The story began in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in August of 1984. A newspaper woman named Deborah Sykes drove her blue Opal Kadett to work at 6 o’clock in the morning. She’d only been working at The Sentinel for a few weeks, but she had already learned the best place to park her car for free – a street with no parking meters, just a block and a half from the paper.
Deborah was not a small woman; at 25 years old, 5’10” and 150 pounds, she did not look like a “typical” victim. Nor did she behave like one – she was outspoken, candid, determined, very alert, and very sure of herself. Nobody knows why they chose her, maybe she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. As she was walking from her car to work, she was abducted by two men. They took her to a nearby field, raped her probably more than once, and stabbed her upper body repeatedly. Eventually, she bled to death.
This all happened just two blocks from where Jean (a pseudonym) worked as a secretary for a small publishing company.
The police quickly apprehended a suspect named Darryl Hunt, and charged him with Deborah’s murder. But the newspapers prominently announced that the police were continuing to search for Darryl’s tall companion, vaguely described as “20 to 25 years old, … medium build, wearing dark clothes.”
The section of town where the Sykes murder occurred was neither good, nor particularly bad, but bordered on both kinds of territories. All types of people were there. Jean thought about what it meant for a rapist/murderer accomplice to be loose in the neighborhood.
A month later, one Monday in September, Jean went to work as usual. Her boss was on vacation, so her co-workers left early; from 3 o’clock on, she was the only person in the building.
Long after it was over, Jean said, “I knew the other people’s schedules, so I knew that I was going to be alone. I knew about the Darryl Hunt / Deborah Sykes murder, and that the accomplice was still on the loose, so I brought my gun in with me that day. I was carrying at that time a 6″ barrel, Dan Wesson .357 magnum loaded with 125 grain jacked hollow points.”
It is illegal in North Carolina to carry concealed in any way, shape, or form. Jean normally kept her gun locked in her car’s glove compartment, which was legal because it was “inaccessible” to her there.
Jean hoped that she would never have to use her gun, but … much better to have it and not need it than the other way around. So, in with her it came. When Jean left work at 5 o’clock that afternoon, she had her purse over her shoulder, and a notebook and some other papers in her left hand. Her right hand held her car keys. The revolver was laid in the crook of her left arm, held against her body, hidden by the notebook and papers, so that it wouldn’t be obvious to anybody walking by who might start screaming, “My God, there’s a crazy lady carrying a Great Big Gun!”
Did I mention that Jean is a very small woman? At 5’2″ and 110 pounds, she didn’t have a great deal of upper body strength, or stamina. She was wearing a moderately slim skirt that reached below her knees, a blouse, and high heels – typical office garb, but not suitable for running.
She went out the back door, where the parking lot was. Well, to call it a parking lot is being kind. It was actually more of a long alley, with four angle parking spaces on one side.
For security, the doors on Jean’s building locked automatically when they closed. A stone staircase led from the back door up into the middle of the alley. As Jean stepped out of the building, she heard and felt the door lock behind her in the same moment that she noticed there were two cars in the parking lot. One was her own Mustang II about 30 feet away, the other, parked just beyond it, was, in Jean’s words “the god-awfulest looking yellow Pinto you’ve ever seen in your life. I mean, it was rust! It was yellow and rust. It was in really bad shape.”
When Jean saw the man in the car, “the Darryl Hunt thing” flashed briefly through her mind, but that thought was immediately followed by, “Nah, this is not going to happen to me. This is not who this guy is.” Nonetheless, it seemed a good idea to put her right hand on the grip of the revolver, just in case. “He won’t see the gun, so it won’t scare him,” she thought.
She stepped toward her car, and immediately he got out of his . He was now staring directly at her. Jean was aware from that moment on that he never took his eyes off her, not even briefly.
He was a young man, anywhere from late teens to 25. He was not terribly tall, but at about 140 pounds he was substantially taller and stronger than tiny Jean. He was nondescript looking; he didn’t have glasses or a mustache or scars from acne. He wore his hair in a style that was very popular at that time. He and Jean were alone in the alley; there was no reason that she could see for him to be there.
When he first got out of his car, Jean couldn’t see his hands, so she didn’t know whether he had a weapon. As she continued edging toward her car, she thought about his odd behavior. If you meet a stranger in an alley, the normal thing to do is either to not make eye contact at all, or to do so briefly and then look away or begin to speak. “He never said anything. He never said a word to me. He didn’t behave as though he were drunk. And I’ve not been around enough people who were drugged to really know about that, but he was not acting crazy.”
He came out from behind the car, and Jean could finally see his hands: no weapon. But he might have a gun on him somewhere, or a knife. Not wanting to turn her back on him to return to the stairs and the door she would have to unlock, and knowing she was too far from either end of the alley to run to safety, she reluctantly continued toward her car. The alley opened onto a fairly major highway that was, at 5 o’clock, filled with fast moving cars whose drivers never glanced to the side. She was aware that she could scream forever and nobody would hear.
The distance between them was rapidly diminishing. He was close enough to cover the distance in no time. Jean’s sense of extreme unease quickly turned to genuine fear as it became clearer and clearer that his intentions were not innocent. The pros and cons of alternative plans of action poured through her mind, tangled up with feelings about the encounter. “Can I run?” No, he’s too close. I don’t want to turn my back on him. I really don’t want to turn my back on him! I don’t think I can outrun him. And, … I don’t want him to get any closer to me! I’m afraid to let him get closer. I don’t want to let him get close enough to me to touch me!”
Describing it later, Jean continues, “I couldn’t think of anything to say. It was like my tongue was literally frozen to the roof of my mouth. I mean, I couldn’t say anything! I was scared! … As soon as he got out of his car and started toward me and he never said anything, I immediately thought, ‘This is the guy. This is him, and I’m going to be raped, and murdered, in this parking lot!'”
At this point, things started to slow down. She seemed to be thinking and moving in slow motion. Fortunately, the man coming toward her seemed in slow motion, too. Jean wondered about the sensation. “I’m probably losing my mind”, she thought, “But I’m going to be dead soon anyway, so it doesn’t matter.” She didn’t know about tachypsychia, a mental state which is very common under conditions of extreme stress, but she was experiencing it in full.
In slow motion, he continued toward her, still not talking. If he’d wanted to know the time or directions or something, he would have asked by now, but the he clearly wasn’t after the time. Jean edged closer to the wall, trying to put more distance between them, so that he could reach the staircase, if that’s where he was headed, without coming close to her. But as soon as she moved, he turned to face her – obviously he wasn’t headed for the stairs! She couldn’t back up any further – another step back would literally put her back against the wall. There was nowhere to go! As he took another step, they within a few feet of one another. One more step and he could touch her!
Let’s let Jean tell what happened then.
“I dropped … everything but the gun. My keys, I dropped. My purse came off … I dropped everything! I had a mess around me. And it felt like everything fell in slow motion. I have never been that scared before or since.
“I had the gun … I remember I had a very firm grip on it, and I brought it up. And as soon as he saw the gun, and saw the look on my face, he stopped. He immediately froze. He did not keep coming. He still did not say anything.
“We stood there and stared at each other for what felt like a week. Or two! You know all the TV shows where they come out with the hip one-liners – it’s bull! I couldn’t think of anything to say! I was still … I was almost … I wasn’t sure my voice was going to work! And I didn’t want to come out with a really high, squeaky voice, because I didn’t want to give any mixed messages.
“It (the gun) was between us. I started up with it, and he stopped. So I stopped. … I had a red ramp front sight, and I saw the red ramp in the middle of his chest.”
“He was eyeing the gun. . . . He did freeze! And we stayed there, frozen. It finally dawned on me that he was waiting for me to tell him to do something!
“And what I told him was not a good idea. It was not right, but it was all I could think of. My brain finally worked enough to tell him, ‘Move!’ Which was probably ambiguous, but it was a one syllable word. I couldn’t get out more than one syllable. ‘Go away’ would have been great, but it was too many words! But he evidently understood what ‘move’ referred to. He still never said anything. He backed away from me. He didn’t go to his car. He backed across the parking lot past both cars, and he got maybe 25′ away from me diagonally. And he turned around and ran.
“And I stood there. Again, I didn’t know what to do. It took a while for anything to start registering. I was almost waiting for … I don’t know … somebody to tell me what to do. And there was nobody there.
“My hands were shaking so much by that point that it took a while for me to gather my stuff up. I kept picking it up and dropping it, picking it up and dropping it. I was pouring sweat, none of which I had noticed before. It finally dawned on me that I could hear – I could hear traffic going by on the main highway in front!
“I refused to put the gun down. It was as though it was glued in my hand! I refused to put it down. I just knew, in my gut, that if I put it down, he or somebody would jump me immediately. It sounds crazy, and I thought I was a little nuts.
“My mind was still not working really right, and I was almost in tears. It was relief that I was still alive, that I was not hurt, and that I didn’t have to shoot the guy. I was really glad that I didn’t have to shoot him. I hope I never have to shoot anybody, I really do! I know from my experience that I will, if I have to. It may make me sick for a while, but I’d rather be sick, and face the legal consequences, than to end up the way that newspaper woman did. I like my life, and I’m willing to fight for it. … ” Her voice drops to a whisper, “I just hope I’m never that scared again.”
Jean finally gathered up her belongings, and got into her car. Despite the blazing North Carolina summer afternoon, she locked all the doors and rolled all the windows up! She says “I just wanted to get out of there! I wanted to get somewhere safe.”
It seemed to take forever, but Jean finally got home. When her husband arrived later that night, he found his still frightened wife barricaded behind double locked doors, with several loaded guns near to hand. His understanding and support helped her through the aftermath of the encounter.
In the nine years since then, Jean has told very few people what happened. She never told the police. She knows she should have, but at the time she was concerned about the legal consequences of having taken her gun to work. Who knows how many other incidents of self-protection go unreported because people fear they will get into trouble for having the means to protect themselves?
Now, Jean goes armed everywhere she possibly can, even though that means carrying illegally. She is working hard to get the law changed so that concealed carry by private citizens in her state will be legal. With greatest sincerity, she says that she never wants to use her gun again. “I hope that’s it. I’ve had my share, and it’s over. But you never know … ” She says with equal sincerity and conviction that she will use it if she has to.
“I’m just glad that I had it. I think that everybody should make their own decisions. But if you’ve made the decision, you need to have the gun with you. There are times when there’s nothing else going to work! . . . It taught me that if you only carry when you think you’ll need it, you won’t have it with you when you do”
What’s the point of stories like this? Not simply to reiterate that guns are good for defense, though they certainly are. But a number of lessons can be learned only from someone who has “been there”.
This is Typical Armed Self-Protection
This incident is typical because although fast, it was not instantaneous. The entire encounter took little more than a minute from the time Jean left the office until she got into her car to drive away, though under the influence of tachypsychia it seemed to take forever. Yet there was plenty of time for the Jean to see trouble developing, and to make and carry out several plans for dealing with it before she had to show her firearm.
It is also typical because the defense gun was never fired. Reliable estimates are that of the nearly 1 million incidents per year in which a gun is used for defense, armed citizens wound or kill criminals in only 2%. In other words, about 98% of the time, the gun that is used for successful self-defense is never fired. This is why it is silly and dangerously wrong to measure the “effectiveness” of firearms for defense by the number of criminals killed.
Trust Your Feelings of Danger, and Act on Them
After analyzing the situation many times since it happened, Jean remains absolutely convinced that the man intended her serious harm, although it is hard for her to articulate precisely what gave her that impression.
Every person who has ever talked to crime victims has heard things like, “I knew something was wrong as soon as I saw him”, “I got a terrible feeling that something bad was about to happen”, or “I don’t know what it was, but something about him made my blood run cold.”
Massad Ayoob calls these reactions precognition. No, that’s not a mystical way of foretelling the future, it is the result of your mind detecting and assimilating danger signals at a subconscious level, and warning you through the conscious emotion of fear. If this ever happens to you, don’t ignore it!
But read the next paragraph carefully
Fear Alone Does NOT Justify Lethal Force
On the other hand, be aware that legally, ‘bare fear’ (that is, fear alone) is not justification for using lethal force against someone. The fear must be accompanied by circumstances that a reasonable and prudent person would interpret as immediate and unavoidable danger.
If every person who was “afraid” could shoot with impunity anyone who frightened them, the world would indeed be a terrible place for us all, as timid folk would constantly gun down anybody who looked at them the wrong way
So, although Jean was more frightened than ever before in her life, the fear wasn’t what justified bringing the big Dan Wesson out. What justified it was a set of facts that indicated that the man was behaving in a “threatening manner”. Nothing was normal, from the way he parked his car, to the way that he kept turning to face Jean wherever she moved, to the way that he never took his eyes off her or spoke to her. The sum of those facts is a threat, even though no verbal threat was made.
If Jean had had to shoot, she would have eventually found herself in front of a jury trying to convince them that the man’s actions were sufficiently threatening to justify her response. The facts about those actions, not her emotional reaction to them, would have been the cornerstone of her defense.
Give a Woman a Gun, and She’s Going to Shoot Somebody at the First Opportunity – NOT!
Jean is not easily frightened. She has encountered many unknown men when she was alone, but never before or since did she react to anyone the way she did here. Despite her extreme fear, she held her fire, even when the gun was in firing position with her finger on the trigger. Not because she was unwilling to shoot in order to save herself (quite the opposite), but because she constantly analyzed the situation and knew it wasn’t absolutely necessary to fire yet.
She behaved extraordinarily well. She had the gun with her when she needed it. She brought it out when she needed it. She had a firm grip and a good position. She was absolutely prepared to fire it. And she didn’t fire when she didn’t have to!
They WON’T Take It Away from You, . . . If You are Prepared to Use It
Jean’s confrontation happened at very close range, close enough for the assailant to have reached for her gun to disarm her. But he didn’t try. I asked Jean the obvious question: What would you have done if he tried to take that revolver away?
With absolutely no hesitation, she answered firmly, “I’d have shot him! If he had kept coming at me, in spite of the gun, I would have shot him. I knew that, and I know that now, just as certainly as I know my name. I would have shot him! I would have put as many rounds of .357 in his chest as it took for him to cease and desist, to stop being a threat to me. I was very certain of that then, and I’m very certain of that now.” He was obviously certain of that, too!
Remember how Jean described it? She said, “As soon as he saw the gun, and saw the look on my face, he stopped.” Neither the person nor the firearm is necessarily going to deter a crime, but the combination is virtually unbeatable!
Jean’s husband credits his wife, not the gun. “He saw her determination. And he believed that if he didn’t do what she said, he was going to die. It’s not just the gun. It’s the determination behind it.”
Jean has since tried to learn some tactics about getting away from someone. She took some self defense classes, but became disgusted when they started out with “Don’t ever carry a gun! They’re going to take it away from you and kill you with it.” She wanted to shout, “No! No! No! That’s not the way it is!”
Confidence Comes from Practice
I had to ask Jean the obvious: “So it never occurred to you when this incident was going down that you might miss?”
Jean says flatly, “I wouldn’t have missed him. That was the one thing I knew. My gun would work, and I would hit him. I knew I had practiced enough. I knew when I put that red ramp in the center of my target, whether it was steel, paper, or whatever, and squeezed the trigger, I was going to hit it! I knew that in my gut. I knew it; I never doubted it. I’ve never felt any more confident with any other gun, ever, in my life.”
Did she practice defensive shooting, or just target shooting? “(Defensive shooting) was about all that I did practice at that time. I didn’t shoot in matches very much. We shot a great deal of steel, where you had to hide behind a barricade, had to use what cover or concealment was available. I practiced fairly up-close shooting; 25 feet was about the limit that most of our matches were because of limited space.
“I practiced stance, firing, sight picture. I practiced religiously. My husband can tell you that he would send me off to the range. I’d ask ‘How much can I shoot?’ and he give me all the rounds (he’d reloaded), and I’d go and empty them.
“At that time, particularly, I was about the only woman there. The guys would all be standing around chitchatting, and I’d be standing over here having set up steel and working at it!”
Under Stress, You Will Do What You Have Practiced
Because she had practiced firing thousands of rounds, Jean’s grip and stance (and confidence) were there when she needed them. But her extensive practice did not cause Jean to shoot automatically upon achieving target acquisition.
Although Jean had never heard of the shooting technique called Stress Point Index, that is what she was using as she kept her eyes focused on the assailant and brought the front sight of the gun onto target using her peripheral vision to pick up the red ramp. Then she knew beyond a doubt that she would hit him if she fired.
In a well-trained person, the decision to shoot is a conscious one, an exception to the rule that unconscious, practiced habits take over under stress. Jean had full command of her weapon; her entire mental and emotional energy was concentrated on decisions such as “Do I need to shoot yet, or can I wait?” Not a single brain cell had to be concerned with details like “Will the gun work?” and “If I shoot, what if I miss?
This lesson has a very important corollary:
Corollary: Under Stress, You Won’t Be Able To Do What You Haven’t Practiced
There’s a lot more to defending yourself with a gun than drawing, aiming, deciding, and, if necessary, pulling the trigger. But those steps are all that most people, including Jean, practice in advance. Because she had not practiced how to talk to someone at gun point, she found herself floundering when she suddenly had to do it.
A hundred questions suddenly presented themselves: Should I say something? What should I say? Should I try to keep him here for the police? Should I tell him to put his hands up? How can I tell him to go away? … None of the answers were immediately obvious. The very fact that she had never practiced saying anything out loud, made it much more difficult for her to figure out what to say on the spot, and to get the words out.
Try this, right now while you are reading this: imagine yourself in Jean’s position, with the assailant at gun point. Now say, out loud, “Don’t move!” It felt a bit silly, and sounded a little weak, didn’t it? Take a deeper breath, and say it again, louder and more firmly, “DON’T MOVE!” Did it come out better that time?
If you make this part of your practice sessions, you will find that it gets louder and better, and you become more confident that you’d be able to say those simple words even under the incredible stress of an armed encounter.
You can also plan in advance what to do after the encounter is over. You ought to practice turning you head to look around. (This overcomes the inevitable tunnel vision that might be preventing you from seeing a second assailant, or someone who could help you.) And you ought to plan to get to the nearest phone to call the police.
Just thinking about these plans isn’t enough. Going through the actual physical motions every time you “practice”, right down to picking up the phone, will help to embed these actions in your subconscious repertoire just as concretely as the actions involved in drawing your firearm, and will make it easier for you to carry them out if you ever need to.
Remember, you’ll be running “on automatic”, so you’d better be programmed to do the right thing. If you have no program, you’ll flail around trying to create one.
Understanding the Mental States that Occur During a Violent Encounter Will Help You Deal With It.
Jean didn’t know what was happening to her mental processes in that parking lot. Tachypsychia, the distorted sense of size and time, is very common under stress. Movie makers use slow motion at some critical moments to try to convey this mental state. Another very common effect of stress, one that can occur with tachypsychia or alone, is tunnel vision.
You’ll never read a better description of tunnel vision than Jean’s: “I didn’t know anything about anything that was around me. I was aware of my red ramp front sight, and of him. I knew exactly what I had in my hand, and I knew where he was. Other than that, I couldn’t have told you anything. It could have come up a blizzard in the middle of the parking lot, and I wouldn’t have noticed. I thought I was going nuts!”
“Since then I’ve read a great deal more. I’ve read Massad Ayoob’s work, and I have a lot of respect for it. It really surprised me that there are other people who this has happened to that experienced the same things, particularly the tachypsychia and the auditory exclusion. I thought I was deaf!”
Just as the tunnel vision excluded “unnecessary” visual input but still let her see the man, the auditory exclusion Jean experienced would still have let her hear anything he said.
Afterward, Jean’s mental and physical state continued to be altered. The shaking and sweating she experienced were the result of the incredible amount of adrenaline dumped into her bloodstream during the encounter, and the sudden reversal of the vasoconstriction that is a natural part of the “fight or flight” reaction.
Remember her inability to put the firearm down, even for a moment, to gather up her purse and car keys? Massad Ayoob has many similar stories. His explanation is that when someone uses a gun to defend themselves, and it works, that firearm, which is literally a life-saver, suddenly becomes the owner’s most precious possession, their best friend, and they cling to it as tightly as they would to a person who had just saved them.
There is another explanation for this can’t-let-go phenomenon, less dramatic, but perhaps more accurate. Under stress, blood flow to the extremities is reduced; messages from the brain just don’t get through to the muscles, or if they do the message is “clench”, not “open”.
One story has it that a video of a man who was attacked in a theater shows him clawing awkwardly for his holstered gun with his weak hand, unable to drop the program he was holding in his strong hand!
Jean described her revolver as “glued” to her hand. She could have been describing the fact that she was literally unable, as well as unwilling, to open her hand.
It’s Better to Have It and Not Need It …
Back then, Jean didn’t carry a gun all the time. Most of the time it was in her car, where it would have been completely unreachable. She took the gun to work because she knew she would be alone there, not because she wanted to have it in the parking lot. “I was lucky,” she asserts. “I was extremely lucky.”
She is firm in believing that she is alive today because she had her gun with her. Now, she knows, “Being prepared beforehand is the only thing we can do.”
Now, Jean is seldom without her Sig Saur P230. It’s a .380. “Slightly marginal caliber, but it’s a light, compact package that makes it easy to carry always. I have practiced with it. It doesn’t have the red ramp, but it has the dot alignment, which I also like very well. I know that if I put my sights on my target and squeeze, I’m going to hit it.”
Another of Jean’s favored carry guns is a .45 Smith & Wesson, DA only, so it cannot be cocked. “The stroke feels very much like a revolver, only shorter. And again, I have practiced with it enough … It hits! The first shot I ever fired out of the Smith was at an IPSC target, and I shot the ‘A’ out of the A-zone. And I thought, ‘I think I’m going to like this! I think I’ll keep this gun.'”
What about the magnum revolver she carried that day? “I still have that .357 – that Dan Wesson. I’ve about worn it out by now! I don’t carry it any more because the timing is a little off, I’ve shot it so much. But I still do have it. I felt very secure with it.”
Several years after the incidents described here, two other men were finally apprehended and charged with being the accomplice in the newspaperwoman’s murder.
Jean has seen pictures of the men who were arrested. Neither was the man she encountered in the parking lot!
Does this mean that Jean was not justified in using her gun the way she did? How does it change the analysis we have done here?
Absolutely not one whit. Jean knew that she did not know for sure who the man in the parking lot was. She did not bring her firearm into play because she thought he might be wanted by the police for Sykes’ murder, although that thought crossed her mind. She used her gun because the man’s actions threatened her, at that very moment, putting her in immediate and unavoidable danger. Even though he had nothing to do with Deborah Sykes’ death, his actions toward Jean justified a strong reaction on her part.
What if he never intended Jean any harm at all? Jean acknowledges the bare possibility, saying, “He may have been totally innocent. . . . And that’s haunted me some, too. But I’ll never know. He didn’t behave like normal people do. . . . If he was completely innocent, I don’t know why he behaved as he did.”
Like most women who have been through similar situations, Jean tends to be hypercritical of her own actions, “Should I have gone back inside the building? What should I have said? I really do wish that I had told the police. I wish also I had at least gotten the license number of his car – it was still in the parking lot when I left! I didn’t think of it.”
But, she also says, “There are times that I’m proud of the way that I handled it .. that I really didn’t do too bad. . . . I didn’t end up dead, and I didn’t have to kill the guy. And I didn’t do what they always show in the movies.” She leans back, opens her eyes wide, and squeaks, “‘Stop! Stop!’ in a high, soft voice.
Jean tries to make a wry remark about the incident, but it falls flat. She admits, “I don’t joke about it. Maybe some people can, but it’s not funny to me, and I don’t think it’s ever going to get funny.”