Training Despite Challenges
An Interview with Massad Ayoob
Interview by Gila Hayes
After we publish an interview or column advising members to participate in on-going documented training as preparation to weather the legal aftermath of self defense, members often express genuine concern because they do not believe they can complete firearms courses due to age, physical infirmity or disability and the severe budgetary constraints that too often attends the limited income available to a disabled citizen.
In light of the many years Massad Ayoob has taught firearms and self defense, I turned to him with the concerns expressed by these members and we recorded this short interview to share Massad’s suggestions and recommendations in his own words.
eJournal: As Network members are well aware, we put a high value on documented training for armed citizens who may at some point have to use force in self defense. Every time the training topic comes up, we get feedback from people for whom completing a standard two- or four-day defensive handgun class is all but impossible. We aren’t talking about the guy who qualified for his carry license permit class and thought that was enough; we’re talking about age, chronic illness or a permanent physical impairment. These same men and women need the gun for self defense and find it frustrating to be advised to participate in training they feel is beyond their physical ability.
I’ve wanted for some time to discuss the problems these members face with an expert trainer, and Massad, with 46 years’ experience teaching self-defense firearms use, you’ve taught many people with serious disabilities and seen these good people come to class, learn, succeed and take away the knowledge and experience one of your courses imparts.
Ayoob: Yes, we pride ourselves on being able to adapt our techniques for the physically-challenged student. As you know, we have taught a number of folks in wheelchairs, one-armed people, one-legged people and people with pretty severe arthritis. What we do is kind of like an injured person driving a car: we adapt the techniques and we adapt the machinery.
eJournal: The students you mentioned must have extraordinary will to prevail! It seems a cruel challenge that the armed citizens who may have the most physical or economic difficulty pursuing armed defense training are often the ones most vulnerable to victimization and thus need these skills more than the able bodied.
Ayoob: By definition, I only get as students the ones who are committed enough that they do come to class and they do overcome their endurance issues, etc. Having said that, they tend to be extremely dedicated students. One of my wheelchair-bound students has multiple times been top shot in class against the able-bodied students. My students tend to be kind of self-selecting. I don’t get the defeatist ones that by definition have given up. So, I may not be the best guy to answer your questions.
eJournal: Well, yes and no. You have guided many able bodied and physically challenged students past the mental blocks that keep people out of training. What’s your response if a prospective firearms student asks, “I don’t have much stamina any more. How can I get through sufficient training to be competent under stress?”
Ayoob: I would say, do it slowly and do it incrementally. If at all possible, see if you can find a trainer who will work with you a couple of hours at a time. Look for someone in your area so you won’t have to be paying travel expenses to get to class. Train with them for just an hour or two at a time.
So much of this is the cognitive side; obviously, the only stamina required is being able to pay attention. For the physical side, simply take more breaks and be sure to stay hydrated.
Instructors, if you have the physically-weakened person, give them a gun that is easier to run. What you will have is someone, perhaps in a wheel chair or a multiple amputee, who by the very fact that they are up and functioning in society has already displayed the determination to overcome physical challenge and to be able to defend themselves.
eJournal: When you’ve taught folks with serious mobility issues, what have you modified to accommodate these limits?
Ayoob: A lot of instructors don’t care for the Weaver stance and consider it obsolete, but its advantage, because of the bent elbows with the isometrics of the gun hand pushing forward and the support hand pulling back, is that recoil is absorbed between the gun and the torso as opposed to using the whole body weight behind the extended arms. It is really the one technique that works that way.
A lot of times your wheelchair-bound student may be paralyzed from the chest down or may not have legs to apply the downward pressure to the footrest that would allow them to bring the shoulders forward. If he came significantly forward in the wheelchair, he could literally fall out. The classic Weaver stance allows him to much more comfortably shoot with the shoulders back and it gives him an option he would not have otherwise.
eJournal: For years you’ve taught that instructors should not get invested in a single stance because although one person can do it, there may very well be others who cannot. A student using a wheelchair, walker or a cane for balance has their hands occupied which may interfere with using the gun. What do you teach them?
Ayoob: First, for the student with the cane or the walker, we would be giving a lot more emphasis to one-handed shooting because one hand is going to be stabilizing them most of the time as they bob, duck or weave or do whatever they have got to do.
However, we have X number of students who have arthritis or bursitis issues who cannot lock out their arm in the one-handed stance. I teach them what I used to call the Kenpo punch in StressFire. The elbow is bent, pointing straight down and the arm pushes forward and tensions against the gun. The easiest way to describe it is that you have some guy by the throat and you are trying to hold him up against the wall. That creates kind of a one-handed Weaver effect. The coiling of the bent arm pushing forward snaps the gun back on target much, much quicker.
eJournal: A strong, able-bodied person might not think about the increase in confidence felt by a person who had lost their legs or an eye or developed a bad tremor and concluded they could not use a gun in self defense.
Ayoob: For the one-eyed shooter, it is simply the same correction that we teach any cross-dominant shooter: but it’s adapted accordingly.
The palsied shooter, we’ve found that if they have any hand strength at all, if they crush down with maximum grip like that Spaz Out drill that you’ve seen me do any one of a thousand times with LFI/MAG students.
eJournal: Oh, yes, and as odd as it feels to go ahead and press the trigger while intentionally trembling the hand and arm causing the sights to wobble all over the place, it does work as you describe.
Ayoob: If you can hold the sight picture and roll the trigger back, even if the gun is quivering on the target the shot is going to hit the target. The gun may be quivering, but the target will not know nor will it care whether the launcher was quivering before the bullet took flight.
eJournal: I am also wondering if you teach that their use of force choices may differ from an able-bodied person’s allowable options?
Ayoob: On the deadly force side of it, we emphasize and teach this to all of our students: the handicapped attacked by the able-bodied is absolutely a disparity of force issue and any violent physical assault on them, even by an unarmed, able-bodied aggressor, can be treated as a deadly force situation because they’re so much more likely to be killed or crippled and so much less likely to be able to fend them off. In many cases, they can’t run; they are not physically strong enough to overpower the guy, certainly the wheelchair-bound person or the person using a walker or cane will not have the range of movement to effectively break a lot of the holds that you or I would be able to break standing up.
eJournal: Without saying “giving permission,” I’d observe that you are helping students understand that they don’t have to be beaten severely before they introduce deadly force.
Ayoob: Yes, it is not me giving them permission; it is me informing them of the law and the caselaw that is giving them permission.
eJournal: Have you provided expert testimony on the disparity of force issue for physically disabled people?
Ayoob: I’m not recalling any one particular case, although it did come up years ago in the Florida v Mary Hopkin trial because the assailant was a 245-pound physically healthy and very violent male and the victim was a 63-year old female with acute arthritis. We won the acquittal on the killing there.
I have also testified in the Colorado gun case that the magazine limits have a powerful disparitive effect on the physically handicapped because the arthritic person will be much slower to reload, the mobility challenged person is not going to be able to duck to cover to reload and the person in a wheelchair won’t be able to carry spare magazines behind the hip on the belt as you or I would because there is always the possibility of it being compressed against the skin and causing damage because they cannot feel it happening. You and I have the total circumference of that waist to carry gear on; they only have 180 degrees and a lot of that is going to be tied up with phones, possibly with various medical devices, this kind of pump or that kind of bag, for instance. I have testified that the magazine bans have a disparitive effect on the physically handicapped. My testimony and report on that is at ColoradoGunCase.org.
eJournal: This does bring up the question of gun selection for people of reduced physical ability. If strength is limited, do you have guns you prefer that may be easier to work the action, load, and shoot? Got any favorites?
Ayoob: Many years ago, when Beretta was still making the Model 86, a single stack .380 with the tip up barrel, I bought one as a hedge against the day when I get too crippled up to run a slide. Unfortunately, I don’t think they are still manufacturing that model of gun anymore. Fortunately, now we have a new generation of guns made expressly for easier slide retraction. The Smith M&P EZ model .380; we had before that Ruger’s LCP .380. Some have advertised the Walther CCP for a super easy slide rack, which I didn’t really find to be the case, but then I might just have not been able to feel the difference since I can still run standard guns. Certainly, the 9mm 1911 is a given because they can use the heel of the hand to cock the hammer and relieve the mainspring pressure against the slide and now they just have the very light 9mm recoil spring to work against.
eJournal: I’m hearing a list of various autoloaders. Is the double action revolver more difficult and thus not such a good choice if we’ve lost some dexterity and strength?
Ayoob: No, I don’t think so. The revolver will be much simpler to load and unload for administrative handling. I am still one of those old guys who believes that particularly for the non-dedicated person who is going to spend very little time on the gun, the double action only revolver is a safer gun for them. The big problem pulling the double action trigger comes if you have crippled, arthritic or damaged fingers. The Ruger LCR line has proven to be a very easy trigger to run; I’ve seen a whole lot of people who pick up that above other brands and say, “Oh, my, I’m taking this – the Ruger trigger is much easier,” yet in the double action only version it could never be called a hair trigger gun. That can be very helpful for the arthritic, too.
You’ll hear people say, “get a regular double action revolver, you can always cock the hammer so it will be easy to shoot,” but those people forget that if they have arthritic hands, it is going to be difficult for them to cock the hammer, particularly for a one-handed shot. If they have nerve damage, arthritis, or weakness, if they have cocked the gun and then haven’t needed to fire the shot, as is quite common, how are they going to safely uncock it?
eJournal: That is hard enough for any of us! Off the shooting range, lowering the cocked hammer over live ammunition takes on a whole new level of seriousness.
Ayoob: The Ruger LCR and also the new Colt Cobra seem to have the very easy trigger pull and the double action only Kimber has been a big success, too.
eJournal: Any special concerns for safe gun handling or manual of arms for one of reduced strength of dexterity?
Ayoob: Yes, the person with the trembly fingers by definition does not want a gun with a very short, very light trigger pull. That is the person for whom I would recommend a gun in double action with some length to the trigger pull. If the hand trembles uncontrollably, it is going to be even more important to keep the finger outside the trigger guard until the act of intentionally firing the weapon and getting it out of the trigger guard at the very instant they stop firing the weapon.
eJournal: That is pretty much the same safety concerns applicable to the rest of us.
Ayoob: Well, we have to remember that epinephrine, when fight or flight hits, generates tremor and all of us could all of a sudden have a palsied trigger finger.
eJournal: Oh, boy, isn’t that the truth! All those recommendations make training more accessible. Training has value beyond simple proficiency, too. Could you give us a refresher on why one who gets a gun for self defense needs also to take training and document his or her education?
Ayoob: First, the better trained you are, the less likely you are to make a mistake and the more competent you are going to be. For this discussion, the operative term here is documented training. Now more than ever gun owners are under attack. The latest theme of anti-gunners is “every criminal was a good guy with a gun until he wasn’t.” It is critical to be able to show a jury of 12 non-gun owners that you were competent, that you knew when to use the gun, and to have an impartial third party to come in as a material witness to testify, “Look, I trained this person, here is what I trained them to do, here is why I trained them to do it, and here is why what I trained them to do is best practices.”
Basically, the documentation of that, the reiteration of that by one or more instructors makes it irrefutable to the jury that, whatever else was going on, this person knew when to do it, when not to do it. Then when they hear the judge’s instructions to the jury on what constitutes justifiable use of deadly force, the jury is going to say, “Hey, wait a minute–I’m having de ja vu! I’ve heard this before! I heard from the defendant that these are the standards that she used and I heard it from her instructors who documented to us these are the standards they trained her to use. Duh! She did the right thing.”
eJournal: Thinking back on your career, and without violating confidentialities, have there been times in your career where you have been on the witness stand giving that testimony on behalf of your students?
Ayoob: I have, and if you want an authoritative resource, read the article by Lisa Steele from about ten or 11 years ago in the journal of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Champion, on defending the self-defense case (reprinted at http://aware.org/legal-articles/8-content/73-defending-the-self-defense-case-by-lisa-j-steele). To quote, “Ideally, the client will also have some formal training in the use of deadly force which will allow the client’s teacher to testify about the client’s training in order to show that the client's actions were subjectively reasonable. If the client has not had any formal training, counsel may still seek an expert to testify about use of force issues. However, the attorney may encounter difficulty showing that the expert’s opinion is relevant if it was not the basis for the client’s subjective decision. The attorney could offer expert testimony to show that the client’s actions were objectively reasonable.”
eJournal: That’s very useful as it helps us understand a popular theme by naysayers that suggests your training may be inadmissible or that your lawyer might not want to introduce testimony about your training.
Ayoob: Well, why wouldn’t your lawyer want it to come in unless you had violated the training? In a recent case, PA v. Torres, they kept out the testimony of the chief instructor of his department because that particular instructor was not the one who had instructed that officer. I thought it was poor application of legal doctrine myself, but if they had brought that officer’s instructor out of retirement, I cannot imagine what grounds that judge would have had for keeping him out. The judge said, “This guy did not train this officer; therefore, I won’t allow him to testify on this topic,” which I think in and of itself is an incorrect decision because that man would have been speaking on behalf of the training bureau of a very large agency and he was the logical person to do it.
eJournal: OK, that is one example of training not being admitted as evidence. Then again, a person’s instructor may be unavailable, deceased or otherwise not able to testify. It is good to remind readers that Mas has taught us for years to protect course notes, completion certificates and other training documentation. Still, others remain adamant that training can’t be introduced as evidence without risking addressing the “ultimate issue” of right or wrong. What’s up there?
Ayoob: The point I would want my attorney making would counter the other side saying your training shows you were planning this killing; that you went to “death school” to learn to be an assassin. In the opening statement, I would want my attorney to say, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the prosecution is going to try to tell you that my client was irresponsible with his firearm. We’ll bring in testimony to show you that my client was in the 1% of the millions of people who legally carry concealed handguns in public in this country, who took the responsibility that he paid money and took time out of his life to get trained to a higher than minimum-required standard in how to fulfill that responsibility. He is the last guy that would have done anything irresponsible with it.”
eJournal: The attorney is setting the stage to question the prosecution’s claim that the armed citizen was the bad guy in the situation, the one that broke the law.
Ayoob: Oh, absolutely. The big threat of the defense is going to be the exact same defense we use for police: This individual did what he or she was trained to do and what they were trained to do is the best practices for dealing with the life-threatening crisis that we will show you that the defendant was facing at the time he or she pulled the trigger.
eJournal: As I hear it, the thing that drives our attorney friends to distraction is suggestions that by introducing training, we are going to show the jury what the defendant was thinking at the time of the incident. Of course, the attorneys are right, you can’t state an opinion on guilt or innocence.
Ayoob: We cannot say what the defendant did or why she did something. Only she can testify to that. What we can testify to is what we trained her to do under certain circumstances, why those are the training standards and why it is done that way. “Here’s why when the other guy goes for a gun, you don’t wait to see the gun because if you wait, you will see what comes out of it. He’s made the first move and your only chance to catch up was to draw and fire right now,” and that sort of thing.
eJournal: A subtle difference, but one that allows the instructor to teach the jury.
Ayoob: Educating the jury is the key. You cannot tell them, “She did the right thing” because that is the ultimate issue of guilt or innocence and that is the province of the jury. We cannot invade the province of the jury. What we can do is give the jury the tools to determine what was or was not justified and that is the purpose of the expert and also the material witness. The expert is the outside expert on the topic and the material witness is the actual witness who said, “Yeah, I trained this person to do this.”
Look at the Zimmerman case–probably the best-known recent self-defense case–they brought in an expert witness who I thought did a very good job, but the real right-cross to the face of that unmeritorious prosecution was the material testimony of Zimmerman’s friend, an Air Marshal who had taken him out shooting and taught him, “Look, here is how we do it; here is when to draw; and here is when to fire.” His testimony was extremely powerful for the defense.
eJournal: That’s an example we can all look up and study to reinforce why, without regard for physical ability or disability, we need training from people like you who can provide that testimony. Let me shift gears a little. In your opinion, if an elderly or infirm or disabled person has to use a gun in self defense, do you think police and prosecutors might hold that person to a more forgiving standard than would be required of an able-bodied person?
Ayoob: I don’t see it so much as out of sympathy for someone being physically challenged. We all have to remember that the great majority of prosecutors and investigators are not out to hang somebody for using force in self defense. They know a self-defense case when they see it and hopefully they realize, “This person had no other choice; there was no other way they could defend themselves.”
eJournal: That’s a valuable reminder, because we get so frightened about an anti-gun government “out to get” armed citizens.
Ayoob: We have to remember that after an intense class, people think, “Oh, wow, everyone is going to try to shoot me, and when I come out of here it is going to look like Westworld or an episode of The Walking Dead. We have all got to remember, no, we are training for an aberrant circumstance that could happen but we hope never will. The same holds true for unmeritorious prosecution. The great majority of self-defense shootings at least in the criminal justice sector are seen as such, recognized as such and treated as such.
eJournal: Good point. Getting back to our topic of self-defense training for disabled people, I’ve not been entirely sure what questions needed to be asked. Is there anything else we should explore?
Ayoob: There is one other thing that I train to the physically handicapped students and not to the able-bodied. If they have a bullying situation or a road rage situation or something building up into a physical attack they need to yell, “Do not assault me. I have a physical condition. If you hit me, I could die.” Now every witness has heard that; the assailant has just heard that. Does this not establish an intent to kill or to cripple?
eJournal: You’re helping manage the aggression, possibly without going to guns.
Ayoob: Yes, and Plan A is that hopefully the guy realizes, “Oh, if I hit this guy, and he dies, I go to jail,” to hopefully stop the whole thing. Second, if he does continue the violent assault, you have given fair warning. If the other guy hit you in the head, broke the eggshell skull they talk about in law school and you die, he might later say, “I only meant to hit him not to kill him,” if the intended victim has just said, “Sir, if you strike me, I could die,” and the guy tries to hit him anyway, ipso facto, you have now manifested an intent to kill or cripple. In making that utterance you’ve also informed every witness, well, every honest witness anyway, and it makes it that much easier to establish it for the jury.
eJournal: It becomes part of the incident report and witness statements and that’s more convincing than just your word against the assailant’s or his friends’. Mas, I sure do appreciate your help and suggestions in this discussion about documented training in spite of serious physical difficulties. This is an article I’ve wanted to develop for several years, if nothing else than to encourage everyone to be creative and find ways to add certificates of training and notes from training to their personal files. Thank you for being part of this, and for being such a stalwart part of the Network.
Learn more about Massad Ayoob’s classes at http://massadayoobgroup.com. In addition, read his blog at http://backwoodshome.com/blogs/MassadAyoob/.
To read more of this month's journal, please click here.