A Heavy Load

Late one afternoon, after an overly long day at work, I left my office and began walking toward my car. I assumed I was alone until, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man leaning against a nearby dumpster. He appeared to be about 25 and wore his beard unkempt. He was looking at his feet, with no apparent interest in me. Still, the parking lot was largely isolated from view and traffic, and no one else was in sight, so I took a deep breath and reminded myself to keep alert -- which meant allowing my right hand to brush my right hip, where I kept my handgun. Because I am right-handed, this is known as a strong-side carry.

My car was parked about 150 feet from where I exited my office. Although I didn't look at him directly, I thought I was keeping a fairly close watch on the man peripherally as I made my way across the lot, so I was startled when, after unlocking the door and pulling it open, I heard him speak from the other side of the vehicle, only a few feet away.

"Can you spare five dollars?" he asked. His voice was even -- not hostile, certainly not threatening. I tried to answer in the same tone.

"Sorry. I'm tapped out."

"This is an awfully nice car for someone who can't spare five bucks." His reply was in the same bored voice; but this time as he spoke, he began to circle around to the front of the car.

Most people who find themselves in a confrontation simply want it to end; this is true even among those who carry guns. After apologizing again, I began to get into the driver's seat. The man was still moving, though. As he reached the front headlight on the passenger side of the car, his hand disappeared to his side. It came up with a snap, a knife blade now showing from his fist.

Trained police officers know that an attacker can cover seven yards before a person can draw and fire his weapon. This even has a name -- the so-called 21-foot rule. Many people -- including many rookie cops -- don't believe it when they first hear it. The movies instruct us that a gun defeats a blade every time. But pulling a gun out of its hiding place quickly and then aiming it with any degree of accuracy is a more precise movement than you would think.

I dropped my hand to feel the rough handle of the grip and pulled the gun upward to my line of sight and then forward. This upside-down 'L' motion, which permitted me to acquire my target early, took about 1.2 seconds. I had practiced in front of a mirror.

Reasonable people will stop, or at least hesitate, at the sight of a gun barrel. But not everyone reacts this way -- particularly those who are familiar with a handgun's flaws. And even though he couldn't help but see my gun, the man continued to come toward me. I leveled the gun at his chest and yelled, "Stop!"

"No," he said, shaking his head. "Nope." By now he had passed along the entire front of the car and was turning down the side near my door, maybe a six-foot distance. I yelled at him to stop again, realizing too late that he'd gotten far closer than I'd intended. I pulled the trigger twice, discharging a pair of shots that I hoped would find his chest.

This incident happened to me -- using live ammunition on video. (Which, as it turns out, was lucky. I missed and presumably was knifed to death soon after.) It was part of a training exercise designed to get a person to place himself inside real-life self-defense situations.

Six months ago, at the invitation of a friend, I signed up for a three-day course at the Smith & Wesson Academy, a school run by the gun manufacturer at its Massachusetts headquarters. The school tries to get people comfortable with their guns. I decided to take the course, Basic Concealed Carry Handgun, because I had been contemplating taking the next step in self-protection, although I was still uneasy.

In my top dresser drawer, next to my bed, I keep a .357 revolver, a gift from my wife. It has a six-inch stainless-steel barrel and a tacky rubber grip. Like most revolvers, it is known for its accuracy and durability. It is there, I guess, for home protection. Yet I keep the bullets in a separate drawer and a trigger guard locked onto the gun. The key is in a third drawer. In a situation in which I might need it, my gun is, for all practical purposes, useless. I know this.