EDITOR’S NOTE: In this new column, attorney Anthony L. DeWitt will analyze actual self-defense incidents that made the news, determining whether the involved parties made sound tactical and legal decisions and highlighting areas where readers can learn from what transpired.
The television series Star Trek gifted us an analogy for a no-win situation: the “Kobayashi Maru” scenario. The simulation had academy cadets game out how they would rescue the civilian ship Kobayashi Maru and get it back into friendly territory. It was not, however, a typical rescue simulation. Rather, it was a simulation designed to test the ability of command candidates to remain calm while recognizing that there was no way out of a deadly situation. Only one student ever defeated the simulation — you guessed it, James T. Kirk — and he did so by altering the simulation’s program.
Sometimes, in a real-life self-defense situation, changing the programming is what we’re called upon to do, as the events in this story illustrate.
It was a Fourth of July barbecue and party in a suburban town in the Southwest. A celebration of freedom. Music played inside and out. There would be fireworks after dark, but not the kind the attendees were expecting.
Police reports would later detail how an invited neighbor walked in, sat down and ate a plate full of food. He watched the party unfold and, with a full belly, calmly got up. In front of his neighbors and their wives and small children, he drew his firearm, aimed for his first victim and calmly pulled the trigger, fatally wounding the man. He moved on to his second victim, also fatally wounding him. The shooter never said a word during the attack. Two people died and four others were wounded before another partygoer stopped the attack with his lawfully carried handgun. Police were called, and the witnesses described the events to the police, who determined that the defender acted properly and within the law.
Training Overcomes Chaos
As concealed carriers, we are taught to look for pre-attack indicators and how to de-escalate situations. We’re taught to put distance between us and any threats. We’re taught to “move off the X.” Some instructors teach “tactical patience” so a defender is not drawing against an already pointed weapon. All of these skills have valuable application in the right setting.
Pre-attack indicators are valuable clues that someone you see might be getting ready to go full felon. De-escalation is useful when you’re dealing with the angry or the mentally ill. Distance is your friend in the open, as it makes it less likely you’ll get shot. The same goes for movement. And tactical patience is useful against an already drawn weapon when shots aren’t being fired. However, sometimes the only thing that matters is getting a gun into the fight as quickly as possible and getting solid center-of-mass hits on your opponent, even if it means you, as the defender, are likely to get shot in the process.
Imagine the situation facing the defender in the real-life shooting mentioned above. There were children in attendance. It was inside a house with multiple persons milling around. There was no “distance” option. There was no cover or concealment option. There were multiple friendly parties, some of them capable of panic and flight across sight lines. The opponent’s weapon was already in play. Two people were already dead seconds into the attack. The defender had to know both whom to shoot and whom not to shoot. Drawing against an active assailant, as in this case, is often a Kobayashi Maru situation.
This is the type of situation where the only training that mattered in the outcome was quick employment of the handgun and precision marksmanship. Marksmanship mattered here because there were multiple innocent women and children in the rooms where the gunfire erupted. When someone isn’t talking and is already actively firing, the only thing that matters is stopping that shooter before one of the innocents is shot or killed.1
That must occur without collateral damage. People react differently to gunfire. It is the fight, flight or freeze response. Some get down on their knees and crawl away from danger, while others jump up and run directly in front of a defender.
The Skill and the Will to Engage
How does someone train to deal with such an incident? Practicing with 3-gun spinning targets, learning to hit targets that are moving and, of course, practicing with “hostage targets” to ensure your rounds only impact the attacker are all excellent manners in which to prepare for a similar situation. Training, however, is only one piece of the solution to the problem encountered with a violent dinner guest.
More than almost anything else, it is a defender’s mindset and a willingness to engage that are critical to stopping someone intent on a high body count. That willingness to engage means, among other things, being willing to deal with the legal implications of such emergency action.
Because there may be many other people there, there is a risk that, as is often the case, no one will see the first shot fired. A defender may initially be thought to be the attacker, perhaps by other concealed carriers. Once the shooter is down and disarmed, the defender must secure his or her sidearm, call 911 and read from his or her USCCA card: “We were attacked. We were in fear for our lives. I defended myself and my neighbors.” Some accounts of the events may not match up with the defender’s account of what happened. There are legal risks precisely because there will be multiple witnesses and multiple accounts. In the situation described herein, police were still working on the investigation 15 days after the event.
Every situation is different, so train regularly and carry every day. Be able to answer the call when it comes. Lives, including yours, depend on it.
(1) It is worth noting that in this incident, as well as in the Greenwood Mall incident in Indiana from later in July 2022, armed bystanders took on active shooters with little regard for their own personal safety.