An Interview with John Farnam
by Gila Hayes
In our Back-to-Basics series, we strive to share the knowledge from our own mentors that formed our thinking when we were new gun owners and introduce the people who taught us to today’s new gun owners. Reality dictates that many of the thousands and thousands of gun owners and concealed carry licensees may never have the opportunity to absorb the wisdom of John Farnam, internalize the teachings of Massad Ayoob, be inspired by Tom Givens, or learn from other luminaries in our self-defense world. It is our goal to share what we can through the written word in our monthly members’ journal.
One of the most beloved firearms instructors to ever influence armed citizens, John Farnam started teaching when he was a young Marine officer in the 1960s, then worked in law enforcement before going on the road as a full-time, itinerant firearms trainer, a career he still continues today. He and his wife Vicki Farnam still travel extensively, visiting ranges around the nation as guest instructors teaching rifle, pistol, emergency medicine and tactics. “It’s a full time job,” Farnam chuckles.
When armed self defense is taught, de-escalation and threat avoidance must lead the curriculum. John Farnam gets even further ahead of possible defensive gun use, teaching students to consider risks before they go to a venue, and drills include voicing polite, but no-nonsense communications to encourage strangers approaching with unknown intent to go find easier prey. If not dissuaded, the ill-intent of the approaching man or woman is clearer and can later be articulated if the armed citizen needs to justify his or her actions.
Several Farnam aphorisms are so memorable that many recite them without realizing to whom they should be attributed. His advice “Don’t go to stupid places; don’t hang out with stupid people; don’t do stupid things” and “Be in bed by 10 p.m.” has doubtless prevented uncounted problems. In the same vein, since fights that don’t happen can’t be counted, we’ll never know how much predatory violence never occurred because the intended victim waved off the incoming threat with a firm, polite, “I’m sorry, sir, I can’t help you,” the classic Farnam response to a stranger closing the distance through pleas for a cigarette, a match, spare change, the time, or directions.
In addition to the classic self-defense justification of an attacker having the ability, the opportunity and creating jeopardy by his or her actions, many trainers have added the concept of preclusion, or avoiding impending violence to the factors that justify use of force in self defense. Recognizing his advocacy for and coaching in methods of deterrence, we asked John Farnam about the importance of precluding involvement in a violent encounter.
eJournal: Thank you for talking with me about what some have called preclusion, but put more simply, we might simply call the importance of avoiding conflict so that if we must use force, it is a last resort.
Farnam: For me, a good translation of “preclusion,” comes from Andrew Branca’s five elements of self-defense law (see https://lawofselfdefense.com/beginjourney/) where I view it as part of the requirement of “reasonableness.” I say that because the members of the jury and the prosecutor are going to ask, “Why didn’t you just leave? Did you really have to be there? Couldn’t you have just gotten in your car and driven away?” The word preclusion suggests that there were other reasonable ways of avoiding what happened were precluded for whatever reason.
eJournal: Absent the stress and fear of a dangerous situation, reasonableness sounds like something anyone would do. Like the old saying that “common sense is not so common,” a study of use of force incidents by private citizens shows that walking away doesn’t seem to be as easily done as said. Why is it so hard for us to walk away from hostilities?
Farnam: This came up in a class I taught in New Jersey last weekend: what I tell my students is that prosecutors are very sensitive to whether you made it worse by what you did. As an example, you’re sitting in a restaurant and someone comes along and says, “Hey, you’re sitting in my seat.”
You say, “I don’t see your name on it!”
Then he gets mad, pulls a knife; you pull a gun and you light him up. You may claim that it was a clear case of self defense. That is the kind of thing that prosecutors don’t like. You could have said, “Hey, have a seat, pal. I will find another one.” Prosecutors don’t like the fact that you made it worse by what you said.
eJournal: Did our smart-mouthed retort create grounds for another to resort to physical violence?
Farnam: No, he has no right to attack you, of course, but all I can tell you is that in the court cases I’ve been involved with recently, these are the kinds of things to which prosecutors are sensitive.
You can claim that under the immediate circumstances, you had no choice, but you will be asked to just back up a couple of seconds. Why you couldn’t have said, “I am terribly sorry. I will find another seat,” and why didn’t you get up and leave?
Now, some people will say something along the lines of, “I should be allowed to defend my honor,” or things like that. All I can tell you is that prosecutors don’t have any tolerance for that. They do not like it if they think that when a shooting was unnecessary because of something you did or something you failed to do, even if under the immediate circumstances, maybe the shooting was justified. You can expect trouble with that.
If you get up, and you say, “No problem, take this seat,” and he follows you and attacks you with a knife, I don’t think you are going to have a problem if you draw a gun in response to that because you already demonstrated that you didn’t want to fight; you didn’t want to hurt anybody, but he gave you no choice.
eJournal: A common fear is that running away will stimulate the predator’s prey drive, or in your hypothetical scenario, by surrendering the chair and moving away, that one communicates vulnerability. Some go so far as to say showing weakness nearly guarantees they will be violently victimized. Is that just a silly story we tell ourselves?
Farnam: [sighs] Yes, Gila, and this is particularly a problem in our Urban Rifle courses because now you have a weapon with which you have no trouble being effective and very precise out to 40-, 50-, or even 60-meters, far more so than you would be with a pistol. Once again, if a prosecutor looks at that, he is going to say, “Couldn’t you have just gotten in your car and driven away? You could have left with a high degree of safety and no shooting would have been involved.”
Now, the guy was out there 75 meters away, waving a pistol at you or something, under any legal precedence any gun is dangerous at any range, so you don’t have to think that you are safe because you are out of range. There is no such thing as “safe.” Still, it is not hard for me to imagine a prosecutor saying, “I think your aggressive solution to this problem was far less desirable than another solution where no one got hurt and you could have done it with the same or greater safety.
It is a mushy standard! It is kind of hard to know, so all I can say is that in my experience recently when prosecutors see any sort of aggressiveness on your part, they are not going to like it. The jury is not going to like it.
It wasn’t always that way! Emanuel Kapelsohn, my fellow Network Advisory Board member, assisted me with the course I recently taught in New Jersey and in his police-involved cases, he is now seeing police officers being charged criminally in cases that used to be handled in the civil arena. The dilemma police have, of course, is that they are paid to confront dangerous people. When you’re not active as a police officer, you are not really required to confront dangerous people. You are really not expected to, and they do not want you doing that, particularly when there is an alternative. Did you really have to go over there? Did you really have to confront that person? Would it have made more sense to just stay where you were and not have gone over there?
I was involved in the case last year in Georgia, where exactly that kind of thing happened. There was a shouting match. People were very aggressive, and I am not sure it was very clear that one side was the good guys or the bad guys. A man who had a Georgia permit and was carrying a gun was friends with one of the group. He thought his friend was endangered, so he went over there, and sure enough one of the belligerents pulled a gun. As it turned out, although there were several armed people present, only one did any shooting. Under the immediate circumstances, I thought it was a pretty clear-cut case of self defense. The prosecutor found fault with him going over there in the first place. The prosecutor, I think, was quoted as saying, “Bud, you need to find better friends.”
The man ended up getting convicted. As it turned out, I did not testify. I was all set to go down to testify at the trial, when the judge said, “No expert testimony is required.” They are appealing the case on the basis that my testimony should have been allowed. [chuckles wryly] Maybe 10 years from now that will get decided.
This is something I am seeing over and over. Don’t go over there! Anytime you are seen as the instigator or aggressor, all I can say is that prosecutors just do not like that at all and they are probably going to come after you.
eJournal: The Georgia case is instructional, and I note that the trial was in a southern state where we might still expect chivalry, not up north in New Jersey or New York or on the west coast where we expect the heavier hand of government to punish someone using force in self defense. It raises the question: where is the middle ground between cowardice and acting too aggressively because we believe it is necessary to prevent harm to another person?
Farnam: That is the dilemma! I do not have a good answer. As my student you have heard me say this in class before: I am not here to tell you what to do; I am here to tell you what is going to happen if you do that.
Whether you think it is fair or not is irrelevant. When you do certain things, you expose yourself to enormous risk. I am not saying, “Don’t do it.” I’m just saying understand the way the system is going to look at this, and this is especially true for people who have concealed carry permits.
We have had this discussion before. You see something terrible happening, or you think you see a crime being committed. As an armed citizen, you go over and it does not have a happy ending. Then, you have a prosecutor coming after you, saying, “You should have just backed away. You should have found something else to do.”
I have had students who will say, “I understand what you are telling me, but when I see something like this going on, my conscience will not permit me to remain silent.”
My response is, “God bless you, Bud!” I am not here to defend the system. I am just here to tell you what is most likely going to happen. Again, if you were not a concealed carry license holder, and you just went over there unarmed, and successfully resolve the situation, it would be a misdemeanor if you were charged with anything. As soon as a gun is involved, we are in felony territory. As soon as that gun comes out and is exposed where people can see it, oh, boy, nothing good is going to happen now.
Everybody in front of the muzzle is going to claim that they were in danger, and that you committed aggravated assault, whether you intended to harm them or not. It just gets to be a can of worms. Once guns become exposed and people can see them, whether the guns discharge or not, you are probably in felony territory.
eJournal: I cannot argue with you on that point. It brings us back to the fundamental skill I had hoped to talk about. How do you preempt the risk escalating until you’re injured or presenting your gun has become the only options? Humans are extremely verbal and when tensions are high one of the dangers is the way words used under great stress can inflame hostilities. An old-fashioned description is “fighting words.” How can we train ourselves to mitigate the risk of slipping into abusive language and saying things that make us look like the aggressor?
Farnam: You’ve heard me say before, when the fight comes to you, you are in your own home or you are going about legitimate business, and through no solicitation of your own the fight comes to you, and you take care of business, I think you are on pretty firm ground. You are not on firm ground if you go to the fight, or even if you wear a shirt or a hat with some controversial message on it. I can promise you the prosecutors are not going to like that. They’ll ask, “You we’re just looking for a fight, weren’t you? You just hoped that someone would come up and challenge you!” That would be considered an aggravating factor. You may say, “That infringes on my free speech rights,” and I suppose it does. I see people wearing shirts and hats with political messages. That is such a bad idea! You can have political opinions, but you should not wear them. Now, you are carrying a gun. That is just inviting trouble, and that is how a prosecutor is going to see it.
Once again, when the fight comes to you through no invitation or solicitation on your part, you are probably on fairly firm ground, but when you go to the fight or you somehow attract the fight whether you intended to or not, I would say you are probably going to have a problem with the criminal justice system.
eJournal: Beyond advertising our opinions, I think we face a surprising amount of risk over the things that come out of our own mouths. How many times have we heard ourselves say, “I cannot believe I actually said that!” Add to that the phenomena that we tend to repeat what we hear, and suddenly, you have someone under extreme stress parroting crude, aggressive insults that were humorous on a TV sitcom last night or sounded funny when we yelled at the dog for stealing food! The characterizations that have slipped into our vocabulary are rather horrifying. Then we end up in this stressful, frightening situation and we bellow, “Get the blank away from me, you blank blank blank” and the witnesses think we were the assailant.
Farnam: Right! That is not going to be helpful.
eJournal: How can we train ourselves not to say things that really make risky situations much worse.
Farnam: That is why during training, we actually have students recite the tape loops and say, “I’m sorry, sir. I can’t help you.” Students recite that over and over again so that tape loop comes out instead of “Get away from me, you [racial insult],” which is just exactly what you do not need!
I tell students to get those racial or sexual terms out of your vocabulary. Don’t even use them casually. Get rid of them! They are not going to be helpful in any setting I can imagine.
Even then, in training, we practice our tape loops. The students say the tape loop over and over, so there is some chance that will come out when it actually has to come out.
eJournal: I really believe in practicing actually saying the phrases, because it is shocking to me how easily we can slip into saying seriously derogatory things, first in jest, and then, because it is stuck in our minds, in circumstances where an insult is really damaging. We let ourselves blow off steam verbally when someone cuts us off in traffic, thinking that the other driver can’t hear us, so no harm is done. But is that true?
Farnam: Particularly in a cross-racial incident, I can promise you that in the wake of any sort of lethal force incident in which you are involved, the prosecutor and his or her office will scour the Internet. They will look at everything you have published; they will look at every email you have ever sent; they will interview people that you associate with and people that you have even sat next to in restaurants. They are looking for racial and degrading sorts of language to show that you degrade other people, to show the sort of person you are. They want to show that you are the kind person who is given to saying derogatory things that upset other people. You are that kind of person who says things that start fights. If you had not said the things you did, the fight would have never happened. That is what you can expect.
I tell my students that the time to prepare for this is right now. Watch what you say, even in private conversation. Be careful what you publish on the Internet. You can have opinions, but even in private conversation watch the racial terms; watch the sexual terms. Just get rid of that language. It is going to come back to haunt you.
None of this language is illegal! None of this should be illegal. All I am saying is what you say is an aggravating factor, it is the kind of thing that prosecutors look for, it is the kind of thing that prosecutors can use to incense a jury. “This disgusting person used this kind of language. This disgusting person associates with other people who use this kind of language,” none of which is illegal but what you’ve said is raised in an effort to discredit you before the jury. This is what they are going to do! This is not justice! This is just sleazy prosecutors who have weak cases and try to shore them up with BS.
This is America and you can be a bigot if you want—bigotry is not illegal, but I am saying that it is not smart, especially, if you go armed. It is not smart, and it is not going to be something you will be happy that you did. The time to start working on modifying your language and modifying your lifestyle in general is right now. It will make all this much less likely.
eJournal: You give great advice, and I cannot see how cleaning up our language reduces our enjoyment of life in any way. You make strong arguments about how failing to clean up our language may greatly harm us.
Farnam: You know, it is easy for me to say. I’m this colossal bore who sits and pontificates. If I were good looking and 22 years old and interested in striking up romantic relationships with good looking women, I might be violating just about everything we’ve discussed.
eJournal: Perhaps, but I think you would probably do it with clean language, even if you went places that might raise some eyebrows [laughing]. Having poked fun at you a little, I would point out that readers should realize that you are someone who has lived fully and didn’t just sit on the couch at home and let life pass you by. I have learned much about enjoying life without taking unreasonable risks by your very example.
Farnam: Even so, there are no guarantees. It is like playing poker. We try to stack the odds in our favor, but there are still no guarantees. In a recent Quip on the DTI website (https://defense-training.com/quips/), I had a quotation from A Man for All Seasons, where Paul Scofield played Sir Thomas More. This goes back to the 1500s when Henry the Eighth was king. “The law is not a ‘light’ for you, nor any man, to see by; the law is not an ‘instrument’ of any kind. The law is a causeway upon which, so long as he keeps to it, a citizen may walk safely,” probably.
I think over at least the next decade or so, in this country we are looking at a period of utter lawlessness, worse than we have now. A lot of people are going to carry guns. A lot of people are not going to be very well oriented toward the subjects that we have just discussed. There are going to be lots of shootings, there are going to be a lot of incidences of brandishing. A lot of people are going to find themselves in great legal jeopardy, and when they do, they are going to be flabbergasted. They’ll say, “I had no idea!” Yes, that is the problem. It will then be too late to prepare.
We try to get this information to people, as the expression goes, “left of bang,” before it happens. Now is the time to understand what we have just discussed and to modify your lifestyle as appropriate, just to stack the odds more in your favor. There are still no guarantees, but, as you have heard me tell my students, the vast majority of lethal force incidents in which you might ever become involved during your lifetime are probably avoidable.
eJournal: Thank you for reminding us of these essentials.
Farnam: Well, we didn’t discuss all the exciting topics like which round is better than another or what holster will let you have the fastest draw, but what we have discussed is the essence of the Armed Citizens’ Legal Defense Network. This is essentially why the Network exists. We provide a service that you hope you never need, and we teach members how you can arrange to never have to need it.
eJournal: Here’s the thing – even with the Network paying all of the legal expenses, there is little we can do to mitigate the emotional distress, the disturbing experience of being accused of a crime and perhaps even going to court to prove the justification for what you did. It is a fact that marriages and families break up and suffer after a deadly force event, jobs are lost, and promising careers destroyed. It is a fact that sleep disruption and other physical reactions to the inevitable accusations are very real. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone! We could preclude a lot of that suffering.
Farnam: Just this morning, I was on the phone with a student who installs burglar alarms. He told me that 99% of his customers come to him after their houses are broken into, all their valuable stuff taken, and their lives disrupted. Wouldn’t it be nice if they had come to him for an alarm system before any of that happened? It takes a disaster, sometimes, to wake people up. At the Network we are in the business of waking people up before the disaster. That is what we do, and we have done it with some success. I wish we could reach more people, but we are doing the best we can!
About John Farnam: From the Network’s earliest months of operation in 2008, we were fortunate to enjoy John’s guidance on our Advisory Board. He is president of Defensive Training International and has personally trained thousands of federal, state and local law enforcement personnel, as well as non-police, in the serious use of firearms. In addition, he has authored four books The Farnam Method of Defensive Handgunning, The Farnam Method of Defensive Shotgun and Rifle Shooting, The Street Smart Gun Book, and Guns & Warriors – DTI Quips Volume 1. The Farnams’ teaching schedule is posted at https://defense-training.com/schedule/.
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