Shooting an Unarmed Man?

See something interesting about this photo from a gun magazine? Anyone?

     Two guys. Apparently a fight has started. But if you haven’t spotted it yet? The bad guy is…unarmed. No knife. No gun. You might not spot that fact quickly because now more than ever, you’ve seen a lot of photos (and videos) like this and your eyes may glaze over the fact. Unarmed, yet our hero has decided, in this unarmed scuffle, to pull his pistol. It is all tucked back nice, tidy and tactical-like. Will he shoot? We don’t know? I believe many just assume so! The gun magazine photo and the article failed to tell us what happened next, like so much media we see? Did this able-bodied man decide to…to draw and shoot this unarmed man? Who? What caused this? Where? When? Why for? How come? What happened next? I dont know. You don’t know. We just get the photo flashed in out head. 

     Questions unanswered. Photos, books and videos depicting this situation are indeed quite prevalent these days. The overall theme of these types of gun articles and videos is sort of – 

“realist-dealist, gun fight training you don’t do!”

     It tries to push gun shooters into the next level of reality. It’s up to you, to up your game. The shoe is on the other foot now, but does it leave some laces untied? The message is “you will be fighting unarmed. Learn how,” which is fine. But the subtle message we are frequently flashed with is, “You are hand fighting, you are armed. You eventually draw your gun.” The message seems to promote a lot of pulling your pistol in unarmed fights. Watch out. You may know better, but art imitates life, life imitates art. Seeing a preponderance of these kinds of photos and samples could be a mental (and legal) problem. And where is the real finish to the fight? 

     Think about them – the photos in many gun magazines or a lot of those youtube instructional videos you see. What I see, and hear about from gun mags, internet videos and international seminar attendees, is an unarmed man attacks and you maneuver, squirm, push, pull, pin or pass his arms to draw your gun and bam. Exercise ended, huh? Severely wounded or dead, Mister Unarmed guy drops on the ground, and unless you’re James Bond with a license to kill, your work there is done. No legal probs, huh?  You won, 007? Is this the message? Are you a “Double-O?” You shot an unarmed man and now all the ugly “after” of the “before, during and after” begins.

     In the years past, once in awhile, experts have written on this subject, but I am taking a new over-look on the problem due to this odd, media proliferation these days. I am adding some very specific points and solution exercises for people to work on. Things that I have been developing and using these last 22 years (LONG, long before it was “cool,” as it today).

     I have worked many shootings and subsequent murders through the decades as a police investigator. I’ve attended dozens of schools on this subject. I’ve also been “taken to school” by vet prosecutors and vet criminal defense attorneys. When we investigate, indict and move to prosecution, (no matter what country the process is in) I learned the cracks, the elements, the loopholes and yes, the distortions that can exist in each case. The simple becomes complex. The small, big. The big, small. Shooting someone is a rollercoaster ride. While there are some whacky results in whacky cases, what I am about to line out are overall, acceptable standards and advice.

     Some might call it, “gun arm grappling,” as I have too. The topic is about clearing an opponent’s arms to draw your gun and, or stop him from drawing his gun, (or knife maybe?). This sort of close-up “struggle-draw-shoot” is indeed new to a lot of gun range people, because they never do it. Oh, they probably have seen it these days in the media, but they don’t do the work. It’s an “athletic endeavor,” but quite unlike normal athletics. Fighting is not golf or tennis, maybe a bit like football, rugby or Australian “Footie.” Certainly more like MMA. It’s rough. It’s tumble. People can and do get hurt in training. The vast majority of gun owners in the USA and other countries don’t and won’t study MMA, least of all MMA with pistols. Most won’t exercise at all. But the messy problem happens to gun people. Where does this stress draw fit in the bigger situational picture of shooting?

“Draw/Don’t Draw” is one step in the process. Here are the other steps, as I teach them-

Step 1- There/Not-There – (Why are you there? Or then, why are you staying?

Step 2- Draw/Don’t Draw

Step 3- Aim/Don’t Aim (The gun can be drawn and not pointed)

Step 4- Shoot/Don’t Shoot

Step 5- Stay/Don’t Stay (Don’t gasp. For many in certain circumstances this might be an option)

     Live-fire range people don’t, can’t and shouldn’t grapple with live firearms. It’s dangerous and well…they usually don’t have the gear, time, grade and the martial savvy to organize a training outline and maximize their efforts. So, the preponderance of live-fire shooters never work any real, practical close-up, hands-on, gun-wrangling, problem-solving. This does lead to some confusing problems and mixed, missed messages when these articles and films are written, read and photos seen. 

     Now before I continue, I do not want to appear that I am picking on the participants in the top photo above from a popular gun publication. Not at all. The moment captured may be during a very early, step-by-step training progression, an introductory stage that I will discuss later. The context might be exactly what I am warning you about here and demonstrating the controversy. I just want to use this singular, published photo of an overall training situation, to discuss an incomplete training trend.

      And, a single photo tells us much less than a photo series. I just recently saw yet another series of several “fight scenes” in very popular “weapons” magazines. These prevalent series can be even more ambigious for motives and endings. Our hero struggles with an opponent in each set, standing and grounded. The hero gets to his gun and draws his pistol on the unarmed man in the last sequence of each photo set. Man freezes. Set done. Photo series over. But, what happened next to Mister Freeze? Was he shot and wounded? Shot dead? Fled? Arrested? Controlled until authorities arrive? No explanation in the photos or text of a finish. (I hate to show examples of these photos here because they contain people who read this blog and page, are friends, and editors of these magazines – the editors responsible for publishing the material.)

     So, back to it! Draw on an unarmed man? And, or shoot an unarmed man? Or, to bluff? Draw and bluff/scare unarmed man…off? Hit him with the pistol itself? Or, a pre-emptive draw? Maybe our hero in the photo up top drew his pistol because he is predicting the empty-handed man has a pocketed knife? Did he see the print of a concealed handgun? It would be nice to know so we could better understand the legalities. We always knew about these problems through handgun history, but when did we REALLY start worrying, working on and grappling with these realities? We CANNOT ignore them.

Rubber Guns – Part of the confusion begins with using rubber guns. You know “force-on-force” training, right? The term? The idea? Much of it, popularity-wise, was and is done with rubber guns since the 1990s. A step in the right direction, it seems to have started with police training back then, and it did spread into the civilian gun world. Since the fad inception, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen the two police work-out partners, one a trainer, the other a trainee, have an assigned, orchestrated situation to work through. The trainee manages to draw his pistol and aim it at the trainer. The gun is drawn AND THEN, BOTH PARTICIPANTS JUST…FREEZE. They freeze. As if the fight is over. Then they do it all over again, and again, freezing again, as if just pointing the gun at the attacker completely ends the situation. This innocent, thoughtless approach is not just a police problem anymore either. Citizens do this constantly too. As a result, this mysterious sort of “freeze” ending appears in magazines and videos. This was and is unfortunately often practiced without verbal commands, unless the instructor insists. This encounter is NOT over yet. The worst part is yet to come. Rubber guns don’t shoot safe ammo, and help create the “Mister Freeze” finish.

The “Mister Freeze” Finish – If you have been “around,” I think you’ve seen this draw- and-freeze, in training, books, magazines and videos. Think about it for a moment. Photo spreads of standing or grounded folks ending with a pulled rubber gun pointing at an attacker. The attacker is often unarmed. And if the attacker is armed with say – a knife and about to plunge down? The knifer still just freezes at gunpoint like a statue. Even if a charging knifer was shot, he could still fall down on you in a gurgling, wounded mess.The knife still very much a danger, something the shooter needs to experience in training. This is not good training without a legit finish. (There is a working list of such endings for citizens, police and military and that too is a whole other essay.)

     If you use Simunition ammo (painful and expensive) the training partners need significant gear, altering the reality experience, and it is hard and expensive to do this like 50 times or so. Then move to another scenario and do that 50 times. (That’s probably over $100 Simunitions ammo already) One can only be shot by hardcore Sims…so many times from pain and expense. If you use BB Guns, well, watch out for your eyes? Airsoft? Gas or electric? Make sure it’s a sturdy version! But the introduction of training guns that don’t shoot anything, causes false endings and perhaps bad, inconclusive habits. A rubber gun is important, but like a big boxing glove, is a temporary tool in your tool box to be used when it makes best training sense to. There are also other sturdy guns, like wooden guns, that can also shoot safe ammo. Safe ammo training builds the Shoot/Don’t-Shoot decision shooting.

Okay – Gun’s Out  – You still have to remember that your weapon pull must be justified and you have to be in great fear of your life and others to shoot someone. Say you are in a touchy situation. You just can’t draw every time someone bear-hugs you, or messes with you, shoves you, or touches you or grabs your arm, as seen in so many photos and in training. Once you draw your gun out you have four big possibilities with that gun:

   Possibility 1: Shoot right away.

   Possibility 2: Bluff right away.

   Possibility 3: Re-holster after bluffing because your bluff didn’t work. 

   Possibilty 4: Hit him with the pistol.

Pull and Bluff? – Will your gun bluff work, which must include good verbiage and great command presence because you have to scare the revved-up, opponent off of you and away. Also, will the grappling enemy always hear your bluff, understand your bluff,  and actually see your gun in the chaos of a close-up wrestle?  A gun bluff is very controversial for some. Not for me at all, because I used it dozens of times as a cop. But some admin people in police and military authority, do not believe in any draw-and-bluff. None. They claim that if you need to draw, then you absolutely needed to shoot. NO bluffing allowed.

     If you draw and bluff, another thing to consider is that your mighty handgun has now been removed from its retention holster, for all that might follow. What happens next? Gun arm grappling on you and your drawn gun? The enemy has two free hands to screw with your weapon bearing limb, bash you, or do both. Anyway, the skills of the gun bluff are a whole other long article (coming soon) and I believe that if a gun-carrier isn’t quite familiar with the pros and cons of the “gun bluff,” they are moving around their world in legal and physical danger.

Pointing and Brandishing – You cannot automatically assume that all citizens are pulling their guns out and, or aiming it under legally justified situations. Smart gun owners ask me about this and worry about the terms of “presentation assault” and “brandishing.” Some very general examples of “non-contact” assault are 1) swinging a baseball bat but not hitting a person, 2) swinging your fist at someone without hitting, 3) and pointing a gun, loaded or not, at someone. (This is why there’s a difference between pulling out your gun and not aiming it, and pulling and aiming it – there certainly is in many police agencies today with “use of force” reports, in that if you pull and do not aim? No use-of-force report is needed. If you pull and aim? A report is needed)         

      Brandishing is a broad term. Military vet and NRA instructor Ben Findley, who wrote the praised book Concealed Carry and Handgun Essentials for Personal Protection writes, “brandishing” or “improper exhibition” or “defensive display” or “unlawful display” (or whatever your state and jurisdiction calls it) depends specifically on your state and jurisdiction. Very generally, however, for an operating definition “brandishing” means to display, show, wave, or exhibit the firearm in a manner which another person might find threatening. You can see how widely and differently this can be subjectively interpreted by different “reasonable” individuals and entities. In some states it’s a Misdemeanor crime and in others a Felony.”  (More things to worry about, huh?)

Handgun as an Impact Weapon – Another controversial tactic is hitting the enemy with the front, top, bottom and sides of your pistol. Finger off the trigger! This is a subject too long, and a click off-topic to discuss here. It’s the subject of a whole other essay (coming soon). Some gun and police authorities condone the idea. Some vomit at the thought. Be aware of this and investigate it. 

Multiple Opponents – One cannot discuss this subject without at least mentioning multiple opponents. So here it is. Sometimes you might be able to draw your pistol, and be able to legally shoot unarmed people if there are a bunch of them and you can logically articulate that you feel doomed.

Training the Introduction – This “always-draw/always shoot” theme and its related “muscle memory,” makes me very nervous. In the beginning, for a short period inside the training progression I teach, I do have people draw guns, sticks and knives under various, simple experiences of physical stress. The trainer is a generic stressor. In the beginning, an unarmed trainer makes certain common physical difficulties that the gunman has to overcome to draw. He swings. He pushes. He grabs. You trip. You’re down. He kicks. Etc. You are standing and seated. Grounded. You pin, pass, pull or push his arms. It’s not a scenario yet, it’s a virgin, introduction to the body mechanics and the difficulties of stress draws. I explain this to participants, then as quickly as possible we move to justified situations where the trainee sees real danger like a trainer pulling a weapon. I do not want to create the muscle memory of people drawing and shooting unarmed opponents just because they are in a fight. So, pulling a weapon? From where?

A Quick Review of Weapon Carry Sites you must watch and worry over-

   *Primary- Usually around the belt line and pockets…

   *Secondary – Usually the “back-up” spots, boot knife, neck chain, takes a little “digging”…

   *Tertiary – sites off the body, lunge and reach…

   (Study the arm/hand movements to these 3 sites.)

Some Draw and Shoot Exercises- There are so many ways to set up these safe ammo training scenarios. For example, here are six big ways I have folks train this problem with simulated ammo guns:

   1-Argue: Argue and at some point a trainer draws a weapon in the middle of the verbal mess. Trainee responds.

   2-Kickbox: Kickbox and at some point a trainer draws a weapon in the middle of the kickboxing mess. Trainee responds.

   3-Crash into a bear hug: At some point, a trainer draws a weapon in the middle of the bear hug mess. Trainee responds.

   4-Ground fighting: At some point, a trainer draws a weapon in the middle of the ground mess. Trainee responds.

   5-Recreating actual crime and war events

   6-Draw after he draws, even after he shoots you. (Never say die)

     Your first step/response might not always be drawing your gun, but stopping/messing up his draw, then you draw. This is why I place such a priority on recognizing the body movements associated with common weapon pulls. I don’t think you are a real-deal, “gun-guy,” unless you can also fight unarmed, recognize weapon draws and know how to disrupt them if possible. Unarmed combatives.

     These sample drills create the proper response to the weapon pull. Good experiments. Often, the best, first response might be with empty hands. Many times clocking the guy in the snout first for a good brain splash, and, or while grabbing his weapon limb in the best spot is the first, smart thing to do. You learn with Sims ammo that if you just pull your gun after he pulls his, you both shoot each other. Sad news. I have seen many, MANY mutual shoot-outs in these drills where both guys are shot with sims in an instant or two.


Unarmed People Can Fight Differently than Armed People  – Another really interesting point about all this is, if an unarmed man is attacking you, or holding you, the unarmed attacker may be in a few common UNARMED positions. But, but…but, if the bad guy is drawing a weapon from the 3 common carry sites, or has one drawn out already and holding you? That is another set of positions. His body WILL NOT BE IN THOSE EXACT, UNARMED MAN POSITIONS. So not only is the common-fad-prep of brainwashing you to draw and shoot unarmed people wrestling with you legally problematic, it’s not teaching you to grapple against ARMED attacker movements and positions.

The “Hulk Hogan/Pee Wee Herman” Standard – Shooting an unarmed person is very, very situational. If an unarmed, enraged Hulk Hogan is attacking Pee Wee Herman and Pee Wee shoots the Hulk, the police, prosecutors, judges and juries may be very sympathetic to wimpy Pee Wee. But If the Hulk shoots an unarmed, angry Pee Wee attacking him, the Hulk cannot expect these same empathies. People will say, “Come on Hulk! You didn’t need to shoot him.” See what I mean? Fear of life kind of thing? Now, extrapolate that in degrees from there. Old versus young? Infirm versus firm. Etc. Etc. This has a lot to do with the WHO of the who, what, where, when, how and why questions, the bible for survival. Who are you and who is he? We cannot begin to list the many situational examples of successful and unsuccesful shootings. Case-by-Case. Situational. We have real, rare “wow” examples, and we all can concoct particular situations in our minds where such shootings would legitimately occur. 

     On the subject of “infirm,” NRA Texas gun Instructor Karl Rehn, owner of KR TRaining reminds, “One of the flaws in the presentation of this all this unarmed combatives material (and people’s perception of it) is that all the demos in magazines and films involve young, fit, male people fighting other young, fit, male people. To those that are martial arts enthusiasts, it’s easy to believe in the outcome of winning in an unarmed fight. That’s not true for all gun carriers, many of whom are older, weaker or simply do not have any training or confidence in their skills.”

     My old friend and attorney David Kenik wrote in Shooting Times in 2015 – “Bubba is heading right for you, smacking his fists together and yelling that he is going to beat you to death. You are scared for your life – and rightfully so – but he is unarmed. Can you use your firearm to defend yourself? The answer is 100 percent, unequivocally, positively; maybe.”

Sims Scenarios! – Science Daily researched studies on gun ownership and practice levels in 2017. They quoted an Oregon State University study that concluded gun owners can train and mitigate risk by working through simulated scenario practices, which typically involve practice drawing/using a weapon in simulated scenarios with inanimate targets, digital images on a screen or using actors, and may include taking armed self-defense training courses. This calls for excellent scenario training modules and simulated ammunition guns. These scenarios do not require Oscar winning performances and set-ups and some instructors like to concoct. They can be easy and cheap to set up and do. Get a training gun that shoots safe, semi-auto ammo, even a rubber band gun will do to learn the concepts of “shoot/don’t-shoot. This interactive exercises should augment live fire training.  This is something I believe in and have organized for about 22 years now. I was and am not alone. This is not new.

Finally, Some Actual Self Defense Law! – Some folks like to declare and repeat some legalese “all strikes to the head and throat/neck can be deadly” when this topic comes up. What are they suggesting? That you can draw, shoot and kill anyone who does this to you? I do get the idea that they are suggesting this. A national, “Self-Defense Overview from Lawyers dot com checks in,

“People have the right to defend themselves—this much we all know. We also know that there are limits to what one can do in self-defense. For instance, the self-defense doctrine doesn’t allow someone to use a minor scuffle as an excuse to shoot the opponent. At its core, the doctrine of self-defense applies when someone:
  • isn’t the aggressor
• reasonably believes force is necessary for self-protection against imminent and illegal violence, and
• uses a proportional amount of force.

Self-defense can be boiled down to three basic components:
• necessity
• proportionality, and
• reasonable belief.”

     Note the word “proportionality” and “uses a proportional amount of force.” Your reasonable belief that the other guy is going to KILL you with his empty hand strikes, must be explainable, understandable and make common sense within the situation.) 

In Summary –  I don’t think anyone would argue that shooting an unarmed person can create a lot of depressing and expensive problems. The FBI stats report a scary high percentage of people we fight in America are armed with some weapon. People in other countries are also carrying weapons. Be on the look-out, as we say in police work, during the fight for a weapon pull. Yet, it is almost impossible to mine how many armed citizens shoot unarmed people under the auspices of self-defense, perceived or real. Just try to research this on the web and you will be smothered in “police-shoot-unarmed-black-men” links, articles, protests and reports. Citizens shooting unarmed attacker stats are on page 412 (if you can last that long looking?) and would fall disguised into other common crime categories. Locating them and then locating their legal disposition would be tediously hard.

     So, just how big this problem of citizens-shooting-unarmed-attackers is in the USA or worldwide, I don’t think we will ever know. And, perhaps these suggestive photos and videos are somewhat displaced by a growing list of traveling firearms-self-defense-law classes that are pick up around the USA. Which is good. Every gun carrier needs these lessons.

     Thinking, reading and listening cannot replace “doing” and these simulated ammo, situational exercises with fast, easy and cheap simulated ammo guns are very important. I know I see way too many photos, photo sets, videos and hear seminar testimonies on unarmed people being drawn on, and, or “shot” in training. Or, the scenario not be properly finished and participants “Mister Freeze” at the gun point – the endless ending.

     Remember the Treyvon Martin-Zimmerman case in Florida to name just one? Shooter shoots an unarmed man that’s on top of him, punching down on him. Zimmerman pulls and shoots. Seems logical, but LOTS of legal (and social) problems. He was set free in the end. Of course there are some situations where a person can legally justify shooting an unarmed attacker. Case-by-case basis review. I am just warning you to watch out for some popular magazine articles, books, photos spreads and videos “out there” where folks are mindless pulling training guns when they shouldn’t and shooting attackers when they shouldn’t. Art imitates life. Life imitates art, and you might know better, but still do it impulsively anyway. Those nasty Mirror Neurons in your brain! I repeat a key line from above, “I do not want to create the muscle memory of people indiscriminately drawing and then shooting unarmed people.” 

     It will always be difficult trying to convey a big lesson, and the context of such, in one single photo, or even a photo series. It’s a real challenge for authors, magazines and books. Because of this, we must be careful of the unintended consquences from these imagines being scattered around, even amongst the most thoughtful people.

      One of my long time students is very successful heart surgeon. He is about 55 years-old and in moderate-to-good shape. He always works out in our hand, stick, knife, gun materials. He does well enough with it all, but routinely proclaims that, “if some young punk tries to rob me, unarmed or not, I can’t fight with him. I’m an old man. I am shooting him dead.” 

     What can you say to that? It is all very, very situational. He’s already heard all my speeches, warnings, advice and worked through the shoot/don’t shoot exercises. I just say,

     “Well…okay, Doc, I hope that works out for ya.”


* Read up on the precise laws of “fear of life,” “lethal force,” “self-defense,” “imminent, bodily injury, “stand your ground,” “retreat,” etc, with examples, right here.

* Read the great Massad Ayoob’s coverage of some of these cases: Click right here 


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