An Interview with John Farnam

by Gila HayesJFarnam

Instructors who teach shooting have become fairly common; mentors who inspire students to adopt security-conscious habits as integral to the armed life style remain rare. John Farnam, who with his wife Vicki Farnam, travels the nation teaching self-defense preparation, is one of the rare teachers who show by word and deed how to live more safely.

One of Farnam’s great talents is distilling life skills into manageable tidbits taught with such simplicity that we can take the advice to heart, improve day-to-day safety procedures, and thus either avoid danger altogether or if unable to get out of crime’s way, we are better prepared to fight back.

Toward the end of 2014, Farnam (pictured, right) outlined little mistakes that can cascade into lethal disaster, in one of his famous D.T.I. Quips published on his website at (Be sure to include that URL in your “Favorites” list, members).

Pointed brevity is a strength of Farnam’s frequent Quips, so while listing these dangerous little mistakes, his online publishing format did not accommodate illuminating discussion of the various important points. Blessed with time to visit with Farnam and his wife Vicki at the 2015 SHOT Show in January, I asked him to elaborate on small mistakes that combine to create unrecoverably dangerous situations. Farnam graciously agreed and Vicki added a few observations, adding up to a great learning opportunity. Let’s switch now to a Q & A format to preserve the humor and clarity of these observations.

eJournal: John, when I read your recent Quip about “little mistakes,” I thought, that’s brilliant! Then I thought, but what are we missing? Well, you led the list with “#1: missing danger signs” (pre-assaultive behavior), so let me ask, what danger signs might we miss?

Farnam: Watch for things like hands on hips. That always indicates a challenge or a power struggle, if you would. Now does that mean that your life’s in mortal danger? Well, no, because people do that every day, but it’s a cue, especially when combined with other things like folded arms or playing with your face. [Mimes running a hand across cheek and chin] It is always a danger sign when people run a hand across their face. We call it a pre-assaultive cue. Not if it is your relative or something, but I am talking about a situation where it is someone you don’t know. That’s the time for you to get some distance!

I consider anybody I don’t know initiating a conversation to be a danger sign. Just two days ago, in Las Vegas we were coming back from the range and we had to buy gas. We were sitting at the gas station and here comes a jamoke saying, “I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but I, you know…” and he never got to complete his sentence because I said, “I’m sorry, sir, I can’t help you.” He said, “Oh, OK,” and he faded away.

Now, was that guy dangerous? You bet! Under the right circumstances, he’s extremely dangerous and no interest of mine was served by prolonging this any longer. As the tank filled up, I watched him approach just about everybody else and the reaction was interesting. When he was brushed off immediately, as I did, he concluded that it’s a dry hole, to use oil prospector’s terminology, you know. Why would an oilman spend any time on a dry hole?

But, when the person hesitated, or asked questions that opened the door, and then he got closer, he started asking questions, and then you started seeing this stuff [again mimes the scrubbing motion of his hand across his face]…very dangerous!

eJournal: You demonstrated how you spoke to the panhandler at the gas station that I think illustrates the second point on your list, “Mumbled, unpersuasive, and indecipherable verbal commands.” I wish this were video instead of print, because you showed how forcefully yet politely you disengaged. Sometimes people are shy, uncertain, and fail to communicate, “Stay away from me!”

Farnam: Indecision always projects weakness. Our colleague Clint Smith always says, “If you look like food, you will be eaten.” Well, here is an example of looking like food: you mumble and are hard to understand, your posture is submissive and weak looking. All that contributes to actually stimulating prey behavior on the part of the predator. It arouses the predator, even without him knowing it.

[Demonstrates in decisive voice, left hand thrust out, making eye contact] “I’m sorry, sir, I cannot help you.”

eJournal: And you are not afraid to meet their gaze for fear it will initiate a fight!

Farnam: No, I’ve got my trump card right here (flicks vest away from belt holstered pistol). I’m not worried that I will lose the fight. I have to ask, “What is in my best interests?” How is my best interest served by trying to find out what this person wants? The Salvation Army is right down the street. Why is he approaching me? You have to have a philosophical discussion with yourself. How helpful do you want to be? Should I never be helpful or should I always be helpful? Of course, the real answer is somewhere in between.

Was the guy at the gas station starving to death? He was not about to die! Maybe he did run out of gas, but, look, here you are at a gas station! [chuckling] What a coincidence! Apparently, the only thing missing was the cash!

When I don’t help this person, is someone going to die? Is some terrible thing going to happen? That is what you have to ask yourself. There are more charitable organizations than you can count in this town and most others, so why is he approaching me? [gestures to his clothing] Do I look like the Salvation Army?

More likely his whole story is a scam. He has not run out of gas–he is out of drugs. He does not need food–he needs cash. He is doing this because enough people give him cash often enough to encourage him to keep doing it. People at fast food places ask, “I’m really hungry…” I say, “I’m sorry, sir, I cannot help you,” then I go back to my car and watch person after person give the guy money. I’ve seen the guy sitting out on the grass and have people bring food out!

When people do that, they are not trying to benefit humanity, they are trying to assuage some kind of guilt. They say, “Well, I feel so much better.” Well, fine. Far be it from me to tell you what to do! What I AM telling you is, one, you are not bettering society because you are just encouraging that behavior. Two, you are exposing yourself to risk, maybe not significant risk, but it is definite risk unnecessarily.

My students come to me and say, “I’m carrying a gun now. What can I do to make lethal encounters even less likely then they are now? What lifestyle changes can I contemplate?”

Well, here is one answer: Maybe you are going to have to be a little less helpful. You are going to have to be very good at forcefully disengaging, or maybe you need to get good at being deselected to begin with. When you speak in complete sentences, speak forcefully with eye contact, that will usually end it right there. He will conclude it is a dry hole, “I’m going to get nothing here, no point in wasting my time.”

eJournal: We become so accustomed to panhandling, that it falls off our danger radar, leading into a point on your list: #3 Inability to separate the significant from the insignificant that made such an impression that I wrote it in bold type in my notes.

Farnam: I think we have to look at genuine risks vs. imaginary risks. What kinds of behavior represent genuine risk exposure and what is trivial? You see two people arguing loudly at the gas station. How much risk does that represent to you? Probably not much. What represents the best course of action? Get out of there. How risky is it really to stay there, finish filling your tank and get on your way? Probably not much. That is probably what I would do.

Now, suppose one of them produces a weapon. I just made a quantum change. Before, the argument was substantially insignificant. I would just like to get the tank filled and go. Now, somebody has produced a weapon. Suddenly, the gas is unimportant. I’m not even going to pay for the gas. I am just going to get out of here!

eJournal: We do have to decide to break our enculturation, whether that is to drive off without paying for the gas, or enter an empty intersection on a red light to avoid getting shot.

Farnam: At that point, you have got to be good at making the transition and the faster you can do it, the better off you are.

eJournal: How have you trained yourself to be able to go from zero to 100?

Farnam: Other than thinking about it? We do incorporate this into drills in classes. We get it out in the open and we talk about it and make sure our students understand that the whole theme behind carrying a gun is that you have to know how to go from being benign to lethal and the quicker you can do that, the better off you are. Every moment of hesitation significantly increases your personal risk, whether from your inability to see what is going on, or your unwillingness to confront it.

eJournal: Every moment, you may be taking damage until you’re unable to fight back.

Farnam: The chance of you getting real harm done greatly increases with time. How many people have you talked to who got mugged who said, “I wish I’d left five minutes earlier!”

eJournal: Or the classic, “He came out of nowhere!”

Farnam: Why didn’t you see him? Not long ago, Vicki, a friend and I were in a Cracker Barrel restaurant having breakfast. I was very hungry and I was thinking about eating and what I had to do for the rest of the day. We ordered breakfast and Vicki excused herself and when she came back, I knew something was wrong because she didn’t sit down. She walked behind me, put her hand on my shoulder and said, “We’re leaving now.”

We said not another word. We all got up and I put a $20 bill on the table and walked out and as we walked out, at the cash register there were three uniformed officers, and I heard one of them say, “No, we will just wait for him to come out.”

I have no idea whether they made an arrest nor do I care. We went down the block to the IHOP and had breakfast there. The whole experience cost me $20. I am not going to agonize over it. You make decisions; you don’t look back. We never discussed it after that, nor did we say, “Do you think we should have...” That is a waste of time and we don’t do that.

I’m not sure rationalizing it is terribly important. Maybe you’ll sort it out later or maybe you’ll never sort it out. I think women are especially sensitive to this and may say, “I don’t like the looks of that guy, I don’t like the way he’s standing.” I know that if I’m with Vicki and she says, “We are leaving now,” I don’t say, “Why?”

Vicki Farnam: Because we have agreed ahead of time that is the way we will be! You should have the same agreement with everyone in your immediate family and people that are around you a lot, that they know when you say it in a certain tone of voice, that there is no question at the moment. You can ask questions later, because not everybody sees that same thing.

Farnam: If she says, “I think we had better leave,” and if I say, “that’s stupid,” she should say, “Well, OK, Bud, I’m going.” Leaving is OK. I just think that is common sense. I would rather be suspicious about it earlier, break it off, and never know.

I would rather err in the direction of being too cautious rather than not being cautious enough. On the other hand, I don’t want to be hyper paranoid to the point where I am afraid to go outside. I, for one, want to experience every good thing this civilization has to offer. I do not want to miss out on anything! I think that is how we grow as individuals and how we become valuable as individuals.

What represents genuine risk and what represents, for lack of a better term, normal risk? Risk attaches to everything we do, that’s normal. We have to be able to separate that from significant risk, and especially from significantly avoidable risk. How about going with your friends to a raucous, sleazy bar? You have to ask yourself, “Why is this a good idea? How is it going to benefit me?” Nine times out of ten, the answer is that you are with a group and you do not want to be the wet blanket. You need the emotional independence to say, “I am not going to go in there. If you guys want to go, go ahead. I have car keys, I have cash, I have a pistol and I’ll be OK.”

eJournal: Preparation cuts dependence on companions so you can go on home or to your hotel. Now, on to the fourth little mistake in your list: #4: Taking a bad position. Is this, as Claude Werner explained in this journal (see, about positioning in public spaces, or is there a larger principle?

Farnam: I wrote that particularly for police officers, who get paid to confront dangerous people and need to ask, “What kind of a position am I in? If this really goes south right now, could I get an object between us, could I use cover, could I do this better?” This is why police officers get shot at point blank range, standing flat-footed out in the open. How could you do your job without going so far out on a limb?

For non police officers, it is the same thing. If I do not like the looks of some jamoke, I try to get distance and
get something between him and me. In a restaurant, I don’t care to sit with my back to the room, although sometimes that is unavoidable. I’m sensitive to vulnerable positions. I know where the exits are, how I can get out.

Getting caught flat-footed is often avoidable with just a little planning, just a little advance thinking about what can I use for cover, what can I get behind, what exit should I head for to get out of this place if it catches on fire? Those are lifestyle axioms that you have to seriously think about when you want to be one of us.

eJournal: You’ve said a lot about training and preparation. Your list’s next point may be the direct result of failing to prepare! You called the #5 mistake paralytic indecision. Doesn’t that come from not having a plan?

Farnam: [Laughs] Paralytic indecision is probably a fancy term for panic. One of the things we try to infuse in our students is decisiveness. You have to be capable of making a decision and not looking back because that is where the hesitation comes from. We are all guilty of it, of course, but when it comes down to life and death, what if I’m completely mistaken and it isn’t what I think it is?

People say, don’t ever shoot unless you’re completely sure! Well, you are never going to be sure! There is always going to be some doubt. You have to confront the fact that there are no guarantees. You might be completely wrong, but in this business, we make decisions and we don’t look back. I know lots of lawyers and we will work it out afterwards.

I promise you, whatever you do, it will not be perfect. Expect civil litigation five or six years later and an expert is going to get on the stand and point out where you could have done better. I promise you, he will be right–you weren’t perfect. What your lawyer will say in closing arguments is, “The law doesn’t require you to be perfect. The law requires you to be reasonable.”

You do what makes sense right now and don’t look back and don’t apologize. Once Abraham Lincoln put it like this, “If I were to read, much less to answer all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how–the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”

Are you ready to confront the fact you may be wrong? If you’re not, you better not carry a pistol; go back to eating grass because if you get into something, you are going to do something that can’t be taken back. All kinds of people will point out where you could have done it better. If you value your mental health, you better not spend your life looking back.

eJournal: You said a few minutes ago, that indecision was a fancy word for panicking, and you added to your list of “little mistakes,” #6 Panicking and shooting too fast.

Farnam: In our particular art going too fast is a perennial problem. [Laughing] Some people shoot too slow, the other 98% shoot too fast. They overestimate their ability and don’t make the first shot count. How many students have you seen come through that after four or five shots, they can’t miss, they are fine.

eJournal: Sure, but we don’t get any warm up shots if shooting for self defense!

Farnam: That’s the problem, isn’t it? How do we teach students to slow down and hit with that first shot? It is something that we need to practice doing, and we reward students when they are able to do that. When you try to go too fast, it is a manifestation of panic. Whether you are a piano player or a shooter, you go too fast. In music, that will make for a bad concert; in our business it is a fatal mistake.

It blends in with the persistent delusion that a miracle will save us! What is the theme of most television dramas? There is this terrible situation, there is no way
out, and then–a miracle! It can take the form of super heroes who have some magical power or the cavalry arriving in the nick of time. We tell our students, “That is fantasy. None of that is going to happen.”

People talk as if some miracle is going to save them, saying, “Well, when it comes right down to it, I will be able to make that shot.” I say, “Are you nuts? Look what you just did! Do you think you are going to shoot 10 times better in an emergency? You are going to be only half that good in an actual shooting!” It is not going to save you. It is not the great shots that save you, it is the little mistakes that kill you.

eJournal: And the #7 “little mistake,” unintentional discharges, is closely related to going at speeds that exceed your level of mastery.

Farnam: The accidental discharges (ADs) you hear about occur on the range, especially when there is an injury because somebody shoots themself when they are handling the gun under administrative circumstances, but ADs happen in gun fights, too. People get their fingers on triggers too soon and AD. It is not just a safety issue, it is a tactical issue. What does that do for your concentration? How many seconds will that cost you before you re-orient yourself?

So, keep the fingers where they belong; the muzzles where they belong. It is not just a range procedure, this is something you have to cement into the way you handle guns under all circumstances or you are going to have an AD in the middle of the gun fight and you are going to shoot yourself or at the very least you will break your concentration and it could be fatal.

eJournal: You talked about not shooting too fast, but conversely you mentioned that we could shoot too slowly, too.

Farnam: Unproductive or insignificant accuracy means nothing! Consuming an extra couple of seconds to do that is not in your best interests. I teach on an area target that we can shoot closer or from farther away. I want you to maintain the same degree of accuracy, and that means you have to adjust the speed, but I do want to see that first round hit no matter what, which means that you must adjust the speed. How much? Only you know, and you probably don’t know that now. But you should know by the time we are done with class.

eJournal: Your list included another challenge that makes it harder to shoot accurately–using cover. What effect is trying to use cover going to have on accurate first shots?

Farnam: Once again, if you don’t do it routinely in training, you are not going to do it. We can’t just SAY when you get in a real gunfight, do it this way. We actually have to do it, which means you are going to be in awkward positions that are going to affect your accuracy in class. Well, how much? You will learn that and will know it because we do it in class. Students are not always going to be terribly comfortable, and I tell them, we are going to do some things that by their nature are going to be awkward and clumsy but I hope you understand, we have to do this.

eJournal: That brings us to the last little mistake, which you said is relaxing too soon.

Farnam: In class, when you fire what you think is your last shot, I don’t want to hear, “Oh, thank goodness that is over!” What right do you have to declare this over? I will tell you when it is over! What should you be doing? Moving? Reloading? Scanning? Staying in the fight! I will tell you when it is over. You let me end the problem, you do not get to arbitrarily end it yourself.

I hope you understand the reason for that. When you go, “Whew! I’m glad that’s over,” well, for your sake, I hope you are right, but when we take this into the real world, and you think you have the right to arbitrarily declare this over, you’re in the middle of self delusion. You do not get to declare anything. You get to handle what gets thrown at you.

Relaxing too soon was one of the ten that was included in Pierce Brooks’ original list. Many will be too young to remember, but Pierce Brooks was the lead detective on the LAPD Onion Field case in 1963. He wrote the first book on police tactics Officer Down: Code Three. In it he listed the Ten Deadly Sins for police, like being asleep on duty, poorly maintained weapons, stuff like that, but I remember the one that really stuck with me was relaxing too soon, arbitrarily deciding that you had the authority to declare this over.

eJournal: Our readers should understand that you went into police work soon after serving in Vietnam where people tried to kill you, so Brooks’ list would have
resonated with you, because you may have seen people die because they relaxed too soon.

Farnam: Exactly, where it was never-ending and you never got to relax! That was one of the bitter lessons that I lived through, through no fault of my own. When I first read that in Pierce Brooks’ book, I thought, “Oh, boy, no kidding.” I thought I should include it in this list, because it really is important.

eJournal: I thought yours was a great list, too, and it means even more to me now after you helped by fleshing out the details of each point. Thank you so much for developing the list for the Quip, and for doing so much to help armed citizens understand the responsibilities we assume when going armed.

For further research Network members may wish to read the underlying quip at

The list discussed here is found at that link and identifies these “little mistakes” that can cascade lethally:

  1. Missing “danger signs” (pre-assaultive behavior)
  2. Mumbled, unpersuasive, and indecipherable verbal commands
  3. Inability to separate the significant from the insignificant
  4. Taking a bad position
  5. Paralytic indecision
  6. Panicking and shooting too fast
  7. Concentration-destroying unintentional discharges
  8. Failing to move
  9. Failing to take advantage of available cover
  10. Relaxing too soon.

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