Q&A: Massad Ayoob On Self-Defense In 2020 America

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Massad Ayoob gives his perspective on Kenosha, Wisc., new gun ownership, training in the time of pandemic and more.

Few names in the realm of concealed carry and self-defense are as recognized as Massad Ayoob. Plain-spoken and extremely thoughtful, the renowned firearms author, law-enforcement veteran, competitive shooter, firearms instructor and all-around self-defense guru has demystified the finer aspects of going armed for going on two generations of Americans. Given America’s turbulent times the past year, where self-defense has taken centerstage and new gun owners have multiplied, we thought there was no better brain to pick. Luckily, Mr. Ayoob had time to spare from his busy schedule and broke down his perspective on Kenosha, Wisc., expanding gun ownership, training in the era of pandemic and much more. As always with the master, it was enlightening.

Gun Digest: Let’s jump right in. There’s been a slew of events that have put armed citizens in the spotlight, most recently Kenosha, Wisc. What’s your expert opinion on what transpired with Kyle Rittenhouse, at least what we’ve seen on the video?

Massad Ayoob: First, on all these things, we don’t have all the information yet. It’s premature to pretend we’re judge and jury ready to deliver a verdict.

Looking at what’s been available as of today, Sept. 7, 2020, basically it looks like self-defense. You see Rittenhouse being chased by a guy, you see that guy throw an object, which in some light looks as if it’s burning. I don’t know if the kid mistook that for a Molotov cocktail or not, but judging by what you see on some of the videos that’s certainly a possibility. Shots are fired immediately beforehand somewhere, and there’s one video that looks like one of the protesters is pointing a gun in the air and firing. That might have led Rittenhouse to believe he was under fire. For all I know, the kid was under fire, because we don’t know where all those shots came from. It’s at that point Rittenhouse fires at the first man and inflicts the mortal wound. Thereafter, it appears the others rioters are closing in on him, so Rittenhouse runs.

The next set of videos pick up, Rittenhouse is being chased, trips and falls. One guy does the flying kick at him; you can’t tell if he kicks Rittenhouse in the head or not, but it looks like he was trying to kick him in the head. The other, who gets shot in the torso and gets killed, smashes him with a skateboard. As I said on Lars Larson's show, this is like a magnum version of an ax handle. You have all the density of the wood as the edge strikes.

Finally, the third man who got shot—if you analyze it and freeze-frame it—appears to be reaching for the gun, as to take it and turn it on Rittenhouse. And he is pointing his own, what appears to be a “Baby” Glock, pistol at young Rittenhouse’s head at the moment the teen shoots and mangles the man’s arm. When that guy turns away Rittenhouse ceases fire.

At no time does Rittenhouse appear to fire wildly. One guy is rushing at him, he points the gun in his general direction, the guy backs off and the kid doesn’t shoot.

Gun Digest: Does the fact he came from out-of-state, injecting himself in a tense situation, play against him?

Massad Ayoob: I think he’s defensible, according to what his defense team has put out so far.

Rittenhouse earlier that day was cleaning up graffiti. He had gone to Kenosha in what about a 20-mile drive from his home to, again, do clean up and did not bring an AR-15. The picture of him on Facebook holding an AR-15 is a different gun and different sight than the one he used in the incident, clearly.

They’re saying, when he got there to help out—he had brought his medkit—he was interviewed and said that same. He described himself as an EMT, I think. He had helped one other person, at least, already that night. He was told the danger has escalated, shots are being fired and all that, and he is offered an AR-15, which he takes.

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Now, the fine points of the Wisconsin law on a 17-year-old from out of state possessing an AR-15, it’s kind of seesawing. There’s a lot of what a layman would call legal “mumbo jumbo” going on. Some of it a little self-contradictory. What you have in any state, in those sorts of circumstances, is what is called in common law the “doctrine of competing harms.” It is known in many states as the “doctrine of necessity” and in a few states the “doctrine of two evils.” It simply says you’re allowed to break the law in the rare circumstance where following the law is likely to cause more human injury than following the law.

For example, say you find yourself someplace where technically it isn’t legal to possess a gun, but there is a life-threatening emergency. Someone with no ill intent hands a gun to you for protective purposes and you have no ill intent. Then you’re attacked and you use it defensively. The law says you should be held harmless.

So, coming in from another state, I think that’s the least of the kid’s worries.

Gun Digest: Switching gears, rioters are destroying property, attacking commuters and random individuals. At the same time, many powerful players—DAs in particular—seem intent in painting citizens who defend themselves in the worst possible light…

Massad Ayoob: Those seem to be the same ones letting off the rioters by saying, “Oh, they’re only protesters.”

Gun Digest: It does seem that way, doesn’t it?

Massad Ayoob: When they say it was a “mostly peaceful protest” it reminds me of that meme that says the surprise Japanese flyover at Pearl Harbor was “mostly peaceful.”

Gun Digest: This seems like a very dangerous situation. What advice do you have for armed citizens to keep themselves physically and legally safe in this environment?

Massad Ayoob: First is to stay the hell away from the riots. No matter what your political feeling may be, don’t go looking for trouble.

Rittenhouse, by all accounts, we’ve seen at this time had the best of intentions and still finds himself in jail facing a double murder charge. And he’s being excoriated as a vigilante and a right-wing nut. The bottom line is, avoid it if you can.

If the trouble comes to you, deal with it. If you go to the scene knowing something like this might happen, it’s really easy for the other side to falsely paint you as a participant in mutual combat. Since the Middle Ages, it’s been understood that in mutual combat both parties are equally liable for the results. Whoever ends up horizontal goes to the hospital or morgue; whoever ends up vertical goes to jail. And even though you are on the right side of the argument, the right side of the debate, the right side of the conflict, you’re opening yourself and your family up for a very expensive, very traumatic, very long-lasting nightmare.


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Gun Digest: As I’m sure you’re aware, there’s been an onslaught of gun purchases since the beginning of the year, many of them first-time gun owners. As a firearms instructor, I’d imagine your first bit of advice to these folks would be get trained.

Massad Ayoob: Get some knowledge. I would say get some training, except in so many states now firearms training is virtually shut down by the pandemic rules.

Gun Digest: Given this, what should new gun owners do to gain fundamental and practical knowledge?

Massad Ayoob: First, there is gold and there is crap on the internet. Some of the gold is the Polite Society Podcast. They’ve put together a series of experts giving 10-minute lessons for absolute newbies. Here’s how you work a semi-automatic pistol. Here’s how you work a double-action revolver. Here are the safety elements. Things of that nature.

Secondly, there is quality reading. The Gun Digest series alone has tons of books on how to get started with defensive shooting, in terms of techniques, how to safely draw from a holster, how to legally carry, how to carry discreetly.

Gun Digest: Hand in hand with knowledge, how should new gun owners train if, say, their local range is shut down?

Massad Ayoob: First, they need to focus on basic firearms safety. To that, if you can find a large enough space, you can learn the basics of handling a firearm with an Airsoft. You won’t be accustoming yourself to the sound of the gun firing and obviously the recoil. But basic manipulation, stances, the safety protocols can be learned hands-on in that environment.

Gun Digest: How about those who can still get live training, what do they need to look for in a quality instructor and program?

Massad Ayoob: Reputation. If a school says it has the finest staff, but they don’t tell you who the staff is, I would see that as a red flag. If the staff is named, do a Google search and see what comes up on them. If they’re a regular firearms business, do a Yelp search—this will give you a lot of customer feedback. Some of it will be crap competitors put in, but generally, you’ll get what the tenor of the class is and that you have an instructor that is safe and knows their stuff. An instructor that isn’t there to tell you how wonderful he is, but to tell you how skilled and safe you can be.

Gun Digest: Beyond the basics, what other instruction should armed citizens seek out?

Massad Ayoob: You’re looking for the “When” (you can shot) and you’re looking for the “How” (to shoot).

On the when side, the two primary schools are Andrew Branca’s Law of Self Defense class, which can be had online. I would recommend if he’s doing one in your state to take one there because he’ll do those with an emphasis on state-specific laws. The other is my school, the Massad Ayoob Group. The shortest class we offer is two 10-hour days, usually done over a weekend. That is all classroom and video on legal elements, tactical elements, the psychological elements of preparing beforehand to face a deadly-force encounter.

On the how to shoot side, there are many major schools worth investigating: Gunsite in Arizona, they also have off-campus training; Clint Smith’s school Thunder Ranch in Oregon; in the Pacific Northwest, the Firearms Academy of Seattle; Firearms Academy of Wisconsin … really there’s a lot of good places. One place to research them is Pistol-Forum.com, they have a section on upcoming training in various areas. GunHub.com would be another good resource. Also, go to wherever you bought the gun and the gun shop owner will know who the instructors are. The gun shop itself may offer instruction.

There are also thousands of NRA instructors around the county, a call to the National Rifle Association will help you find them. Also consider, for basic firearms safety, hunter safety classes run by every state’s fish and game. That you can find right in your backyard.

Gun Digest: Firearm, holster, belt, CCW permit, training … what else does an armed citizen need?

Massad Ayoob: Basically, the realization it’s a holistic lifestyle. It’s not just about the gun. The gun is not a talisman that wards off evil. It’s simply the last-ditch tool in a life-threatening emergency. I teach my student to treat the gun as an emergency safety tool, similar to a fire extinguisher.

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Gun Digest: Is there anything else new gun owners need to keep in mind?

Massad Ayoob: Just an emphasis on safety. For the new gun owner, there are going to be some in the household that will act as if they’ve gone to the pet store and bought a venomous snake. Make sure the gun is secured from unauthorized hands, the hands of little kids, the hands of your drunk brother-in-law or from a burglar who breaks into the house.

Some think that carrying a gun in the home is the ultimate paranoia, actually, it’s probably the ultimate safety. When the gun is on your physical person, your hand can be on it in a second no matter where you are when you hear the door being kicked in or alarm going off. Simultaneously, it is secure from unauthorized hands. A whole lot of people miss that.

Finally, be aware of where it’s legal and isn’t legal to carry. For example, the state of New Hampshire, you can go into a bar armed, have four drinks in an hour, walk out and as long as you don’t get behind the wheel you haven’t committed a crime. In the state of Florida, if you are waiting in a restaurant and walk into its bar armed for a Coke, you have committed a crime. But in that same establishment, you have four drinks with your meal in the restaurant section, you’re perfectly legal. We live in a nation where, ironically, the deadly force laws are remarkably uniform. The possession laws are a 50-piece patchwork, where no two states are absolutely identical. It's critical to know these laws and to stay up with them.

Gun Digest: Thank you for your time Massad.

Massad Ayoob: Thank you.

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