Saturday, December 03, 2005

Lessons Learned: The Tacoma Mall Shooting

On November 20, 2005, Dominick Maldonado, 20, described as a gun enthusiast who was "unstable with a drug problem," went on a shooting spree at the Tacoma Mall in Tacoma, Washington. After shooting and wounding seven people, Maldonado took four hostages inside a music store, but eventually released them unharmed and surrendered to police.

Washington state has had a concealed pistol license law on the books since the early 1970s, and it turns out that at least two and perhaps three people in the mall were carrying a gun and were in a position to stop Maldonado. Yet no one did. Why?

One person, who encountered Maldonado outside of the J.C. Penney's store, refrained from being involved because of fears that he might miss and inadvertantly shoot bystanders. While the information released on this person was understandably sketchy to protect his privacy, it appears as if he never drew his weapon and openly confronted Maldonado. Getting involved is a choice, and if one is not sure that he can prevail then discretion may well be the better part of valor.

Another person, Dan McKown, a manager at a mall store and part-time stand-up comic, confronted Maldonado as the shooter passed by the store McKown was visiting, after the original flurry of shots were fired.

As the Tacoma News Tribune reports:
He [McKown] walked to the front of the store to see what was going on, and took a defensive posture, crouched to one side in the store’s entrance. He had his gun out, but tucked it back into his belt, under his clothes, after thinking better of it.

Meanwhile, Maldonado walked past the Kits store.

"We had eye-to-eye contact the whole time," McKown said. He is unsure if Maldonado saw his weapon.

McKown, standing, said to Maldonado, "I think you need to put that gun down, young man."

McKown’s hand was back near his gun. Maldonado swung his barrel over and opened fired from the hip.

"Every one of his shots got some part of me," McKown said.
Dan McKown was shot at least five times by Maldonado. Because of the hostage situation, McKown lay bleeding for over an hour before he was evacuated and rushed to the hospital. He owes his life to an Army soldier and Iraq War veteran who used a teddy bear to staunch the bleeding.

This first-hand account begs the obvious questions: why didn't McKown shoot Maldonado? Why did he confront the shooter without having his gun at the ready?

In McKown's own words:
“I’m looking at this guy,” McKown said. “He’s a kid. I would have had to shoot him in the head.”

McKown just wasn’t ready for that. It’s not easy to shoot someone in the head, McKown said. McKown also didn’t want to get in the way of the police if they were handling the situation, and he knew he could get in trouble for brandishing a weapon in the mall.
There are some lessons to be learned here, both tactically and stragetically.

One tactical lesson is that you never confront an armed gunman without having your gun up and ready to shoot immediately! McKown was armed, and he had sufficient training and experience with a handgun to surely be able to hit a walking man in a dress shirt at under ten yards. However, with his gun in his belt instead of in his hand, he was already behind the eight-ball. Action always beats reaction; once Maldonado became aware of McKown, the person who decided to act would be the victor in an armed confrontation and Maldonado was that person.

Defense trainers refer to a verbal confrontation to a gunman as a "challenge." They know that, once the challenge is made, the gunman will either surrender or fight, and thus the person who challenges had better be ready. They also know that challenging an adversary cedes the initiative; by its very nature the challenger is expecting some sort of reaction and thus must take valuable time to assess that reaction.

Why do we challenge? That's the way they show it in the movies. Shooting someone without challenging him seems somehow unfair. We're supposed to confront the bad guy and give him a chance to realize the error of his ways, to offer him a chance to surrender before gunning him down, aren't we? Isn't that what makes us the good guy?

No. It makes us the dead guy. In a deadly force encounter there is only one rule; survival. Do not give the bad guy a chance. He will most likely take that chance, and you will end up getting shot. Don't fight fair. Fight to win, or take yourself out of the situation and don't fight at all.

In the situation above, several shots fired, people heard screaming and running en masse, observing a person strolling down the center of the mall with an obviously inappropriate weapon (the AK-47 is not used by any legitimate force in this country), once you've made the decision to interject yourself into the situation and confront the gunman the response should be obvious: take cover, draw your handgun, and shoot the gunman at the first opportunity without challenging him. Think of how this situation would have ended had McKown followed this course of action instead of doing what he did.

In my opinion, the real reason that Dan McKown ended up getting shot was not his tactics. It was his mindset. It was because he had not thought about what he would do if he ever had to confront a live gunman. McKown had not consciously decided on what conditions would not only allow him to use deadly force, but require him to do so in order to protect himself. McKown was in imminent danger of death, within yards of a gunman prowling the mall with an AK-47 who had already fired several shots... and he was worried about getting in trouble for brandishing a weapon? He had the wrong priorities. (None of this removes the complete and total responsibility for McKown's injuries from the shooter, Dominick Maldonado, who should be punished severely for his conscious, deliberate acts.)

The time to decide on how you are going to react to a deadly force confrontation is now, not when you are suddenly confronted. You won't have time then. When you are facing deadly force you need to be focusing on how to survive and prevail, not on whether you should be involved. The way to do this is to decide on triggers, acts by another that justify deadly force and that turn off your normal, natural, and salutory inhibitions against hurting others, and then make the conscious decision to act in a tactically appropriate manner based upon those triggers.

Under the law, we are only allowed to use deadly force when we, or others in our immediate presence, are threatened with death or grave bodily harm (rape, maiming, disfigurement). In order for the threat to exist, our potential attacker must have the ability to threaten us, the opportunity to threaten us, and we must be in jeopardy by his indicated propensity to carry out that threat. For instance, our friend at the skeet range clearly has the ability to harm us since he is holding a loaded shotgun, and he has the opportunity since we are within a few yards of him, but there is no threat because he has not shown any inclination to harm us. Similarly, the wino across the street may be yelling curses and insults at us, and waving a pipe around, but ability and jeopardy without opportunity (a pipe is a contact weapon and he is not in our immediate vicinity) we are not authorized to shoot him (I certainly would be alert and looking around to see if the wino had friends who were trying to sneak up on me with his distraction, though).

My triggers are simple: if someone threateningly points a gun at me or others within my vision, that person can now be shot by me without further notice on my part. If someone has a knife or other contact weapon (club) and threatens me at a range that precludes my successful evasion or escape, that person can be shot without further notice. I'm in my early 40s, with some martial arts training, and I don't go provoking people: if someone seriously threatens me with physical force and they are big enough to scare me, the gun gets drawn and the challenge gets issued ("If you attack me I will shoot you! Go away!") and if they attempt to attack me anyway they get shot without further notice (I know of too many people who have been disfigured, brain-damaged, crippled, or maimed by getting stomped to put up with that foolishness).

Once my 'trigger' has been activated, I will then do whatever it takes to obtain and maintain an unfair advantage on my attacker, and I will shoot him at the first opportunity without warning and without hesitation. Hesitation gets you killed! Once you have decided to act, follow through and do not hesitate! I will continue this course of action until I am absolutely sure the circumstances which 'triggered' me are no longer in effect and the threat no longer exists.

I urge anyone who has a firearm for self-defense to think about what would constitute a trigger, and to think about whether they can make the decision to shoot an attacker. Write out your triggers, say them, and repeat this until you believe you will act accordingly.

Accidents (unforeseen bad things happening) are invariably the result of a series of events, each one leading to the other until the accident. Break the chain and you prevent the accident. McKown's wounding occurred because he consciously put himself into a situation that he subconsciously wasn't prepared for. McKown had not made the decision that he would shoot someone if necessary, and that decision must be made before confronting an armed assailant; you will not have time afterwards. In fact, that decision should be made before deciding to carry a gun for self-defense. The failure to make this decision is what lead to McKown's wounding.

I'm not faulting McKown for this failure. On the contrary, it means that McKown was a genuinely good person, who had the ability to empathize with others, and who genuinely cared for people. Most of us are like McKown, and most are similarly handicapped when it comes to shooting another, and that is a good thing because it means we aren't sociopaths. Hurting others is an unnatural act to most of us, whereas it comes naturally to bad guys.

We used to host civilian classes with a law enforcement training company that used a realistic video training system where students could actually draw and fire their own gun at the screen depending on their evaluation of the situation. Invariably, we would have students who were otherwise very skilled with handguns either balk or fumble because of the reality and the unpredictability of the training scenarios, and get "killed" by the on-screen bad guy. It was a sobering experience, and that was the value of the training: getting people to get past the generalities of "Sure, I'd shoot someone who was trying to hurt me!" and think about what they would do in a real-life situation. Far better to get "killed" in a training bay by a video projection than by a bad guy.

That is why we train. That is why we think about using deadly force before being thrown into a deadly force situation. That is why we decide now what conditions make it necessary to use deadly force, and we further decide that we will not hesitate once confronted.

The only way to win a gunfight is to not get shot. Decide now, while you have the time, what it will take and what you will do to win.

HT: HaveGunWillVote

Update: Some people think that a hesitation to shoot shows the caliber (no pun intended) of person who legally carries a gun. I agree, as stated above. However, metaphorically speaking, if you decide you're going to handle garbage, it doesn't do any good to hem and haw when you notice the stench. You have to be willing to step up, accept the fact that you're going to have to do something unpleasant, and get the job of taking out the trash done as expeditiously as possible.

NB: The first Lessons Learned article, about a shooting in Tyler, Texas has more on the subject. Those who carry smaller-caliber pistols might want to check out this article on stopping power for the .32 ACP.

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