The psychology of self defense and the force continuum


Revolver and Maglite as part of an Urban Survival Kit
Revolver and Maglite as part of an Urban Survival Kit

By Syd

You have made the decision to legally carry a self defense firearm. You have selected a pistol, acquired a CCW license and hopefully learned the basics of using all of this exciting new firepower. You have spent a lot of energy learning about pistols, cartridges, holsters, and the laws and rules concerning the carry of deadly weapons. That is all good and necessary, but it is woefully incomplete. Hopefully, a moment will come when you will step back from it all for a minute to consider what you are doing.

“If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail,” said Abraham Maslow and it was brilliant. Nowhere is this more true than in the real world use of defensive firearms. The point I’m going to make and make again, is that we need to insure that the gun isn’t our only tool.

The use of a defensive firearm is not an appropriate response to the vast majority of threats, hurts and insults we receive. For normal people who don’t work in law enforcement or the military, situations in which armed self defense is justified are actually quite rare. The odds are good that you may live your whole life without ever needing to draw a gun and fire it at another human being. I hope you do.

When you strap on a gun, you are introducing into your life the possibility that you may shoot and kill another person. This is extremely serious business. No right thinking person wants to shoot someone. It is a tragic and horrible thing. It is expensive in every way and creates a profound legal liability. It may create an emotional and spiritual trauma. People respond to this in different ways, some having a great deal of “post traumatic stress” while others seem able to shrug it off pretty easily. One way or the other, it leaves a mark on your soul. You don’t want to shoot someone if you don’t have to.

Portable Lifesaver
Portable Lifesaver

While the presence of the gun may resolve the problem without it ever being fired or even drawn, it may not, and you need to be mentally prepared to use it. By the same token, you must be perfectly clear about the correct and legal use of deadly force, and you must be emotionally capable of controlling yourself so as not to use the gun when its use is inappropriate. Your mind is the true weapon. Everything else is just a tool. If your mind is not prepared, the hardware will be useless. If the mind is not prepared, the hardware is more likely to get you into trouble than out of it. If your mind and body are prepared, you will not need to use the gun except in the gravest extreme.

The Spiritual Dimension

All of the world’s great religions contain prohibitions against the wanton destruction of fellow human beings. This is good. We don’t want to be killing each other over parking spaces. My own tradition is Judeo-Christian, so I will tend to speak from that background. One of my own struggles revolved around the fact that on the surface, arming myself seemed to run contrary to the religious tradition with which I was raised: “Thou shall not kill,” “Turn the other cheek,” and “Blessed are the peacemakers.” How do you resolve this with a .45 auto strapped to your hip?

First of all, we recognize that these ancient rules are still good ones. They still make sense. They are the rules I want to live by. I don’t want to kill anybody. I don’t want to get into fights just because someone says something obnoxious to me. I want to see peace in the world. I would love to see a world so peaceful and good that the assertion of my right to keep and bear arms would be nothing more than an exercise in constitutional law. Choosing to take responsibility for the safety and security of yourself and your family is not a repudiation of the basic injunctions not to murder and to seek peace and human decency for all.

There are evils greater than death. History is full of examples which show that it is the moral choice to oppose evil. We don’t have to look very far: Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, the Khmer Rouge, the domestic terrorists who have attacked our schools and work places, the psychopathic predators who have roamed our streets. Soldiers, law enforcement, and citizens who have opposed this sort of evil with deadly force are making a moral choice, and if they kill in the course of fighting this sort of evil, they have committed no “sin.” If you had Hitler or bin Laden in your sights, would you take the shot?

Allow a Choice
Allow a Choice

The demand by the radical pacifists and gun grabbers that we should accept brutalization and death at the hands of criminals and psychopaths for the sake of their notion of “safety” is irrational to the point of being demonic. If being raped and murdered by a crack head is someone’s idea of spiritual development, then count me out.

You have the right to live without the threat of abuse, torture and murder. You have the right to defend yourself. You have the right to freedom and self-determination, and you have the right to defend these things with deadly force if necessary. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, simply remind them that the very right to discuss these things and pursue those religious and political beliefs freely was won by force of arms, not by rolling over and playing dead.

But “turn the other cheek”? Not only is it a good idea, it’s absolutely mandatory in the legal environment in which we operate. When you begin to carry a personal defense weapon, you will immediately notice an increased reticence to get involved in the macho matches in which you may have engaged previously. Generally, you can only use lethal force for self defense or the defense of another in response to an imminent threat of bodily harm, sexual assault or kidnap. If you initiate a pissing match with someone which escalates into a shooting, your self defense justification is negated. You will go to jail. Consequently, civility, forbearance, and patience are absolutely mandatory for the armed civilian (and that includes law enforcement personnel). So “Turn the other cheek,” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and “Thou shall not murder” will serve you well. Avoidance of conflict is always the best policy. This is the paradox of the concealed personal defense weapon: we equip, train and prepare ourselves and then we must make every effort to avoid employing it.

If you think that your gun makes you ten feet tall and enables you to be rude, confrontational, and gives you god-like power over the people around you, think again because you’re on your way to jail. You just don’t know it yet.


So how do we make sure that we have more tools than just a hammer? The short answer is to prepare mind and body so that the situations in which the gun would need to be deployed will be reduced to an absolute minimum. This means the development of “empty hand” and non-lethal techniques of self defense, and improved situational awareness.

With the disclaimers that I don’t read or speak Japanese and am not a samurai or any sort of combat god, I want to talk a bit about Bushido, the “way of the warrior” in traditional Japanese martial arts. Bushido got a bad rap during World War II when it was corrupted by the military leaders of Japan to become the kamikaze cult which led thousands of young men to senseless deaths. In reality, Bushido is an ancient philosophy and warrior ethic based in the non-attachment principles of Zen Buddhism. Bushido is not unlike the chivalric code of the European knights but it is not the same. It puts emphasis on loyalty, self sacrifice, justice, a sense of shame, refined manners, purity, modesty, frugality, martial spirit, honor and affection.

There are a lot of cool and nifty things about Bushido that are worth studying in their own right but which are totally irrelevant to the discussion of concealed carry and self defense. The points of connection are in the paradoxical nature of the Bushido ethic and the practice of armed self defense. The Bushido warrior practices detachment from life and death, and from wealth and personal ego. At the same time, the Bushido warrior has a fanatical devotion to the development of his craft, to duty, honor, family and country. The Bushido warrior strives to achieve a profound respect for justice, life, and fellow human beings. He is detached, free and fluid, adaptable and relaxed, while being totally focused, ready to die, and a master of his martial craft. The spiritual quest of the Bushido warrior is to resolve these paradoxes into a unified personal balance. He empties himself and becomes the weapon.

The armed civilian faces analogous paradoxes. He or she must exert a high level of self control. Petty offenses and insults cannot be allowed to goad one into an armed confrontation. A high level of skill must be attained in the use of the firearm. If one must shoot, the shots must be expertly placed. It would be better to endure a mugging than to shoot three innocent bystanders in the process of stopping a mugging. The armed civilian must imagine and rehearse endless possible scenarios in order to be adequately prepared. What if I am attacked in a crowd? What if I am injured? What if my gun jams? Part of this process is fantasy and imagination, and we must do some serious soul-searching to make sure that we aren’t seduced by the fantasies into desiring or seeking an armed confrontation. We must be detached and yet devoted to the craft. We must be free from macho and blood lust and yet ready to apply lethal force without hesitation if necessary.

The warrior is prepared for combat wherever he is. It is said that one samurai, who was so poor as to earn his living by working in a small field, always carried a sword and wore leggings even in the field. He therefore did not need to go home first if he was called up. A samurai is a warrior first, whenever and wherever he is. He doesn’t sleep with his left arm under his body. If he is attacked when he is in bed, he can prevent the first blow with his left arm, and can reach for his sword with his dominant arm. He remembers to find an emergency exit before he sleeps when he stays in an inn or hotel.

Like the samurai in the story, the best practice for the CCW holder is to be armed at all times. There are several reasons for this. If your gun is on you, it isn’t laying around unsupervised somewhere and it is available to you in case you need it. If you get into the practice of wearing your gun every day, you will wear it more naturally and adjust your wardrobe for adequate concealment. When you wear the gun at all times, the muscles and unconscious learn where the gun is, making for a faster and more certain draw. This practice of wearing the gun at all times reinforces the “warrior spirit” and is the safest mode of storage for a personal defense weapon.

But this article is about making sure that your don’t have only a hammer. Samurai military training (Bu) included at least the six martial arts of sword fighting, spear throwing, shooting bow and arrow, riding, Karate and also the use of firearms. The samurai didn’t think very highly of firearms, considering them a dishonorable way to fight, but that’s another story. Apart from the six martial arts listed above, others were taught, such as swimming, fighting with clubs (Jitte) and spikes, star-dagger throwing (Shuriken), fighting with halberd (Naginata), climbing ropes, and spying and concealment (Ninjitsu).

The samurai schooled in Bushido could employ a wide range of martial tools along the complete force continuum in order to deal with a problem. He was in no way limited to his sword. In the same way, the armed civilian is best served by equipping himself or herself with a range of tools, both weapons and “empty hand” techniques. (Karate means “empty hand”).

The Force Continuum

The legendary governor of Louisiana, Huey P. Long, when discussing the political risks inherent in communications, once said, “Never write what you can phone; never phone what you can say in person; never say what you can wink.” The governor was describing a continuum of risk and security in communications. For the armed civilian, we could come up with a parallel list: “Never shoot what you can baton; never baton what you can spray; never spray what you can punch; never punch what you can walk away from.” Less is best.

The advantage of having a range of self defense tools is obvious. If you can subdue an attacker without using a deadly weapon, you eliminate the possibility of being charged with assault with a deadly weapon or facing a lawsuit for shooting someone. You also eliminate the possibility of emotional repercussions in yourself that might result from a shooting. There are a number of situations, especially involving close-in surprise attacks, in which the assailant may already be too close to draw a gun. In these situations, your hand-to-hand capabilities will be life savers. It has been shown that an attacker armed with a knife who is within 21’ distance can wound or kill a person before they can draw a gun. Finally, there are some places in which you cannot carry a firearm such as an airplane. The World Trade Center attack of September 11, 2001 demonstrates clearly the advantage of having empty hand techniques in settings where firearms are prohibited (whether they should be prohibited in these settings is another question, but for now, that is our situation).

Which items you add to your personal defense tool box is an individual decision based on your own appraisal of your capabilities. Some people add pepper spray, ASP collapsible batons, or kubotans. The kubotan is a miniature baton developed by Takayuki Kubota for use by the female officers of the Los Angeles Police Department as an aid in controlling unruly suspects. It was so successful that law enforcement agencies nationwide have adopted the kubotan for their officers. The kubotan can be used for stabilizing your fist, applying pressure to sensitive parts of an assailant’s body, or gaining leverage on an assailant’s wrist or fingers.

You will notice that I haven’t mentioned knives as a gun alternative. The reason for this is simple: knives are deadly weapons and the legal penalties for misapplying them are nearly as rough as with guns. Additionally, anyone who has ever been in a knife fight will tell you that they are nasty, brutal affairs and should be avoided whenever possible. Do I carry a fighting knife? Yes, I do. Do I want to use it? No, not at all.

The point is that if you can “air out” an opponent with a single well placed punch, immobilize him with a kubotan, or disarm him with your hands, you are that much ahead of the legal and emotional game.



Empty Hand

“Karate” literally means “empty hand.” I talk about Karate because of the symbolism of its name and it happens to be the martial art that I study. There is a bewildering array of martial arts schools and disciplines. In fact, probably the hardest part of it is in finding the right school and discipline. This part is harder than going to the store and buying a gun. It requires some research, talking to people, and perhaps trying out several schools before you hit on the right thing for you. I wish I could tell you it was easy to find the right trainer and school, but it isn’t. However, if you are able to find the right empty hand discipline, you will find it richly rewarding. My personal favorite discipline is Karate, but most of the other schools – Tae-Kwon-Do, Aikido, Kempo, Kung Fu, Ju-Jitsu, or the western military hand-to-hand disciplines – will serve you well if you develop them.

The obvious benefits of acquiring an empty hand technique include having an effective mode of self defense for those times and places in which you absolutely cannot carry a gun, and it provides you with an alternative to lethal force in situations where a lower level of force would be sufficient to handle the situation. Additionally, the regular practice of an empty hand technique significantly improves your physical condition – improving muscle tone and quickening reaction time, and thus improving your overall health and appearance.

There are also benefits which are less obvious. After a few months of Karate training, I began to notice that I was moving better and had better control of my pistol at IDPA matches. My upper body strength and footwork had improved. There is also a subtle psychological change which comes over you when you know that you are in good condition and are capable of handling a physical confrontation. This is largely unconscious, but you project an aura of self confidence and ability. Predators sense this and tend to move on to more vulnerable targets. They want any easy kill, not a fight.

Like IDPA in the world of defensive pistolcraft, an empty hand technique teaches you to perform under pressure. Nothing simulates real combat, but the testing for belts, sparring, and performing your moves in the presence of others creates stress and acclimates you to acting under pressure. The simple practice and repetition of moves programs them into your muscles and nerves so that when you need to employ these skills in a crisis, they are there, automatic and reflexive.

But aren’t guns “the great equalizer?” Of course they are. That’s why I work so hard as an advocate for concealed carry and RKBA. I’m not Bruce Lee and never will be, and if I get cornered by a gang of thugs, I probably won’t try to duke it out with them using Karate moves. Some people simply aren’t capable of practicing a martial art due to physical disabilities or other impediments. However, if you are in reasonably good health and martial arts training is available to you, I believe you will find it highly rewarding in a variety of ways, whether you ever use it in a fight or not. You’ll have another tool in the box and every problem won’t look like a nail.

Situational Awareness – Zanshin

At the top and bottom of the force continuum is situational awareness. The Karate term for this is zanshin. Literally, “zanshin” means something like “remaining mind,” or “continuing awareness.” Zanshin applies to your awareness of the world around you. You notice the people around you – how they stand, how they carry themselves, what is in their eyes – because you need to be prepared to interact with them. You are present in the moment. The greatest self defense tool you have is between your ears. When you are aware of the world around you, you can head off and avoid 99.44% of the situations which might force you to deploy a weapon. Even Gichin Funakoshi, the “father of modern Karate” said avoidance was the best strategy, and, if confronted by an armed [with a knife] opponent, run if you can. In the same way, if you are planning on going somewhere that you think you’ll need your battle rifle, two backup pistols and a kevlar vest, just don’t go there. If you find yourself somewhere that doesn’t “feel right,” leave. A little bit of common sense can spare you of a lot of grief and lawyer bills. If you can’t avoid the situation, your zanshin will prepare you to respond effectively and appropriately.

The Warrior’s Way

You have decided not to be a victim. You have embarked on the warrior’s way. It is my hope for you that this will all remain a fascinating but academic exercise, and that you will never have to face a mugging, attempted rape or home invasion. Yet, in arming yourself and making the decision not to be food, you have, in fact, adopted a way of life that makes particular spiritual, physical, philosophical and legal demands upon you. These rules and demands are non-negotiable. Misuse lethal force and you may win the battle but lose the war. By understanding and mastering the force continuum you can win the battle and win the war.

To summarize, the warrior

  1. Learns the laws under which he or she operates,
  2. Develops “fighting spirit,”
  3. Acquires mastery of the weapons he or she chooses to employ,
  4. Develops self control, good manners, and respect for others,
  5. Acquires a range of tools along the force continuum,
  6. Develops a continuing situational awareness.

Comments, suggestions, contributions? Let me know