There is nothing like a scenario involving an armed robber to bring out the most vitriolic arguments about what is the right thing to do. Whether the situations are hypothetical or real, Monday-morning-quarterback attacks are particularly common against a person who didn’t instantly shoot the perceived threat. Who is right? Here are two examples for you to work out.

Scenario 1:

You are walking by a convenience store late at night. It is the only store open in the area. As you start to go in to buy something to drink, you see that the clerk has her hands up and is staring in fear at a man in a hooded sweatshirt (you can’t see his face) who is pointing a gun at her. There is nobody else in the store, and nobody, as far as you can tell, nearby.

There are many, many ways this scenario can play out, and I suggest that you think of several of them before continuing to read this article.

Option #1. You draw your gun and shoot the armed robber.

Option #2. You take cover, draw your gun, and challenge the robber. Now there are two ways it can play out, either he drops the gun (so you don’t have to shoot him), or he turns toward you with the gun in his hand pointing toward you (in which case you have to shoot him).

Option #3. You slip out of the store, run to the nearest phone, and call 911. (The next day, you sign up for cellphone service and get a phone small enough to carry in your purse.)

If you haven’t had much defensive firearms training, you might have picked option #1, and you either end the mental scenario here, or imagine that the cops show up and after you explain what happened, pat you on the back and send you home.. The urge to see the self as hero (or heroine) is strong, particularly in fantasy where there are no bad consequences and you can daydream a happy ending. But that’s not how it goes down in real life.

If you have had some good defense training, you probably picked option #2, which offers the possibility of controlling the situation without bloodshed, though there is still a substantial chance that you will have to shoot.

Option #3 is the hardest to pick in fantasy (because it means leaving the store clerk at risk for a while, and we don’t like fantasies that make us behave that way), but probably very likely to happen in real life. Notice that it is the safest one for you!

I claim that there is no single right answer here, and that either option 2 or 3 is a perfectly reasonable response to the situation. This will doubtless raise the ire of those who think that leaving the store is cowardly.

Oh, let me add one more thing to the scenario. The man with the gun wasn’t an armed robber after all. He was the store owner, training a new clerk how to respond if ever there was a holdup.

How do you feel, now, about the option that you chose? Suddenly, #3 looks better than it did before, doesn’t it? And the consequences, even to a “justified” shooting as part of option #2, are very, very dire.

And lest you think this is too far-fetched, it HAS happened. Foolish store owners who conduct this kind of on-the-job training should do it empty-handed, but some of them won’t.

Scenario 2.

You are in a store, browsing, wearing a gun concealed in your fannypack. Two young punks, one armed, come in and demand that the clerk give them money from the cash register. He complies. They tell you and the clerk to turn around while they leave. There is no good cover available.

Option 1. You draw and shoot.

Option 2. You turn around, managing to keep an eye on them while you do so. You also surreptitiously open your fannypack and get your hand on your gun.

Option 3. Whatever else you can imagine doing.

Some post-incident analyzers took me to task for not instantly trying to shoot the armed man who came in to rob a store in a scenario like this that was acted out with paint guns.

There are two very good reasons why I didn’t.

First, I know, from experience, that if someone at close range already has a gun pointed at you, it is extremely unlikely that you can draw and shoot without being hit. It will take him about a quarter of a second to pull the trigger, once he has decided to shoot. It will take you, even if you are well practiced, much closer to a second or more to react, draw and shoot.

In fact, even if you do shoot him, there’s a good chance that he will still be capable of shooting you, too. It won’t be much consolation to have your dying thought be, “Well, I got him, too.” There are some things that you can do to improve your chances (such as moving off the line of force, or taking cover, or running out the door), but those options were not open to me in the context of the scenario.

You can prove this to yourself without going to the range, or getting out a timer. Just get two plastic toy guns with triggers that click, and get a friend to hold you at gunpoint from across the room. When you feel lucky, go for your gun. Your friend will start firing as soon as s/he perceives your movement. It won’t take more than a few trials to prove that your survival potential is remarkably low.

There are some circumstances in which one could imagine that drawing against a drawn gun is the right (or the only, desperate) thing to do. But it is important that you understand how bad the odds really are in this situation, so that you don’t, in fantasy, train yourself to automatically attempt a maneuver that is likely to get you killed.

Second, I made the judgment, at that particular time, in this particular case, that the robbers just wanted money, and would leave when they had it without harming us innocents. As a result, I kept my options open by appearing to comply with some of their commands, while at the same time taking steps to improve my tactical situation (surreptitiously opening the fanny pack and getting a grip on my gun, so I could employ it very quickly if necessary) and constantly watching the situation to determine whether my initial judgment about the danger level needed to be revised.

This kind of scenario brings out the best and the worst of post-incident analysis. The clamor to have an unambiguous answer is so strong that normally thoughtful people start hurling verbal brickbats, accusing people who survived a confrontation of cowardice, stupidity, or worse. (Luckily, I don’t easily take offense.)

But, you see, I know that I was right, under the circumstances, to do what I did. But if you say that, in the same circumstances, you would have chosen do something different, that doesn’t make you wrong.

How can this be?

One answer is that different people perceive things differently, and _only_ the person who went through the situation can possibly be aware of all the perceptions, impressions, and judgments that went into the decision to act as they did.

People often find it difficult to articulate the reasons for their actions. One of the best things about good defensive firearms training is that it teaches you how to articulate what happened. Without that structure for talking about _why_ you felt in danger of death or grave bodily harm, you are left saying to an uncaring media, prosecutor, and jury, “I just knew he was about to kill me, so what I did was self-defense.”

Don’t think it is easy, or automatic, to explain yourself. Human beings come pre-loaded with an operating system that does a lot of processing at an unconscious level, particularly in high-threat situations, leaving you with the strong conscious perception of terrible danger, but not necessarily the pieces of information that resulted in that conclusion.

So, my judgment about whether the armed robber was truly dangerous or not was based not just on the fact that he held a gun. I concluded that the robber appeared to be nervous, but not drunk or drugged, anxious, but not angry, and that he was handling the gun in a way that made me think he wasn’t very expert with it. All of those factors led me to conclude that he was after the money, nothing more.

If you had been there, you might have noticed different things. Or you might have noticed nothing but the gun. If you had chosen to react another way, and that way led to shooting the robber, I could not, in all honesty, say that you were wrong to do so.

But in analyzing these situations in the leisure we currently enjoy, I have to give a slight edge to any course of action that resolves the situation without _anyone_ being shot.

In practice scenarios, as in real life, you make your decisions rapidly and you deal with the results. If you make a mistake in practice that gets you shot, you remember it and learn from it. One of the limits to the realism of practice, however, is that if you choose to shoot someone, there are no consequences.

In the real world, if you shoot someone, even in self-defense, there are major consequences. The legal system in this country is not prepared to pat you on the back and send you home. Sure, that might happen, but what is much more likely is that you will be arrested, charged (perhaps with murder, maybe manslaughter or assault), and in for a legal nightmare that will last for years. If you manage to have the criminal charges dropped (or, after much expenditure of funds on lawyers, if you manage to get an acquittal in court), you may still fact the avaricious lawyers of the criminal or his surviving relatives in civil court.

What I tell my students is that, if you fire your gun at anyone in self-defense, you should expect that you will have to sell your house (or cash in your retirement fund, or give up your kids’ college fund) to pay the lawyers and to pay off the civil claim that will likely be pressed by your assailant’s survivors. I don’t like it, either, but that is the way it is.

Knowing that the financial consequences of using your gun are so high (not to mention the social and emotional consequences) is an additional brake on what might otherwise be a too-hasty response.

While that restraint is a real one, I’ve never known of it to interfere with using a firearm when there was really no other choice. For example, here are some situations when hesitation is usually not appropriate.

1. There’s no time for it. If you are in a situation where instant deadly, reaction is necessary, you will know it, and you won’t have a thought for anything except stopping the attack.

2. Your children, or other family members, are in deadly danger. Unlike many public situations where you can’t be absolutely sure who the innocent party is, if it involves your family, that part of the analysis doesn’t have to be given a second thought.

3. You are being stalked by a killer. If someone is coming after you, personally (not just any woman who happened to be in that place at that time) and has credibly threatened your life, you don’t have to spend time figuring out whether this person is really a threat to you or not. He is! Do what you have to do to survive.

There is no contradiction between being willing to shoot someone if necessary, and consciously doing everything possible to avoid having to pull the trigger.

Looking for a way out of many potential situations that does not involve shooting is good practice. It does NOT spring from cowardice, unwillingness to shoot, incompetence, weakness of will, feeling sorry for the criminal, or bad training.

It DOES spring from the realization that you are on the cusp of an experience that you can direct in a variety of ways — shooting will certainly resolve it, but with severe consequences; not shooting, yet, may allow a better resolution. This is not the hesitation that bespeaks lack of resolve, but rather the last possible moment for you to be absolutely sure that what you are about to do truly has to be done, and the last possible moment for the criminal to recognize your resolve and decide to break off his attack rather than die.

In the moral, legal, and ethical situations that self-defense brings to the fore, there are many situations in which it is clearly right to shoot another human being, and there are many situations in which it is clearly not right. But there is a gray middle area, and when we experience situations that fall within it, we each bring our own background, training, perceptions, and decision-making apparatus with us. When we talk about those situations afterwards (particularly those we have not directly experienced), we each bring our own imaginations as well. This is why there is often more than one “right” answer for any given situation. To feel otherwise is rigid and foolhardy.

This article was reprinted from Women&Guns magazine, Jan-Feb. 1998, Copyright © 1998, Lyn Bates