Saturday, March 16, 2013

Techniques: Gun to the forehead disarm

Defense against gun to the forehead. In this article, I will go over the attack, the disarm, some training tips, and general points to remember in learning and doing the disarm. As you have just noticed, I even have found a video by the Haganah founder to accompany my standard rambling wall of text! But fear not loyal readers, there is plenty of textual content to accompany this 21st Century addition.

In his moving article "I Was Robbed", UChicago student Jon Caitlin gives his reflections on a violent incident that occurred while in the heart of the University's campus. On the night of October 10, 2011, Mr. Caitlin was robbed at gunpoint by a young South Side man named Edward Davis. The article  discusses far more than just the robbery, but Mr. Caitlin's narrative of that incident itself is particularly compelling in both its detail and its intensity. I have reproduced the passage below for your viewing:
...three young men turned onto the Quad from University Avenue, walking past Walker and Rosenwald, and then past me in front of Swift. They were casually talking in low voices and laughing, but each of them stared as they slowly passed.

A few minutes after the group had passed, I heard footsteps behind me in the grass. I turned around to find one of the men pointing a gun at my head, standing just an arm’s length away.

“Give me the phone,” he said simply.

Almost too quickly, I handed over my iPhone—my friend still on the line. Next, he eyed the backpack sitting next to me on the bench. That’s when panic kicked in. My backpack, containing my new laptop, all my schoolwork and books, my cash, my journals and various mementos—my material life—was about to be pulled away from me.

“No!” was all I managed to say, weakly reaching for the bag. But he thrust the gun at my head and said “I’ll shoot!” He pulled it over the bench and retreated to the alley between Cobb and the Administration Building, still pointing the gun at me. Noticing I had stood up, he shouted, “Stay there!” I sat down until they had all run through the alley, then instinctively scanned the Quad for a blue light phone.
It is a powerful story and I commend Mr. Caitlin's bravery in both recounting the incident and offering reflections on its aftermath and personal meaning. Although I eventually intend on having a more in-depth discussion of this type of victimization and violence, for now I wish to discuss this incident as a martial artist.

Any martial artist who reads that story will instinctively identify the gun disarm opportunity and the gun disarm technique itself. In the martial lexicon, we just call it a "forward gun to the head" or just "gun to the head". It is a terrifying position, but a surprisingly simple disarm. But does that make the disarm the right response?

Given the nature of the crime in hindsight, it seems like an unnecessary risk. The victim was unharmed, no one else was in danger, and any martial attempts would have just escalated the situation uncontrollably. However true that might be in this specific situation, there are still times where a disarm would have been the appropriate thing to do. Perhaps the victim is with a female friend who could herself be assaulted. Perhaps the victim is with a child who may act erratically and frighten the robber into violence. We are not too hardpressed to come up with instances where going for the disarm is the best course of action (although admittedly, it is equally simple to see scenarios in which the disarm is risky and dangerous).

In this article, I will go over the attack, the defense, some training tips, and general points to remember in learning and doing the disarm. As you have sen, I even have a video today to accompany the disarm!!

Two final notes before we begin.
  • I am neither explicitly nor implicitly condemning Mr. Caitlin for his own actions during this violent moment. He handled himself with the utmost courage and with an ever-present eye to his own life and limb. Nor am I suggesting that Mr. Caitlin (or anyone else in his position) would be somehow "better off" for taking self-defense classes. His survival is one of the highest forms of self-defense, and that is true of anyone in his situation. 
  • Don't try this disarm in real life. Period. You should (almost) always acquiesce to a criminal's request, especially if it is just for your property. Home invasions, abductions, and sexual assaults get in trickier territory, and as a general rule, you will always do what you feel is necessary to stay safe and survive. If you ever envision yourself disarming a gun for any reason, be sure to have practiced it under the lowest and highest levels of stress for many hundreds of hours beforehand. Don't ever try it if the extent of your martial training is YouTube and blogposts.

An attacker holds a handgun to your forehead and makes his demands. It can be any type of handgun, whether a snub-nosed revolver or a Glock 17. The attacker could be holding the gun with his left or right hand or, if he has seen too many action movies, two-handed in a shooter's stance. If the gun is held to your temple or ear, underneath your chin, or up against the back of your head, the disarm will change; only if it is held straight at your forehead (or cheek/mouth/eye/etc.) will this disarm work.

When working with gun disarms, it is critical to remember that your attacker wants a reaction from you. He might want you to give him your money, your body, or that of your friend, spouse, or child. He might want you to move to a secondary location, get into his car, or walk to an alley. But in all these cases, he wants you to act. If just he wanted to shoot and kill you immediately, he could have done so. That gives you a window of opportunity in which you can effectively disarm.

Finally, the most important thing to consider in gun disarms is distance. As a general rule, indeed an almost unbreakable rule, don't disarm guns that are not touching your body. We are neither Neo in The Matrix nor Chuck Norris in 1990s Texas. For a disarm to maximize your safety and its own chance of success, the gun needs to be touching your body. Closing the gap to a gun, even just a few inches, can be ample time for an assailant to pull the trigger, strike, or simply back up. You can make that gap closer part of your pre-disarm act ("Hey man, don't hurt me! Don' shoot me!" as you slowly and unobtrusively move in), but unless that gap is closed before the disarm, you are never going to go for it.

  1. DANGER 1: Getting Shot
    It's almost not worth mentioning, but for the sake of completeness, I say it anyway. That means you need to watch the gun's line of fire during the entire disarm so it never crosses your body or limbs. All good gun disarms keep that line of fire away from you at all times; there is never a "split second of risk" where the gun is aiming at your own vital targets.
  2. DANGER 2: Shooting a bystander
    I am always shocked by the number of bad gun disarms that redirect the line of fire away from your target and into any bystanders, living rooms, or passing vehicles in your vicinity. You may face both criminal and civil liability for anyone who is injured or killed as part of your unsafe disarm. Even if you are not sent to prison or sued for your life's worth, you will still have the knowledge that you killed or severely injured a scared and unarmed human being, a hefty moral burden for even the most hardened warrior. As such, you need to take all possible steps to keep the line of fire under control. During some disarms, this will be difficult (a gun to the back). During others, however, this will be far easier (this particular disarm). 
  3. Deescalate. Then disarm. 
    When working with gun disarms, you rarely want to just launch yourself into the technique. Your attacker is adrenalized, on-edge, and ready to pull the trigger. He is waiting for you to resist. Instead of offering him resistance, offer compliance at first. Temporarily agree, or appear to agree, to his demands as a means of calming him down. Note that this does not have to be a long process of convincing. Simply saying (as in Haganah) "Hey man, whatever you want" is often enough for the attacker to lower his guard. Once he is a bit more relaxed then you can deploy your disarm.
  4. Your attacker will rarely just hold a gun at your head and casually make demands. Instead, he will grab you with his free hand, maybe punch or slap you, or get close as he yells and spits and fumes in your face. Alternately, as in the case with Mr. Caitlin, he might start a few feet away and slowly close the gap to emphasize his points with an aggressive lunge of the weapon at your head. Make sure that all of these scenarios are considered in training. 
  5. As in Mr. Caitlin's own experience, an attacker might not start within hand's or even arm's reach. Even if you will never just go for a disarm at such a range, you might still need to disarm even if your attacker doesn't initially start as close as you might like. As part of training, practice unobtrusive and natural gap closes. Work them in with your deescalatory dialogue if needed.
This defense is a straight import from Haganah and Krav Maga. There are lots of variations on the gun-to-forehead disarm, but I find that this one is the most effective due to its simplicity and its lack of reliance on strength: Anyone can do it against even much larger gunmen.

It is also the first technique I have discussed that actually has an associated video online! More unbelievably, the video is a) of the move as taught in the Haganah system, b) demonstrated by the art's founder, Mike Lee Kanerak, and c) short, succinct, and clear (a rarity in the world of 8 minute martial art lecture videos). It's maybe even too short, but we will walk through its finer points together. I am going to ask you to stifle any giggles or comments about Mr. Kanerak's accent or choice of words; if the video were entirely in Hebrew it would be decidedly more serious.

Looks like chicagowarrior is going modern! Because the video is so short and the technique is so smooth, it's easy to miss the nuances of the disarm. I will go over them in detail here. The adjacent pictures illustrate the step of the move. Please ignore any resemblance between the arrows and 3rd-grader drawings of Lightsabers.
  1. "Hey man, whatever you want"
    Always start a gun disarm by deescalating your attacker. If you initially appear compliant, he will be all the more surprised by your sudden disarm. Moreover, the opening deescalatory phrase helps to center and ready yourself for the fight; your brain comes to strongly associate the spoken phrase with the muscle memory attached to it (think of Classical Pavlovian Conditioning). The phrase itself can be anything you want, so long as you train it consistently across all disarms.
    As you deescalate, move your hands to the center of your body at around upper abdominal-level. Do not jerk suddenly and bring your hands up too high (in the video, Mr. Kanerak brings his hands up too high for my liking). Remember that your attacker is just as stressed and adrenalized as you are. A sudden movement might cause him to panic and pull the trigger. But you do want your hands in position for the disarm's next step.

  2. Hands shoot straight up / Squat down
    Both of these moves happen simultaneously, but I break them down into steps for the sake of explanation. First, your hands shoot straight up towards the barrel of the gun. Your thumbs will be overlapping and your fingers will be extended ready to grab around the barrel. The underside of the barrel will come to rest on top of your thumbs, just past the weapon's trigger guard. Your fingers then clasp tightly around the weapon without interlocking. Pop the gun up and away from your head, clenching it tightly in both hands. Your arms will be straight and firm, but your elbows will not be locked (as a good rule, never lock your elbows as part of any technique).
    Green shows squat and hand-pop.
    Red shows line of fire.
    If the weapon is an automatic (i.e. a magazine-fed pistol with a slide), then this action will likely jam the weapon after its first shot. Your attacker will almost certainly pull the trigger and squeeze off a round as your hands pop the gun up, at which time the slide will be unable to move back to reload another round; the pressure from your grabbing hands prevents it from sliding back.
    Second, be sure to squat down in a strong athletic stance, further distancing your head away from the line of fire. The drop-squat motion is the quickest way to get your head away from the gun while still retaining balance. If you just shrug your shoulders to lower your head, your arm-pop won't be fast and decisive.

  3. Torque gun towards attacker
    Green shows the torque.
    Red shows line of fire.

    With both hands on the weapon, you are now going to bend it towards the attacker. To do so, pronate your wrists forward and turn the gun barrel up and back into the attacker's direction. Your wrists should not be extended to cause discomfort; just bend them naturally towards the attacker while still firmly grasping the weapon.
    This movement has two effects. First, it further redirects the line of fire away from you. To gain control of the weapon you eventually need to bring it back into your body, and to do that safely, you can't have the gun pointing anywhere near you. Second, it weakens the attacker's grip. His own wrist will be bent back into his body, an angle during which it is difficult to generate any real grip strength.

  4. Pull  gun into your stomach while pointing it at attacker
    Green shows downward pull.
    Red shows line of fire.
    Neither depict a lightsaber.

    Technically, this step happens only a split-second after the previous step, so it is a bit artificial to divide them into two separate moves. But for training purposes, it makes the most sense.
    Having bent the gun towards your attacker, you are now going to pull it forcefully into your stomach while keeping it pointed in your attacker's direction. Your wrists, which were extended towards the attacker in the previous step, remain in that position during the pulling motion.
    The attacker is not going to be able to resist the pull given the angle of his own wrist and his reduced grip strength. Moreover, as you torque hard and pull the gun into you, your attacker's finger is probably going to snap. Or the tendons will rip. Or you will just tear up the skin. Remember: His finger is stuck in the trigger guard during this violent motion, and your pulling strength is more than enough (even for smaller defenders) to overpower that single digit. This acts as another short-circuit, temporarily distracting the attacker with damage and pain so he is less likely to immediately retaliate. At this point, your attacker will probably no longer be holding the weapon at all. Alternately, his hand will still be caught around the grip and trigger, but he won't actually have any force behind his grab.

  5. Slam gun into attacker
    Green shows the line of the lunge.

    Your attacker will likely try to rush in and reclaim his weapon, or at least lunge to cause damage of his own. To counteract this, you are going to take that gun and ram it into your attacker, preferably at the face or throat but also at the solar plexus or ribs. In the video, Mr. Kanerak targets his lunge at the attacker's upper chest (which might have been done just so he didn't ram the weapon into his training partner's trachea), but the head is a higher value target that can cause a lot more pain and damage. Don't just punch the gun into your target. Take a step in so you have a stable base and more power behind your lunging strike.
    It might seem counterproductive to charge into your attacker if your ultimate goal is to disengage and back up once you have control over the weapon. Unfortunately, your attacker is not going to just let you retreat so you need to deter his pursuit. Slamming the barrel of a metal gun into an attacker's throat is fairly effective as far as deterrence goes.

  6. Back up
    After you lunge it is now time to disengage and create some space. Backpedaling is rarely a good tactical decision because forward motion is always faster than backward motion and an attacker can easily overtake you. In this case, however, your ramming the gun into your attacker's face or throat gives you a window of opportunity where he is unlikely to follow.
    Once you are at least 10 feet away (remember that even trained police officers miss almost 80% of the time in close engagements, a fascinating point that merits additional discussion at a later time) you can do one of two things.
    First, if you have some experience with a handgun, you can re-rack the slide, clear the jammed cartridge, and train the gun on your attacker. Keep your finger off the trigger at all times. You do not want to accidentally squeeze off a shot at your attacker if he suddenly gets up and runs away. We have a word for that in the justice system: Homicide. You can only shoot if the attacker rushes in to reclaim his gun, or if he reaches to draw another weapon AND you have strong reason to believe that he is reaching for a weapon and not a phone.
    Most martial artists will, hopefully, be uncomfortable with the thought of shooting another human being, even if he was your attacker. If that is the case, or you lack firearm familiarity, then you can go with Option B: Run away. Make sure you keep your finger off the trigger at all times as you flee and, once in a safe location, proceed to call the police. The aftermath of a gun disarm will always feel like the longest and most uncertain part of the ordeal, but these tips should help you get through it.
Let's look back at Mr. Caitlin's incident and see where this gun disarm would come into play. Astute martial artists will notice that there is no window of opportunity to disarm in the first moments of the encounter. The attacker, Mr. Davis, is just too far away (emphasis added below):
A few minutes after the group had passed, I heard footsteps behind me in the grass. I turned around to find one of the men pointing a gun at my head, standing just an arm’s length away.

“Give me the phone,” he said simply.

Almost too quickly, I handed over my iPhone—my friend still on the line.
Going for gun disarms at "arm's length" only works in movies. In a real encounter, it means almost certain death. Clearly this is not the opportune time to attempt the technique. Moments later, however, Mr. Davis makes his error (at least from a martial perspective). Again, in case this is not amply clear, I am not suggesting that Mr. Caitlin should have done anything differently during his ordeal. Nor am I attempting to minimize the consequences of that attack and somehow trivialize it as a purely martial example. I am instead treating his story as an illustrative narrative of armed robbery that can help others in similar situations.
Next, he eyed the backpack sitting next to me on the bench. That’s when panic kicked in. My backpack, containing my new laptop, all my schoolwork and books, my cash, my journals and various mementos—my material life—was about to be pulled away from me.

“No!” was all I managed to say, weakly reaching for the bag. But he thrust the gun at my head and said “I’ll shoot!”
Now, I admit that I was not present during the attack and my interpretation of this incident could be incorrect. That said, the moment where Mr. Davis "thrusts" that gun at his target's head is also potentially the time to disarm. It is possible that the weapon was still too far, but if it was only a few inches away, then a disarm would definitely have been possible. Done at full speed, this is an extremely fast technique, and if we know anything about human physicality it is that action will always beat reaction. That still might not justify using the disarm. Maybe the gun was still too far away, or maybe the victim (Mr. Caitlin in this case) did not feel threatened enough to act; personal property is rarely worth risking life and limb. But under the appropriate circumstances, this incident could potentially have been resolved with our gun disarm. 

  1. Make sure your partner's finger is NOT in the trigger guard. If it is and you execute the technique at full or near-full speed, you will cause a lot of damage to your colleague. 
  2. Alter the angle of the gun as it is held to your head. Some attackers might aim it straight into your brow. Others will hold it on the side in the so-called "Gangster Grip". Yet others will angle it downwards, especially if you are a shorter defender. Train as many angles as you can to grow accustomed to the possibilities.
  3. Start slow and then build up to speed. Because this move is so smooth and quick, it is tempting to get overly excited and launch right in to the full-speed version. Students that do this invariably mess up some of the finer details of the technique and fail during the stress drills. 
  4. For the attacking partner, make sure you are trying to pull the gun away after your partner starts the disarm. If done correctly, there is no opportunity to pull the gun away before your finger is broken and the gun is already too far away from your body. Only add in the attacker reaction if you are already training this at faster speeds.

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