the bad guy’s girlfriend was also a threat, and lost his life as a result of trying to help.

    • Rich Nable
      Rich Nable

      Thanks Greg – You are so right! I was going to include that incident in the article but was already over the limit on size. Keep up the good work and keep checking back on the Personal Defense Network!
      – Rich

  4. Allen

    This is an excellent article, and my dept pushes this idea into our agents heads for them to think about when they are off duty.

    The only flaw in this article is the statement that law enforcement is expected to put a citizens life before their own. Make no mistake, LEO’s do not trade lives. They are expected to take calculated risks, but at no time is a law enforcement officer required by law or even expected to voluntarily sacrifice their life in order to help a stranger (not saying an officer wouldn’t be willing to do so in certain situations) Most depts. use the strategy “risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little”. When push comes to shove the officers safety is placed as a priority above everyone, then its other responders, then civilians, and finally the bad guy in that exact order.

    • Kerry Dillenburg
      Kerry Dillenburg

      Very thought provoking article, you brought up things I hadn’t thought about and could have cost me my life in the “right” circumstances.

    • Kerry Dillenburg
      Kerry Dillenburg

      Being just a civilian I have a problem that a LEO wearing a bullet proof vest isn’t willing to risk taking a hit to save the life or lives of those less protected. But since you’re not willing to practice being able to take out the bad guy by shooting your minimum 50 rods per month I shouldn’t be surprised.

  5. Frank McMillan
    Frank McMillan

    This is a good read! I’ve been in law enforcement for over 30 years at the state and federal level. I’ve also had some of the simulation munitions training and it’s true that target identification and focus lead to serious issues. Training can definately help prepare but no one can know what will happen until it’s occurred. I carry a badge off duty that I can clip to my clothes or flip out from a neck chain in the event of a shooting. When we had this training recently about off duty shooting events it was amazing how easy it is to forget to display the badge immediately afterward. Again, good article.

  6. Rollin

    And hope you already have some insurance to cover a civic shooting.

    Like they say, now that you’ve saved your’s and/or other’s lives, you’ll find yourself in the legal fight of your life.

  7. Stephen Keller
    Stephen Keller

    It doesn’t say in the article but the one thing that was always drilled into us during our military service and I had heard in the wife’s concealed carry class was to always communicate with each other. Always know what each other is doing. But in most cases the normal person is going to be so hyped up they are going to forget most of what they have been taught. Training, Training and more training is needed. Not just stop at one class. But that should be each persons responsibility. Just going to the range is not enough.

  8. Kerry Dillenburg
    Kerry Dillenburg

    Very thought provoking article, you brought up things I hadn’t thought about and could have cost me my life in the “right” circumstances.

  9. Otto

    Thanks for the article. The big new thing I learned is not to remove your firearm from concealment at the first sign of an active shooter, but to wait until the target is identified, in range, and that there is no obstruction between you and the target. Another point I would add is not to fire straight at the perpetrator, but to aim upwards or downwards (depending on whether you are in a multi-story structure) to minimize the chance of collateral damage if there is over-penetration.

    I agree that, if in a large public space such as a mall, the proper action is to remove your family or friends from danger. However, if I was both alone and close to the perpetrator, I would probably attempt to engage. I would definitely engage if in a relatively smaller space populated by people I cared for, such as an active shooter in my church, if I could safely do so- sheepdog mindset.

  10. Raymond Adams
    Raymond Adams

    I saw the ABC news feature referenced in the beginning of this article. It was a no-win situation for the concealed carrier due to the fact that they were always placed in the same seat in the lecture hall and the shooter knew where they were so when the shooter entered the hall the concealed carrier was their target. Not a likely real-life scenario. What really upset me about the feature was that law enforcement was involved. The majority of police I know and deal with are okay with the trained concealed carrier. As for the concept of concealed carry. I believe in concealed carry, not open carry. It is my belief and there is evidence to back it up, that open carry makes you a target. An assailant cases a situation prior to committing an act of violence, robbery, etc., they look to neutralize defensive threats first. Great article that backs up what I say, if you carry, please take the time to train and if at all possible, get professional training. I go to the range every month and have a minimum 100 round per month habit (as my wife refers to it), I read, I practice, I train.

  11. ljbertling

    Concealed means concealed. Keep your weapon holstered until you are convinced you need it. Remember, when you draw your weapon in the situation described in this article, no one knows you are a good guy. Absolutely agree with this article.

  12. Joe McDraken
    Joe McDraken

    Excellent and well wrote article. MSM always try to create some “anti-gun” fear among the viewers and try to look at us like “wacko gun lovers” or “happy triggers”. but behind the news there’s a political agenda from left who want us disarmed, so they can prevent an insurrection from “we the people” when our constitutional rights are trespassed when they get the control of the country.

    As an airsoft player, i can say is not the same thing shooting an airsoft GBB gun (despite the delicious recoil) and the lightweight of their designs in a controlled and safe scenario, than fire a gun in a crisis situation. In my country of residence (Chile) the gun laws are too strict for law abiding citizens but not for criminals. those laws block our need to self-defense, no matter what we use as a weapon to protect ourselves and family. Is too strict at the extreme to say there’s only 16 civilians in a country of 17 millions, who have a concealed carry weapons permit license (i don’t include the active and retired armed forces personnel, because once a soldier, always a soldier) 16 privileged citizens! and the crimes are in a rise here!

    In the other hand, we don’t only need weapons, we need to create a “gun culture” in my country promoting the trainings like practice shootings range fields and a well educated citizens about how to use a gun, when and under stressing situations. is not just draw and shoot.

  13. George

    Great article! We need to have more of this type as reminders and instruction. Thanks a lot.

  14. Nicholas Pidkamimy
    Nicholas Pidkamimy

    What if I’m in a fast-food restaurants and someone is holding up the restaurant.????

    • Troy

      Unless they start shooting in your direction or randomly at anybody and you feel your life is in jeopardy, leave it holstered and be a good witness. They want money, not murder charges, so they most likely are not going to shoot anyone. Take note of anything that can help the police catch them.

  15. John Decker
    John Decker

    My thought is to only get involved if I absolutely have to. In a case where I have family or friends with me, I will first attempt a group escape. If a criminal is close enough that escape is unrealistic and no police or security are in the area, I would engage, and try to stop the attack. If it was a case of hearing shots from a distance I would move away and try to leave the area entirely. Police are trained and paid to handle this type of situation. I’m not.

  16. Dave

    Very well said!! This is something that generally is not talked about in CPL classes (at least the ones that I have attended) and should be!! Nice job Rich.

  17. Peter Audette
    Peter Audette

    My experience is that many armed citizens are woefully undertrained and don’t know it !

  18. Steve

    Great article, keep them coming and its nice to learn the different angles of different Situations.

  19. Cricket

    You have confirmed what I have always thought. But I never thought to draw my weapon till when needed to avoid all the negatives you mentioned because of the peculiars of the situation.

  20. Bill

    I am a ‘regular shooter’ and have carried for over 20 years. These lectures and videos are priceless and I share them often. Thank you !

  21. Richard

    excellent evaluation of things that can happen. This should be read at least weekly to refresh your mind.
    I use the TV and snap caps to draw, recognize, and decide to shoot or not a predetermined bad guy ( male or female that is listed in the Preview of the program). Its a good alternative when you do not have a specialized range like the SEALS or SWAT teams have