This year’s Experiential Learning Lab scenario features an armed robbery, perpetrated by a single actor, of a convenience store populated with multiple additional customers. The participant’s instructions are to enter the store, purchase a bottle of water, and leave. The robber enters as the student is picking up a bottle of water at a table, which is intentionally placed such that the participant’s back is turned when the robber enters and the participant will be caught off guard. The robber enters, fires a shot into the ground, and orders everyone to get on the ground, but does not point the gun at the customers. If not stopped or otherwise derailed, the robber will get into a verbal and physical altercation with a disabled woman over her purse near the cash register, murder her, then run out of the store with the purse and the money from the register. I role-played the armed robber.
Key decision points in scenario timeline
There are a series of intentionally crafted decision points for the participant:
- Initial gunshot and declaration of robbery
- Escalation of tension between robber and verbally combative disabled woman, culminating in direct threats of violence
- Murder of disabled woman
- Robber fleeing scene
If the participant initiates a drawstroke (including a flinch reaction), “picks” at their concealment garment, does not immediately comply with demand to get on the ground, or otherwise draws attention of robber, the robber challenges their actions but does not point the gun at them or shoot them unless the participant’s gun becomes visible, even though partially initiating a drawstroke is highly likely to be recognized in the real world by the “bad people” as evidence that the person is armed.
Range of Participant Reactions/Scenario Results
Actions taken by the participants varied widely, as expected:
- Immediately turn and draw pistol when robbery is announced (always resulted in a losing gunfight)
- Flinch or initiate draw (gun does not become visible) but stops when challenged and complies with robber’s demands to get on the ground
- Initial partial compliance with fidgeting and obvious indecision (kneeling or partially proning, or repeated attempts to get into a more favorable position on the ground)
- Initial total compliance
- Engage with robber once violence or threat of violence escalates with disabled customer
- Wait for robber to be distracted with robbing the clerk, then drawing and challenging
- Fired shots at robber (now murderer) as his back is turned and he is fleeing the store
- After gunfight and robber flees, several continued to point gun at clerk and other customers (at least one participant displayed no awareness that they were doing it)
- Flee once robber is distracted with clerk and not facing participants
Debrief/After Action Discussion Notes
I found some of the participant remarks or reactions during the short debrief following each scenario particularly worthy of note:
- Some students expressed disappointment during debrief that their situational awareness “failed”. In reality, “complete situational awareness at all times” is a unicorn. It doesn’t exist. To paraphrase Craig, anyone who claims it does lacks real-world experience.
- Some students, when being debriefed after having gotten into a losing gunfight after drawing immediately when robber entered and verbalized, did not grasp that initial compliance was actually an option.
- At least one student falsely recalled the robber initially pointing a gun at them as justification for immediately drawing.
Considerations and Lessons Learned
I really like Craig’s hotwash/debriefing approach with participants immediately after the scenario has been terminated, asking the participants to recount their view of what just happened, what they thought they did well, and what they thought they could have done better. I can tell you from personal experience that there is a lot to absorb, and just like an actual incident, the participant’s full recollection of the event may not be complete (or as complete as it is going to get) for 24-48 hours. The participants are probably going to be “their own worst critic” assuming they have requisite knowledge to critically evaluate their own performance. However, it is necessary for the sake of discussion in this blog post to examine the reactions and actions of some of the participants more critically in order to property convey a few key points. It is not my intent to disparage the participants personally; participants were selected for the scenario based in part on their relative inexperience with force-on-force scenarios.
Prior to diving into what some of the participants could have done better, one positive point merits highlighting. Although getting into a gunfight with the robber and getting shot is obviously a negative outcome, all participants who got into a gunfight continued to fight back until the robber fled. This is critically important and speaks to the committed mindset of the participants – you are not out of the fight until you are out of the fight!
Feigning compliance and “waiting your turn”
Whether you have decided to act and are waiting for a tactically advantageous opportunity, or are observing and initially intend to comply (I say initially because reasons may develop which cause you to change your mind about complying, such as escalations in threats, escalations in violence, or people are being searched), one point needs to be made very clear. Compliance means 100% compliance. As the “robber” I observed a lot of participants exhibiting only partial compliance to the point that they attracted my attention. You do not want to attract attention to yourself. Immediately exhibit a submissive posture. If they tell you to get on the ground, get on the ground. Become a ghost! All of the fidgeting around, squirming, partially kneeling, etc. that I witnessed and challenged the participants about will get you threatened at best, probably searched, and possibly shot. You aren’t fooling anyone when you do that.
Is it ok to shoot someone in the back?
In my opinion, as well as in my experience in force-on-force scenarios, not only is shooting someone in the back or side acceptable, it is preferable. When you are acting in defense of others, I have never seen any deadly force statutes that stipulate that deadly force is only justified if the bad guy is facing you or looking at you. Wait until their back is turned or they are otherwise not looking at you (preferably you aren’t in their field of vision at all) to draw and shoot. You may have to take incremental steps to get your gun out and then wait for the right moment. Once you start shooting, keep shooting until you are sure they are out of the fight – and for God’s sake, remember to look for the “+1”. At least one of the participants waited until I turned to face him before he decided to pull the trigger, and got themselves shot. Don’t forget that action beats reaction. If I have a gun in hand, I can bring that gun up and shoot at you before you will be able to recognize my actions and shoot me in response.
Should you “challenge”, or just shoot?
Action beating reaction is also applicable in this situation. If my memory serves me, Force Science Institute studies have demonstrated that they physical act of turning and firing can be achieved in as little as a quarter of a second. If you challenge someone at gunpoint, even if they aren’t facing you, it is possible for them to turn and shoot you before you will be able to react to their movement and open fire. I have personally proved this true multiple times while role-playing bad guys in force-on-force scenarios. As a real world example, an armed citizen verbally challenged an active shooter at the Tacoma Mall in 2005 and was shot and paralyzed.
“The right thing to do tactically in that situation, legally in that situation, and morally in that situation,” he says, “is end the shooter’s ability to keep shooting. And that means apply lethal force now.”https://www.npr.org/2013/01/29/170456129/armed-good-guys-and-the-realities-of-facing-a-gunman
– John Holschen
When it is time to shoot, shoot, don’t talk. The only scenario where I could envision myself challenging a gunman would be if I was behind good cover (cover being something that stops bullets, as opposed to concealment).
Does my draw speed matter?
At 5 yards, the average knucklehead is probably capable of 3-4 shots a second that are probably going to hit you. If you decide to try to out-draw someone that is looking at you with gun already in hand (and perhaps you don’t have any choice, if they are about to shoot you), you should recognize that the odds are pretty high that you are going to get shot at least once. The good news is handguns are actually not very good at killing people…the bad news is you’re going to have to use one yourself to make them stop trying to kill you. Still wearing my “bad guy” hat, it is pretty reasonable that even with a reaction lag, I can shoot you one or two times by the 1 second mark. Your blazing fast 1 second draw is still going to result in you getting shot before you can shoot at me. That 1 second draw is far superior to a 1.5 second draw though, which would probably result in me sending at least 3 bullets your way before you are able to return the favor; a 2 second draw means I get a 5 bullet head start on you. We saw this play out in the evolutions when participants elected to turn and draw on me right after I came in, or waited to shoot until I was facing them.
Legal and financial costs and risks of acting on behalf of others
There are financial and legal risks involved when we use force, and especially deadly force, on behalf of others, beyond the more obvious risk of injury or death. You are going to have to legally defend your actions, even if they were 100% justified and you made no questionable decisions. This will be expensive and could possibly financially ruin you and your family. One figure I have heard thrown as a baseline/minimum legal cost is $50,000. John Holschen poses a terrific thought exercise which Greg Ellifritz blogged about here, which I highly encourage everyone to read. Even if you do everything right, you may still get prosecuted! You are no doubt aware that malicious prosecutions are becoming more commonplace.
What if you do make a questionable or bad decision, despite having the best of intentions? Your legal costs just went way up, and if you haven’t sought out quality force-on-force experiences, the chances that you are going to make a serious mistake are much higher than you think (the Dunning-Kruger effect is a thing). We haven’t even addressed the possibility that a bad decision leads to lengthy incarceration on top of voluminous legal fees.
What kind of questionable decisions might lead to such a financial, and possibly legal, negative outcome? At least three participants shot me as I was fleeing the store and no longer posing a direct threat. This is a morally questionable decision, but more importantly, legally it is very questionable. Attorney Andrew Branca, author of The Law of Self Defense Principles, and the website lawofselfdefense.com, outlines 5 fundamental principles of self-defense, one of which is Imminence:
The law allows you to defend yourself from an attack that’s either happening or about to happen very soon, meaning within seconds. It’s not intended to justify vengeance for some past act of violence, nor to “stop” a speculative future attack that you have time to avoid by other means.
You can think of the element of imminence as a window that opens and closes. Before the window of imminence is open—before the threat is actually occurring or imminently about to occur—you can’t use defensive force. After the window of imminence has closed —after the threat is over—you again cannot use defensive force.
It’s only while that window of imminence is open that you can lawfully use defensive force.https://lawofselfdefense.com/beginjourney/
Shooting someone in the back as they are fleeing the scene of a crime is highly likely to be deemed in violation of the principle of imminence; if you prefer to think about legality in terms of the Ability-Opportunity-Intent triad, is someone running away from you fleeing the scene of a crime manifesting intent to do you serious body injury? Not likely. Some states/jurisdictions may deem this action explicitly legal under “fleeing felon” statutes, but there are some that do not. At best, in my opinion, you are taking a huge gamble with both your financial and legal freedom if you choose to shoot a fleeing felon, all moral questions aside.
More than one participant muzzled (pointed their gun) at others in the store after the robber fled, which in many jurisdictions can be deemed aggravated assault or a similar serious felony. At least one participant did not seem to be aware that they were doing so as it happened. Had the other customers in the store done anything to justify pointing a gun at them? The answer to this obviously rhetorical question is “no”. You could get prosecuted for it.
You owe it to yourself, your family, and your loved ones to seek out education and training on the legal aspects of deadly force. Masaad Ayoob’s “MAG20 / Classroom – Armed Citizen’s Rules of Engagement” course is outstanding and can’t be recommended highly enough. Andrew Branca’s classes (available online) are also very good (Gun Culture 2.0/David Yamane’s review and summary of a 2014 seminar here).
What is worth dying for?
What are you willing to die for, or to a lesser extent, sustain potentially life-long crippling injuries? Are your loved ones and dependents (parents/spouse/children) going to understand or agree with the decision you made? Are they going to understand the risk you took to defend someone else’s money, someone else’s business, or even someone else’s life if they are a stranger? To extend John Holschen’s Gas Station Clerk analogy, would you be willing to be euthanized if she needed a heart transplant and you were the only matching donor left in the world? Would those you leave behind understand and agree with that decision? As Tiffany Johnson beautifully expressed, “There is no shame in surviving.” There is no shame in escaping. There is no shame in keeping your head down and being a good witness.
It is my firm, passionate conviction that far too many people visualize a fantasy of how they think the action will unfold which ends with them prevailing heroically and triumphantly, without considering any other possible outcomes (the Hero Fantasy). We need to carefully consider the worst case scenario before acting – again, what is worth DYING for? What is worth ruining yourself (and your family) financially for? What is worth being incarcerated for the rest of your life? Consider all possible outcomes.
These decisions are extremely difficult to decide in the heat of the moment. If you carry a gun and are willing to act on behalf of others, it is imperative that you devote time to determining what your “red lines” and moral boundaries are in advance.
Know thyself and train accordingly
If you are a high responder–if you are somebody who’s just going to run into the fray–you had better know that now so that you can build the knowledge, skills and attributes and have with you the tools that you’re going to need when you get into the kind of trouble that your temperament is going to get you into.Dr William Aprill (from 2017 Ballistic Radio podcast episode 197)
I can’t tell you where your own moral red lines should be drawn, and neither can anyone else. Those are for you to decide. I implore you, beg you, beseech you, however, to determine where those lines are ahead of time, and make those choices with a solid understanding of the possible physical, legal, and financial ramifications that those choices for you and your loved ones. Don’t fall prey to the Hero Fantasy. Think about the worst possible outcome should you decide to act – especially if you fall into the “high responder” category. To be explicitly clear, there are definitely situations where I am personally willing to risk everything to defend others – children are a big moral red line for me – but these situations have been carefully thought through, and my wife and children understand my pre-made choices.
Unfortunately, in my experience it is not at all atypical for people who are relatively or completely new to complex force-on-force scenarios to make poor or even catastrophically bad decisions. In fact, I would assert that it happens more often than not – I previously blogged about my experience and observations as a participant in one of these Experiential Learning Lab evolutions in 2014. The fact that poor outcomes are so prevalent in these evolutions serves to highlight the importance of seeking out quality force-on-force scenario training for any serious practitioner.
Thank you spending your valuable time reading this post, and stay safe!
KR Training Instructor
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