I believe all of us can imagine a situation where we would be able to shoot someone. Sometimes these images might mirror a scene from a horror movie. The axe murderer who has been terrorizing the city has been seen in your neighborhood tonight. In the month following his release from the asylum to date, seventy-three people have been killed by this maniac hitting them with his axe.

There is a sudden crash at the back door and you grab your pistol as you run to investigate. When you get to the kitchen, there he is, his axe in hand. Your young children are in the living room behind you, terrified by what is happening. The maniac calmly says that he is tired of killing only adults, and after he kills you, he will kill all of your children, then laughs a little. He raises his axe overhead, and starts moving toward you.

In this circumstance, using the images I describe, I don’t think many of us would hesitate to bring that firearm up, take aim, pull the trigger, and keep pulling the trigger until either we ran out of bullets, or he was lying on the ground unable to harm us or our family. It is clearly a situation where we are not only justified in using deadly force, some might even say it is our duty to shoot him – to protect the rest of the community.

I suspect following this incident, most of us would not only have very little guilt, we would probably feel proud that our actions had not only saved our own lives, but the lives of our children, and quite possibly the lives of others as well. The only problem: rarely will we be confronted with a situation or circumstances as clear as the imaginary one I describe above.

I’m a nice guy. If you met me, you’d probably think so as well. In general, I’m not the kind of guy you would want to shoot. I don’t fit the mental image you have of an axe murderer. However, as firearms trainer Clint Smith notes, I’d bet that given five minutes, I could get you angry enough that you would punch me right in the face. Given ten minutes, I could probably get you angry enough at me that you would be willing to shoot me. The problem is most bad guys won’t let you take time for your anger to build – you will only have seconds to make that decision and act. They also may not fit the image you have of someone you may need to shoot. You’ll need to be prepared in advance to overcome these hurdles.

I was a cop for many years, including several years working on an undercover narcotics task force. My experience says if you choose to carry a firearm for self-defense – you may never need to even draw it from your holster. I can tell you that if you do draw your firearm, that alone may be enough to stop a threat, and you may not need to do anything more. I can also tell you drawing a gun may not be enough, you might need to shoot someone to save your life or protect your family.

In my career, I have encountered some very scary people. I can tell you there are people out there who will shoot you or beat you half to death only for the $10 you have in your wallet. I can tell you there are people out there who will do horrible things to your family, while forcing you to watch. With the headlines in the news of late, I suspect that I don’t need to remind you of the possibility someone with an ideological agenda will be willing to shoot you or the person next to you – only to raise the body count and increase the news coverage of their actions.

You know the reality about the criminal mindset that exists out there. But how do you make the individual and personal path from doubt to conviction: moving from uncertainty, to an assured pre-disposition that you will take action to defend yourself or others without hesitation. First, don’t limit yourself to a particular mental picture of what a person who will harm you looks like.

The person who is willing to bring harm into your world, may be tall or short, thin or thick, clean shaven or with facial hair. They may be old or young – maybe young enough to not yet be eligible to get a driver’s license. They could be male or female, and based on how they are dressed you may not even be able to tell. If you can see well enough to tell, the tone of their skin may be light or dark. However the race or religion with which they identify you won’t know or care about at the time, your focus being only on your own survival.

What about the moral aspect – harming another? Remember that using excessive force beyond what is needed, plotting to intentionally harm someone, or having malice or bad intent in your actions – has always been considered wrong. Legally, in civil courts, and in the religions of which I am familiar, defending yourself against someone who tries to harm you is acceptable. Some things in the human experience never change – when someone is about to hurt you, remember the words of Marcus Tullius Cicero from over 2,000 years ago:

“There exists a law, not written down anywhere, but inborn in our hearts, a law which comes to us not by training or custom or reading, a law which has come to us not from theory but from practice, not by instruction but by natural intuition. I refer to the law which lays down that, if our lives are endangered by plots or violence or armed robbers or enemies, any and every method of protecting ourselves is morally right.”

Another way to help get you in the proper mindset: follow news reports of criminal & terrorist attacks, then use mental visualization and imagine yourself being in those situations. What would you have done? Continue to “what-if” as you go through your day to day business. Stay alert, watch your surroundings, and use what you see to practice planning for the worst. A martial arts instructor I trained with used to say: “Every time I see someone walking toward me, I may be smiling and nodding at them on the outside, but inside I have already made three plans on how I’m gonna kick their ass…”

Ask yourself, “What would I do if the guy who just walked in pulls a gun to rob the place?” Where is the nearest exit? Can I get out safely? Or might I be trapped and have to defend myself? Is this guy alone? Or can I identify a partner or back-up criminal? Is he just going to grab the money and run out – or might he (and his back-up partner) move from just stealing cash to harming someone? Might their behavior, or layout of the store lead you to believe they will demand patron’s wallets and valuables? Maybe lock them in a storage room, maybe shoot those who have seen their faces? Each of these developments change what options you have available.

To live in today’s society, you must accept the fact that you may need to use force to defend yourself, if you carry a firearm, you may need to shoot someone to save your life or the life of another. The more you plan, the more you prepare, the more you expect something to happen, the better able you will be to do the right thing, when the unthinkable situation happens – and you are in the middle of it.