Lessons from real life: The Potato Chip Assault

A friend recently posted a story on social media:

“Breland, who appeared to be in “a highly agitated state,” entered the store and made a purchase before berating the store clerk, using racial slurs, Ruple said. The clerk, who is of Middle Eastern descent, ordered Breland, who is white, to leave, and threatened to call police, authorities said.

He left but re-entered the store several times, becoming more aggressive each time, Ruple said. The clerk then called police.

The armed customer, who was inside the store trying to make a purchase, tried to calm the situation by telling Breland to leave, according to the police account. Breland left again but returned and threw what appeared to be potato chips at the clerk.

The customer followed Breland outside to get his license plate number for police, but Breland got out of the vehicle and attacked him, Ruple said. The man drew his weapon, ordered Breland back and tried to retreat into the store. Breland followed and continued the attack, grabbing for the gun, Ruple said.

The man warned he would shoot if Breland did not stop, and he retreated into a corner of the store while still under attack. He then fired one round, striking Breland, and fired twice more when Breland kept coming at him, Ruple said.

Police Chief Rick Richard said the customer was lawfully carrying the firearm on his side in plain view. “Louisiana is an open-carry state. The guy was straight-up legal,” the chief said.” 

The wise man learns from the experience of others, and I believe there are some things we can learn from this story.

The power of anger: 

Many people have never dealt with a truly angry person before, and have never themselves had experience with genuine anger. When I say “genuine anger” I mean something like this:

Note how flushed the individual’s face is. Note his body language…the almost primate like displays. Note that he’s screaming himself hoarse.

Do you think this guy was amenable to a reasonable discussion? That it was possible to talk sense to him? Even when other people he apparently recognized showed up to the scene telling him to chill out, he continued to be aggressive. It took someone with more stripes on his uniform showing up and exerting some authority to begin to get a handle on the guy.

If you are watching somebody commit a serious breach of social order, odds are pretty good that they are doing so either because they believe they will face no serious consequences for their actions or because they are so enraged that they don’t give a damn about consequences anymore.

In that kind of state the rational part of the human brain is essentially irrelevant. When someone is at this level of anger, their brain function has essentially shrunk down to the amygdala. This is often colloquially referred to as our “reptile brain” or “monkey brain” which plays a critical role in our fight-or-flight response to a threat. We’re used to discussing it in terms of the fear or stress of a lethal threat in both mental and physical terms, but it can be every bit as powerful when inflamed by anger.

You literally cannot talk sense to someone who has crossed that threshold. It seems, though, that the would-be Good Samaritan in the news story attempted just that after the deceased chucked a bag of chips at the clerk behind the counter. This did not have the desired effect of calming the man down. It just shifted his focus from the convenience store clerk to the would-be Good Samaritan instead.

When you witness someone in such an agitated state that they are throwing things, odds are pretty good that you will not succeed in calming them down by appealing to reason…because there is no Dana, there is only Zuul. What you are likely to do is refocus their rage on you. This is, to put it mildly, inconvenient.

You probably aren’t intimidating: 

Let’s return to what I said earlier about displays of aggressive behavior when there is no expectation of serious consequences. Often displays of anger are happening at least partially because of estimations of vulnerability. I’m willing to bet that the guy throwing the fit didn’t see the convenience store clerk as a potentially fearsome opponent. If the clerk had been 6’6″ and built like a professional NFL lineman, I doubt the deceased would have spun up on him.

When the would-be Good Samaritan intervened, I’m guessing he wasn’t very intimidating either. And he had a gun.

So let’s deal with some unpleasant truth: Guns don’t scare everybody. The fact that you have one is not going to impress a certain percentage of the bad-guy population. When I see open carry discussed on the web and even in real life, the default assumption of the pro-open carry camp is that bad men will see the gun and be scared or intimidated by the mere presence of it.This is a foolhardy mindset to slip into.

The ability to intimidate a potential assailant is exceptionally useful and can often prevent the need to use violence altogether…but everyone isn’t capable of being intimidating. You do not magically become more intimidating to bad men when you put a gun on your hip.

In talking with a number of people who regularly openly carry, I get the feeling that a lot of them are hoping that showing the gun makes them sufficiently intimidating that they don’t have to fight…and this comes through loud and clear in the way they carry themselves.

Having the gun does not make up for not knowing how to fight, and if you pin your hopes on display of the gun intimidating the other guy into not wanting to test you on that it’s setting yourself up for disaster. Nobody who does this admits to themselves that they are doing it, of course…but lying to yourself doesn’t change the reality. You can’t Stuart Smalley yourself into being the sort of person who scares off bad guys.

Intimidation is a complex strategy that relies on a number of factors, some of them unique to the circumstances of the confrontation, to be effective. Having a gun doesn’t automatically check all those boxes for you.

Do not behave as if the other guy is going to be too intimidated to hurt you just because you have a gun. The would-be Good Samaritan’s decision to follow the agitated assailant out of the store to record his license plate was likely due to being overly confident in the intimidation power of the pistol on his hip. Had he realized that the agitated assailant wasn’t terribly scared of his gun, he might have played it smarter and stayed inside the store and maybe wouldn’t have had to shoot this guy.

Keep your options open:

The open display of the firearm in this situation removed options from the table. As soon as the agitated assailant started getting physical it became a lethal force situation because everybody knows there’s a gun involved…but that’s not the only way it can go wrong.

Say this agitated assailant had left the scene and called 911 reporting that he had been threatened with a gun…including giving an accurate description of the firearm in question to the police. I know of two occasions where something very similar has happened, one resulting in a normal nice guy looking down the barrel of multiple police-issue firearms.

I would much rather have the presence of my firearm become public knowledge at the moment of my choosing rather than leaving it out there for the other guy to factor into his actions. That gives me more options in a worsening situation.

I also make a habit of carrying OC spray with me because that’s another option. Would this fight have gone lethal if the would-be Good Samaritan had given the agitated assailant a snooter full of Sabre Red? It’s impossible to say for sure, but there have been many fights ended or prevented altogether by the judicious application of some liquid pain.

If the gun is the only plan you’ve got for hostile behavior from another human being, you are painting yourself into a pretty unpleasant corner. If this individual had more options he might have avoided the life altering  decision of to killing another human being.

There’s a lot we can learn from this story if we are inclined to do so. I think this is a perfect example of where abiding by the proverb “Not my circus, not my monkeys” would have been a much better idea. The urge to help is laudable, but we have to be sophisticated enough to recognize exactly when a problem can be genuinely helped by our relatively modest capabilities and resources.

It’s one thing to fight when a violent criminal assault leaves you no other choice. It’s another to end up in a spiraling dance of stupidity that ends in gunfire.

6 thoughts on “Lessons from real life: The Potato Chip Assault”

  1. Intimidation rarely works on people that are out of control and wearing a gun does not make you a gunfighter. Locking the door after the suspect left the store would have been a much safer option. Hindsight is always 20/20 though.

  2. As a general rule, “Witness” is a whole lot cheaper than “Defendant”.
    My first action would be to slip out the door unobserved, if possible. My second would be to move to the side of the store the angry man isn’t, while keeping lots of stuff between me and him. If that is inside a bathroom with a locking door, so much the better.

  3. A powerful and well written article.
    One of the best examples of open carry “issues” I’ve read.
    Thanks Tim.

  4. And that is why concealed carry is better, it gives you another option or 2 if you come up on a weird situation…

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