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.

Should you carry OC spray?

I’m often asked by folks new to concealed carry or self defense in general about OC or “pepper” spray and whether or not they should consider carrying it.

I’m by no means anything close to being the leading expert on the utility and use of OC spray. (Chuck Haggard of Agile Training and Consulting puts on some splendid classes about OC spray) That being said, I see OC spray as a valuable defensive tool for the average citizen and I encourage people to carry it.

To explain why, let me tell you about a situation where it came in handy for me.

A few months ago I pulled out of a parking lot on to the main road. Shortly after I pulled out a woman in an older Ford pickup pulled out from a parking lot across the same road and began flashing her lights and swerving around behind me. She was visibly very agitated and pounding on the steering wheel of her old truck as she got right on my bumper. When stopped at the next stop light, she laid on her horn behind me and continued to flash her lights, apparently screaming the whole time. I’m not much of a lip reader, but the bits and pieces I could make out through my rear view mirror were not very lady-like.

I had absolutely no idea why on earth this woman was in a tirade behind me but I had no desire to figure it out. When I see storm clouds of stupidity forming I’m not going to stick around to see if the funnel cloud is heading for my trailer park, you know? When the light changed I used the traffic around us to get distance from her old truck. I used a couple of last minute turns and some quick lane changes to get her out of sight. Then I drove on to the store I was originally going to when this all started. I got out of the car and was heading into the store when I saw her truck pull into the parking lot.

The store had some of those concrete pylons in front of it designed to prevent thieves from smashing through the store front, so I placed those between myself and her truck because I had a very real worry at that moment that she was going to try and run me over. Her behavior to that point didn’t make me think that she had doggedly followed me for at least ten minutes so she could tell me about Jesus.

She pulled right up to the pylons, screeching her truck to a halt and got out of it screaming obscenities at me for, in her mind anyway, cutting her off. This woman was in her late forties or early fifties and from her dress and demeanor I got the impression that she was a couple of ants shy of a picnic. Other people going into and out of the store stop in their tracks wondering what in the world is happening. At this point the woman balls up a fist and approaches screaming her intention to physically assault me.

Let’s ponder the situation this presents me: I’m larger, stronger, younger, and clearly saner than this woman. Even though I’ve done absolutely nothing to provoke this behavior from her, who do you suppose society at large will place the burden of responsibility on? I’m not legally required to let this woman hit me, but laying hands on this crazy witch is highly likely to be a losing proposition for me. In the moment I got the impression that she wanted me to get physical and that she would immediately try to play the victim to bystanders and the inevitable law enforcement response. Like the computer once said:

At that point I aimed my little canister of Sabre Red at her. This movement surprised her and she stopped in her tracks. I very calmly told her that if she took another step in my direction I was going to blast her in the face with this OC spray and then press assault charges on her when the police got there.

She reacted to this by getting even louder…but crucially, she backed away from me, got in her old truck and took off. The bewildered bystanders were sympathetic. “If that had been me, I would have punched her right in the face!” I’m quite certain the bystander who told me that would not have been as sympathetic had I actually decked her.

There are situations where the only option available to you is to draw a lethal weapon and use it with as much violent intent as you can muster…but those situations will not be the only ones you face. Sooner or later in life you will likely encounter some form of belligerent idiot intent on doing you some level of harm, but not enough harm to justify pulling a gun on them. If confronted with that sort of belligerent idiot the ability to spray some liquid pain and then get yourself away from them has a pretty high chance of successfully stopping their attack with the absolute minimum risk of serious injury to you or said idiot.

Manufacturers of OC spray products are making potent products in any number of convenient carry-friendly configurations these days, and I’m sure at least one of them would work out for you. I’ve found the little Sabre Red “Spitfire” pictured and linked in this article is convenient to carry and requires the right sort of deliberate effort to trigger. It even survived an (accidental) trip through the washing machine and worked afterwards.

Our goal in self defense is to preserve our life and the quality of it from criminal assault. We rightly spend a lot of time thinking about the most violent and threatening sorts of criminal injury that can be visited upon us, but it is also worthwhile to have a plan for dealing with less severe problems that still require using some level of force in response. For those problems that don’t require using your gun but do require doing something more than calling the police, OC spray is, I believe, a worthwhile investment.