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Understanding Defensive Display of Firearms

An Interview with Massad Ayoob

There is a long-standing myth that if an armed citizen draws a gun for self defense, firing that gun is the only outcome. It’s been disproven by research as far back as the 1990s by Kleck and Gertz and subsequent research by John Lott and Clayton Kramer identifying how frequently only the display of a firearm aborts a crime in progress. We went to master instructor and renown author Massad Ayoob to get his take on non-shooting defensive display of a firearm, hoping to learn from cases he has helped defend as well as ask how he trains armed citizens to deal with what may happen when they introduce a gun into a self-defense situation.

eJournal: Thank you for talking with us today, Massad, because it would be nice to resolve conflicting messages that armed citizens get about drawing firearms before shooting is absolutely required. One extreme says, “Draw only if you intend to shoot,” while others suggest that the threats may be defused bloodlessly when the drawn gun shows you can fight back.

Ayoob: As you well know most people have an incomplete understanding of deadly force law. I think that’s where a lot of the misunderstanding came from. They are aware that there is such a thing as justifiable homicide, but there’s no statute for justifiable brandishing, although interestingly enough, Florida recently passed a law to clarify that. You will find a discussion of that on Andrew Branca’s websites and at

eJournal: About brandishing?

Ayoob: I believe the term is “defensive display.”

eJournal: Yes, that is better. I think “brandishing” suggests aggression or makes it sound like the person defending him- or herself was somehow out of line.

Ayoob: Historically, the term brandishing has meant waving it around recklessly, so I think defensive display is the proper terminology.

eJournal: Using the wrong words can trip us up, so it’s good to have a more accurate term. Now, getting back to defensive display’s role in self-defense strategies: Where’s the middle ground between it and drawing only to shoot?

Ayoob: Really, the middle ground is just knowing when you can do either one. I teach that if you are certain to a preponderance of evidence, you’re more than 50% sure you are in deadly danger from this guy, go ahead and take him at gunpoint. Not until you are certain beyond a reasonable doubt that there is no other way to stop him do you pull the trigger.

eJournal: Do you have an example?

Ayoob: Basically, the attack is underway. If the guy is coming toward me and I can’t see a weapon, but he is saying, “I will cut your head off!” I am taking him at gunpoint right now. If he lunges at me or I see him reach for a weapon, I start shooting.

eJournal: Let’s say that you are threatened to the extent that defensive display of a firearm is indeed reasonable. The assailant may run away, or may react differently upon seeing your gun. What are some possible outcomes?

Ayoob: If he has run away, the immediate danger has passed but now there is a new danger. If you as the victim don’t immediately call it in, he is going to call in, “Some guy ran up and pulled a gun on me for nothing,” and now you are way behind the curve. Our members need to always remember, who ever calls 9-1-1 first gets to be the victim/complainant. Who ever calls in second is already the suspect.