How do you avoid a “friendly fire” shooting in your home?

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Sadly, it happens with some frequency: a family member is shot after being mistaken for an intruder. Can it happen to you or someone you love?

When I was young our family never locked the house doors; in fact, I’m not sure my parents even had a key! We lived outside of a very small town, one in which nothing every really happened, and one in which people left their cars parked with the keys in the ignition. It was just that kind of place (and, admittedly, a different time.)

As I grew up things changed. Some family friends were violently robbed when they returned from a night out and unexpectedly ran into thieves in their house. After that incident people started locking their doors, my parents included. I must say that this was something of an adjustment for all of us, as we’d just never done such a thing!

One night my high-school-age sister came home quite late, well past bedtime, and found the doors locked. Rather than pound on the front door and wake the household, she found an unlocked window (which wasn’t hard – we locked the doors, but not the windows!) and climbed into our utility room.

In doing so she apparently knocked something over, which woke our Mom who in turn woke Dad. He grabbed our only handgun — a little Ruger Single-Six .22 — and went downstairs to investigate.

He managed to sneak up on what he thought was a burglar and yelled “don’t move!” as he flipped on the room light. They were both quite startled — Dad to find my sister, my sister to see the Ruger in my Dad’s hand!

Dad’s tremendous calm under pressure (nothing ever seemed to cause him to panic), his gun handling skills, and his decision to turn on the light to find out if he had a valid target all combined to save my sister a trip to the hospital (or morgue.) Unfortunately this is not always the outcome in such cases.

Take, for example, the case of little Tyler Maddox. He was being cared for by his grandmother one night and apparently decided to get up and wander the house at one o’clock in the morning. His grandmother had propped a chair against the door to prevent it being kicked in, and when she heard it scrape across the floor she grabbed the gun she kept by her bed and fired one shot in the direction of the sound. She didn’t know, until the lights went on, that she’d just shot her 7-year-old grandchild.

What can we learn from this incident?

Foremost, of course, is that you never shoot unless you have a valid target. You’ve probably heard that stated as a safety rule on the range, but how does it apply in a chaotic self defense encounter?

A valid defensive target is one that you’ve recognized as being an articulable threat to your life: someone who poses an immediate, otherwise unavoidable risk of death or grave bodily harm. It’s unlawful and unconscionable to launch bullets at another human being whom you have not positively determined to be a threat to your life; your defensive firearm is just that, defensive. You don’t know if what you’re doing is defensive until you know that you have an actual attacker. Learning to recognize an attack in progress and understanding how to use your firearm to defend yourself against that attack are fundamental to defensive shooting.

Of course in order to determine whether there’s an actual attack by an actual assailant, you need to be able to see what’s going on! We can’t positively identify the identity or activities of someone by sound alone; we need to be able to see the person and see what he/she is doing in order to make that critical decision to shoot. This is where the “know your target” part of the range safety rules comes in: in order to know your target, you must see it!

My Dad’s tactic of flipping on a room light certainly worked and still works; many of us carry high-intensity flashlights as a substitute for when we don’t know where that switch is or can’t reach it. My wife and I both have a flishlight on our respective sides of the bed so that either of use can quickly identify a threat at night. I highly recommend that you have one within reach at all times and learn how to use it effectively (it also makes a great impact weapon when lethal force isn’t an appropriate response!)

Many people mount lights onto their defensive firearms, but that comes with a big caveat: if you’re using that light to determine whether you have a threat, you’re already pointing the muzzle at someone. If that person is someone like little Tyler, you’re that much closer to a tragic outcome. Add some adrenaline and a surprise-induced muscular contraction, and the stage for disaster is set. The weapon mounted light is no substitute for a handheld illumination tool (or a room light switch!)

In order to use a defensive firearm responsibly, you need to positively identify your threat. The only way you can do that is to look, and the only way you can look is if you have enough light to see by. The moral of this story? If Tyler’s grandma had responded by turning on a flashlight instead of shooting blindly in the dark at a mere sound, he wouldn’t have ended up in the hospital fighting for his life.

If you don’t have a good flashlight, get one. Keep it by your bed and, if you carry a concealed handgun, keep one on your person as well. Defending yourself is a right, but doing so responsibly is an obligation you accept when you exercise that right!

-=[ Grant Cunningham ]=-


About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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