Friday, August 2, 2013


I'm writing this just a few weeks after the conclusion of the George Zimmerman trial. Without going into the merits of the case itself I would like to use it as a great example of one of those myths that I see pop up on a regular basis. That myth is the idea that as long as you have a good shooting, where you are justified in what you did, there is nothing to worry about. This will most often come up in discussions about firearm modifications, but I've seen it presented with things like ammunition selection, tactics and assorted other issues.

So what is the issue? It is generally phrased something like "As long as my shooting was legally justified it doesn't matter if I ____________." And in a perfect world it probably shouldn't matter. However, we live in a less than perfect world and so it can matter. Let's do a common one, trigger modification. Someone buys an after-market trigger that is specifically designed to imitate the Glock target setup. Why do they buy an aftermarket part? Because Glock Inc. is on record as saying that particular combination of trigger and connector is for recreational use and is not designed to be used for self defense, and thus they will only sell it as a one-for-one replacement part to those who already have the target assembly. I won't debate the wisdom (or lack) of Glock with this marketing decision, but like it or not Glock Inc. has made that decision and you have ignored it and put the target assembly in your gun.

How does this work out in court? Let's say you have been in a shooting. You have won. It seems clear that you are the good guy and he was the bad guy. But, for whatever reason, be it politics, an anti-gun agenda, public pressure, or whatever else, you find yourself charged with a criminal act. Your trigger pull weight won't matter, right? WRONG! Anything that can be used to make you look unfavorable to the jury will be used. "But wait" you say. "Nobody has ever been convicted because of a trigger modification!" While that is debatable it is also irrelevant. Convictions rarely hinge on a single item or issue. Juries look at the whole picture, and you can bet the prosecution will talk about how you modified your trigger. In fact, you actually did something to the gun the factory specifically recommends against and that virtually every LE organization that issues the gun prohibits as being unsafe. Does that send you to jail? No, but it is one more bit of information the jury considers when thinking about you.

Sure, I know and you know that it really doesn't matter that much. But it doesn't have to matter much as it is just one straw on the load the prosecutor is putting on the camels back, hoping it will break for the jury. Noted writer Mas Ayoob discusses this at length in many of his works. Whether you like Mas or not recognize one very important fact. He probably has more time in courtrooms testifying about firearms and shootings than any other person in the country, so when he talks it is worth paying attention.

Forget the jury conviction issue for a moment. I argue against much of this stuff on a purely monetary basis. If you make a modification to your gun there is a chance it will be an issue. If there is a chance it will be an issue the attorney has to prepare to deal with that issue. If the attorney has to prepare he will have an expert witness look at the issue. All of that adds to the bill. As an example I'm aware of a case where the fact that the good guy was using an ankle holster came up. Not a big deal in the overall scheme of things, but by the time the expert has researched ankle holsters, prepped the attorney, and the attorney had readied himself it added about $3000 to the defendant's bill. If you end up in a civil case after the criminal trial these things can be even more important.

The purpose of this article is not to promote or discourage you from doing whatever it is you think you need to do. The purpose is to suggest you think about what you do and realize that it can matter even if your shooting is justifed. Some modifications or selections are good. They are easy to defend. The prosecution wants to talk about why you loaded your gun with "extra deadly expanding hollowpoint bullets". It is easy to defend that by saying "I selected the type of ammunition my local police department has chosen as the best for defending our officers, the Golden Saber 9mm 124-grain round." It is not so easy to explain why your gun was loaded with "Superdeadly Rhinothumper Thunderzap rounds advertised as having 3 times the killing power of normal ammunition!" It is easy to defend converting the trigger on your revolver to operate double-action only. That was a common and accepted modification done by many LE agencies for safety purposes. It is not so easy to defend modifying the trigger into a configuration specifically prohibited by the factory, or by most LE organizations.

Our selection process can be good or bad. The trick is always going to be figuring out if the good outweighs the bad. If you absolutely cannot fire a gun adequately without making a modification then make that modification. Just realize that you are going to have to be able to explain why you needed that modification and why you couldn't use the standard gun just like thousands of others have managed to use it. There can be legitimate reasons for pinning a grip safety, or removing a magazine safety, or using a target gun. Be ready to explain the reasons and understand they can add lots of expense to your defense. You can use that old Mossberg "Persuader" shotgun sitting in the closet. You are probably better off using the Deluxe Duck Hunter or the Model 500. But will your Glock really work any better with a "Punisher" slide cover plate instead of the original plain black, or even a replacement with the American flag? Will putting skull and crossbones grips on your 1911 make it more accurate? Does covering your AR with little skulls increase the usability?

As I said before, those things shouldn't matter. But the jury is not going to be a bunch of wise old gunners like us. Instead, as so aptly described by Frank Ettin:
"Remember, if you’re on trial, Suzy Soccermom and her friends are going to be deciding if the shooting was justified. So Suzy Soccermom now asks herself, as she sits on your jury deciding whether to believe your story about what happened when you shot that nice gang member, why the gun wasn’t lethal enough the way it came from the factory to satisfy you.....
....There are many factors that can affect how a jury will view you and your testimony -- factors that can help dispose the jury favorably toward you, or unfavorably toward you. Those factors can include how you dress (showing up in urban camo with your face painted is definitely a very bad idea), how you cut your hair, your tone of voice and demeanor when testifying, etc. ...
....No one factor by itself is determinative. If you are on trial, you try to do as many things as possible to make the jury like you. The factors are cumulative, and you try to control as much as you can."

So remember, being a Thinking Gunfighter doesn't end with the shooting itself. In fact the shooting is just the start of what may be a long and grueling process. Think about it ahead of time and try to minimize the loss of resources. Just because YOU think it is a justified shooting doesn't mean you won't end up in court. And once you end up in court ANYTHING can impact the outcome. Going back to the Zimmerman trial as an example we all know that a bag of Skittles and a jar of tea had no bearing on anything related to the actual event. But the Skittles and tea became one of the defining issues of the case. If that can happen think about what might happen with the image YOU present through your choice of equipment, tactics, language, and so on.