There was an exercise in April's Utah Polite Society event that simulated an assault that takes place at a restaurant. As with most of the simulations we run, the number and position of threats were changed for each participant, and it was up to the participant to determine who to shoot first (if anyone), and when to start shooting (if at all).
One of the folks new to our events raised the question, "how do you know when to start shooting and how do you know who you should shoot?" He wanted to know how he was supposed to figure this out in real time as a defensive encounter unfolds. The individual running the exercise started to explain this, and then called me over to talk about my personal take on the subject.
At first I thought, "Oh great, how am I going to explain this in a way that will make sense to him?" As I started to try to explain this to the fellow who asked the question and the rest of the folks queued up to run the exercise, it occurred to me that all I had to do was explain how my personal rules of engagement worked and how they could develop a set of their own.
As I started to explain this, the other folks participating in the event stopped shooting their exercises and came over to join the discussion. Pretty soon, I found myself talking to a large group of individuals who all wanted to know how this should work. As this was of such interest at the event, I thought it might be worthwhile to post an article here that covers the high points of the discussion.
What are personal rules of engagement? In a nutshell, your personal rules of engagement are a set of guidelines you develop that will help you decide when you should use deadly force, and who you are willing to use deadly force to defend.
Why do you need a set of personal rules of engagement, and why should you prepare them in advance of having to use them? The situations in which you may have to use a firearm to defend you and yours can develop very quickly. You just won't have the time or clarity of focus to sort out the legal, moral, and personal issues in real time. You will be taxed to the limit to just formulate and execute the tactics needed to survive the situation. Everything else - the moral, legal, and ethical stuff - needs to be sorted out beforehand.
Everybody's different. Each of us has a different set of moral, financial, and personal priorities, as well as different physical abilities and limitations. Some folks may place a higher, or lower, priority on protecting others. Some may be better, or less, able to bear the cost of legal representation. Some may, or may not, have small children they need to protect. Some may be young with the fast reflexes and agility of youth. Others may be older and slower, or have their mobility limited by physical disability. Each of us has a different set of considerations to weigh when developing the personal guidelines we'll use in determining when and how to use deadly force. One size definitely does not fit all. One person's rules of engagement will always be different than the next person's. This is because each of us has a different set of circumstances that need to be considered when our personal rules are developed.
With that out of the way, let's get down to what a set of rules of engagement actually are. Someone once told me that I'm a gearbox kind of guy. I tend to break things down into their constituent parts and then figure out how all the individual pieces mesh. That's the approach I took when I figured out my personal rules of engagement, and that's how I'll present their development here.
So, what components do you need to take into consideration when developing your personal rules of engagement? The first thing I considered when I developed my rules was, "who am I willing to defend with deadly force?" For me, this is a very short list, so I started referring to it as my short list. The next thing I considered was, "what kinds of events are serious enough to force my use of deadly force?" Since these are things that would trigger my use of deadly force, I decided to call them triggering events. In thinking about triggering events and how I should respond to them, three distinct categories of actions came to mind. The first are pre-triggering event actions. These are actions you can take when you see a situation start to develop that can put you and yours in a better tactical situation to deal with a threat. The second are the actions you should take when a triggering event happens. And the third are post-triggering event actions. These are actions you should take after you've had to use deadly force.
Before we get into actually developing your personal rules form these building blocks, let's talk about deadly force for a bit. What we're talking about here is taking someone's life. This is not something that should be taken lightly. The use of deadly force will not only bring someone else's life to a very permanent end, it will likely bring profound consequences to your own life as well. Even if you do everything right, you'll likely end up in court defending yourself against a civil suit, and may even find yourself defending against criminal charges. In a best-case scenario, this could cost you several tens of thousands of dollars and the stress you'll have to live through will likely take a heavy toll. If it's not a best-case scenario, it could cost you your home, your marriage, and even your freedom. If you do not prevail in the defensive encounter it may cost you your life and, as we've seen in many of the simulations we've run, there is no guarantee you will prevail. You also run a real chance of accidentally shooting an innocent bystander. This has happed more than infrequently in the simulations we've run. Using your firearm for defense equals employing deadly force. Employing deadly force means potentially taking someone's life and, irrevocably, changing the rest of your own in some very dire ways.
OK, now that we've set the context for all of this, lets talk about the steps involved in putting together your personal rules of engagement.
Develop your short list. Your short list is the list of folks who you are willing to defend with deadly force. When you develop this list, you should ask yourself if you are willing to suffer the consequences of using deadly force for each and every name you include on this list. Is the person associated with each name on your list important enough to you that you are willing to take someone else's life in their defense, and live with the consequences of that action for the rest of your life? If there are individuals on your list who's safety is not very, very important to you, you may want to reconsider if you are willing to irrevocably change your life by coming to their defense.
I wasn't sure whether or not to include this next point in this article, as it always generates some heated debate whenever I bring it up in discussions of this topic. I decided to include it with the following proviso. If you disagree with my opinion, keep in mind that it's just a personal opinion and you are more than free to develop a differing opinion. Remember, one size doesn't fit all.
So here's the controversial point. Each and every adult in our society who is eligible to hold a concealed-carry permit and carry a gun for self-defense, has made a conscious decision about their personal defense. I've chosen to have the means and skills to defend myself, if need arises. Most folks in our society have chosen to not carry a gun for their own defense. So, if they have chosen to not use deadly force in their own defense and find themselves in dire straights, should it be incumbent on me to defend them? My personal opinion is, in the vast majority of cases, it is not. If they are not willing to defend themselves, why should it be incumbent on me to irrevocably change my own life by using deadly force in their defense? You may, or may not, want to consider this when you develop your own short list.
OK, so what's next after you've developed your short list? You need to decide what actions - triggering events - rise to a threat level that will require you to use deadly force. I can probably best address this by using an example that I've often used when discussing this topic.
Here's the setup. You, and some of the folks on your short list, are in the local neighborhood Seven-Eleven store when you see an individual pull a gun on the clerk and demand money. You and yours are out of the robber's immediate view, and may be able to take cover or escape without being noticed. What do you do?
The first question to ask is, "is the clerk on your short list?" Are you willing to use deadly force to defend the clerk? In my case, let's say I'm in the store with my grand kids and their mom to get a slurpee. Is my first priority to protect my family or to protect the clerk? My family members are on my short list, but the clerk isn't. For me this is pretty straightforward. Someone pointing a gun at the clerk isn't yet a triggering event. I'm going to focus on the things I can do to protect my family.
As things have developed so far, one of my personal triggering events hasn't happened yet. Doe's this mean I do nothing? It doesn't mean that at all! Remember the pre-triggering-event actions I mentioned earlier? This is when they come into play. I'm going to get my family members out of harm's way as best I can. This may mean doing something like getting them to an exit or to cover without being noticed by the robber. But I need their cooperation to do this effectively.
This brings up another issue that should be considered in the development of your rules of engagement. You need to include the folks on your short list as active participants in your plans. You need with talk to them about potential threat situations and the actions you would like them to take when these situations arise. More on this later.
OK, let's say I've gotten my family members to cover, but we haven't been able to exit the store. Let's also say the robber starts to turn around and says, "Everybody get in the back room!" For me this is a triggering event, because there's no way it's going to end well. It's time for my triggering-event actions to come in to play.
In this case, I want two actions to happen simultaneously. I want to shoot the bad guy before he shoots me, and I want my daughter-in-law to get the grand kids away from grandpa. Why do I want her to do that? Because grandpa just turned into a bullet magnet, and I don't want the kids to collect any stray rounds that may have been meant for me. Do I have time to tell her to get the kids away? No, she needs to know that and do it instinctively. She needs to be part of the plan.
At this point let's say I was successful in shooting the bad guy before he shot me. What do I do now? I make sure he's no longer a threat, and that he doesn't have any friends near at hand before I do anything else. I make sure I'm ready to address any additional threats that may turn up if he does have friends close by. Then I make sure I'm OK and my family members are OK. Once this has been done, I make sure all the witnesses and evidence stay put and are available when the police get there. I call the police, and then I call my lawyer. You do have your lawyer's number in your wallet, don't you? There are a few other things I may do after the triggering event, but we won't get into those here.
When we were discussing this at the April Utah Polite Society Event, the issue of exceptions came up. Should you allow for exceptions to your personal rules of engagement? One of the fellows commented on how the Trolley Square shooting had made him revisit his own set of rules. As his rules stood before the Trolley Square shooting hit the news, he would have gotten out of harm's way unless personally confronted by the shooter. After considering all the people who had been killed, he decided he wouldn't, in good conscience, be able to let this happen. So, he made a mental exception to his rules of engagement. In this case he would have gone after the shooter. Exceptions to the rule aren't necessarily a bad thing.
The Seven-Eleven scenario we've use here is just one of many possible scenarios that could take place. When you see news stories like home invasions, mall shootings, car jackings and the like, use these as aids in developing your personal rules of engagement. Identify the triggering events, the pre-triggering-event actions, the triggering-event actions, and the post-triggering-event actions you would have to consider if you found yourself in these situations. Incorporate these into your personal rules of engagement. You should be constantly revising your rules as you take more possible defensive situations into consideration.
OK now that we're this far in developing a set of personal rules of engagement, there are a few more things that need to be mentioned before wrapping this up.
Your rules of engagement should be a set of personal guidelines, not hard and fast rules. You need to allow yourself the latitude to adapt to unexpected situations, because you'll not be able to anticipate every eventuality in any set of preconceived rules.
Once you've developed your initial set of personal rules, you should adjust your practice, training, and personal carry gear to work with them. When you consider your personal gear, you may want to evaluate things like how you carry, how much ammo you carry, or if you need to incorporate other options like a home-defense carbine into training regimen. You should continually test your personal rules, and the other components of your self-defense regimen that go along with them. Make sure they work together. This is precisely why we run simulations at our monthly Utah Polite Society events, and why we include carbines, shotguns, and other options in our simulations. When you shoot these simulations with us, use them to test your rules of engagement, and everything else that goes along with them.
One last thing, once you've developed your personal rules and lived with them for a while, you may want to reevaluate whether or not you are actually willing use deadly force in the situations you've considered and if you are willing to deal with the consequences this may bring. This is not a choice that should be taken lightly; it deserves serious thought and consideration.
So, in general terms, here are the steps involved with developing your personal rules of engagement.
If you take the time to develop these rules of engagement in advance, it'll be that much less you'll have to process in the few seconds you'll have when crunch time comes. It may just allow you to concentrate on dealing with the threat well enough to survive a life or death encounter.