Identify before you shoot

The house alarm sounded and the wife shot her husband through a closed bedroom door thinking he was an intruder, according to Fayetteville police.

Obviously, that was a ‘negative outcome.’ Therein lays the problem with simply having a gun without doing any scenario training with it. My research has brought me to the point where I am less concerned with the marksmanship aspects of personal protection than I am with 1) proper gunhandling and 2) appropriate decision-making. Those two items are almost completely absent from most gunowners’ repertoire.

There are a competing set of probabilities we have to consider in a home defense situation. If you have anyone else living in your home, the most likely probability is that the 3 a.m. bump you hear or shadow you see is, in fact, a member of your household. For sake of argument, let’s put that probability at nearly 100%. There is, however, a competing probability that it is an intruder. That probability is much lower, somewhat above 0%, depending on where you live. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the burglary rate in the US was 27.6 victimizations per 1,000 households in 2011, or 2.76%, so let’s round it up to 3%. Assuming it’s an either/or situation, which it’s not, that would make the likelihood of encountering a family member, rounded, at 97%. Graphically, this is what those competing probabilities look like.

Competing probabilities

Looking at it this way makes a very strong case for why we have to positively identify before we shoot. It is 32 times more likely that the sound or shadow is a member of the household than it is an intruder. Las Vegas would really like those odds. If we’re going to be the slightest bit responsible, we have to look at ALL the possibilities, not just the ones that scare us the most. Shooting through the door without doing any kind of identification is just plain wrong.

Verbalization is so important in personal protection scenarios. And it’s something very few people practice on the range, or any other time, for that matter. I’ve had female clients tell me “I can’t say that.” Well, you better learn to say something. At home, the verbalization doesn’t have to be complicated. “Who’s there?” will probably suffice. You do have to be able to talk with a gun in your hand, though. Once again, hearing “Honey, it’s me” should immediately trigger a stand-down response on our part.

Stand-down is another thing that’s uncommon for people to practice but really important when you look at the probabilities. In a home defense encounter, ‘Stand-down’ should most likely mean immediately physically placing the gun down and moving away from it to avoid unpleasant after-effects of a startle response. Having to do so brings up those proper gunhandling and muzzle direction issues again.

This also bears on the issue of ‘training for the worst possible case.’ A serious definitional issue has now arisen in my mind regarding that concept. Is ‘the worst possible case’ having a dangerous armed intruder in your house or shooting and killing a family member by mistake? I don’t have an answer for that question but it has now become a relevant issue for me, as it should be for you, too.

17 responses

  1. Great post. It is definitively the most probable scenario and deserves attention and training. Likewise, conflict avoidance training is probably more valuable than a “tactical” shooting course.

  2. Awesome post.

  3. One of the most concerning recurring patterns I’ve noticed while coaching new shooters: they default to covering the threat with the gun, finger on trigger, until trained to do otherwise. It’s not 100%, but it’s a solid majority of the folks I’ve worked with, enough to be noticeable.

    I mention this because it goes directly to your point about conducting home reconnaissance safely. If the person with the gun is not building in a safety margin for good decision-making by issuing verbal challenges, using a light, and keeping the gun at the low ready with trigger finger indexed… yeah. Bad outcomes are inevitable.

  4. Damn it! That’s a really bad thing you will have to live with.

    For sure it’s better to ask before firing, if you have the chance.

  5. Reblogged this on Gun Culture 2.0 and commented:
    Perhaps because I am also a professor (though not at all tactical), I enjoy reading “The Tactical Professor” and have reblogged his work previously.

    The negligent shooting that occasioned this piece occurred in my adopted home state of North Carolina so it caught my attention. What also caught my attention is TP’s attempt to quantify how rare the likelihood is of having to deal with a home invasion. His point is, it is rare, which is crucial to bear in mind when you have a gun in your hand.

    Now, I am not a statistician, but in his admittedly rough estimate, TP suggests that with a burglary rate of 27.6 per 1,000 households in 2011,

    1. Mike in Fort Worth

      David, what is also important is to realize that most burglaries occur during the day when no one is home. This is planned on the part of the burglars so they can avoid a confrontation. So very few burglars enter homes at a time when people are home.. at night. So the actual risk of an armed home invader is even smaller. Which speaks even stronger to TP’s point….be prepared for the worst but be aware that it’s more likely to be a family member than a threat so caution is appropriate. Also, layering your defenses; lighting, locks, barking dogs, etc are better than simply relying solely on a gun.

  6. Excellent blog post, and very important points Claude. If there is one thing I’ve found over the past 2 years, it’s that once you reach a certain level of performance, maintaining a healthy level of mechanics and performance with a handgun is honestly not that big of a deal. More important, IMHO, is placing an increased focus on continually improving your mental game, decision making skills, and ability to perceive a situation in as accurate a manner as possible.

    Only so many ways to the mechanics and performance of a handgun. There are far more variables at play on the mental side of the equation.

    1. Travis, I agree that keeping up an acceptable level of marksmanship competency isn’t particularly difficult once we reach a certain point. What I do notice is a degradation of gunhandling skills over time, even with accomplished shooters. Proper gunhandling involves a lot of conscious decisions about what to do, where to orient the gun, etc. As such, it is both a hardware and software skill.

      Your comments about the mental side, what I call ‘software’ are spot on. One of the smartest guys in the business commented to me years ago that once we get to a minimal level of performance, our efforts should be evenly split between live gun practice and inert gun practice. The inert gun practice he was talking revolved around the very mental, decisional, and perceptual tasks you mention.

  7. so all an intruder needs to do is say “honey, it’s me” or “it’s the police” and the home owner should lay down the weapon and step away from it … ?

    i don’t think that burglars are the simple minded scripted card boards that people train with.

    in advocating training for unlikely events, why not take into account a hostage situation? that the spouse is forced by the intruder to respond to the verbal challenge.

    1. While the possibility of an intruder being able to convincingly imitate the voice of a family member certainly exists, I think it’s highly unlikely.

      I’m certainly open to reading any verifiable accounts of an intruder forcing a family member to authentically respond to a verbal challenge.

  8. Reblogged this on disturbeddeputy and commented:
    A violation of a basic safety rule: KNOW your target and what is beyond.

  9. Reblogged this on Women and Guns and commented:
    Excellent article on the importance of scenario based training. Just look at the numbers on the chart.

  10. I think this brings up a good point which is to have the means to identify your target not only by verbal challenge (recognition of a family members or friends voice) but also the ability to visually identify a target. A blind shot doesnt have to be through an intermediate barrier. A shot into a dark hallway is just as bad. Therefore, this may require a light of some sort. Possibly attached to the weapon , like an x300, or hand held. This, of course, requires some more advanced training but is, in my opinion, a vital aspect of what you are talking about. Great article, I enjoyed reading it and made me reflect on some of my family’s own shortcomings in such a scenario.

  11. […] previously mentioned my issue with planning for the worst case, but since ‘worst case planning’ comes up so often, the topic bears some further discussion. […]

  12. […] this seems like a somewhat involved exercise but let’s keep in mind, there are competing sets of probabilities in a home defense situation. The most likely probability is that the 3 a.m. bump you hear or shadow you see is, in fact, a […]

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