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It has been estimated that half of American households contain at least one firearm that can be used for home defense. As a general rule, even in states where “shall issue” concealed carry permits are readily available, only about one out of twenty adults eligible for one choose to submit the application. Therefore, it’s probably fair to say that there are a great people who have guns at home, for every person who’s licensed to walk around in public with a loaded, concealed handgun. NRA’s long-standing compilation of “civilian” usage of deadly weapons to protect self-and others seems to show more cases of the gun being deployed against home invaders than any other circumstance.

Home Shotgun

The conventional wisdom in this country for a long, long time was that the shotgun was the best tool of home defense. The theory was that it would be easy to hit with for any member of the family, and that its long-standing reputation as a highly effective manstopper should bring a quick end to hostilities from dangerous intruders. Finally, it was said around the cracker barrel that a scattergun loaded with birdshot would be ideal for firing in the home, since at close range it would still turn parts of the attacker’s body into mincemeat, but would not penetrate the walls of a typical house or apartment with enough force to endanger other family members.

Alas, there was much myth in that. The most commonly used home defense chambering in the shotgun has long been 12 gauge. With a full power load, these guns have very nasty recoil. This can slow down the less-skilled shotgunner’s ability to engage multiple targets, and the memory of painful recoil in the past can make the shooter hesitant, if only subconsciously, to pull the trigger at all when it comes down to a fast-breaking “shoot-or-die” moment.

Moreover, the magic of birdshot has been highly overrated. There is no guarantee at all that birdshot pellets won’t go through walls with enough power to kill once they’ve passed through. See the sheetrock testing in my new home defense video from Panteao Productions (panteaoproductions.com; 800-381-9752). I’ve also seen cases where dangerous criminals were shot with birdshot and not even slowed down. Within a very few feet, when the column of tiny pellets is still flying en masse; they strike together and create the ugly injury pathologists colloquially call “rat-hole wound effect.” The fact is, though, that if you wait to fire until the charging intruder is only those few feet away, you have so little reaction time left that you and your family are in very great danger. A better strategy is to interdict the intruder from a distance, such as down a long hallway. But with birdshot in that scenario, the pellets will have had time to spread, and each of them is too small to penetrate very deeply, or to make a puncture wound much wider than a pinhole.

Over the years, rifles from deer guns to AK47s to .223s have been used effectively for home defense. Recoil is lighter than a shotgun’s as a rule, particularly if you are running a .223, and with correct ammunition selection wounding effect should be ample to stop the onrushing intruder.

Two-Gun Approach

I have for decades taught a two-gun approach of long gun and handgun for home defense. I see the long gun as artillery, to be employed when the target is clearly identified and is coming at the barricaded home defender(s) and simply has to be stopped. Artillery is very powerful, and it is employed from a fixed location into a fire zone that has already been plotted out.
However, artillery is not very mobile. Infantry is mobile, and in this analogy, the handgun fits the infantry role. When the proverbial “things that go bump in the night” are heard, or the burglar alarm sounds, the home defender may need to do some reconnoitering before he gets down to shooting. Family members may have to be gathered into a predetermined “safe room.” Police have to be summoned, and while Bluetooth technology allows hands-free communication, it takes the hands some seconds to get it all set up when a sleeping person has to awaken, orient themselves, and gather up their communications equipment and other hardware. There may be light switches or flashlights that must be attended to by hand. A hand may be needed to manipulate a flashlight.

Life Lessons

Moreover, there are home defense situations that don’t necessarily require immediately leveling artillery at doorways and standing by to “repel boarders.” An unexpected late-night ring of the doorbell causes many folks to answer the door armed. I would strongly suggest doing so discreetly armed. Many years ago, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice answered his door under such circumstances with a .38 conspicuously in hand. The visitor turned out to be innocuous, but it triggered a firestorm of criticism in the press.

Instead, it is wiser to answer the door with the handgun tucked in the waistband or in a pocket, or in a holster if you have joined the growing legion of armed citizens who carry holstered guns at home. With the hip turned away from the door, no one sees the gun unless you have to show it to them.

Bear in mind that there’s an excellent chance the unexpected caller is a police officer. Perhaps your car has been stolen without your knowledge, and already recovered. Perhaps there has been a noise complaint by a neighbor about your stereo system or whatever. Perhaps, sadly, an officer has been asked to notify you of the death of a loved one.

If you answer that door with an AR15 or a shotgun in your hand, I can pretty much guarantee you that your night is going downhill in a hurry. In one case, a man answered such a late night knock with a shotgun; he had been threatened by a crazy neighbor and armed himself with a scattergun instead of calling the cops to report the threat. Unknown to him, the crazy neighbor had called the cops himself, and accused the homeowner of being the one making threats. The officer saw the shotgun in the householder’s hand the moment he opened the door. To make a long story short, the homeowner was arrested for the felony of aggravated assault on a police officer.

That incident ended without bloodshed. That’s not true of all of such cases. Some years ago, an elderly lady called in a burglary complaint. When police arrived, she flung open the door, a gun in her hand. They screamed at her to drop it. She did not, and when its muzzle appeared to be crossing them, they shot her. She did not survive.

In a more recent case, a man who’d had too much to drink put his .38 in his hand when he went to answer an unexpected ring of his doorbell. It turned out to be the police, summoned by neighbors and responding to a noise complaint at his address. When he swung the door open, the cops were looking down the barrel of his revolver. They drew and fired, neutralizing him with several gunshot wounds. He survived, but with a painful recovery and charges of aggravated assault on peace officers.

If any of those three people had simply answered the door armed with a handgun that was within immediate reach but concealed, none of them would have ended up as sadly as they did. (And, speaking from the crime prevention side as much as the defensive shooting side, a closed circuit TV camera would have allowed any of the three to see that those who had come to their door were uniformed law enforcement officers.)

We’ve seen that the handgun gives more mobility, and allows discreetly answering the door. It also allows you, if you feel you must, to go outside armed to investigate a commotion. Yes, I can tell you that if you hear a scream in the street, the safest thing to do for yourself is to stay inside behind locked doors and call 9-1-1. I also know that most of those reading this are not the kind of people who will leave a victim screaming in the street while they wait 20 or 30 minutes for a police response in an area where the cops physically can’t get there any sooner.

If you step out into the street with your AR slung across your chest or with your 870 pump gun at port arms, and the shrieks turn out to have come from enthusiastic kids playing outdoors, some terrified neighboring parents will probably call the SWAT team, and you’re going to have some difficult explaining to do. But if you step out onto your own property with a handgun discreetly concealed, you’ll provoke no such problems at all. So long as you are reasonably skilled with your handgun, you’ll still be able to take care of business if you find instead that the screams are genuine. I recently had a discussion with an ex-cop who heard gunshots and screams in his normally quiet neighborhood. Instead of unlimbering a rifle or shotgun, he took a discreetly concealable Glock .40 pistol when he went outside.

What he discovered was that a local man had gone berserk and was shooting innocent people. Because he had gone low profile, he identified himself to the first responding officer, and together they cornered the mass-murderer and cut him down in a blaze of gunfire. The killer was dead, they had stopped the murder spree, and there had been no tragic mistaken identity shooting.


One Gun Defense

I hope you can see why I recommend handgun and shotgun for the home defender. The two of them combine to give a versatility of response to unpredictable situations that neither can equal by itself. Most of the people reading this will own multiple firearms suitable to the task. However, most of those who read this are also advisors to friends, neighbors, relatives and co-workers who are new to guns. If the person I was advising could only afford one firearm for home defense, I would suggest the handgun. There are several reasons for this.

First, the handgun’s band of the versatility spectrum is wider than that of the long gun. As we’ve seen, we have to have one hand free for doorknobs, communications devices, etc. While we can hold a long gun in one hand, and even fire a long gun in one hand, we can’t very well retain a long gun in one hand if an intruder jumps us from the shadows and tries to snatch it away from us. The handgun is much more defensible in that situation. With the long gun, the leverage to control it belongs to whoever grabs it farther out on its ends. With the handgun, the legitimate user holding it has proportionately more leverage with which to retain control, a comment I make after more than 30 years of teaching handgun retention and disarming.

Second, there are a lot of cases where someone who doesn’t yet own a handgun is suddenly threatened by a stalker who is seriously bent on murder. These things escalate quickly. The victim may not have the money to buy a handgun the next morning, but if they’ve saved and bought one beforehand, it’s there. Already owning something they can have with them all the time can close a deadly window of helplessness between when they realize the need and when they can afford to buy one. We have at least four states that allow permitless carry of concealed handguns, and more that allow permitless open carry of pistols and revolvers. Even open carry can be accomplished with relative discretion if need be, with a handgun. Walking through the mall or into the supermarket with a rifle or shotgun slung from your shoulder…well, not so much.

Pistol Or Revolver?

For the new gun owner you or I might be advising, we need to remember that the choices you and I have made after lots of years and lots of shooting might not be the best for someone just starting out. The revolver is seen today in some circles as an anachronism, but a double-action wheelgun with swing-out cylinder is often the best choice for the beginner, or the person who may have limited hand strength.

It takes very little strength to activate the cylinder release mechanism, and effortlessly roll the cylinder out of its frame. It is easy to confirm whether that cylinder is loaded or unloaded. If it is loaded, a push on the ejector rod clears the cartridges out. There is no need to muscle a slide back against a strong recoil spring or even a powerful mainspring that is holding a hammer down against a slide. There is no need to remember that it’s “remove magazine, jack slide” to unload, and not “rack slide, remove magazine,” a disordered unloading that has led to many tragedies in not-yet-competent hands. A double action revolver bought over the counter will have no manual safety for the new user to remember to disengage.

And, let’s make it clear, those “newbie shooters” aren’t just folks outside the household. A concealed carry handgun worn regularly tends to be a personal weapon, unlikely to have to be operated by anyone but the user who chose it to suit his or her own particular needs and abilities.

A home defense handgun, by contrast, is a pool weapon. Like the M4 patrol rifle racked in a police cruiser, it might be used by any of six police officers on a given day, if the department runs two-man patrol cars for three shifts. It has to fit everyone using it, and everyone using it has to be able to run it competently. For the home defense gun stored in one place, this no longer involves half a dozen different cops. Now it involves big ol’ dad and delicately-built mom. It may involve teenage Junior and Sis, and it may involve Grandma and Grandpa who came to live with you because, while their minds and their judgment are still razor sharp, their bodies and their physical strength are failing them.

Junior and Sis haven’t lived long enough to develop the deep experience with semi-automatic pistols that may have been long since instilled in dad. Petite mom may have had the time, but not the inclination. (And please, don’t read that as gender bias: I know families where the ladies are the “resident gun experts,” and the gentlemen are much less involved in firearms.) Grandma and grandpa may be so crippled by arthritis that they can no longer quickly rack the slide of an autopistol, even if together they won the Mixed Doubles Pistol Championship at the gun club “back in the day.” A “pool weapon” has to be adaptable to the “weakest link” in terms of experience, knowledge of “gun mechanics,” and physical strength.

The autopistol, of course, has its own advantages. It tends to “kick” less, power level for power level, and to hold more cartridges. On most variations, the auto’s trigger stroke is shorter and historically, when cops switched from revolvers to autos, we saw their scores go up on the same courses of fire in qualification. A great many modern autos come standard with a feature extremely rare on revolvers, a rail that allows quick and easy attachment of a white light unit. Mistaken identity shootings by panicky citizens in the dark are extremely rare, but when they do occur, you generally find upon investigation that if the shooter had used a light, they would have been able to identify the “no-shoot” target in time to keep from pulling the trigger.
However, the gun mounted light should not be used to merely check “what went bump in the night,” because if it was a family member, a loaded gun ends up being pointed at that loved one…sometimes tragically, but always traumatically. It is imperative for safety to note here that the flashlight mounted on the gun should not be used for routine searches. That’s a job for a separate, dedicated flashlight. But in a high-stress situation, a light mounted on the gun gives the shooter one last, critical verification that he is firing at something that truly needs to be shot.

Finding a Balance

Selection of optimum home defense firearms is a topic with enough subtle ramifications to be worthy of a book, not just an article. In the last analysis, the most important thing is to have a gun where it can be reached by responsible people in time to ward off home invaders. In November of 2011, an 11-year-old boy shot a home invader four times in the face with a BB gun, inflicting enough pain that the intruder fled and broke off his attempt to murder the boy’s mother. I think we can all cheer that brave kid. I also know of a case in South Africa within the last decade when a man returning home from handgun hunting was attacked by a burglar he found in his home, and blew the man away with the only gun he had at hand, his Taurus Raging Bull loaded with powerful .454 Casull hunting handloads.

Both of those shootings were totally justified. For most of us, however, the ideal home defense handgun(s) will be found between those two extremes. Choose and advise wisely. Look beyond just the power level of the gun and its cartridge. Remember the responsibility to keep the gun readily accessible to authorized hands, and maximally inaccessible to unauthorized hands. Good luck. Keep yourself and your loved ones safe.

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