Thinking Defensively

The whole country is abuzz after the verdict in the George Zimmerman case. The airwaves and the internet are thick with punditry, some of it cogent and some of it downright reprehensible. It is amazing to see how many different interpretations there are from a limited number of facts…and, I suppose, how many interpretations there are which appear to be completely unconcerned with facts.

On his blog, Massad Ayoob refers to the prosecution of George Zimmerman as “…the most important armed citizen case of our time.” Time will tell if he’s right, but it’s a sure bet that Mr. Zimmerman’s unfortunate predicament will feature prominently in discussions about self defense in the foreseeable future. A lot of this discussion will be long on opinion and short on grounding in relevant legal tradition or even basic familiarity with case law in your jurisdiction, so I’d warn you to keep a shaker or two of salt handy when reading about the implications as even the people who have the most solid credentials and study behind them are left poking around at sheep’s innards to try and predict what it could mean for you. What happened to Mr. Zimmerman is, in practically any way you wish to look at it, extraordinary. It’s highly unusual to have the President of the United States weigh in on a case of self defense. It’s highly unusual to have the police who performed the investigation file no charges and then to have a governor appoint a prosecutor to pursue charges anyway. It’s highly unusual to see a prosecutor conduct herself in the manner seen by Ms. Corey both in and out of the courtroom. Once the jury has found someone innocent of all charges, it’s highly unusual to see officers of the court insult the jury and then refer to the cleared defendant as a “murderer”.

It’s all highly unusual…but it happened. So what does this mean for the average person? Over on View From The Porch, Tamara weighed in on the message being sent: Stay in the truck. Now that it’s clear the current administration (never let a crisis go to waste! Even a wholly manufactured one…) is eager to try and turn dead Trayvon Martin into a bludgeon they can use to attack the very idea of self defense in legislatures, I think Tam’s warning about the agenda at work is quite astute.

What I hope this mess brings about is getting people to think defensively.

The primary aim of self defense is to protect our life or the people/principles we care about most in life. People often focus on the part of the equation that involves violence, but as Mr. Zimmerman demonstrates there’s also a legal and financial aspect to self defense as well. I’m sure when he spotted the suspicious looking person (the neighborhood had suffered a rash of breakins recently) he had no idea the entire course of his life was about to change. That there would be politicians arguing for a complete overhaul of our justice system replacing it with mob rule based on what would transpire in the next few minutes. I’m sure that if he had a crystal ball and could see into his future he probably would have just stayed in the truck.

Dealing with other people is a really hazardous business, folks. Look at the people around you and ask yourself how well you know them. No, I don’t mean “Bob’s a good accountant!” I mean what was Bob doing in college? What kind of lies has Bob told? What does he look at on the internet for jollies? How many people has he wronged in his life? What does he do when nobody is looking? Truth is you don’t really know Bob. You know only the mask he wears in the social setting where you interact with him. Now if you don’t know the guy you spend 40 hours a week next to in the office, what hope do you have of reading a stranger on the street?

I’m sure when Mr. Zimmerman was trying to get visual contact with Trayvon Martin again that he had no idea Martin was the kind of person who would double back, jump out of the dark, and then try to pound Mr. Zimmerman’s head into the concrete. But he was.

When we deal with strangers we need to be aware of how deep the rabbit hole can go. It could be that the person you’re dealing with will wet themselves and run when confronted with harsh language…or they could be the sort of person who will attack you out of nowhere. You have no way of knowing which ahead of time. Once hostilities have started, you can’t call quitsies. Despite being in a superior position and facing no effective physical resistance, Martin wailed on Mr. Zimmerman for all he was worth…until he took the shot that ended his life. Once you find yourself entangled with a violent stranger, there’s no telling where it will end, and you sure as hell can’t count on the other guy to play by Marquis de Queensbury rules or abide by the laws governing the use of force.

I’ve had the privilege of talking with and training along side a number of people who have considerable experience in the use of violence to defend themselves or others in the course of a career. Without exception, they’re all reluctant to involve themselves with potentially violent strangers. In the online gun world we’re treated to lots of people who talk a lot of “SHEEPDOG!!!!”, but when I actually talk to people who have real experience as the protectors of society I don’t find any who reflect the attitude of the guys who insist that everybody who has a CCW is supposed to leap into a group of teenagers defacing a wall “For justice!” or some such rot. This is typically because in their dealings with violence over the years they’ve seen some pretty screwed up outcomes. As an example, I know of a police officer who was charged with assault for punching a handcuffed suspect. Sounds horrible, right?

Well, the “handcuffed” suspect was part of a duo. The other part of the duo had the officer on the ground, and the handcuffed suspect kicked the officer in the face repeatedly, knocking out some of his teeth. When the officer punched the handcuffed suspect it was after struggling back to his feet, one hand full of the accomplice and the other trying to subdue the handcuffed suspect. When you hear all the facts it’s clear the officer was in a serious struggle and threw a justified punch, but even as a uniformed police officer acting within the boundaries of his authority and backed up by the witness of other officers who saw the events take place, he still ended up facing an assault charge. Needless to say, he’s not going to be in a hurry to involve himself in a problem he doesn’t need to solve off-duty or when he retires. That’s but one of dozens of stories I could tell you, all more absurd than the previous, which demonstrates that the use of violence isn’t always cut and dry even when you’re in the right.

So what am I saying? Simply this: Think defensively.  Assume the worst case scenario from the getgo and act to avoid having to interact with potentially malicious strangers if at all possible. Sit down and ponder your life, your freedom, and your financial future and ask yourself what is really worth risking it all for. Keep that at the forefront of your mind when you see the potential for interacting with a stranger. Do you have to be doing this?

Invariably someone of the “SHEEPDOG!!!” contingent will be along to call that sort of assessment cowardly. I don’t really care much, because I’ve learned that I’m not troubled much by a stupid person’s opinion of me. For the sake of clarity, however, I’ll specify exactly what I mean.

There are people in my life that I love enough that I’m willing to risk my life, my freedom, and my financial future to protect from harm. I simply will not allow them to be injured or killed while there’s blood pumping through my veins. Period. I will act with whatever level of aggression and/or force I believe is necessary to defend them without hesitation. In addition, there are some things I simply won’t tolerate. I will not, for example, watch someone rape or murder a child. I will use whatever level of aggression and/or force is necessary to prevent that from happening. I have carefully thought out the risks these situations pose to my life or the quality of my life, and I’d rather live with the risk than live with the consequences of not acting in them.

A couple of guys spinning up to have a fight in the Burger King? Not my problem. Somebody blaring profane rap music from their rusted out hooptie with rent-to-own rims? Not my problem. Somebody wants to call me a racially derogatory term and try to spin up a fight? I’m going to walk away. I will avoid unnecessary trouble or even involving myself in something that could potentially lead to trouble because trouble is something I don’t need. If someone insists on attacking me or someone I care about, or they insist on doing something intolerable to an innocent person I’ll do what is necessary to stop it…but short of that, I’m a spectator. I may pull out my iPhone and get some footage and be a good witness when the police show up, but that’s as far as I’m going to go. I’ll leave it to the people who have arrest authority, the public presumption of lawfulness, and indemnification against civil suits. If I tell somebody to knock it off and they swing on me, I’m likely to be perceived by the public as a dude who “started” a fight. If someone with a badge tells them to knock it off and they swing, it’s assault on a police officer and that gets written up a lot differently in the local paper.

What we can learn from Mr. Zimmerman’s ordeal is how quickly things can go wrong for those who harbor even the most noble intentions…and how deep the pit can be if certain interests in society think they can take advantage of the situation. The world shouldn’t work that way.

…but we don’t live in the world as it should work. We live in the world as it is, and we have to factor that into our decision making if we have an interest in securing the best possible outcome for ourselves and our loved ones.

I’m not saying never get involved…I’m saying account for what you’re risking and decide now what is and isn’t worth the risk to you. Think defensively. In our world those with good intentions can’t count on being portrayed as the good guys, and the good guys don’t always get to ride off into the sunset. If you want to protect your interests you have to be cool, calculating, and committed. Taking the time to think about all of this ahead of time pays dividends when you’re faced with the decision of whether or not you get out of the truck. You’re less likely to get sucked into a situation that spirals out of your control and less likely to face the kind of trouble Mr. Zimmerman faced.



  1. I carry a gun to protect me and mine. For everybody else, I carry a cell phone. Among everything else you said, it is way too hard to figure out who the bad guy is or even if there is a bad guy.

  2. Good article. That is the way a mature responsible American citizen should respond.

  3. Finally, a well thought out commentary on this case. I agree totally, when you put it all into perspective, there were no real winners in that situation. The question of what are you willing to give up by following your planned course of action should always be in the front of your mind.

  4. One of my favorite pieces on this topic:

    “…When you pull and use a gun, you are gambling literally everything you have on getting it right during the event and being legally justified afterward. You are gambling your physical life. You are betting your job, your home, and every penny you have in the bank. At risk is your marriage, your ability to share a bed with the person you love, and your ability to watch your children grow up in person instead of from jail. You place on the table every friendship you’ve ever made, every dollar you’ve ever earned or will earn, and your family’s future happiness. You are risking sleep disturbances, flashbacks, nightmares, impotence, anorexia, alcoholism, drug reliance, and a long and bitter lifetime of regret if you get it wrong. That is the gamble you take when you use a firearm against another human being.”

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