On the Self-Defense Priesthood

Bill Quick over at Daily Pundit has been blogging for as long as I can remember. He’s a clear thinker, so when he offers a criticism, it’s something I take seriously, such as this:

OTOH, your personal approach gives you no standing to trash those who take a different approach. At least Sebastian is willing to admit he might have been a bit…ah…premature. Good on him!

If George Zimmerman were the only one on trial, I might be more forgiving of him taking a different approach. But anyone who holds a permit or straps on a firearm for self-defense is now on trial, as are the laws we’ve advocated to support that endeavor. Because of that, I think advocating smart practices in this area is important. Certainly I’m not going to come be anyone’s mommy, and follow them around to make sure they always do the smart thing, nor am I going to advocate laws that could punish someone for not adhering to best practices. But I am definitely going to advocate for those practices as others have advocated them to me.

Jeff Cooper’s advocacy of four simple rules for gun handling, which were spread by folks like gospel through advocacy, have reduced shooting accidents substantially over the past several decades. Shooting accidents are now a far weaker argument for the opponents of gun ownership now than they were in the 1970s, thanks to Cooper and a lot of evangelism for a culture of safety in the shooting sports. I believe in that kind of advocacy, and the Zimmerman case has been useful in pointing out mistakes he made and talking about smarter practices. I don’t think it’s so much a priesthood of self-defense, so much as the fact most of us realize we all have to be evangelists for what the community generally accepts as smart practices that will keep people out of trouble.

I think most of us understand that self-defense situations are not cut and dry, and real life situations are always a lot more complex than the classroom or shooting range. I think we’ve all been willing to give Zimmerman the benefit of doubt on his self-defense claim, even while simultaneously being critical of him for failing to practice avoidance.

The one conclusion I’ll admit was premature on my part was concluding his motivations for finding Matin suspicious were racial, and couldn’t have been objective. Now that more information is coming out that Martin may have been involved with drugs, if he was on drugs that night, that could have provided an objective basis for Zimmerman’s suspicion. But I stand by my assertion that this killing was unnecessary. Had Martin been approached by someone in uniform, it’s likely we never would have heard about this, and both Zimmerman and Martin could have their respective lives back. But whether it was unnecessary or not is a completely different matter than whether it’s legally self-defense. I’ve never been willing to convict Zimmerman on that count, and believe his claim is plausible based on the evidence we’ve seen in the public. But I don’t think it’s wrong or elitist to advocate for smart practices that are taught by most self-defense instructors around the country, especially when the consequences of not advocating good practices is that we all risk getting put on trial.

28 Responses to “On the Self-Defense Priesthood”

  1. mikee says:

    I will not limit myself to politically correct, group approved, socially acceptable forms of exercise of inherent rights, especially if those limits are defined by enemies of the right under question.

    Hard cases make bad law, as the saying goes. I will not, with any patience, be penalized for the supposed misbehavior of another, especially when that misbehavior is defined without regard to the actual facts of the case presented.

    So my response to every protestor out there is an impolite, “Go eff yourself, you don’t know what you are talking about.”

  2. Patrick H says:

    I think each of us has a different line we are willing to cross to risk our lives and any post-action legal actions and costs. There is nothing wrong with debating what that line is, and what is the most prudent action. Its something everyone of us should rehearse in our head long before it ever occurs (if it ever does).

  3. DirtCrashr says:

    Always have a Plan-B (and even a Plan-C) for when you get sucker-punched and they try to take the gun away.

  4. Bill Quick says:

    Sebastian, first, thanks for the linkback. Second, what griped me the most about this whole thing was the almost unanimous response from those whom I call the “self-defense priesthood.” I admit that I do have problems with that approach, with lists of rules, thought processes, and so on, being advanced as “must-dos” before one can use what is essentially a simple tool in defense of yourself and others.

    This is, of course, an ongoing argument, and my opinion that what needs targeting is the endless thicket of laws which are actually designed to effectively disarm honest citizens, rather than attacking the citizens themselves, is certainly open to debate.

    That said, I couldn’t help but get the impression that the self-defense gurus were more miffed at Zimmerman because they thought he violated one of their litany of “rules” than anything else. Even though the laws those rules are supposed to protect you from are really designed to make you terrified of defending yourself with a gun, and to guarantee that even with a perfectly legitimate self-defense use, you will be jailed, bankrupted, and probably ruined for saving your own life or that of your wife or kid, solely because of the means you chose to do so.

    And so, for their own reasons, way too many of these gurus bought right into what is looking more and more like a leftist lynching.

    • kfg says:

      The question of Zimmerman’s guilt is semi-independent from the question of his wisdom. Although I myself have made a large issue of his pursuing on foot, I have also made the point that the critical issue is when he drew his gun.

      I believe the point of the law ought to be to encourage polite society, at least in part because you cannot write a law in which the good guys always win. To believe this might be possible is to make the same logical error as the gun banners.

      Disclaimer: I am not a self-defense guru. I am just another putz with an Internet account and a bucket full of opinions, all of which are false under certain conditions. See above.

  5. Bill Quick says:

    One parting shot: I’m not a big believer in “avoidance,” either. To me, this comes across simply as trading liberty for security. Don’t offend the Muslims, they’ll kill you. Don’t walk down a street like a free man, you might get robbed. Don’t check up on suspicious characters, you might have to defend yourself.

    Let the cops do it. Let the authorities take care of it. Take no risks. Practice avoidance.

    The chains in your mind are no less restrictive than those around your neck. In some ways, they are worse, because you put them there yourself.

    • Sebastian says:

      It’d be nice if we lived in a society that had different values in regards to these matters, but that’s not the society we have. If society ever becomes more accepting of such things, what’s considered good practices might change. But until then, avoidance is good advice if you don’t want to end up like George Zimmerman, or don’t want to risk putting everyone else on trial too.

      • Bill Quick says:

        Well, of course the best avoidance strategy is not to carry a gun in the first place….

        That would make the hoplophobes very happy.

        • Sebastian says:

          The avoidance philosophy is not one of complete surrender, but that we don’t go out of our way to put ourselves in potentially dangerous situations where we might have to use deadly force. Chasing after suspicious people, when there’s no danger to life and limb, qualifies for that, IMHO.

          • kfg says:

            Exactly. Or, to put it another way, if you’re going to turn on the hero switch, make sure it’s worth it.

            Martin is dead. Zimmerman’s life is in ruins. That’s the cost. What did it buy?

  6. Yup…

    Stupid and/or unnecessary actions != illegal

    I think Zimmerman made some pretty bad choices that I wouldn’t have made that greatly contributed to the outcome (and may be an issue in a civil suit) but I have yet to hear that he did anything overtly criminal. This case is definitely going to be part of the curriculum when we do our next handgun self-defense course and will cover MANY aspects of how you need to really think about your actions when carrying and what you may have to deal with in the aftermath or a shooting.

  7. kfg says:

    “Jeff Cooper’s advocacy of four simple rules for gun handling . . .”

    He also advocated dry fire practice at your television.

    • Alpheus says:

      Only dry-fire? He had a lot of self-constraint!

      • kfg says:

        It took a while, but someone finally caught up to the joke and provided a punchline even better than I had anticipated.

        Rule 2: Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not prepared to destroy. :)

  8. Steve in TN (@sdo1) says:

    Stay in your home, Good Citizen! If you venture out, stay in your vehicle! If you must leave your vehicle, avert your gaze! Do not challenge the wildlings for your personal space!


    George Zimmerman had every right to do what he did. His neighborhood was under siege from burglary and thuggish acts. Zimmerman did not create what happened. He reported suspicious behavior and a THUG objected to that. We need an army of Zimmermans out there taking back our communities.

    • Sebastian says:

      Was the world going to end if he waited for the cops to get there? It’s not like he saw Martin committing a crime. It was just suspicion.

      • Harold says:

        I also like to think systematically and not e.g. just focus on this one extreme example. It’s akin to the “Kitty Genovese problem”; what kind of society do you end up with if everyone follows his self-help with a twist advice in the face of a persistent to eternal violent underclass, especially one where blacks are overrepresented (I bring that up because of what this case illustrates when they’re shot by non-blacks, however legitimately).

        Not any kind that’s going to make us happy, I suspect, even if it helps drive concealed carry acceptance and practice and further cements the RKBA for the time being.

        • kfg says:

          The “Kitty Genovese problem” looks like a job for. . . a well regulated militia! Superman might well have fucked it up.

      • Steve in TN (@sdo1) says:

        He saw Martin walking among the condos in a suspicious manner. All Zimmerman did was try to see where Martin went and get a street name. There was NO reason for Martin to confront Zimmerman, much less attack him. There is NO reason to give in to the thugs like you suggest.

    • kfg says:

      “Zimmerman . . . reported suspicious behavior and . . .”

      . . . a PERSON walking along minding his own business didn’t even know it. What the PERSON knew was that someone was tailing him.

      Zimmerman’s right to not be convicted in the court of opinion is Martin’s right as well. That’s the thing with rights, they have symmetry.

      • Steve in TN (@sdo1) says:

        Martin’s rights stopped before he connected with Zimmerman’s nose.

        • kfg says:

          You appear to be a)deliberately evading the point and b)in possession of facts I am not. Indeed that the police do not possess, as evidenced by the very fact that we are having this conversation.

          My own methods are not at all as you misrepresent them and have even managed to result in the apprehension of a murderer. I had to spend some time worrying about retribution from his cronies who lived in my neighborhood, but I would do it all again for the good of myself, my loved ones, and even those neighbors who I dislike but are within their rights to dislike me.

          But; no one got shot and I can continue to be an effective agent in keeping a watch.

          Zimmerman is done for many years at least and his example will prove a powerful dissuader to many who might take up the mantle. And what was gained by it? So far as I can tell absolutely nothing.

          Now here’s the thing, it may well be that the only difference between you and Martin is that you haven’t been shot; yet. You’re only a good guy because you’re alive to make the claim. I know that you’re reasonably safe in my neighborhood, but I can’t speak for any other.

          Had Martin succeeded in bashing in Zimmerman’s skull the story might be, “Spic pulled a gun on me and I did what I had to.” Might even be what actually happened. In any case Martin would be just as free and just as much a “good guy” in that case as Zimmerman is now. That’s exactly why the whole thing is a mess.

          So, when you’re out playing Lucas McCain, don’t do anything that might make you look suspicious to anybody who doesn’t know you’re the “star.” You might end up in Martin’s place.

          I’m not defending Martin; I’m defending you.

  9. Marq Yance says:

    The problem with the “Self Defense Priesthood,” who are mostly self appointed, jumping into this case so early and lamenting that Zimmerman was wrong is the ??? issue mentioned here and elsewhere. The knee jerk reaction that Zimmerman was a “mall ninja” or cop wannabe seems to be a bit short sighted, especially in light of the fact that those who would take away our rights pay attention to what we say. Consider the following, especially keeping in mind that most of what we know is from the generally biased media:

    1. He was in his own neighborhood;
    2. The neighborhood, according to police records, had a higher than average rate of burglary and other crimes;
    3. The number of 9-1-1 calls he had placed in the previous years was not out of line for the area and time frame per the pd;
    4. He tried to get cops there and when told to stop following seems to have complied;
    5. What happened after that but before the shooting is an as yet unknown.

    I would be more inclined to cast stones if he was at a random location in public and interjected himself into trouble, rather than in his own neighborhood. When I was in law enforcement I made sure my family and friends knewthat in the event a situation arose out in public while I was off duty not to say “Daddy shoot him, you’re a cop,” or some such thing. It was not that I couldn’t, but that I wouldn’t engage unless forced. I also told them that if things went bad, and I had to act, to get away from me because bullets travel both ways. Now as a civilian I hold the same beliefs.

    If the facts play out that Zimmerman engaged Martin and turned a concerned citizen call into a fight that escalated to deadly force I will be among the first to say he was wrong. That is what the judicial process is about. To do so before hand simply because his actions seem to cast derision on all permit holders seems like other fractures in the gun community, such as that group of people who feel the Second Amendment protects their $10,000 trap gun and hunting rifle but “no one needs an EBR.” In short, the antis simply don’t need our help.

  10. Maria says:

    I’ve been wondering about something for the last few days. Why can’t Martin use ‘stand your ground’ to justify his actions (the alleged punch)? Well not Martin, since he’s dead, but a prosecution. Everything I’ve read about why and how these sorts of laws were created makes it seem that they are for victims exactly like Martin. Or is it only for victims like Martin who win the fight?

    Unless I’m misunderstanding the law in question it seems to be for people who, despite the cessation of an immediate and visceral threat or endangerment to them and despite some opportunity to retreat or run away, do not have a duty to do so and can engage. They can stand their ground and fight because of a larger pattern or larger, still present, contextual threat. To any legal eagles out there is this a valid and appropriate understanding of the law? Is there such a thing as a “who struck first” clause?

    (The rest below is a bit tl;dr)

    After noticing a man tailing him, Martin likely felt threatened. Who wouldn’t? He retreated. He ran. Was he afraid? He’s young, with likely the same pop culture/media fed images running through his head that Zimmerman had. Images warping, twisting, and filtering the very way we see each other and most importantly, the way we interact.

    Martin runs. The man follows/chases him. The rest is speculation. Maybe he thinks the man is a predator? Maybe he thinks of his little brother? He thinks he sees a gun? Is he afraid? Has he seen the man driving around eying the neighborhood before? Does Martin know he’s the watch captain? Is he angry for being singled out? Does he think he’s about to get robbed for pocket change?

    Martin manages to lose him for a few minutes. Is he going to get home safe? Can he make it that far without being noticed? He sees this aggressive stranger close by, his back to him. Does he know the man is walking back to his car? Does he think that far ahead under adrenalin and fear? Is he afraid this man is about to turn around? Is he afraid that if he does, the man will follow him into his house where his family is waiting? Maybe he can knock him out and call for help? He throws a punch.

    It seems the mistake Martin made was to temporarily get the upper hand in an already aggressive situation.

    If Zimmerman walks scot free then it’s telling all victims, those of domestic violence and abuse included, that they should never make the mistake of getting the upper hand before dying.

    The laws, as applied now, seem to favor the last person left standing with the best story and most effective weapon/fight technique. That seems like a giant loophole that needs to be addressed.

    Any self defense laws need to be used in context and not only based on who’s on their back when a death occurs. That said, I can see how difficult it would be to do so since so much context relies on speculation and understanding all the interconnected narratives in a situation.

    • Harold says:

      I’ve been wondering about something for the last few days. Why can’t Martin use ‘stand your ground’ to justify his actions (the alleged punch)?

      Because legally, and I believe morally, he can’t initiate physical violence unless:

      776.012 Use of force in defense of person.—A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force….

      In all you outlined, not even “He thinks he sees a gun?” (without a bit more, e.g. Florida went shall issue 7 years before he was born), nothing comes close to meeting the standard of “imminent use of unlawful force”.

      Zimmerman, based on his 911 call and what we’ve heard of his account, was never an “aggressor” in a legal nor I think in a moral sense. Sure, Martin may have been influenced with “the same pop culture/media fed images running through his head that Zimmerman had. Images warping, twisting, and filtering the very way we see each other and most importantly, the way we interact.” If so, he learned in the hardest way possible the difference between pop culture and legal and existential reality.

      Your thesis boils down to your one line summation, “It seems the mistake Martin made was to temporarily get the upper hand in an already aggressive situation“, but I deny that this fits the definition of “aggressive situation” unless Zimmerman in reality posed a threat of “imminent use of unlawful force”.

      Just following him while he’s a visitor in a community 250 miles from home doesn’t rise to that level. Lumping his experience into those of “all victims, those of domestic violence and abuse included“, is grossly unfair. The latter have by definition be physically assaulted; unless Zimmerman threw the first punch, displayed his handgun or worse, or made threats of violence while talking, Martin was never subject to an “imminent use of unlawful force”.

      Assuming Zimmerman did nothing of that sort, and there’s absolutely no indication he did, even the witnesses who first heard raised voices say they start with Martin’s, then you’re theorizing that Martin constructed a fantasy of his being threatened and initiating violence based on that non-existent threat. And then escalated his violence to the level where Zimmerman could legally respond with deadly force (see the rest of the link).

      As a matter of law and practicability I can’t see how this could transfer any culpability to Zimmerman. Martin’s experience did not rise to the level where he could legitimately initiate physical violence and I don’t see how we could construct a workable society where he could have.

      • Maria says:

        Thank you for responding to my thoughts. I’m at work right now so I can’t go too much into it but will try to later today. I do think you raise some good and valid points. I also did not mean to water down the actions of victims of abuse and domestic violence, that definitely was not my intention. I do think that any impact this case will have on the law will impact them as well.

        I guess my one issue with this case in particular and the circumstance is the belief behind lawful defense “against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force.” I think that ‘imminent use of force’ isn’t defined specifically? Like it’s not narrowed down to a spoken threat, exposed weapon, physical retrain, cornering, or brandished knife. A number of things come into play to engender the belief that someone is about to harm you and cases have been argued about that.

        From my own experiences being followed by a stranger in a vehicle and then on foot would definitely do it. Thinking you’ve lost them and then seeing them again is highly unsettling, even to the point of panic. Was it enough panic to make Martin think that if Zimmerman saw him again he’d be a threat to him or his family not that far away? Would it be enough legally? We can’t ever know that. It’s all speculation.

        This is not to say that, if Martin punched him, that I think Martin used his best judgment. In fact, I think that snap judgment likely cost him his life.

        • Harold says:

          You’re very welcome.

          For now, until you can give this more thought, I’ll cover some of what I understand to be invoked by “imminent use of unlawful force” and the like. As someone who carries concealed it’s of course in an area anyone responsible has already thought about.

          “Imminent” of course means just that. If someone says “I’m going to go back to my house or car, get my gun and kill you”, you’re not allowed to use force if that process would take enough time to allow you to e.g. evade and contact the police. And ideally prepare for the threat prior to the police arriving, also assuming that the police might not be able to counter it in the long run (e.g. they can’t find the suspect, he makes bail, his prison term is over, whatever).

          On the other hand, if he’s next to his car, starts to open the door and reach into it, you’re in a mess absent good witnesses and depending on your state’s law. If you can physically restrain him, well, great, but that’s a nasty crap-shoot. Any time people get into physical combat terrible things can happen even if no overt weapons are used. Duty to retreat doesn’t come into play unless you’re in some awful locality like Massachusetts, you’re not expected to outrun a bullet (although if you’re armed and can reach cover (e.g. duck behind another vehicle) … well, hard cases make bad law). If you wait until he starts pointing a gun towards you it’s too late, something that is covered in the better self-defense classes, where they show that someone from 21 feet away can deliver a lethal wound with a knife even if you have a gun on him with your finger on the trigger. Human reaction times are just not this fast, I’ve tested this myself.

          Hmmm, if I found myself in such a situation I’d probably try something like getting myself behind the front of his vehicle (I’m right handed) while drawing my handgun and shouting “Freeze or I will shoot you!”.

          “Unlawful force” is something you might want to focus on; I think your perception of what Martin was allowed by the law to do is wrong, as far as we know (and this includes the family’s account, which also has the “1 minute gap” where everyone is wondering what happened). Someone following you for the first time (i.e. not stalking), asking you questions to the effect of “How do you belong here?”, especially when you’re a visitor on a dark and rainy night, is not threatening force in any manner. Unless of course he does things like display a weapon, append an “Answer or else” where the else is a threat of force rather than calling the police, etc.

          I remember that there’s often a “reasonable man” basis used here. I.e. would a “reasonable” person, faced with the same set of facts, act in that way? This allows for everything from being in an altered state of mind due to drugs (something Zimmerman suspected straight off and which Martin’s background is so far supporting) to your previously cited “pop culture/media fed images running through his head“; you’re not allowed to cite fantasies in your defense.

          This is where it sounds like Martin’s justification for using force would likely fail. To say nothing of his escalating to a level where Zimmerman would plausibly feel he’s in danger of “imminent death or great bodily harm”. Hmmm, a point to be made about Martin making a mistake in throwing a punch: I can’t at the moment think of a scenario where that makes sense based on his later behavior. I.e. if he had a legitimate fear of unlawful but not deadly force he should have backed up the punch with grappling to immobilize Zimmerman; as noted his escalation beyond that to deadly force would be unlawful. On the other hand if Zimmerman had made a credible threat of deadly force, well, Martin did not fight well enough to counter it. The Aesop of the 2nd Dirty Harry movie is “A man’s got to know his own limitations”.

          (Comments on my last point about a mistake are welcome, I haven’t begun to think it through since I no longer start with the assumption I’m unarmed or that I can run fast (knee injury).)

      • Alpheus says:

        I think the case is a big enough mess that, if Martin had bashed in Zimmerman’s head and Zimmerman had died, Martin likely would have been able to make a case that he was acting in self defense–and with the racially-charged situtation the way it is today, it likely would have just been accepted.

        Unless, of course, Martin confessed to starting the mess, or something like that. As a young person, and one that was likely getting involved in things that were no good, I would be very surprised if he had learned proper self-defense law, up to and including things like “Never talk to the police”. I would also add, that, if Martin were acting innocently, he would be less likely to say anything incriminating to the police, even if he were to violate this cardinal rule.

        But I would also add this: if our understanding of the facts is true–that Zimmerman stopped following when the 911 dispatcher told him it was unneccessary, and that Martin followed Zimmerman to Zimmerman’s car, and then punched Zimmerman in the nose–then Martin was the one who instigated violence, and Stand Your Ground would not apply here.

        As it currently stands, I have a reasonable belief that Zimmerman will either get a “no bill” from the Grand Jury, or if it goes to trial, an aquittal (or maybe a hung jury). While I would be surprised if Zimmerman were convicted of anything, the facts are murky enough that I would only be mildly surprised.