In the comments to my last post advising people not to panic-buy guns because of COVID-19, I got a request from a regular wondering how to choose a first firearm wisely, and about safe storage practices.
He said: “I’m thinking in the next year of getting a gun for home defense, and I’d like myself and my spouse to train with it. […] I have young kids, and want to make sure the gun is accessible enough to be reachable in the event of a break-in but hard enough to access that my daughter doesn’t get into it.”
Credentials for anybody new here: I have several decades of experience as a self-defense and firearms instructor. I’m grateful that I haven’t had to shoot a human being yet. I’m not a professional in this stuff, but people who are treat me as a peer. As you keep reading, I think you will recognize the common sense in my advice.
Content warning: if you are easily offended by cold-blooded consideration of violent outcomes or Damned Facts about statistical patterns in criminality, this post will offend you.
I’m going to address the second sentence first. For basic physical security, you may want to consider getting a pistol-sized gun safe with a biometric lock. However…and I cannot emphasize this enough…do not rely on this to protect your children. Children are curious and ingenious and if they consider your security a challenge to be defeated you could have a tragedy.
The only safety lock that reliably protects your child is the one you install in your child’s head by teaching him or her that a gun is a dangerous tool that should only be used with adult supervision. Explain the danger. Do not make your weapons taboo forbidden fruit or surround them with mystery; if your child is curious, take him or her to the range with you.
If your child becomes very interested, this is good. Shooting sports are an effective way to develop discipline and concentration. And very safe (safer than golf, for example) except in the extremely unlikely case that you’ve raised a sociopath or some other kind of minimal-brain-damage victim, in which case you have larger problems than I’m going to try to address here.
Now I’ll talk about intelligent choice of weapons. This depends on your threat model and where you live.
I’m going to go into different threat models more later in this post, but I’ll start with advice that is common to all of them. The single most universally useful firearm you can have – and the least dangerous in case of accident or misuse – is a reliable carry pistol which you do, in fact, carry daily.
Do not get hung up on caliber or type. Gunfolks love to argue about stopping power and bullet ballistics but it turns out that once you get out of the mouse-gun range (.22, .25 and .32) all pistol calibers have essentially indistinguishable statistics on two-shot stops.
Therefore, keep it simple. Rent several different pistols at a range. To use your time efficiently, exclude monster hand cannons like .44 Magnum; that is certainly not a good beginner’s choice. You should be looking at calibers from 9mm up to .45ACP (11mm). Shoot them all, and pay attention to which one fits your hand the best and feels most comfortable for you to shoot. That is almost certainly the one you should buy.
I myself prefer medium-caliber semiautomatics like a .40 or .45 because I don’t enjoy the snappy recoil of a 9mm. But other people can be best suited for lighter-caliber pistols or revolvers; there are a lot of relevant variables including the shape and size of your hands and what kind of upper-body strength you have.
For home defense, it’s probably a good idea to fit a laser sight on your pistol; I got an aftermarket one recently for my .45. Then you can train in point shooting using the laser – makes you faster responding because you don’t have to pause to get a sight picture.
Because this post is about choice of weapons, I’m not going to talk a lot about training methods except to say “do one”. Train, train, train. Get comfortable with firing your weapon, learn how to be accurate at normal pistol engagement ranges of 7-10 feet.
That’s feet, not yards. It’s pretty close. Accuracy at that range is easy. More important than crisply perfect technique is the ability to handle the psychological stress of clutch situations so your accuracy doesn’t go to shit when you’re tired, rattled, and in low-light conditions. Read up on “stress inoculation” and try to get some.
Don’t be daunted by the thought that it takes years to master shooting. As with all skills, the more you put into it, the more you can get out. But any competent instructor can teach you how to handle firearms safely in 20 minutes, and you can develop the competence for basic self-defense shooting in a few hours.
You should lock that in with at least semi-regular practice, though. The newer you are, the more regular it should be; eventually (after years) you may get to the point where your muscle memory is solid enough to weather long periods without practice.
You’ll need a holster so you can carry. A gunbelt – which is just an extra-stiff leather belt that helps distribute the weight of you weapon – is a good investment. Alas, choosing good gunleather is an entire topic in itself. Expect that the first holster you buy will not be optimal and that you’ll probably need to experiment a few times before finding one that suits you for long-term use.
One area in which I think the gun culture can be unhelpful is in helping you judge how much ammunition to keep around. The problem is that a lot of us gunfolks end to treat the size of our ammo stockpiles as a sort of tongue-in-cheek competitive studliness display. The truth is that for almost everyone a 250-round reserve per weapon (exclusive of what you buy and shoot at the range) is just fine – generous, in fact.
Beyond that first pistol, what else you should buy starts to diverge based on where you live and what your threat model is. I’m going to start by assuming the most common and simplest one, which I’ll call the Standard Threat Model: you want to defend yourself and your family against low-level criminal violence, with a side order of hedging against a temporary (on the order of a few days) condition of civil disorder due to, e.g., natural disaster.
In that case a lot depends on whether you live in Switzerland or Swaziland. Most of the U.S. has violent-crime statistics like Switzerland – very low base rate of crime, law-abiding neighbors, high levels of legal gun ownership. In Switzerland, even temporary disaster conditions don’t induce looting, arson, and crime spikes. Therefore they do not raise your threat level much.
Unfortunately, parts of the U.S. – some major urban cores, and some drug-corridor rural areas near the Mexican border – are Swaziland. In Swaziland base violent-crime rates are high. Rates of legal gun ownership are low. Your neighbors are unhelpful, and a high-deviant cohort of them is actively dangerous.
If you live in Switzerland (easily 95% of the U.S. by land area), rational assessment of the Standard Threat Model does not require you to be heavily armed. I’d start with a carry pistol for each adult household member, and one shotgun for fixed-point defense. Whether you should also get a rifle depends on where you live. If you’re urban or suburban there’s not a lot of physical point to it because you won’t have long enough sightlines for distance shooting to matter much.
If you’re rural, on the other hand, you want a rifle. How serious a rifle depends on whether you have dangerous critters like bears or mountain lions in your area. Most people can get away with what gunfolks call a “varmint rifle” – a light-caliber rifle that shoots cheap ammo like .22LR. This is fine if your typical animal threat is something like a rabid skunk. It will take care of threatening humans too, in the extremely unlikely event you assess enough threat to have to shoot them at distance.
If, on the other hand, you have heavy threats like cougars or bears, you need a heavier rifle and a bigger bullet. Detailed discussion of these is out of scope for this post. Besides, I don’t know much about heavy rifles and wouldn’t want to give bad advice.
If you live near enough to a Swaziland, your threat profile is entirely different. Here’s how to tell if you do: (1) you live in a rural area with the Mexican border or concentrations of illegal immigrants within a two-hour drive. (2) you live in an urban area and within 20 minutes’ walk of you are places where groups of black or Hispanic males aged 15-35 carrying intoxicants routinely gather.
Yes, I can hear you lefties screaming already. All I have to say is: study the crime statistics. We can tell all kinds of stories about why those numbers look the way they do. Some of the stories we could tell are racist and irrational (but I repeat myself). The fact that shitty people tell toxic stories about the numbers doesn’t change the numbers, and it doesn’t change what the rational response to the numbers should be.
In American Swaziland, unlike African Swaziland, there’s no dangerous-animal threat at all, so you don’t need a heavy rifle. However, you have a banditry problem – not just individual muggers and home invaders but gangs of feral predators who routinely commit crimes ranging from mass shoplifting raids upwards to savage monkey-dance beatings that cripple or kill their victims. Civil disorder in Swaziland is quite dangerous, not only because of direct threat from mobs of ferals but due to indirect threats like arson.
In Swaziland you also need to assume that any assailant will be high off his ass on something like PCP or bath salts – a disassociative anesthetic. Pistol rounds do not reliably stop such a person before they can get close enough to kill you unless you luck out with a heart or brain shot.
If you’re living in Swaziland, the best thing you can do for yourself and society is arm up to the level where you pose a credible threat not just to individual criminals but to a mob of drunk or drugged ferals with a low average IQ and poor impulse control. Because riots or natural disaster could require you to step up like a roof Korean.
That means we’re in scary-black-rifle territory. You want an AR-15 or something like one. Understand that functionally an AR-15 is not very different in how accurately can shoot and what it can stop from your granddad’s hunting rifle. However, what it does to a mob’s threat assessment is very different.
Granddad’s hunting rifle says to a mob “Stupid ofay probably hasn’t fired that thing in years.” Black rifle says “Uh oh, gun nut. Prepared. Would probably rather shoot than not.” Ironically, this means that if what you’re showing is granddad’s hunting rifle, you’re more likely to have to actually shoot it. I’d consider actually having to shoot a human a less than optimal outcome; if you don’t, I probably don’t want to know you.
And that pretty much wraps up the Standard Threat Model. Now I’ll briefly cover a couple of other possibilities you might want to arm against which group together because they push your weapons mix in a similar direction.
One is longer-term civil disorder, ranging upwards to what gunfolks and preppers call “SHTF” (Shit Hits The Fan) scenarios. Worrying about these changes your optimal weapons mix – basically, you have to assume mob-feral violence as a prompt threat even in Switzerland. You’ll want scary black rifles, at least one per military-age household member.
However…I urge you not to worry about the weapons themselves so much that you neglect other needs. One is ammunition. Anywhere near SHTF conditions ammunition is going to become scarce and valuable; you want at least a thousand rounds per weapon and 10K would not be excessive.
More importantly, however, you need to lay in serious amounts of food and medical supplies before going on any gun-buying sprees. You can’t eat bullets, and raiding your neighbors for food would get terminally risky pretty fast.
I myself do not prep for SHTF very seriously, for reasons which I could explain but which are beyond the scope of this post. However, there is a different reason for me to have a SHTF-like weapons mix: the Second Amendment. I take my Constitutional duty to be part of the nation in arms seriously, and I insist on having the weapons that would-be tyrants foreign and domestic fear and want to take away from me precisely because they want to take them.
Generalizing, a sufficient reason to keep weapons beyond what the Standard Threat Model requires is as a move in the political power game, with the goal of ensuring that they are never actually needed.