December 22, 1984: What to Carry to Defend Yourself, 10 Defensive Implements for Regular Citizens

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A Brief History

On December 22, 1984, the tables got turned on criminals when their victim shot them!  Bernhard Goetz, a 37-year-old man, riding a New York subway believed himself threatened when approached by four men ages 18 and 19, each of whom previously had been arrested and convicted at least once.  In an instant after initial contact, 5 shots rang out in rapid succession and all four young men were shot.  This famous incident of vigilante “justice” became a cause célèbre in the United States which has a staggering private gun ownership of well over one gun for every man woman and child in the country.  While we do not endorse vigilante activity (though we saw all the Charles Bronson Death Wish films as well as every iteration of The Punisher, even the Netflix television series and cheered for the hero), we do believe each person in the United States has an inherent right to defend themselves and innocent people from harm caused by other people.  Sometimes aggressive robbery or physical attack can be stopped without using any implement other than one’s own body or voice, while other times a weapon or other implement must be used.  Today we discuss 10 of the items an American might carry to defend themselves or others.  Feel free to name other items you think should be mentioned, or to take exception to anything we list.   (This list is of course only a partial list and is not listed in any particular order.)  Caution: Self-defense laws have been constantly changing in recent years.  Consult only up to date sources for guidance or talk to an attorney well versed in the subject.

Questions for Students (or others): What do you think is the most important item you can carry for self-defense?  Do you agree with concealed (firearm) carry laws that allow citizens to be armed?  Did you ever find yourself wishing you were armed?   If you are a “gun person,” what is your favorite firearm for concealed carry?

Digging Deeper

1. Pistol.

CZ 75

We may as well get the most controversial weapon out of the way first!  Gun rights and gun control are hotly debated topics in the United States, though the trend has definitely been toward state after state creating laws to allow for some form of concealed carry, usually requiring a permit to do so.  In those places where concealed carry is allowed by law and the firearm is carried in a legal manner, a main consideration in choosing a firearm is picking a pistol or revolver you are actually willing to carry.  Having a gun safely locked up at home because it is too awkward for regular carry does one no good.  The firepower and accuracy of a handgun must be tempered by the reality of carrying the piece.  Thus, for most people a smallish semi-automatic pistol in .380 ACP caliber is probably the most practical choice for concealed carry.  People of exceptionally small stature may opt for a smaller bullet launcher, such as a .22 LR or .25 ACP caliber pistol, while our larger friends or those convinced that the .380 ACP or .32 ACP calibers are inadequate may find the smallest 9 mm caliber semi-automatic handguns to be comfortable enough for carry.  Obviously, a full sized handgun propelling large and powerful bullets (such as .45 ACP or .357 Sig) are better if you actually get into a shooting situation, but the bigger pistols are difficult and uncomfortable to conceal.  What about revolvers?  Major gun manufacturers produce quality, lightweight and reduced size revolvers in adequate personal defense calibers such as .38 Special, .32 Magnum, .327 Magnum, or even in .380 ACP or 9 mm calibers, but they usually only carry 5 shots and are waaaaayyyy slower to reload than a semi-automatic pistol (especially under stress).  Big revolvers are particularly hard to conceal.  Another consideration is price.  Revolvers cost more than the most economical semi-automatics, of which you can find quality .380 ACP versions for as little as just under $200.  Finally, the gun bearer’s ability to use the firearm in a safe and accurate manner is an important consideration and should be taken into account when choosing a gun to carry.  (Note: Carrying and/or using a firearm comes with definite potential problems.  Missing your target may result in innocent people being shot, property damage, or resulting in the bad person retaliating in an escalating manner.  Brandishing a firearm always presents the possibility that a police officer or other armed civilian may mistake you for a bad guy and shoot you instead, as recent incidents have tragically shown.  Extreme planning must take place before the decision to carry a concealed firearm is reached, and extremely good judgement must be exercised if one is to carry a firearm.)  Proper firearm training with the particular gun you want to carry is essential.  Ammunition selection is also important, as a combination of penetration and internal damage caused (usually bullet expansion) is critical in stopping a threat from a person or an animal.  We would recommend avoiding bizarre specialty ammo (fragmenting or exploding rounds) that might get you sued after a shooting and stick to major manufacturer hollow point ammunition.

2. Knife.

A Bowie knife of pattern-welded steel

If you decide to carry a knife for self-defense, you better do a little planning ahead.  For one thing, most places consider a knife a “weapon” if it is concealed, with various definitions of what makes a knife a weapon or not, especially the length of the blade.  It is imperative that local and state laws be consulted before deciding to carry a knife for self-defense, or you might find yourself on the wrong end of the law.  That being said, the next consideration is being able to rapidly and reliably deploy the knife.  Having it readily accessible (not in the bottom of a purse or deep in a pocket cluttered with other stuff such as car keys) and being able to quickly and reliably open it with the strong hand only (one hand opening) is essential for effective defensive use.  As stated before, local and state laws covering opening mechanisms of knives have to be researched as the US is a patchwork of different laws covering “assisted opening” knives such as switchblades or even “gravity” knives.  Usually a folding knife with a thumb stud for rapid opening in a single hand will suffice.  Otherwise, a fixed blade knife does not have to be opened, merely drawn from its scabbard.  This type of knife is almost certainly going to be considered a weapon by the local gendarmes, so utilize discretion!  Another consideration is having a knife of sufficient size to fit comfortably in the hand and bearing a blade long enough to do adequate damage to an attacker to stop an attack.  In our humble opinion, a 4 inch blade is necessary, though as with any other weapon, something is better than nothing and a 4 inch blade would probably be defined as a weapon by the cops.  Finally, just as with a firearm, proper training in the defensive employment of a knife is a good idea, pretty much a mandatory idea.

3. Pepper Spray.

US Army soldier sprayed with oleoresin capsicum spray

This stuff is also subject to local and state laws, and there may be laws covering how you can transport it (or not transport it) in your vehicle across state or international boundaries.  Make sure to comply with all appropriate laws.  Mace and other forms of pepper spray can often deter an attacker, even a 4 legged variety such as a dog or a bear, but as with animals, you cannot always count on pepper spray to disable an attacker or send the attacker fleeing.  Too often the effects are not instant and a really determined attacker may be able to commit great bodily harm on you before being temporarily blinded and choked by the nasty chemicals.  Pepper spray comes in many forms and sizes, including foam, gel, liquid stream, mist and perhaps others.  Sizes include tiny little containers the size of lipstick tubes, but we would recommend anyone to carry the largest and most potent size cannister they can comfortably carry if the spray is intended for defensive use.  Overspray and residue can really mess up a car or the interior of a home or other building, though this might not matter compared to getting raped or killed.  Some forms of pepper spray may be alcohol based and can be ignited by open flame or by the use of an electric stun gun, as police have found out the hard way.  As with other weapons and devices, display of pepper spray devices may escalate a situation instead of deter an attack, so good judgement must be used when either brandishing a cannister, threatening its use, or deploying the irritant.  Reputable defensive techniques instructors can help teach when and why to employ this option.

4. Stun gun.

A concealable weapon shaped and sized like a lipstick tube

These nifty electronic gizmos are often referred to generically by the brand name of the most popular brand, TASER (an acronym for “Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle”), although that nomenclature only refers to the specific brand.  Cheap knock-offs may not be all that effective, and even the TASER brand had improved its product performance after failures to achieve incapacitation of particularly resistant (drunk and or high) people.  Rodney King is a prime example of someone being “tased” with little effect.  From tiny lipstick tube sized devices to large industrial devices used in prisons and the like, the electric stun guns come in all shapes and sizes, some that are disguised as everyday items.  Some police flashlights and night sticks have stun guns built in, and jail shields may also have built in electric stun devices.  The actual TASER was designed to fire a pair of darts connected by wires to the base unit from a pistol like device so that an attacker or dangerous person could be subdued from a safe distance.  Sometimes the darts both do not hit the subject, or they may be deterred by a hard item on the subject’s person or clothing and the device fails to do its job.  Hand held devices are somewhat surer, but require close contact, an inherent danger in itself.  Having such a device ready in hand may well deter an unarmed attacker, but for an armed attacker the stun gun is best used as a surprise weapon.  Having a stun gun in your hand inside a coat or pants pocket, or discretely at your side may well save your life if you are accosted.  Just remember the person being tased will not remain incapacitated for long, so an exit strategy or a plan to immobilize the attacker should be thought of ahead of time.

5. Flashlight.

A set of LED flashlights

Lighting your way in a particularly dark or dangerous place may keep you from stepping into a hole or tripping over something, and it may reveal a lurking attacker waiting to pounce, allowing you to change course and avoid an ambush.  Additionally, attackers shun the light and prefer to use darkness as their ally.  Powerful, but small LED flashlights are incredibly bright today, and many can produce enough light to blind someone (temporarily) at close range, especially if that person is taken by surprise.  Some small flashlights are called by their manufacturers as “tactical” flashlights and may incorporate features that make them more effective as a striking weapon or even incorporate an electric stun gun or pepper spray dispenser.  We recommend always having a small flashlight in a purse, coat pocket or pants pocket.  Get a good bright one that is easy to flick on instantly.

6. Whistle/noise maker.

A party whistle.

A simple whistle that you can blow, an air powered or electric horn or siren, or even the remote control for your car that can start the alarm or horn honking might scare off an attacker.  Hey, it’s worth a try if you are reluctant to carry any sort of weapon.  While we would not consider noise makers a primary defensive tool, like everything else, they are better than nothing and may be considered just another tool in the tool box.

7. Hidden/Camouflaged Weapon.

An original kubotan keychain with keys attached

As with any other weapon listed here or elsewhere, we strongly recommend researching state and local laws to find out what is legal to carry.  A myriad of commercially produced hidden weapons are made for self-defense, from hats and gloves with metal inserts that can be used as a weapon to pens that are purposely built to provide sturdy stabbing platforms.  Hidden knives and even swords can be concealed in canes, umbrellas, combs and brushes, belt buckles, and just about every other item you can think of.  A Kubaton type of miniature fighting stick is only about 5 or 6 inches long and can be made of hard plastic or metal and provide a terrific force multiplier to strikes from your hand.  These items can be disguised as part of your key ring.   Stun guns and pepper spray projectors also come in the disguise of everyday items.

8. Cell Phone.

Evolution of mobile phones, to an early smartphone

We do not expect you to kill an attacker with your cell phone!  On the other hand, if you find yourself in a dangerous situation calling 911 might send the assailant packing and save you bodily harm.  At least if you get a call through you may have help on the way.  Merely being on the phone or seeming like you are might deter an attack.  (It also might not.)  Of course, in an extreme situation, throwing the phone at an attacker might give you the second you need to draw your own weapon or escape.  Taking a picture or video of a potential attacker and claiming you are sending it to the cops or a friend may deter an attack.  (Be careful, non-judicious use of this capability might provoke an attack.)

9 and 10. Martial arts training, items at hand.

Bruce Lee and his teacher Ip Man.

On the surface, this option may seem to be the simplest, but there are serious limitations.  Real life is not like the movies, and learning defensive moves takes time and expert teaching.  Additionally, no matter what you learn it will not stop a bullet if the bad guy is smart enough to keep out of your reach.  Plus, contrary to movies and television, a little person or female is going to have serious trouble against a larger, stronger opponent.  Still, being trained in self-defense using your own body is better than nothing and is a great complement to any of the other items you may carry for self-defense.  Just keep in mind, in real life a botched move can get you killed, so you better be adept at whatever move you are going to take, or you may make a bad situation worse.  Situational awareness is especially important for those relying on their own body for defense, and the ability to recognize dangerous situations and avoid them is of maximum importance to any person, regardless of what that person may or may not carry.  Martial arts type moves are best reserved for desperation situations when you fully expect to be killed or suffer great bodily harm anyway.

Often in martial arts training the use of expedient weapons, using an everyday on hand implement as an offensive or defensive weapon is taught.  Whether or not you take formal martial arts training, you may be well served to at least read up on the ways you may use everyday things to save your life.  An umbrella may keep a vicious dog or a mugger/rapist with a knife at bay long enough for help to arrive or for you to escape.  A set of keys bunched up in the hand makes for a much more formidable punch than a bare fist.  Pencils, pens, or other hard objects can be used to attack the attacker, or even thrown at him/her to allow your escape.  Other objects, such as a purse or brief case, a folded up newspaper or a magazine may be used to defend yourself from blows or knife thrusts.  You can even buy bullet resistant inserts for briefcases and backpacks, or bullet resistant clipboards.  Always take inventory of the items around you and think of how you could use them in an emergency.  Surely you have seen movies where a damsel in distress stabs an attacker with a hatpin.  Cue balls and cue sticks may be handy if you are at a pool hall when you get attacked, but even if you are not in a weapon rich environment you can probably grab something nearby to help yourself.  You must develop the mindset to do just that and think ahead of time of how you might deploy such an expedient weapon.  An everyday item may be something that just happens to be on hand in an emergency, or it can be something the cops would not consider a weapon if you were found to be carrying it as a pre-planned defensive item.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Branca, Andrew. The Law of Self Defense, 3rd Edition. Amazon Digital Services, 2016.

Hughes, Nick. How To Be Your Own Bodyguard: Because the Will to Survive is Instinctive but the Ability is Learned. Amazon Digital Services, 2011.

Manning, Josh. Concealed Carry Bible: A Complete Self Defense Guide A to Z.  Valencia Publishing House, 2017.

McDougal, Len. The Edgemaster’s Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Choosing, Using, and Maintaining Fixed-Blade and Folding Knives. Skyhorse Publishing, 2018.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Nick P. Original uploader was Nt2bd at en.wikipedia of martial artist and action choreographer Steven Ho executing a Jump Spin Hook Kick, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  You are free:

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.