The problems with “holding” bad guys

Frequently in discussions about various types of criminal assault I see people discussing their intention to “hold” a criminal assailant for the police to come and collect. Naturally if some hammerhead just kicked your door down or threatened your family you want to see that sucker cuffed and stuffed into the back of a cruiser. It’s a perfectly natural desire…but remember that surviving the encounter in one piece is more important than getting to watch the bad guy perp-walked and locked in a box. Attempting to “hold” somebody for the police can expose you to grave peril.

Most often when bad guys encounter an armed good guy, they run. When I say “run” I mean the extra-special sort of adrenaline-assisted instinctual running that exists as an emergency sub-routine in our amygdala…the bit of our brain that is often referred to as “reptilian”. When our lizard brain is triggered under extreme stress the rest of it doesn’t function so well any more. Human beings are generally not outsmarted by doors…but watch how these armed robbers, under the influence of adrenaline, struggle with a door:

The bad guys here were certainly not rocket scientists to start with, but in the moment when that shot went off whatever passes for their rational mind was not in control as they fled in sheer panic. Note how when they encountered an obstacle (in this case, one another) they tried to move through it despite the futility of such an action. A person who has a single-minded focus on escape isn’t likely to respond to commands, and if you’re between them and the exit they’ll try to get through you even if you’re pointing a gun at them. Getting between them and the exit in an attempt to capture them for the police is going to increase the odds of a violent end and injury on both ends of the equation. I don’t much care if bad guys get hurt, but I’d hate to see a good guy get themselves needlessly injured because they tried to stop a criminal from fleeing the scene.

A bad guy who beats feet the second you clear leather is a really good outcome for you. It likely means that you’re going to survive the encounter with no injuries and no homicide investigation to deal with. This is a win. If the bad guy wants to run away and hand you a win, let him. When I started to draw on a skeezy looking drifter who tried to rob me, he sprinted from the scene like somebody had lit him on fire…and you know what? I was glad. I was pretty stoked that I wasn’t bleeding and that I didn’t have to spend the wee hours of Christmas morning explaining why my hollowpoints were now in that dude’s face to detectives. As robbery attempts go, it was as good as it gets. Trying to apprehend the guy would have placed me in greater physical danger and in greater danger of unpleasant legal consequences. The law in most places looks more favorably on a use of force to stop a criminal assault than it does a use of force that follows an attempt to chase down and capture a bad guy.

As I said earlier, most bad guys will run away and will do anything possible to actually get away…but occasionally some bad guy’s might not immediately take off like a jackrabbit. This is where it gets really dangerous. The bad guy who didn’t run at the sight of your gun might have the IQ of tartar sauce, or he might be unable to run because he’s voiding his bowels in abject terror. In such a state you might be tempted to think you have “control” over them. That’s where the danger kicks in. Human interactions, particularly ones where violence is involved or could shortly be involved, are not static. They don’t always stay in the state they begin. The bad guy who was frozen with fear and unable to pull his concealed weapon the instant you pulled your gun might not be so scared 3 minutes later when he’s hearing you give your location to the police.

An acquaintance of mine actually had a situation like this happen to him some time ago. He confronted someone who broke in to his place of business and at first the bad guy was scared of the Benelli shotgun in his hand and cooperated nicely. When the bad guy’s larger brain functions started to kick back in he started sizing up the man holding the shotgun and figured that he wasn’t cold blooded enough to pull the trigger on that shotgun upon slightest provocation. (Most good people would like to avoid killing anyone if they can. Most bad people can pick up on that and will use it against them if possible) The bad guy, a dude who had a street rep of being dumb as a post, starts trying to play mind games questioning who the shotgun-toting man was, claiming he was going to file assault charges, the whole deal. He was moving as he did this. The guy managed to talk his way to his feet and actually pulled a screwdriver on my acquaintance and started to close distance before the acquaintance realized what was really happening.

I want to make something absolutely clear: If you have not thoroughly searched a bad guy and put him in restraints, you do not have him under control. Even at that, there are a multitude of stories of police officers who have been killed by guys who were in cuffs. The dangers multiply with multiple bad guys. One scared good guy with little experience trying to control potentially violent criminals is going to have a dickens of a time keeping his attention and focus sharp enough to keep one bad guy under control for the 5-15 minutes it’s going to take for the police to show up…much less two or three. Bad guys he has not searched or restrained, remember. It’s probably dark, and the stress is probably evident in the good guy’s voice while he talks to the 911 operator. We talk all the time about how you can use a bad guy’s excited state and his focus on something other than what your gun hand is doing to reclaim the initiative during a criminal assault…but that very same stuff can be used against us, too. In fact, we’re even more vulnerable to it because good guys have to play by the rules…and bad guys know it. My aforementioned acquaintance heard the bad guy he was trying to hold say “You can’t just shoot me, man! That’s murder! They’ll jail you!”

There are some things you can do to tilt the odds in your favor, of course…but trying to figure out what they are when you’re looking over the sights at sumdood isn’t going to work. It probably wouldn’t occur to you under stress that something as simple as telling the guy to pull his shirt up over his face and leave it there helps you out by robbing him of vision and exposing the area where weapons are most often carried. Law enforcement officers who deal with bad guys frequently develop all manner of tricks to keep a bad guy from regaining the initiative…but even then one of their primary tricks is having a whole bunch of cops pointing guns at the dude,ready to blow him to kingdom come. Even then it sometimes ends in gunfire.

Take the time to really assess the dangers that trying to hold a bad guy presents to you before assuming it’s something you’re going to do in the real thing.





  1. Never heard of the shirt over the face trick, never thought of the shirt over the face trick, but damn does it make good sense.

  2. You can’t leave us hanging here… what happened to your acquaintance? Obviously he didn’t get stabbed to death by the screwdriver, but how did the story end?

    1. With the bad guy in handcuffs claiming to the police that the acquaintance stated an intention to murder him in a particularly gruesome way.

  3. Here in NC it is illegal to detain an attacker. We’re left with the option to either shoot them or make then run away. There’s no middle ground
    You are correct though in your assessment about making correct decisions in the moment of a stressful situation. Higher brain functions do seem to abandon oneself and the danger of trying to restrain a violent offender is far too risky.

  4. I can only say that here in Texas, in my neighborhood, If you enter my home uninvited the only sound you will hear is gunfire. And most likely only the first shot!

    1. Tom – When did they revise the law to remove the ‘injury or death’ part of when you can legally use force to protect yourself?

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