In my last article, we discussed steps you can use to decrease your chances of being targeted for a home invasion. While preventative steps can reduce the risk of your home being picked as an easy target, a reduced risk is not the same as no risk. If prevention fails, you must be ready to respond.
The following cases will present different tactics used to respond to home invasions, and I will discuss lessons that we can all take away from each case. Then I will go over a few more concrete tips specific to the armed response like gun selection, target identification, and mitigating the risk of bullet over-penetration. Let’s start, however, with these case studies and find out what they can teach us.
Case Study 1: Road Rage Turned Home Invasion
Ed had exchanged words with another motorist during a road rage incident. The other driver followed Ed to his home but drove by without further engagement. That night, Ed awoke to the sounds of someone on the lower level of his two-story home moving items around. Ed got his shotgun and went to investigate. Ed’s house was laid out so that all of the bedrooms were on the second floor and he believed all of his family members to be on the second floor.
“He was not concerned that the suspect was going to get a weapon and return, but rather he felt disrespected and needed to assert his dominance in the situation.”
As Ed started down the stairs, an unknown male began to walk up the stairs, holding a bag in one hand. Ed recognized him as one of the vehicle occupants from the earlier road rage incident and he ordered the suspect to get out of his house. The man responded by cursing at Ed, but he was compliant and turned around and began to leave. Ed closed the distance with the intent to march the suspect out of the house at gunpoint. While turning a corner, the suspect suddenly turned on Ed and they began to struggle over the shotgun. During the struggle, the shotgun discharged and struck Ed’s calf. The suspect then fled.
Ed’s response to this home invasion was going well until he let his ego get the best of him. He made the choice to not shoot based on the suspect being apparently unarmed and initially compliant, but when the suspect cursed at him, he let his anger and ego prod him into a display of dominance.
Ed’s own statement showed he was not concerned that the suspect was going to get a weapon and return, but rather he felt disrespected and needed to assert his dominance in the situation. In doing so, he left the stairwell, which had a significant tactical advantage in that his family was not in any line of fire and the suspects could only approach from one direction. He was unaware if there were more suspects when he went down the stairs (in fact, there was one other suspect who fled at the initial confrontation), and he gave up the advantage of the range his firearm offered him by getting within grappling distance of the suspect.
A better approach once the “no shoot” decision was initially made would have been to continue to hold the position on the stairs and have a family member call 911. Ed could watch the stairs from a tactically superior position until law enforcement arrived, and they could verify the suspects were no longer on the lower level. If you are ever in this position, be sure to inform dispatch you are armed, what you look like, and that you will put down the weapon when officers make themselves known to you.
Case Study 2: Concealed Carry at Home
Ernie and Becky ran a small business from their home, and it was rumored to be cash heavy. A suspect entered the front room and initially pretended to be a potential customer. Once he was close to Becky, he grabbed her and forced her to the floor at gunpoint. He then demanded to know where the safe was. Becky told him her husband had the key and she called out for Ernie.
“Because Ernie concealed the weapon, the suspect did not realize he was armed until it was too late to react.”
From his wife’s voice, Ernie knew something was wrong and drew a small revolver from his pocket before going to see what was wrong. He then crossed his arms across his chest, concealing the small revolver behind his upper arm. Ernie entered the room to see Becky on the floor and an unknown suspect holding a gun to her head, demanding the key to the safe. Ernie shot the suspect in the head before the suspect realized Ernie had a weapon. The suspect was instantly disabled and Becky was unharmed.
On-body carry is always accessible, while “stash guns” are not. I’ve responded to multiple crime scenes where guns were hidden under tables, on bookcases, and under mattresses, yet the victim could not access one in time to make a difference. I’ve also, unfortunately, responded to many instances of children who’ve shot themselves with a “stash gun” that the parent thought was hidden.
Particularly if your home lacks a layered security system that will slow an intruder down, carrying your normal carry pistol around the home can make a lot of sense. If it is not something you regularly do, you may want to consider it, especially if you live in a high-risk home, like Ernie and Becky. Because Ernie concealed the weapon, the suspect did not realize he was armed until it was too late to react. Keeping the gun concealed also gave Ernie the option of dealing with situations that did not require a firearm without revealing that he was armed.
A home defense gun is only useful if it is readily accessible. Having a bedside gun at night (properly secured from children if that’s a concern in your home) and an on-body carry gun during the day is an excellent approach.
Case Study 3: Unintentional Home Invasion
Howard was awoken to violent banging on his apartment door. He quickly retrieved his bedside pistol, told his girlfriend to call the police, and went into the hallway that faced his front door. Howard called out to the person beating on his door to go away and that they were calling the police. The beating on the door intensified and the door gave way. A large unknown male ran into the residence screaming incoherently. Howard ordered the suspect to stay back and to get out or he’d shoot, holding the gun on the intruder. The intruder flipped over Howard’s couch then got face down on the floor, continuing to scream and to flail his limbs. Howard held the intruder at gunpoint until police arrived, and the intruder was taken into custody.
“While Howard may have been legally justified in using lethal force, he would have violated his own ethics and would have had to deal with that emotional distress.”
The investigation quickly revealed that the suspect was a severely autistic teenager who had somehow locked himself out of his own apartment, which had the same number as Howard’s but in a neighboring building. The resulting confusion caused him to panic. In his statement, Howard said he was scared but realized something wasn’t quite right. At first, he believed the intruder to be high on narcotics and said he would have fired if the suspect continued to approach him. But while the intruder was compliant, Howard decided to just observe and be ready with deadly force. He was extremely grateful he did not have to live with taking the life of an autistic teen who meant him no harm. While Howard may have been legally justified in using lethal force, he would have violated his own ethics and would have had to deal with that emotional distress.
Howard reacted very well to the situation he was presented with. In an attempt to stop the home invasion before the door was even opened, Howard verbally announced that he was home and that the police had been notified. Once the suspect entered the home, Howard then made a threat assessment, elected to not shoot based on his observations and instincts, and continued to observe the intruder. He maintained his distance so he would have time to react to any change.
Howard was able to resolve this situation without violating his moral boundaries, but it’s also important to understand where the legal boundaries are. Know your state’s laws about use of force, including deadly force. The heat of the moment is not the time to be wondering about which of your options are legal.
Preparing for an Armed Response
These stories reveal a lot about the “software” side of the equation — the way the people involved in a home invasion thought and reacted based on their circumstances. But the “hardware” can matter as well, including the type of firearm you use, the ammo you put in it, and even the layout of your home.
Long Gun or Handgun?
The first debate is usually handgun versus shotgun versus carbine. The answer to this question is different for everyone, and each type of gun has its strengths and weaknesses. Long guns are taken from victims more often than handguns, as they are easier to grab and more difficult to employ in tight confines. Particularly in apartments, I’ve had several victims lose their shotgun to an intruder during a struggle.
Handguns are often quicker to employ and easier to maneuver and retain but do not have the same terminal ballistics as long guns. It’s also more challenging to get good hits with a handgun under stress if one isn’t properly trained. Handguns are easier to use one-handed, which can be a factor if you are injured, grappling with a suspect, or escorting children to safety. I would advise choosing a weapon you are familiar with, that has strengths matching your situation, and that you can employ effectively in the space your home allows.
Over-penetration and Ammo Selection
Regarding ammunition choice, one issue I often hear people discussing is over-penetration — the concern that a round missing the intended target will then hit an unintended victim after traveling through thin interior or even exterior walls. The concern for over-penetration usually leads to the justification of sub-standard ammunition selection, like birdshot in shotguns, for example.
Birdshot discharged at anything other than contact distance is rarely physically incapacitating. I’ve seen countless examples of people hit with birdshot at very close distances with pellets barely in the skin after penetrating denim, and completely failing to penetrate a leather coat. Despite claims to the contrary, birdshot does not “act like a slug” at close distances.
For handguns, ultra-lightweight gimmick ammunition is sometimes mentioned as the cure for over penetration. A pistol round that won’t penetrate drywall won’t reliably penetrate your attacker either. Soft point 5.56 rifle ammo does mitigate the problem of interior wall penetration to some degree. My department issues a 55-grain jacketed soft point, and it’s been very effective in terms of penetration, tissue destruction, and rapid incapacitation of the intended target. Additionally, it starts to tumble and fragment when it hits a barrier, reducing the dangers of over-penetration.
Rather than relying on ammunition to prevent over-penetration, I would encourage you to go through your house today and think of safe fields of fire for both the occupants of the home and for neighbors. Remember, we live in a 3D world, so kneeling and firing upward at an intruder may create a safer field of fire than standing. A strategically placed bookcase full of books or a heavy wooden dresser may create an adequate backstop. Apartment dwellers may need to think about this harder than someone living in the suburbs in a brick house or a rural homestead with no neighbors for several miles.
Finally, don’t forget light. Target identification is crucial, and sometimes this can only be accomplished by visual confirmation. We tend to think in terms of portable light, such as a weapon mounted light or handheld flashlight (both of which have pros and cons that are beyond the scope of this article), but why not consider ambient light as well?
Home invaders overwhelmingly use a door as an entry point, with windows being a distant second. You can map out likely routes a home invader would take upon entering your home and install lighting that forces them through a well-lit area while you remain in the dark. I have dimmable recessed lights installed in the room immediately outside my bedroom. At night, I simply leave the light on at a level that’s sufficient to identify anyone crossing that room but insufficient to cast light into my bedroom, allowing me to identify a target before they are sure of where I am.
We’ve all seen media accounts of parents shooting children who were sneaking back in the house thinking they were a robber. Don’t be that guy. Even if you don’t have children, Howard’s story above shows that not every intruder has criminal intent.
Using these tips and the advice on “target hardening” from my last article, you can develop your own plan for avoiding and responding to a home invasion. Be sure to include your family in this plan. Just like preparing for a fire, everyone should know what the plan is and where to meet afterward if you’re separated. By taking some cues from both the mistakes and successes of people who have experienced a home invasion in the past, it’s not hard to put together a plan to keep you and your family safe.