The First Rule of a Gunfight

Don’t be there. Virtually all self-defense firearms instructors agree that the first rule of any gunfight is to be somewhere else when it happens. How can you manage that feat? Famed instructor John Farnam, head of Defense Training International teaches a four-layer avoidance strategy: (1) don’t go there, (2) be invisible, (3) be deselected, (4) disengage. Only if all four layers fail should you draw your weapon as a last resort.

The four layers of avoidance are meant to shield you from two distinct threats: sheep and wolves.

Sheep are anti-gun people — those who fear guns and want to punish armed citizens, usually by falsely complaining to management or to police that you brandished or threatened. At worst, a sheep’s false complaint may land you in jail. Alternatively, you may be expelled or fired. At best, the mere complaint is likely to result in your gun being confiscated and your carry license revoked. Your goal is to prevent sheep from ever knowing that you carry.

Wolves are predatory criminals — muggers, armed robbers, rapists. Criminologists have proven that successful predators are cautious, rational, and skillful at choosing their victims. In experiments, professional criminals separately shown a video of mall shoppers and asked to point out the victims, consistently choose the same individuals. [Click here for details.] Your goal is to prevent wolves from seeing you as a victim.

To recap, you want sheep to think that you are harmless and wolves to think that you are dangerous. Farnam’s four layers can help you accomplish those contradictory goals.

Layer 1: Don’t Go There

A traditional (allegedly rabbinical) admonition preached by defensive shooting instructors is: “Don’t go to stupid places with stupid people and do stupid things.” Corollaries are:

  • Nothing good happens in bars after midnight.
  • Rowdy companions are dangerous company.
  • The “bad” part of town is called that for a reason.

Layer 2: Be Invisible

Imagine that layer one has failed and you find yourself in a place and time where wolves lurk or sheep cower. What now? Adopt Farnam’s “stealth lifestyle”. [See “Chapter 4. The Stealth Existence” in The Farnam Method of Defensive Handgunning  2d. ed. (Boulder CO: DTI Publications, 2005).] Being invisible has three components: do not advertise, wear typical clothing, and be uninteresting.

Do not advertise — The following scenario unfolds many times a year throughout the United States. You have a pro-gun bumper-sticker or window decal on your car, or you are wearing a T-shirt or hat with a pro-gun message. A fearful citizen sees it and reports to 911 that you were waving a gun threatening people. This gives responding officers reasonable articulable suspicion to search you and your vehicle for weapons without your consent [see Terry Stop]. To make sure that your accuser is not making it up, the police first ask her to describe the weapon. “It was black,” she says. They search and sure enough, your handgun is black. You are arrested. Alternatively, given your bumper-sticker or T-shirt, if they fail to find a weapon they may take you into custody to interrogate where you ditched the gun. Wolves, on the other hand, will wait until you are absent to break into your car or house in order to steal your guns. The solution to both: do not advertise that you are armed.

Wear typical clothing — Match your clothing to others in the venue. A three-piece suit at the Saturday mall, or shorts and sandals in a downtown office building, will attract attention. Similarly, when in Italy, France, or Ireland, dress like an Italian, a Frenchman, or an Irishman. This is a challenge to some. Wearing a ten-gallon hat in a Kanab UT mall just because everyone else does, may feel silly to an easterner. But failure to blend in will mark you as a stranger, a tourist. Clothing that is not typical for your surroundings will get you noticed.

Be uninteresting — If everyone stops talking and looks at you when you walk in, then you are doing something wrong. Ideally, your behavior should be so muted that nobody notices you. Of course, this admonition conflicts with the need of young singles to be attractive to the opposite sex. It also conflicts with the next layer (be deselected). And so, you must decide how to balance the conflict. The solution: behave noticeably when in a safe controlled environment with others your own age, but behave invisibly everywhere else.

Layer 3: Be Deselected

Being deselected means being passed over by predators in favor of safer victims. You have two opportunities to be deselected: the audition and the interview.

The audition — Every time that you go out in public you audition for the role of victim. Predators study everyone, assessing who is safe to attack and who is not. You will be selected as a victim if you seem to be: distracted, unobservant, timid, weak, hesitant, elderly, or immature. You do not want to pass the audition and be chosen. You want to fail the audition and be deselected. Predators’ eyes will move on to someone more vulnerable if you seem to be: alert, observant, self-confident, strong, purposeful, and fit. [See Joshua Pellicer, How to Recognize and Respond to a Potential Threat (Delta Media, 2009) for details on specific body language that attracts or repels predators.] Of course, if you stride purposefully and with confidence, you will stand out. This conflicts with the goal of being non-threatening to sheep. Again, your challenge is to look harmless to the sheep but dangerous to the wolves.

The interview — Having selected a likely victim, predators often re-confirm their choice by interacting with the target to ensure safety. Predators are deterred solely by the risk of getting hurt. They are not deterred by laws or incarceration. Indeed, a few months in jail is often a welcome break from the job, a vacation that includes health and dental care. [See statements made by imprisoned felons at 1:08 on the DVD Deadly Force: Firearms, Self Defense, & The Law  by ANITE Productions.] To be safe, predators will “interview” the target by coming too close for comfort and asking for something (a handout, the correct time, a light). If the target responds in a way that conveys weakness or indecisiveness the predator will strike. If target response is ambiguous, they will approach closer and demand even more. If the target disengages, they will abandon the planned assault. [For details on the different kinds of predatory interview, see the DVD by Marc Mac Young, Street Safe: How to Avoid Being a Victim.] You must disengage.

Layer 4: Disengage

There are two components to disengaging from a predator interview: interview stance and disengagement words.

Interview stance — The interview stance is designed to send an interviewing predator on his or her way. Although it is not a shooting position, it is as important to learn as the isosceles, Weaver, and other stances. Your strong hand is in the index position: near your sidearm, either having cleared your cover garment or ready to do so, but not having gripped your gun yet. Your weak hand is extended, palm out, in front of your chest. [Page 172 of The Farnam Method of Defensive Handgunning explains the interview stance in as much detail as the shooting stances.] Practice the stance until it is as automatic and comfortable as your shooting stance.

Disengagement words — Adopt the disengagement position. Speak loudly in a firm and commanding voice. The “firm and commanding” part is for the benefit of the interviewing predator. Being loud is for the benefit of witnesses who, if you wind up shooting the predator, will testify that they heard your warning. You should choose your own words keeping both predator and witnesses in mind. Here are two examples.

The words recommended by Front Sight Firearms Training Institute are:

  1. Stop!
  2. Stop right there!
  3. Stop or I’ll shoot!

The words that my wife and I say are:

  1. Sorry, I can’t help you.
  2. Go away! leave us alone!
  3. Back off! Stop or I’ll shoot!

Again, choose your own words carefully (no slurs, no obscenities) because witnesses will repeat them in court if you have to shoot. Rehearse saying them until they are automatic.

Out of the 2.5 million violent crimes prevented by armed citizens every year in the United States, well over 90 percent do not involve shooting. This shows that most armed citizens have learned the first rule of a gunfight by: not being there, being invisible, being deselected, or disengaging.

Next Time: The Tueller Principle


Frank W. Sweet is an NRA-certified firearms instructor who teaches the safe and effective use of handguns for self-defense. He was awarded an M.A. in Civil War Studies in military history from American Military University in 2001. He is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), Six Gems of Forgotten Civil War History (ISBN 9780939479023), and of numerous published historical essays. To receive a schedule of his firearms training courses, email to The information above should not be construed as legal advice.

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