It is wonderful when a whole handful of different “If you are in this situation, do that” rules can be boiled down to a single, simple principle that is easy to remember and easy to apply in a variety of situations.

Let’s look at some of those sorts of tactical rules for very different kinds of situations, some involving guns, some not.

“If you arrive home and it appears that someone broke in during your absence, don’t go in.”

“If someone has broken into your home when you are there, don’t go looking for him.”

“If someone approaches you on the street and makes you uncomfortable, don’t stop, even if he asks you for the time or directions.”

“If you are under attack, don’t just stand there, get off the line of force. Get to cover if you can.”

“If you have to hold someone at gun point, back up as far as you reasonably can.”

“If you are walking on a deserted street and strangers start to come toward you, cross the street.”

“If you get into a physical altercation with someone, use the defensive tactics you have trained with to break away from your attacker as soon as it is safe to do so.”

“If you want to practice defensive shooting while moving, walk backward or sideways, not forward.”

What do all these things have in common? Not the tools or techniques that you use; they range from your wits to your gun. The tactical common denominator in all of these situations is: “create distance.”

It stands to reason. If you are sufficiently far from your antagonist, he can’t hurt you, no matter what kind of weapon he has. The closer that you are to him, the easier it is for him to hurt you, even if he has a poor weapon, or none at all. A mile away, he can’t hurt you; inches away, he certainly can.

This simple tactical principle doesn’t apply to police, who are required, in many situations, to go toward danger rather than away from it. The very first level of the spectrum of force that most police are taught starts with “Police presence,” which means that the very presence of an officer can, with proper body language (even without verbal interaction), have a de-escalating effect on the situation. Most party-goers quiet down when a uniformed officer shows up to investigate reports of noise. Most drivers become more careful when they see a police presence nearby. Most domestic fights simmer down when a uniformed officer appears at the door.

As unsworn, non-uniformed civilians, your presence, and mine, doesn’t have the same effect. In fact, our appearance in any of the scenes described above could easily result in an escalation of undesirable behavior, instead of a de-escalation. For civilians, the first rule of safety is always to avoid trouble if you see any developing. Walk away, not into it. If it is bad trouble that you are walking away from, get to a phone and call 911, but don’t try to deal with it yourself unless there is no other choice.

In situations where a physical, unarmed, encounter is under way, again you and I can apply the simple principle of “do anything you can to get away so you can put distance between you and the person you are fighting.” That may include disabling your attacker so that he can’t easily run after you. Police, in a similar situation, have to try to take control of the situation, which often means putting the subject under control, by using various holds (or even handcuffs) designed to force compliance without disabling injury.

Tactically, distance equals time. The more distance you have from your threat, the longer you have to decide how to react to whatever he does. Let’s look at the principle of “create distance” to see whether it helps us to find solutions to “what should I do now?” in a situation that you may not have a fixed rule for.

Suppose you have had to shoot someone and he dropped his weapon and fell to the ground. If you are at least 20 feet away, and behind cover, you can easily observe whether he is reaching for the fallen gun, and whether his motion constitutes a true threat (that he is capable of turning the gun on you) or not (that his instinctive grasping toward the weapon is weak and futile). Thus you have several seconds to decide whether he has again put you in mortal danger (in which case you need to fire at him again) or not (in which case you can hold your fire and continue to observe the situation). On the other hand, if you stay very close to him, seeing him reaching toward the gun on the ground would almost certainly appear to be a renewal of his previous attack, requiring an instantaneous response on your part.

If the weapon involved is a contact weapon such as a knife or club, the advantage that distance gives you in terms of time to react is extremely clear. If you are very close to him, within contact distance, his reaching for his weapon is likely to be construed as a renewed attack that requires a renewed defense using your firearm. But if you are at some distance from him, you will have much more time to judge whether he is still capable of bringing the weapon to you and using it against you.

In a Responsible Use of Lethal Force class I taught recently, we talked about many different kinds of situations and how to evaluate the possible need for lethal force (and apply it if necessary). As always, the students were mature, reasonable people who, above all, wanted to avoid tragic mistakes involving firearms. We were discussing a hypothetical scenario of someone coming into your home, through a window, at night. “I don’t want to shoot a family member, or a neighbor who has some crazy reason for doing that,” one of the participants said. We went over the ground rules for use of lethal force, and determined that, assuming the person was not obviously carrying a weapon, the homeowner was not in immediate, unavoidable danger of death, so shooting, at that moment, was not justified. The right thing to do? Keeping your weapon ready, back up as far as possible, get behind cover, and verbally challenge the intruder. The distance gives you the time to make him respond to you verbally, so that you can determine whether this is someone you know. It also gives you time to see him, perhaps even time to turn on some lights or have him move into an area where you can see him more clearly. The distance gives you the time to distinguish between a serious and non-serious situation, and, if the intruder is there with bad intent, gives him plenty of time and incentive to decide to go away rather than continue with his break-in.

Backing up, particularly in a stressful situation, possibly with a weapon in your hands, requires practice. You must remember to keep your finger off the trigger and solidly against the frame of the gun, so you won’t be startled into firing an unintended shot. Every now and then, practice moving straight backward or diagonally backward on the street or in your home (no gun involved). To do this, keep your head up and your eyes forward, to keep your practice target in view. Slide one foot in the direction you want to go, feeling the ground with the ball of your foot, and checking carefully for curbs, walls, or other obstacles. When you are sure that your foot has found a good place to be, shift your weight to it, and bring your other foot back to a comfortable, balanced position with your feet about shoulder width apart. Repeat as needed to get yourself safely as far backward as you want. Remember, practicing on a smooth, clean floor won’t prepare you for rapidly moving backward in a dark street that may be rife with potholes, bricks, or other dangerous objects. Take your time, don’t trip and fall.

Distance doesn’t have to be big. Sure, it is nice to have 20 or 30 feet between you and your antagonist. That gives you at least a second or two to evaluate and respond to his actions. That’s not a lot of time if he has a gun, but it is enough, and it is a huge amount of time if he has any other kind of weapon. But what if he is close, really close? A few inches may make the difference between being in range of his fist and being out of range. If the two of you are standing a couple of feet apart and he has a gun ready to shoot, moving just a step or two to the left or right can convert his center-of-mass, heart, lung, spinal cord, or brain shot to one that merely wings you in the arm, the shoulder, or misses you entirely! Think of it – a lifesaving maneuver you can execute by simply creating the distance of one step.

In almost any defensive situation, the answer to “Which of these two actions should I take?” is likely to be “Whichever one creates more distance between you and him.” That distance can be achieved by moving him away (pushing or striking), or by moving yourself away, or even by interposing something between you that he will have to go around or over (either one a longer distance) in order to get to you.

If someone tries to force you into a vehicle with him, should you go, or not? Going with him means staying close to him. Running away creates distance. So, run.

If you are threatened by a pair of thugs on the street at night, and you draw your gun in response, should you stand your ground or back up? Backing up creates distance, which creates reaction time that is in your favor. Standing your ground keeps the same distance, which has no tactical advantage, and may even encourage the thugs to decide to rush you.

If someone comes up to you at a bus stop to ask directions, and you decide to be helpful, should you stand there or take a step back as you provide them? Taking even one step back will create enough distance that you will be able to see his hands and most of his body more easily, and thus have warning if he is going to go for a weapon or move in to attack you.

You can probably think of many more situations and advice you have heard about self-defense situations. If it was good advice, it probably embodies the principle: “create distance.”

If you find yourself confronted by a situation you never imagined could happen, with or without a gun, you should hear a little voice in your mind saying “Back up!” or “Stay away” or “Get away.” If you ignore it and move closer to the threat, or let him move closer to you, that inner voice should start to yell “DANGER!!!” Listen to it. Create distance between you and the threat, whether it is inches or yards. Distance is time. Distance is safety.

This article was reprinted from Women&Guns magazine, Sep-Oct 2001, Copyright © 2001, Lyn Bates