Unintended Consequences – Chapter Four: Scared to Death

Is good marksmanship enough? Not if you’re scared to death, or, as self-defense expert Massad Ayoob says in his training course, “almost paralyzed with fear.”159

The human physiological and psychological response to mortal danger—the only situation in which one would be justified in using lethal force in self-defense—is well-documented. Often called the “fight-or-flight reflex” and accompanied by an enormous surge in adrenaline, “the most powerful hormone in the body,”160 the relevant effects include: the loss of fine motor skills, tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, trembling, loss of control of bodily functions, and more. Although these effects may be lessened by intensive training,s their advent is independent of personal will: 

Fear is an automatic physical reaction to a perceived threat that will result in predictable physical, emotional, perceptual, and cognitive changes because of high physical arousal states…. 

The physical changes that bring on the fear response are controlled by a part of your nervous system called the autonomic nervous system.161

The effect of these unavoidable changes is well documented. The handgun owner is not only less likely to be able to effectively use the gun for self-defense, he is also more likely to endanger himself, members of his family, and innocent bystanders. 

Gunfight Dynamics

It is a deadly mistake to think that the average person faced with a life-threatening encounter is likely to respond as cooly and calmly as is portrayed in movies and videos. “The average person who’s never been involved in a shooting cannot fathom the mental and physical stress that you undergo right during the event and immediately afterward,” said San Antonio police officer Shayne Katzfey.162 This extraordinary stress occurs when what Massad Ayoob calls the “body alarm reaction” kicks in: “when the brain has perceived [that] this organism is in danger, it trips that survival instinct, that survival reflex.”163

Fight or Flight. The survival reflex is not a matter of personal “courage” or lack thereof. It is a profound and complex physiological event designed to prepare the animal within to either fight or flee for its life: 

When fear explodes inside of you, your sympathetic nervous system instantly dumps a variety of natural drugs and hormones into your body to cause a high arousal state known as fear. You are literally under the influence of these natural chemicals, so your body operates differently, just as it would under the influence of a chemical you deliberately ingested.164

These chemically induced changes take effect immediately and last for a “significant” period of time.165 They have specific implications for one’s ability to effectively use a handgun for self-defense without needlessly endangering the lives of innocent persons. 

One common effect is distortion of perceived time, called tachypsychia.166 “An event that takes milliseconds may seem like minutes as everyone and everything appears to move in slow motion.”167 Other physical changes typically include pounding heart, muscle tension, trembling, dizziness, nausea, dry mouth, tingling sensations, the urge to urinate and defecate,168 and hyperventilation and fainting in some cases.169 Several of these effects specifically, directly, and dramatically degrade the handgun owner’s ability to use his weapon. For example, temporary paralysis—”momentarily freezing as your body is desperately trying to catch up to the sudden awareness that your life is in danger”170—is an obvious inconvenience. 

Loss of Fine Motor Control. Among the temporary consequences of the adrenaline dump are sudden surge in gross muscle strength, increase in speed associated with increased muscle strength, and insensitivity to pain. 

These changes enhance basic animal fighting skills, so they may be useful in a hand-to-hand brawl. “The fight or flight response has not changed since caveman days, when people fought with their bare hands or with clubs and rocks,” writes Chris Bird.171 But, expert Ayoob advises, “there is a downside to this….you will experience gross, severe, dramatic, cataclysmic loss of fine motor coordination. Dexterity falls through your ass….The hands will begin to tremble.”172

This is a serious problem because “the firing of the gun is dexterity intensive. You can’t change that.”173 In short, the use of fine motor skills for tasks like firing handguns are not part of the body’s survival design: “Our bodies have not yet adapted to the possibility that fighting may involve a delicate trigger squeeze.”174 Loss of fine motor control also means that reloading, also a high-dexterity skill, especially in revolvers, becomes much more difficult.175

Experts advise that it is possible to compensate for the loss of dexterity by diligent and proper training. “However,” writes expert Duane Thomas, “the sad truth is that very few people who carry a gun on a daily basis, in either the police or civilian sectors, have committed themselves to that level of training.”176

The necessary training requires more than time on a well-lighted, comfortable shooting range and a few hours leafing through “self-defense technique” articles in handgun fan magazines.t It means, according to Ayoob, learning carefully thought through ways of shooting the handgun that “minimize the degree to which you are dependent upon fine motor coordination as opposed to gross muscle coordination.”177

It may surprise some handgun enthusiasts that the “combat” pistol techniques they have learned in popular “practical pistol” or “combat shooting” courses may get them killed in real life. Ayoob explains that “it becomes almost criminally negligent to teach officers and law abiding armed citizens to defend themselves with combat shooting techniques…that rely heavily on several dexterity-dependent coordinates being accomplished perfectly to index the weapon with the target under stress.”178 The “specific dexterity prescriptions” called for in some of these training regimens—applying precise amounts of pressure with each hand within a specific two-hand combat grip—go out the window “when your body goes out of control with superhuman strength and a total loss of dexterity….It’s bullshit.”179

The flip side of motor control is the possibility of unintended shootings stemming from the inability to fine-tune one’s actions: 

You may mean only to keep him covered, but under the stress of a potentially life-threatening confrontation, your finger may ride that trigger too heavily. There are no excuses for shooting someone by mistake.180

If one is startled, the situation can be even worse. Ayoob describes: 

You drew the gun because you perceived yourself to be in danger, and that means body alarm reaction or even fight or flight reflex have kicked into gear: you’re stronger and faster and meaner, but you’re also clumsy and jumpy as hell. A tense person who is startled or thrown off balance tends to respond with convulsive muscular movements, and this could make your gun go off. At best, this is embarrassing and can give your position away; at worst, you can shoot an innocent person accidentally.181

Impaired Thinking. One’s very “ability to think in a rational, creative, and reflective manner” is likely to be reduced or perhaps eliminated under mortal threat conditions.182 This “will generally cause a massive block of the brain’s ability to process thought functions.”183 The inability to process thought functions rationally and reflectively will have an obvious effect on one’s ability to clearly sort out whether the situation is appropriate for the use of lethal force. 

At the practical level, impaired thinking is also likely to block the ability of the handgun owner to deal with such likely problems as a jammed pistol. “Everyone who shoots a semi-automatic will, at some time or another, experience a malfunction or jam,” writes expert Chris Bird.184 He suggests three separate “immediate action” drills that a shooter with a jammed gun should try. But other experts doubt that any but the simplest such drill is of use in the real world of the lethal force encounter. “Most people in this situation will not be able to determine much more than the fact that the weapon is not working….Adrenaline rush will probably preclude the ability to analyze, maybe even recognize the malfunction.”185 In short: “The more complex a motor skill behavior is, the more likely it is to be forgotten or bungled under extreme stress.”186

Tunnel Vision, Temporary Blindness, and Auditory Exclusion (“tunnel hearing”). Other physiological changes impact not only the ability of the handgun shooter, but the safety of innocent bystanders: tunnel vision, temporary blindness, and auditory exclusion (also known as “tunnel hearing”). According to expert Ayoob, these are a result of a primeval decision in the cortex of the brain that “there is only one thing that concerns us now, destroying or escaping the thing that is attempting to destroy us….The eyes still see and the ears still hear, but the cortex of the brain is screening out anything that is extraneous.”187

Tunnel vision is a loss of peripheral vision. For example: “Your field of vision may narrow to mere inches and you may lose your depth perception and your ability to see what is behind the threat.”188 Thus, tunnel vision makes the shooter concentrate so much on the perceived danger that he may not see other “bad guys” on his flanks or innocent bystanders behind or near to the person he is concentrating on.189

Other experts warn that, as part of this effect, the shooter may lose the ability to see or focus on the gun’s front sight, which is obviously bad news for the owner who trained to shoot using those sights.190

Hysterical or temporary blindness, amaurosis fugax, is another serious visual effect that, according to Ayoob, “seems to happen to people who are not prepared for violence and who are not trained for it,” whom he calls “lightweight amateurs.” This visual “whiteout” occurs because “the mind has seen something so terrifying, it refuses to look at it any longer.”191

“Tunnel hearing” is a distortion the most common manifestation of which is diminished sound, “which can range from total loss to sounds seemingly muffled and distant.”192 Thus, the shooter may not hear shouts warning of danger, attempts to explain that the appearance of danger is misleading and actually benign, or commands of arriving police officers: 

Somebody’s behind you screaming, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” and all the witnesses say, “Yeah, the cop was behind him yelling ‘don’t shoot, don’t shoot,’ and he fired”….auditory exclusion: the mind is saying, “No, we’ve got to focus on the danger.”193

Assorted Other Effects. The experts describe numerous other effects that are likely to degrade the defensive shooter’s ability and endanger innocent bystanders. These include a “denial response…this sudden, awful, overwhelmingly unexpected thing can’t be happening,”194 going into a “state of fugue…an almost somnambulant, zombie-like state,”195 and intrusive, irrelevant, and distracting thoughts.196 Sometimes the person under stress feels disconnected from events, even from things he is doing, or as if he is watching the entire scene from somewhere else: “The next thing I knew, I heard shots. I felt my Model 10 Smith & Wesson bucking in my hands, and I was asking myself mentally, ‘Who the hell is shooting my gun?'”197

The Practical Implication—This Can Get You Killed

“Sorting Out the Situation.” All of this leads to another problem inherent in any display of a handgun by a civilian in a public place: the difficulty law enforcement officers may have in deciding who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. 

Any time a civilian uses deadly force—or even displays a firearm—responding police officers will be on edge. Let’s say you are holding a would-be attacker at gun point when police arrive. What do they see? Two citizens—both unknown to them—one of whom is armed. Promptly obey any orders they give, and then identify yourself. Do whatever they ask, and let them sort out the situation.198

This advice to obey police orders may seem self-evident on its face. But the problems of tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, and general degradation of one’s mental faculties make it problematic whether the civilian handgun owner will see, hear, or have the presence of mind to obey such orders. And suppose they are given by an officer or detective in plain clothes? 

This problem is underscored by the unfortunate incidents of police shooting other police when they encounter each other in plain clothes or in off-duty situations. One of the more spectacular of these happened in the New York City subway after a youth dropped a shotgun and it went off in a train car. An off-duty police officer stepped into the car, identified himself, and picked up the gun. Within seconds, an undercover transit officer wearing plain clothes also arrived at the scene and had drawn his gun. The first officer shot the second, seriously wounding him and ending both officers’ careers.199 A similar incident occurred in Rhode Island when an off-duty police officer in civilian clothes saw a man with a gun confronting two police officers. The off-duty officer was fatally shot by the officers when he rushed to help them.200 A dispatcher’s mix-up in Austin, Texas, resulted in a police officer’s shooting of an off-duty sheriff’s deputy.201

Helping the Police? The latter of these cases illustrates the high probability that a “virtuous” attempt by an armed civilian to “help” a police officer can go terribly wrong. Ayoob explains: 

The legal protection offered to the man who is assisting an officer goes into effect only when the officer asks you to assist him. The man who is just driving by, witnesses a pursuit, and joins in, will not be considered a volunteer police officer…. 

And never forget that support officers racing in to assist may mistake you for the bad guy and blow you up. “Oops,” as we say in the trade.202

Remembering the Drill. Given all of these effects of mortal fear, it is likely that the untrained handgun owner will find it difficult, if not impossible, to recall much less act upon theoretically good advice that he may have gained from “book learning” about using his handgun. For example, Bill Clede advises the pistol owner to “never move sideways by crossing one leg over the other. You don’t want to stumble or trip with a loaded gun in your hand, so if you must move, sidle.”203

Will that gem pop into the mind of the person who is trembling, losing control of his bowels, experiencing tunnel vision, and loss of rational thinking ability? Probably not, which is why law enforcement trainers teach their officers to learn, drill repeatedly, and rely on thoroughly learned practical and virtually automatic responses when in lethal force situations. Firearms instructor Jim Cirillo writes: 

In all of my firearms courses, I strive to bring forth that subconscious reaction that I know students may need if they are confronted suddenly with the moment of truth….[an] ability that would be difficult to achieve with the conscious mind alone.204

Getting Shot Back. A final word is necessary about the potential for the defender to get shot himself in the course of the encounter. Does he know how to react to that event? Experts point out that survival may well depend not only on knowing how to control shock, but also on not exposing oneself to further injury or death. Here is a lesson one expert draws from paint-ball exercises: 

The paintballs, of course, are not lethal, but they do sting. In this case, one trainee was playing the role of an officer who had the suspect covered. The “officer” was shielded by the corner of a building, but one of his legs was sticking out. The “suspect’s” partner was able to hit the officer’s thigh with a paintball. Reacting to the sting, the trainee reached over to grasp his leg—and was hit twice on his face shield. In real life, he would have been killed. So the rule is, if you are hurt in a confrontation, address the threat first. Your injury can wait.205

s) Law enforcement officers “rarely take flight, rarely freeze, and rarely fight out of control during a deadly force encounter because they continually train to confront problems. They are successful because they are trained to use to their advantage the natural physical, emotional, perceptual, and cognitive changes that occur during the fear response.” Alexis Artwohl and Loren W. Christensen, Deadly Force Encounters: What Cops Need to Know to Mentally and Physically Prepare for and Survive a Gunfight (Boulder, Colo.: Paladin Press 1997), 37.

t) Firearms fan magazines frequently feature articles purporting to describe handgun self-defense techniques. For an example of the genre, see Gila Hayes, “Alternative Sighting Methods for Speed Shooting,” American Guardian, November/December 1999, 26. Expert Chuck Taylor warns, “It’s easy to read gun magazines, of course, but remember that many writers simply paraphrase things written by someone else who is also paraphrasing from another source—which doesn’t make it true. It’s experience that allows us to separate the wheat from the chaff.” Chuck Taylor, “Proper Instruction is Vital,” in The Gun Digest Book of Combat Handgunnery, 4th ed. (Iola, Wis.: Krause Publications, 1997), 91.

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