In Defense of Self-Defense

So much has already been written here at The Liberty Papers about the Virginia Tech massacre and how gun control laws may have contributed leaving law abiding citizens defenseless. The fact that this disturbed individual was the only person on campus with a firearm is completely inexcusable and unacceptable. While I wholeheartedly agree with my co-contributors on the gun issue, I think there is something more that needs to be considered…

Consider this:

-There was 1 gunman with 2 semi-automatic handguns.

-Assuming that each clip had 10 rounds, the gunman would have started with only 20 rounds.

-According to reports, a total of 33 people were killed (including the gunman) and 20 or so others were injured (some with multiple gunshot wounds). This means that at some point, the gunman would have had to reload to continue his rampage.

-Though the students and faculty were unarmed, they easily had an advantage in numbers.

Why is this important? This is important because despite several opportunities to prevent the gunman from continuing his suicide mission, no one (apparently) tried to stop him. Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not trying to blame the victims of this tragedy for not “doing more” (It’s difficult to know for sure how one would react in the same situation until one is in that situation). I think the problem is much deeper. The problem as I see it is there seems to be a lack of the basic survival instincts of self preservation.

The two most common survival responses to threatening situations is fight or flight. Those who were fortunate enough to get away unharmed wisely used their flight instinct and got the hell out of there. But those who were cornered and had nowhere to run failed to use the fight response. I cannot help but wonder why this is, but I have a theory. My theory: our culture has ingrained in us this notion that violence is always wrong, even in a self-defense situation.

I am not too much older than these students so I have some idea of the anti self-defense messages they have been taught since preschool. They have been taught this bogus philosophy of “turn the other cheek” or “violence hasn’t ever solved anything.” If your government school student gets attacked on the playground and does anything to defend himself, he is treated the same as the aggressor thanks to these idiotic “zero tolerance” policies.

As these students graduate high school and enter college, they are bombarded with the bumper sticker logic of the “peace at any price” Left. As Doug pointed out, some of these peace protesters have adopted the philosophy of Ghandi; a man who once criticized the Jews for fighting back against the Nazis! These students also likely have paid at least some attention to how the world treats international bullies like Kim Jong Il and other despots. They no doubt saw the world wide condemnation of Israel last summer for using “disproportionate response” against Hezbollah (who were the aggressors). Given all of this, its not too hard to imagine why the students failed to defend themselves.

What would have happened if these students would have been taught that it is perfectly okay to defend themselves? What if Virginia Tech encouraged students to take self defense classes? I am not a self-defense expert by any stretch but it seems to me that certain measures could have been taken to stop the massacre from continuing. The most obvious defense measure would be to run around. A moving target is much more difficult to hit than one that is stationary. Given that the gunman was at a disadvantage as far as numbers are concerned, if even two or three people rushed him, he would likely have been taken down and disarmed. If even one person were able to take him to the ground, the crowd would have likely jumped in to help.

The reason I’m pointing these things out is because this will not be the last time; that’s for certain. There is nothing we can do about what already happened but we can hopefully learn from what happened in this tragedy. Its incumbent upon all of us to think about self-defense before something like this happens again. Wherever we are whether at work, at school, or anywhere else, we should take inventory of objects that can be used as a weapon (almost anything can be a weapon). We should also know where exits are and think of ways to flee a bad situation. We must never assume that the police will be there in time to save us; we must not be afraid to act. Most importantly, realize that you have an absolute right to use deadly force if your life or anyone else’s life is in clear and present danger. Period.

  • Doug Mataconis

    Given that this is Virginia Tech we’re talking about, and more than a few of these students come from parts of the state where the value of self-defense is still part of the culture (meaning almost anywhere in Virginia except Northern Virginia and the Richmond area), I’d think that some of them would’ve fought back if they could.

    But I’ll bet that the idea of rushing Cho didn’t occur to them mostly because of the natural instinct to panic in a situation like that.

    Also, I don’t know how much time elapsed in the lecture hall where most of the people died, but my understanding is that the whole thing was over in a very short period of time.

  • tarran

    Are you sure that nobody did fight back?

    I have not heard a detailed account of what happened yet; it is quite possible that people did try to rush him, but were hindred by bodies in their path. It’s also possible that he reloaded too quickly – dropping spent clips on the floor after the last bullet was chambered to provide people with adequate time to cover the distance and take him down.

    Even in the days before cartridge ammunition, when rates of fire were much lower one man killing a score of people with impunity was not unheard of, even when his victims were stone age tribesmen whe were experienced in close quarters fighting with knives, sticks and stones.

    I do agree that the culture we teach children encourages a frightening degree of passivity. But, in other school shootings, students have rushed the shooters and sometimes succeeded in overcoming their attackers. I would be very surprised if the students of Virginia Tech had indeed not attempted some improvised defense.

  • Stephen Littau

    I’m not sure that nobody tried to fight back; I’m basing this on the facts as I understand them now. I haven’t read the latest on what actually happened. I just have a hard time believing that if the students fought back that he would have killed as many as he did. Do either of you disagree?

  • tarran


    Ordinarily, I would agree that the death toll seems high, especially from the small caliber guns used.

    However, if he managed his ammunition properly, he could shorten his periods of vulnerability, and once a few people were on the ground, they would hinder efforts to get at him.

    Additionally, he didn’t shoot people at one location. My understanding is that he was moving around to different rooms, meaning that what we have may be several 5 – 10 person massacres, and that once he departed on room, the unarmed survivors wisely did not pursue him.

  • Adam

    I’ve always been fascinated that people will not be afraid to fight one another over a war of words, but many won’t fight when their survival is at stake.

    For example, I have NO clue why jihadists with BOX CUTTERS would be able to take over a plane and crash it into WTC. I mean, where was the fortitude to fight for personal survival? You’d think the passengers would be able to easily overtake a few crazy jihadists like they did in Pennsylvania.

    Is it sad this happened? Yes. But could’ve ordinary people done more? Absolutely. I mean, it was one young man vs. hundreds in the immediate area.

  • Brad Warbiany


    I’ve been thinking a lot about this since you posted it. I do have some experience with self-defense, and I think you may be oversimplifying things.

    Look at the situation. From the reports I’ve heard, he was going room-to-room. As tarran points out, he seems to have largely been taking specific rooms by surprise, unloading his weapons, and then moving on.

    Then, you have to look at the logistics. From the classrooms I remember in college, it is largely the case that you walk into a room, and there’s a decent distance to be covered between you and the desks. Not only that, but you’re in a doorway, so the people you need to worry about have no opportunity to surround you or take you by surprise. And if, as mentioned above, you’re only in the room long enough to empty your weapons (maybe with 1 reload?), it’s going to be hard for anyone in that room to get the bravery to come after you. Not only that, when you’re in the hallway between classrooms, you have only two directions from which people can approach (each end of the hallway). That makes it difficult, again, for someone to take you by surprise.

    If this guy had walked into a 150-student lecture hall, and started shooting and stayed there, I think it would have been much easier for someone to try to rush him during a reload. But if he was making quick entrances into and out of rooms, emptying each gun before reloading between classrooms, it makes it much more difficult to find an opening to get him.

  • Stephen Littau


    I’m sure you’re right that I may have oversimplified the situation. You and Tarran raised some very good points I failed to consider. I would be very interested in seeing some floorplans of the campus layout or a computer model of the relative positions of the shooters and victims.

    There is this one report that I’ve heard about how the gunman lined several of the students up along the wall and shot them one by one. Maybe its just me but before I stand in line for my turn, I’m going to try to do something-anything to defend myself rather than be an easy target.

    So Brad, short of the students being armed (based on your understanding of the events), can you think of anything the students might have done to stop this massacre? I would be very interested in what some self-defense experts might say about this tragedy. I think if we really want to make learning institutions safer, they should offer self-defense training to all the students (both firearms and non-firearms training). Even if the training was offered free, I think this would be a good investment to hopefully ward off future attacks. I think my main point is still valid: people need to know its okay to defend themselves (with leathal force if needed).

  • Brad Warbiany


    I haven’t heard any verification of the story of students being lined up… I would agree, if it comes down to that, that’s not how I’m going out.

    (note for everything that I say below, I’m not a firearms expert. I have a fair amount of martial arts experience. But even the martial arts classes I took only taught you to defend against a stickup, never how to rush and take down a shooter)

    As for what they could have done? If, as I postulated, the gunman came into a room, emptied both guns, and then left to reload on the way to the next room, it would occur too quickly (most likely) for anyone in that room to react and stop him in the act. The only option, for someone brave enough to do so, would be to try to follow him out of the classroom and determine which room he enters next, and then try to ambush him as he leaves that room. Mobility is a friend to the shooter in this situation. Even that requires some extreme bravery, and considering that most help-minded people in the room would be trying to tend to the victims, it’s tough to say that anyone would do such.

    Beyond that, it’s simply not an easy situation. You have strength in numbers, but unless you have a way to communicate and get several people to rush him at once, you’re screwed. If you’re in a large enough room (i.e. small to medium lecture hall) to approach while his attention is elsewhere, you might be able to get close enough to him to rush him before he can turn and fire on you. But if he notices you before you’re close enough, you’re dead. If you’re in a small (20-30 person) classroom, most of the ones that I’ve seen at Purdue would make it impossible to get the element of surprise.

    Now, if the shooter is going to stand in a room full of students to reload, your options increase greatly. That gives you enough time for one person, from a moderate distance, to close and take him down. But from the reports I’ve heard of him going classroom to classroom, I doubt this was the scenario.

    I’m not going to say the students had many options here. If any of them had been carrying, their options expand widely. But attacking an armed gunman with only your own hands and (if you can get it) an element of surprise doesn’t seem to me to be a very reliable strategy.

  • Aimee

    If I understood one of the reports right, one of the professors that died, tried to keep the door shut and prevent him from coming in. This allowed some of the students to be able to get out via a window. Had he not done this, who knows how many others would have been injured or killed.

  • John

    Interesting comments. However, I once heard that only about 14% of soldiers in WWII actually pointed a rifle in the direction of the enemy and squeezed a trigger. While that anecdotal statistic given me (by drill sergeants at Fort Benning during my 14-week stay to train to become a member of the infantry) may not be accurate, it illustrates something overlooked by the article’s author: having the presence of mind to do even the simplest task while having one’s life threatened is a type of training quite different than learning its okay to defend or learning what to do. Its almost purely experiential (if I can use that term), and is vastly different than disseminating information or learning in the way learning is found in most teaching situations.

    What to do is simple – doing is not. Armies have known this for generations. Telling someone what they can do to defend themselves does not give them the ability to do so. It never has.

  • grafted branch

    You said, “our culture has ingrained in us this notion that violence is always wrong, even in a self-defense situation…”

    Are you kidding? I’m a decade older, so maybe I missed the heavy instruction in zero tolerance, but I’m thinking that any ingrained notions are balanced rather well by the continuous bombarding of violence our society’s young people are receiving via television, movies, music and video games…oh, yes, and real life news.

  • Adam Selene

    I have many years of martial arts training (hapkido, thai kick boxing). What I will say about unarmed self-defense against a gun is that you must accept that you will be shot. That said, if the attacker is within 5 feet of you, and you are prepared to act with maximum violence, you may very well be able to turn the tables on the man with the gun. However, it takes a LOT of training and practice to do this.

  • Ted

    You said, “our culture has ingrained in us this notion that violence is always wrong, even in a self-defense situation…”

    Are you kidding? I’m a decade older, so maybe I missed the heavy instruction in zero tolerance, but I’m thinking that any ingrained notions are balanced rather well by the continuous bombarding of violence our society’s young people are receiving via television, movies, music and video games…oh, yes, and real life news.

    Here you have a disparity between what is taught to children and what is shown to them.

    I am 26 years of age. In my time within the school system, I saw it turn from a place where Corporal punishment was the norm, to a place where suspension and expulsion seem to be used more than detention.

    I remember when fights were punished by a few swats with the board, or a few days suspended. Then, as I grew, I saw kids suspended for defending themselves. On occasion, my teachers began to tell me if someone attacked me, run away – never hit back. I asked what i do if i could not run away, and they repeated that I must never hit back.

    I never listened.

    When I was growing up, my father, a strong military man, told me a few things.
    1. Do not start a fight.
    2. If one starts, damn well finish it, but only until the opponent concedes – we fight for self defense, not to hurt or punish.
    3. Do not kick someone in the nuts unless you mean to kill him(This applied to me. My sister was told to use this if necessary) – because a man will rarely forgive that in a fight.
    4. Few things are as dangerous as an untrained person with a weapon.
    5. If someone pulls a knife or a gun in a fight, kill them as fast as possible – at that point, they mean to kill you.

    My Mom, on the other hand, was more vicious. She’s also retired military.

  • Blair

    The assertion that only about 14 percent of soldier in WWII actually fired their weapons when in contact with the enemy is based an influential book by GeneralS.L.A.M. Marshall, a once-revered but now discredited military historian. Marshall claimed to have based the 14 percent figure on after-action interviews with hundreds of soldiers, but it actually came from a few interviews with soldiers being treated for “battle fatigue.” The U.S. Army once took Marshall’s fake statistic to heart, and started emphasizing volumn of fire over target selection and accuracy. But it’s now thought that high percentages of WWII soldiers fire their weapons while in combat. In other words, they fought as they were trained.