Copyright 1996 BIll Clede. All rights reserved.
First published in Fur-Fish-Game, June 1996.

Handguns for Home Defense

by Bill Clede

The two questions most often asked, when I was outdoor editor for a major metropolitan daily newspaper, had nothing to do with hunting and fishing. They weren't even posed by sportsmen. First was the mother who wanted to know how she could get her youngster trained in gun safety. The other was, "What's the best handgun for home defense?"

The first question is answered feebly with "Get him some good books and find him a local junior gun club." But the answer to the second usually drew a gasp of surprise, "No handgun at all."

It stands to reason. The one-hand-gun takes training and practice to shoot well. Too many people, whose jobs require them to be armed, miss a man size target at 10 paces. Haven't you read newspaper accounts of shootouts where a cop emptied his gun at a culprit and no injuries were reported?

If a trained police officer can blast away at a man a few feet away and miss every time, what's an untrained homeowner going to do?

Okay, you're buying a handgun because you want one in the house. Your home is your castle. You're not going to tolerate some lowlife violating your sanctuary. Good for you. But how much time are you going to spend on the range learning how to handle that handgun? Suppose you find a local club conducting a basic pistol course, or "handguns for housewives" training. How often will you go back to the range for practice?

If you are unfamiliar with your handgun, you won't "look good" with it. You're going to exude an aura that shows your lack of confidence and that can make an adversary aggressive. On the street, muggers pick their victims by such simple signs as nervousness, walking furtively, appearing unsure of yourself. If another passerby is walking tall and confidently and he looks like he can take care of himself, which of the two will the mugger attack?

Since you're a hunter, you're obviously more familiar with your shotgun. You function it instinctively. It feels familiar in your hands. You show confidence in yourself and the burglar spots it like a neon sign. And it's much easier for the sometimes shooter to point a long gun than a handgun. You're more likely to hit the target and you know it. Besides, a shotgun is far more intimidating than a little handgun.

My answer regarding the choice of a gun for home defense is, "Buy yourself any second hand pump shotgun and have a gunsmith chop the barrel to 18 or 20 inches."

It's an unfortunate sign of the times that people feel threatened in their own homes. You can avoid going to places where you're vulnerable but you can't avoid going home.

But burglary is just a property crime, isn't it?

"Three-fifths of all rapes, three-fifths of all robberies and about one- third of all aggravated and simple assaults are committed by burglars," says one Bureau of Justice Statistics study. In 30 per cent of the incidents where a burglar was confronted by a household member, a violent crime was committed. Don't be deluded by thinking it's just some neighborhood kid after your stereo. Burglars are professionals.

Many burglars don't care if you're home or not. While many such crimes occur during the day while residents are at work, they don't mind if you let them in "to use the phone." A motorist once broke down right in front of my house. I could see he was having car trouble. He came to the door and I let him in to the phone in the front hall. But I wondered why he looked so nervous. My 100-pound dog was standing quietly but threateningly in the living room archway, staring, with his teeth bared.

Yes, dogs are a help in deterring burglars, but many burglars carry treats to make friends with dogs they encounter. A small but mouthy dog is often more of a deterrent than one Doberman pinscher. A convicted burglar admitted the only things that scare him are a house with two Dobermans and a homeowner who looks like he knows how to use the gun he's holding.

But this introduces another consideration. When an armed intruder is confronted by a threatening homeowner, his reaction can be drastic.

Massad Ayoob interviewed a professional burglar -- call him Ronnie. He had burgled some 300 homes at the time of the interview.

"I never did a job without a gun in my belt," Ronnie said. "If anyone had ever tried to stop me, I would've killed them."

During his career Ronnie had encountered perhaps 20 dogs. He'd feed the lapdogs out of the family's refrigerator and go on his way. Once he was challenged by a Doberman. He simply smashed it in the head.

"What would you do if faced by an armed homeowner?" Ayoob asked.

"If neither of us had drawn yet, I'd draw and shoot him. If I had my gun out and he went for his, I'd kill him. If he had the drop on me, I'd wait till he turned away, then pull my gun and shoot him."

"What if the homeowner doesn't give you an opening?"

"I'd let the cops take me back to prison," Ronnie said. "I'm not stupid enough to get myself killed."

What's Ronnie's advice?

"If ever I get out of prison and get my own house, I'm going to get two of those Dobeys. Ain't no way you can get them both at once, and they do come at you."

An intruder is willing to use his gun. He wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger. Would you? Of course you would. You are averse to killing another person, even an intruder in your own home. That's the catch. If you keep a house gun, are you ready, willing and able to use it when the need arises?

The target range is not the same thing as facing the stress induced by the threat of an armed intruder. It's a different story when the target can shoot back. It puts you in fear for your life. Fear. Everybody feels it. Even the hero admits he was scared when facing a challenge he couldn't avoid. He deals with it. Fear is a healthy emotion. It makes you cautious. It makes you think out a situation before blindly rushing in where angles fear to tread.

Indecisiveness and hesitation can be deadly, as Ronnie indicates, but you can avoid this confusion by planning ahead. What are the more vulnerable entry points in your home? What would you do if you hear a burglar breaking in? In the layout of your home, is there an area where you can gather the family and tighten your defense perimeter?

There's another concern. "When can you use your house gun?"

Most states now recognize that your home is your castle. But that still doesn't justify deadly force when a neighborhood 15-year-old is trying to walk away with your stereo.

The ONLY reason you are justified in using deadly force is to prevent the death or serious injury of yourself or a member of your family. And you'd better be able to explain the intruder's actions that caused you to fear for your life.

It's important that you become aware of the intruder before he knows that you know. The sound of breaking glass in a locked window, a splintering door jamb, a barking dog, all can alert you to an intrusion. When you've identified potential entry points, booby trap them with such things as Venetian blinds, knick-knacks on the window sill, a small table with a flower vase right in front of the window. Make it difficult for an intruder to get in without making enough noise to wake you.

If there is vulnerable access directly to the sleeping area of your home, these precautions are all the more important. You'll have little chance to contain the intruder downstairs or in the living area of a single floor dwelling. You may have less time to evaluate the situation before you must react.

Where you keep the gun depends on where you spend your time at home, and when you feel a threat might come.

Burglaries occur during daytime when you're not at home. This burglar looks for unoccupied dwellings. In this era of two-job families where both husband and wife work, he finds plenty. This isn't the situation you want a gun for. You're better off with good locks, a noisy dog and watchful neighbors.

If your neighborhood has a history of evening burglaries, then you need to consider a storage place for the gun near where you are in the evenings. If at night, you'll be in bed. The gun needs to be in the bedroom, probably stashed in the bedside stand -- which is the first place burglars look for guns.

Are there young children in your house? You know how curious kids are. You have to satisfy that curiosity. Take them out someplace where it's safe to shoot. Take along some milk cartons or beverage cans filled with water. When you blast a controlled expansion bullet into that target at 10 paces, it's a graphic demonstration of the awesome power of the handgun. The kids learn it's nothing to play with.

The gun doesn't make you invincible.

Tombstone courage gets people killed. That gun gives you a defense but it doesn't make you an irresistible force, no more than the badge makes the police officer bulletproof.

Locate the threat. Make sure other family members are where they're supposed to be and not making the noise downstairs. Call the police on the bedside extension and tell them there is an intruder in your home NOW.

Your reaction plan should be based on the premise that you are defending your family against an armed aggressor. Never grab a flashlight and go on a "search and destroy" mission. You aren't trained for that. Police are. Let then do their job. Besides, the flashlight gives you away. You know the layout of your home better than the intruder. If he's using a flashlight, that's to your advantage. So let him come to your planned cover position.

As in many two story houses, my stairway descends in direct view of the living room. The light is at the upstairs landing. There's no way I can go downstairs without exposing myself to whatever danger lurks. If an intruder were heard downstairs, it wouldn't make much sense to turn on a light behind me and parade down into the dark.

A better tactic is to remain in the dark at the top of the stairs, hiding behind the corner. If the intruder were to start up the stairs, I need expose only a right eye sighting the gun to stop him in his tracks. That's my defensive cover position. It can work the same in a split level where you need only peek around the door to sight down the hall. It would be nice if you could switch on a light downstairs from upstairs but many houses just aren't built that way.

If you observe from your cover position, that the intruder isn't pointing a deadly weapon, you aren't justified in shooting him. Remember, you may use deadly force only when you reasonably believe there is a threat of death or serious physical injury to yourself or your family.

The last thing you want is for that intruder to move around, reach for something, get close to you, or start a conversation.

A sudden move on his part is "threatening." He may be reaching for his gun. Keeping him 10 or more feet away from you gives you time to shoot should he lunge. Conversation will distract you from the most important concern you have at the moment, keeping the intruder under control. Give him terse commands when you want him to turn around facing away from you, or lie down on the floor with arms outstretched. And never let your gun waver.

If you've captured the "suspect" and are holding a gun on him, have another family member call the police again, inform them of the new situation and tell them how you are dressed. Cops get nervous when they see someone, anyone, pointing a gun and you want to be sure they can identify you quickly.

When the police arrive, they see two unidentified citizens and one is armed. They're going to be wary. Stay perfectly still, with the gun on the suspect, and do what they tell you to do, immediately. They'll probably tell you to put down your gun. Do it. In this situation, there may be a couple of guns trained your way. Obviously, never turn with a gun in your hand toward the officer who's coming to help you.

But suppose you had perceived a threat and fired? Scumbag is lying in a pool of blood at the foot of the stairs. The aftermath of a shooting is traumatic even when a cop does the shooting. It's no less traumatic for you. If the police haven't arrived yet and you have the intruder under control, call for an ambulance.

There are differing opinions as to how much you should say after a shooting. Only a lawyer in your state can advise you. But you, obviously, must identify yourself to police and relate the perceived threat that caused you to fire. Tell them you've called for an ambulance. This shows your concern for the health of the wounded man. Obviously, you didn't set out to murder him. Answer police questions specifically and precisely with no extraneous explanations, at least until you have an attorney present.

And be careful about talking with the press.

Some years ago, a New England man was arrested for shooting two youths who were passing his house during the hunting season. A front page picture showed the handcuffed man being led to a police cruiser. Readers were surprised to learn that the man was released on bail.

When the whole story came out, those who took the trouble to dig into the back pages learned what really happened.

Two punks had stopped at the man's house and sicced their German shepherd onto the man's wife and small dog. The two got out of their car, drew knives, and followed the terrified couple to their front door. When the homeowner grabbed a 22 rifle and pleaded with them to leave, they laughed and kept coming. He fired. One fell across the doorstep, knife still in his hand.

Look at your own house as if you were trying to break in. Perhaps you did once after locking yourself out. If it was easy for you, it'll be easy for a burglar. Windows that are never opened should be pinned shut. Bars or grids are good, provided the window isn't an emergency exit. Some security grids are installed with an internal quick release feature just for this purpose. Doors with glass windows should be equipped with a double key dead bolt lock, key operated both inside and out.

Buy at least five boxes of ammunition for your house gun. And shoot up four of them in practice. Pick a load with a controlled expansion bullet. Then ask your local police if they conduct a "Handguns for Housewives" course. Many departments have and been swamped by interested citizens.

Find out what your state's laws are regarding deadly force and self defense. Talk with a lawyer and consider what he says in defining your intruder response plan.

If you know what to do when facing an intruder, you won't appear indecisive and vulnerable. If you have practiced with your gun, you'll look like you know what you're doing. You may not have to fire the gun at all. If you know what signs of threat to look for, you'll be much better prepared to testify in your own defense.

Hiding a handgun in the house is neither a new nor novel idea. There are marauding savages out there. Newspapers tell the stories every day. But there's no assurance that a handgun in your home will protect you, nor that it won't be a threat to other members of your family. You might say the gun is capable of protecting you and your family -- if you know how to use it, when to use it, who you're using it on, and are willing to use it in the first place.

And if more homeowners were so well prepared, there'd be fewer citizens killed in their own homes. ###

Besides being a past president of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, Bill Clede is a retired police officer and long time NRA and police trainer. He is author of four books in the police field. He has completed work on a new Practical Pistol Manual designed for those training for a concealed carry permit.

(sidebar)

What handgun should I buy?

There is no simple answer to the question.

Each expert has his own favorite and there's no consensus. We could spend hours talking about action type, caliber, ammunition loadings, relative stopping power index, and bullet designs, but it boils down to one thing -- the best gun for you is the one you feel comfortable with and can shoot accurately.

If you traveled the world, courtesy of Uncle Sam, and spent hours on the range with the good old GI 45 Auto, that may be the gun for you. I was a police officer who had to qualify twice a year with a four-inch, 357 Magnum revolver. I'm accustomed to it -- and it's available. If you're a target shooter and use a 22 pistol regularly in competition, a magazine load of 22LR hollow points makes it a more effective defense gun than you might think. If Pops brought home a war trophy pistol, it can serve as your home defense handgun.

The home defense handgun can be anything -- provided you have shot it enough to get really familiar with it and honed your shooting skills enough that you can hit what you're aiming at.

How big a gun can you handle? As for stopping an armed intruder, the bigger your gun the better. The 45 hits harder than the 32. But if your small hand can't hold onto a recoiling 45, you're better off with a smaller caliber.

(sidebar)

Revolver or Auto?

Which type of action do you feel more confident with? The revolver is the less complicated. No safety to remember to disengage. Pull the trigger and it goes "Boom." Some auto-pistols work that way, too.

A home defense handgun should be big enough that your peripheral vision can discern where it's pointing. Those tiny palm-size pistols and snub nosed revolvers are just an oblong blob in your hand. There's not enough barrel sticking out in front to be noticeable at quick glance. The FBI struck a compromise in choosing a sidearm for its Special Agents. They picked the medium-sized frame S&W Model 13 revolver with a three-inch barrel, before they adopted the 10mm auto-pistol some years later. Easy to conceal, yet you can quickly see the barrel to point it at your adversary.

You're not looking for a carry gun so its concealability isn't important. In fact, when you use it to confront a burglar, you want him to see it and to know that he's walking on the edge of the grave.

For many years, my house gun was a Colt Single Action Army revolver. Yes, the old Peacemaker. And it was nickel plated for added visibility. Now my house gun is a Smith & Wesson Model 66, stainless steel revolver. It was my duty gun before the police department switched to the 45 Auto.

If you're not a pistolero, the revolver is a good choice for a home defense handgun. There's less to go wrong and they're more forgiving of a lax grip. The self-loading pistol relies more on your grip to function properly. Being limited to six cartridges is hardly a concern. An intruder frets that you might fire the first one.

But get one with a long enough barrel that you can see in your peripheral vision where it's pointed. A four-inch barrel is fine. If you do pistol target shooting with a six-inch barrel, that's fine, too.

"But can't the crook grab a long barrel and wrest the gun away?"

He could if you let him get close enough to do it. So, don't let him get close. If he's that close, you may lose a lot more than your gun.


Return to Articles-Outdoors  Home