Straight Talk on Armed Defense: What the Experts Want You to Know

Edited by Massad Ayoob
6 x 9 paperback, 256 pages, illustrated
Gun Digest Books, June 8, 2017

Reviewed by Gila Hayes

Note: I spent much of my free time last month reading and rereading the latest book from Massad Ayoob. This book is so full of good material that I hope readers will humor me as I cede my Editorial to accommodate a longer book review.

Massad Ayoob brings twelve subject matter experts together to teach a wide variety of self-defense subjects, all “must-know” material for one who strives to be prepared to face violence. The chapter contributed by each expert is only a synopsis of their greater knowledge so Straight Talk On Armed Defense is also a reading list for further study, as well as a valuable introduction to aspects of armed self defense to which the reader may not have been previously exposed.

In addition to writing one chapter and the closing, Ayoob begins by commenting that whether it is criminal violence or life’s day to day hazards, surviving life-threatening events shares similarities. “How our minds and bodies work in crisis is something we must know if we are going to program that mind and body to fight and prevail in a life-or-death situation,” he introduces.

In the first chapter, federal law enforcement officer John Hearne debunks the many falsehoods propagated about our brains during emergencies with an explanation of brain science. For example, for decades we’ve been told that fine motor skills fail at high levels of stress, while Hearn asserts that basic skills overlearned to the extent that they become automatic certainly can prevail at extremely stress high levels.

He identifies various parts of the brain that perform different functions, calling one the rational mind and the other, the emotional mind. Accessing “mental maps” from parallel experience is one of the ways the rational mind takes control. “How well the mental map matches the unfolding reality will determine between continuing to trust the rational mind or defaulting to the emotional mind,” Hearn warns.

Mental maps result from recent training and repetition, moving beyond learned skills into an “automatic response pattern” that executes without need for conscious thought about the “low-level details required,” he explains. There were so many good lessons in his chapter that it is hard to pick just one, but we don’t have room for all the valuable instruction in this review.

It was good to read the sage advice of my old acquaintance Dr. Anthony Semone in the second chapter. In outlining the psychological aftermath of self defense he identifies differences between support for military and law enforcement compared to the dearth of resources for private armed citizens.

Semone interviews a self-defense shooting survivor to illustrate the survivor’s suffering as public outcry swells during a malicious prosecution. His source discusses the isolation and financial ruin that followed shooting an abusive neighbor who, after a long history of aggression, threatened to harm his girlfriend and kill his dogs, then came at him with the words, “I’ll fix you now,” while reaching into his pocket. Believing the aggressor was grabbing a weapon, the armed citizen shot him four times, killing him on the street outside their homes. His response to Dr. Semone’s questions is distilled into three pages that synopsize the psychological aftermath of an innocent man going through trial and acquittal.

Police psychologist Alexis Artwohl contributes a chapter about memory and brain function, opening with the idea that we are vastly over-optimistic about brain function during and after a critical incident. Dubbing an accurate report of events the “historical truth,” Dr. Artwohl explains that inaccurate “narrative truth” is not the result of lying. Supported by nearly three pages of reference materials and numerous citations embedded in the text, Dr. Artwohl lists reasons for inaccuracies including—

  • The brain focuses on what seems most important, to the exclusion of many other inputs.
  • Perceptual biases, neither good nor bad, are inevitable as the brain processes inputs with extreme rapidity during emergencies.
  • Differences between rational (analytic but time-intensive) and intuitive decision making (action-oriented).

Mentally replaying a life-and-death experience over and over, further degrades accuracy, she suggests.

Learn to regulate emotional intensity, Artwohl advises, learn to broaden awareness, have and practice a “post-shooting survival plan,” and understand the potential for memory errors when making a report to law enforcement, she urges.

William Aprill, PhD, a former sheriff’s deputy and mental health professional writes about the dangerous criminals we carry guns to defend against. Most violent criminals appear normal, but their life histories show “a broad menu of maldevelopment,” he defines. His portrait of the violent criminal dissuades the reader from popular stereotypes, as he outlines causes including societal, genetic and media influences, brain chemistry and/or injury (not mental illness). He cites the diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder, manifest in ”disregard for and violation of the rights of others, callous disregard and lack of empathy, and the inability to experience remorse or take others’ perspective. In practice, APD subjects will act impulsively and aggressively, lie, cheat, steal, manipulate, and mistreat others without compunction,” and this behavior is common in many violent criminals he explains.

Those behaviors are so alien to most people that Dr. Aprill adds that we must not expect normal emotions like sympathy or pity from violent criminals. “It is not enough to carry firearms or other safety/rescue equipment without a fully-informed mental map of the expected terrain,” he stresses. You also need accurate understanding of crimes and violent criminals.

Much of the training and hobby shooting done by firearms aficionados is woefully unsuited to using a gun to stop a deadly attack, writes Craig S. Douglas, a retired career police officer. Prepare instead for surprise, disproportional preparation and weapons, and expect attacks where the criminal holds the advantage, generally chokepoints where the attacker can “carefully assesses people who pass through his hunting grounds for certain characteristics, including inattention, distraction, and task overloading,” he introduces.

For example, not only is the attacker likely to have a gun already in hand, if they engage you in conversation, that slows your well-practiced responses like drawing from concealment, Douglas points out. Unless you recognize the set up, the cost-benefit analysis the criminal runs appears profitable to the bad guy. Conversely, if the citizen recognizes the ploy, the criminal has little to lose by just withdrawing and moving on to a less difficult target, he comments.

Verbal skills and empty hand defensives can even the field, unless ambushed at extremely close quarters by multiple assailants, some of whom are likely to be armed, he explains. Learn to recognize pre-assault behavior by watching dash cam and surveillance camera footage of fights, to become familiar with common actions that presage violence, Douglas recommends. Get Straight Talk to study Douglas’ real life examples, which are too numerous to outline here.

In his chapter, Ayoob emphasizes the responsibilities gun owners bear: safe storage, safe handling and being trained and accurate. Use of firearms to stop homicidal violence, he explains, is no different than putting out a fire before the fire department can get there, doing CPR or stopping the bleeding while waiting for the ambulance crew. He also discusses no gun zones, negative outcomes of carrying a gun in violation of laws or policies, and gun laws in various states.

Training influences legal outcomes, Ayoob continues, citing the instructions a judge gives the jury in the trial of a self-defense shooter, “You must ask yourself what a reasonable and prudent person would have done in the same situation, and knowing what the defendant knew.” Prior knowledge from training lets your instructor give direct testimony about what they taught and if it derives from authoritative sources, those experts may also testify to teach the jury why your response was reasonable, he explains. “The untrained defendant does not bring that very substantial supportive testimony to the table, or the witness stand, when twelve good people who likely have no background of their own in this topic weigh the defendant’s culpability,” he stresses.

With Ayoob having established the importance of training, the next chapter discusses finding good training. This chapter’s author, our own Advisory Board member Tom Givens identifies three common career paths from which many firearms instructors emerge: military, domestic law enforcement and competitive shooting. Each can result in instruction that is not applicable to the private citizen’s situation.

Givens warns against relying on statistics to choose which self defense skills to study. Police shootings are inapplicable, but better predictive data is found in shootings involving plainclothes federal officers, and even better, the detailed studies of 65 students he trained who were later targeted as victims of violent crime. Predominant distances averaged between 9 to 12 feet, with recurring reasons categorized in what he calls the 4Rs: “robbery, rape, road rage and respect,” but, owing to reporting methods, none of those reasons will be listed in the crime statistics, he observes. Each will simply be counted as an aggravated assault.

You need to train and prepare for unexpected violent attack anytime, anywhere, Givens advises. Carry a “reliable, functional handgun” in a belt holster with extra ammunition. Train and practice in the kinds of clothes you wear daily, he recommends. Work on fast presentations, accurate hits from the 3 to 7 yard range with some work at 15 to 20 yards, too, he concludes.

Next up is the research of a law enforcement professional writing under the pseudonym of Spencer Blue. In cases he studied, ruses used to close the distance on the victim resulted in fewer shots fired and shorter distances than in statistics drawn from assaults on police, gang wars or domestic violence.

His research identified errors that led to armed citizens losing confrontations with criminals. He estimates that when citizens fight back against a single attacker, they prevail 60% of the time, another 5% of the time both are equally injured, but a worrisome 35% of the time, the criminal succeeds. “Being outnumbered was the single greater predicator of losing a violent encounter than any other factor I tracked,” Blue writes.

Other issues included mistakes that prevented using a gun effectively like not disengaging the safety, carrying a gun with an empty chamber and not getting it loaded, having a gun off body and too slow to access, and panic during both the confrontation and the aftermath, due to not having a plan. “When we do not work through scenarios mentally before they happen, when we fail to have a plan onboard, we may revert to these emotion-based responses that can lead to trouble legally and ethically,” he warns.

Mass murder attacks are addressed by Ron Borsch, the retired police officer who pioneered the concept of a single responding officer intervening instead of waiting for full SWAT response. As he studied mass shooter interdictions, Borsch saw that about half of the time, outside forces stopped the killings and in the other half, the murderers quit of their own accord. He was astonished to discover that about two thirds of those stopped were interdicted by citizens or security on-site and not by the arrival of law enforcement. His studies show that the average shooting time is six minutes, but it is often five to seven minutes before police are even called, and then they have to race to the scene.

Borsch gives brief sketches of 54 incidents between 1985 and 2016 in which private citizens stopped mass murders in progress. A common factor in many of the examples is the location: schools. He castigates “laws and facilities that forbid the honest, law-abiding, state vetted and otherwise legal concealed weapon permit holders to have a firearm on the premises.”

Situations in which armed citizens interact with law enforcement vary from contact while out on foot, to traffic stops, to police response after shots fired in self-defense. Writing on this topic, Harvey Hedden brings 39 years in law enforcement working in nearly every aspect of the profession. Full of practical advice and focused on avoiding behavior that might be misinterpreted as a threat, this chapter addresses situations law-abiding people might not consider.

Hedden discusses the “race to the phone” after self defense, since citizens may decide not to call because “they believe that if no actual crime has been committed, why make it a police matter?” Often, witnesses–and occasionally offenders–call 9-1-1 and describe the armed citizen as aggressor. “Law enforcement tends to think of the first involved party that calls as the victim, so it is to your advantage to get your account of an incident heard first,” he advises.

Additional advice cautions against approaching a downed suspect, overlooking threats due to tachypsychia, saying too much or the wrong things after the danger is past, and other errors. The last shot does not necessarily signal the end of danger, he cautions, explaining that law enforcement needs “descriptions, location and current status of the armed citizen and the suspect(s) and their weapons and the need for emergency medical response.” When possible, he recommends that someone other than the armed citizen/responder make that call and others should meet and escort police to the scene.

In closing, Hedden comments that planning “should include mental scrimmages against potential threats. But your planning should also include what you will do if you’re contacted by law enforcement, whether it is a traffic stop or the defensive use of your weapon. You want to act in a way that you will be recognized by the police as one of the ‘good guys’ and not put your life or freedom in peril.”

A familiar face to readers of this journal writes a chapter dispelling many of the myths about trials that are in common circulation. Network advisory board member Jim Fleming has practiced law for over 30 years. Who better to explain trial procedure?

Fleming starts by correcting the idea that victims press charges, explaining, “In the majority of jurisdictions, only the prosecuting attorney’s office has the authority to file criminal charges…Usually the ‘victim’ of a crime does not have much to say over the charging decision,” he introduces. He explains the role of the Grand Jury, and its operation, explaining, “The Prosecutor explains the law to the grand jury members and works with them by presenting evidence in the testimony of various witnesses,” but a judge does not preside, nor do attorneys speak for the accused. If the Grand Jury indicts, arraignment, court appearances, bail hearings, plea bargains, pretrial hearings, jury selection, and a trial may ensue. Fleming explains each step in detail. We lack the space here to share the many valuable details outlined in his chapter, and I recommend getting Straight Talk to read it and all the other good information.

Fleming teaches the reader about standards of evidence, probable cause, how an affirmative defense works to “defeat or mitigate the legal consequences of the defendant’s conduct which would otherwise be unlawful…When a defendant claims that he or she acted in self-defense, he or she is admitting one, if not more, of the elements of the charged criminal offenses.” Now, the burden of proof shifts to the defendant. Don’t count on a judge giving the jury instructions regarding self defense, he warns.

Members will enjoy reading the chapter Network president Marty Hayes contributes to Straight Talk On Armed Defense and may be interested to read about Hayes’ inspiration to build the Network, the first organization to offer armed citizens an alternative to traditional insurance or pre-paid legal. He chronicles the growth of post-incident legal support plans, highlighting strengths and deficiencies in prepaid legal, insurance, and hybrid insurance/membership benefits providers.

Urging readers to make sure their support plan has the financial resources to mount a legal defense, he tells of a case for which he provided expert witness services in which the defendant shot three unarmed attackers after being severely beaten. The jury could not reach a verdict, as some were particularly troubled because one assailant was shot in the back. The judge declared a mistrial. The state re-filed charges and having seen the defense’s arguments in the first trial held all the advantages. Lacking the money to pay for a trial team for a second defense, the client accepted a plea bargain, forfeiting his gun rights.

Hayes goes on to discuss other post-incident expenses, including bail, civil lawsuits for damages, retrials and appeals, to emphasize that post-incident legal problems are more complex than many sales pitches for insurance or other plans admit. He closes by encouraging the reader to participate in one of these plans but to ask a lot of questions before buying.

In the book’s final pages Ayoob weaves together all the threads of the various topics covered in Straight Talk. The students he teaches, many physicians, emergency room staff, mental health professionals, attorneys and others from the legal profession, exemplify the self defense mindset. These career paths bring ordinary, law-abiding men and women in contact with violent criminals, so they understand the dangers. Meeting the victims and seeing the harm suffered, “brings the reality home to them…they share firsthand the pain, the crippling, the grief and they soon come to a conclusion, ‘Not me. Not mine!’” Other students are survivors of violent crime and know its damages first hand, comments this instructor of over 40 years experience.

Training counteracts the very natural fear of criminal violence, Ayoob opines, explaining that humans most fear two things: that which we do not understand, and that which we cannot control. “Education and training are the answer,” he stresses, and Straight Talk concludes with several pages of recommended books for further study. “The self-defense mindset is, in the final analysis, simply one element of a self-reliant mindset,” Ayoob concludes. 

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