Open Source Defense

How to think about self-defense: tips from the world of personal finance

January 18, 2019

In the past two years I’ve been asked for more and more recommendations about matters of self defense and personal security, especially from urban, educated professionals who aren’t necessarily comfortable with firearms and who are definitely not used to thinking about their fellow citizens as potential threats to themselves and their families. For a variety of reasons, both valid and vastly overhyped, ordinary people are increasingly concerned for their physical safety.

There’s a standard talk that I give my friends and family on this topic, and I want to share it, here, because it’s critically important that folks who are new to this topic begin in the right place — not with a list of what things they should buy or skills they should acquire, but with a big-picture sense of how they should approach this entire topic of personal security.

Given the aforementioned demographic of people who ask me about personal security, there is an analogy that they often have prior familiarity with that’s a near-perfect fit for the problem of keeping yourself safe: personal finance.

Both self-defense and finance share the peculiar quality of information asymmetry: they’re complex fields where experts and insiders know a ton that normal people simply can’t grasp without becoming experts  themselves. On a practical level, that manifests itself in five important similarities that are worth pondering as you approach this topic for the first time.

Everyone’s situation is different enough that details matter

Most professional people who take some care with portfolio advice are aware that while there are general rules of thumb that work for most people, the particulars of their own situation — age, income, retirement expectations, geography, and health needs, to name a few — matter a very great deal for long-term financial planning.

It is exactly this way with personal security. Simple searches online will quickly net you some very general advice that’s worth heeding for most people, and I’d encourage you to evaluate such advice using the caveats and cautions laid out in the rest of this article. But detailed advice on equipment and training always has to be evaluated carefully with an eye to your specific situation.

Take the topic of guns — they are absolutely not for everyone. Some people live in states or countries where the legal risks and burdens of gun ownership are too high; others have home situations that guns simply do not belong in; and others will just never be comfortable with firearms. For these people, some mix of martial arts training, less-lethal weapons like mace or tasers, and finely-honed situation awareness might be the best option. Or, maybe the best they can do is get a large dog from a reputable breeder, and install some sturdy locks and ample outdoor lighting on their property.

If you’ve decided that guns are part of your security picture, then you have a whole host of specialized considerations to contend with. Will you be carrying concealed? How will you secure a firearm in your home? What guns are legal in your locality? Under what precise conditions can you legally use deadly force so as to minimize civil and criminal liability (this varies greatly by state in the US)? How often can you train with the weapon? And so on.

You can see how quickly the process of identifying your needs and then figuring out how to meet them gets complicated, which brings me to my next recommendation.

Seek out personalized instruction from credentialed advisors

If you can afford it or have access to the right person in your network, get professional help for as many aspects of your personal security as you can, just like you would if you were doing estate planning, buying life insurance, or investing for retirement.

The need for quality help is especially acute if you buy a firearm — you must seek out qualified instruction with an instructor who’s credentialed by a widely-regarded organization, whether that’s an NRA certification or something else. But even absent any gun-related considerations, consider finding and engaging a local private security professional of the type you can find in most cities to walk you through the basics of keeping yourself safe in your area of your city without exceeding the financial and physical resources that you reasonably can dedicate to this. Private investigators are also a good resource, here, if you can’t find local private security professionals.

Note: Beware advice from cops and former military, because not all of these people have quality training and directly relevant security experience. Just because someone had some weapons training for their day job doesn’t make them an expert on keeping you safe. Just as you would if you were interviewing a financial planner, check credentials and certifications, and ask tough questions about what this person actually did in their previous role.

Hustlers and scam artists are everywhere

For every Warren Buffett there’s a Bernie Madoff out there looking to scam the unwary out of their hard-earned money. And as rife with con artists as the world of money men is, the “tactical” and martial arts worlds are even worse.

You can’t swing a dead cat on the internet without hitting a former super-elite special forces operator who did three tours and was personally responsible for killing 15 of the last 20 guys we’ve claimed are “Al Qaeda’s number 3 operative.” Or so they’ll tell you.

If you go to a Krav Maga gym or BJJ school, ask about the instructor’s qualifications and lineage. Ask to see the framed copies of certifications that should be on on the wall somewhere. And if those copies are in a foreign language, take cellphone photos and run them by someone who can read them. (I once heard of a Chinese restaurant menu being passed off as a certificate in a Kendo dojo — it’s not even the right language.)

If you’re training with guns, then you have to be extra careful. Don’t just find out if the instructor is credentialed, but check up on them. Call the place where they said they’ve trained and see if there’s a record of them training, there. I regularly see YouTube videos of “trainers’” dangerous, showy stunts being circulated for criticism in some FaceBook groups I’m in. Don’t get taken in.

Watch out for folklore masquerading as science

Did you know that an AR-15 bullet was designed for wounding the enemy, and not killing them? You probably did know this, because everyone knows it, and it’s wrong.

If you want to learn about the actual science that went into the design of the AR’s 5.56 NATO round, then there are books that summarize and even reprint some of the McNamara-era Department of Defense studies that gave rise to the gun, but most folks (including too many who should know better) are content to pass along tactical folklore about wounding Viet Cong and piercing Soviet-era metal helmets.

Similarly, I often see claims about bullet calibers and “stopping power” and “rules” about attack distances that are couched in scientific terms but haven’t necessarily been scientifically evaluated. In short, as is the case with some “technical analysis” and stats and charts that personal finance gurus publish for viral clicks, just because it sounds like science doesn’t mean it’s science. As always, do your own homework.

Every hot tip you get from friends and family is probably wrong

Back in 2013, former Vice President Joe Biden got into hot water for advising people to buy a double-barreled shotgun and fire off two rounds into the air to scare off intruders without harming them. The problem: that terrible but alarmingly common advice could get you either killed or arrested.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone offer up a Louisville slugger stashed under a carseat as a superior alternative to a firearm for home and auto defense. This blustery bit of vigilante fan fiction is typical of the advice you find online. A bat is certainly a valid option if you’re gun-shy, or even a possible backup option if you aren’t, but superior to a firearm? No. When you, untrained civilian, whack a 250-pound attacker wearing a heavy coat in the wrong place with your mini-slugger, and he grabs it from you and goes to work on you with it, you’ll spend your final moments wishing you had a gun.

Just like you don’t jump on random hot stock tips from people on the internet or friends and family (at least, I hope you don’t), avoid these simple-sounding self defense tips, where somebody confidently lays out the One Cool Trick They Don’t Want You to Know for keeping yourself safe.

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