Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part IV. SURVIVE
Make no mistake about what we do here,” snarled Ed Head, the operations manager of Gunsite. “This is a fighting school.” Sitting in front of him were forty gun-wielding students: soldiers, sheriffs, corrections officers, and me.
“This will be a life-changing experience,” he continued. “Most of you are going to leave on Friday a different person. You’re going to be better trained than ninety-five percent of all law enforcement officers in the United States.” He waited to let the fact sink in. “And you’ll develop a different kind of confidence that comes from the ability to take care of yourself.”
His last words—“the ability to take care of yourself”—were just what I needed to hear, especially after signing six pages of waivers promising not to sue them if I was accidentally shot in the head.
For the next two hours, the rangemasters, Charlie McNeese and Ken Campbell, indoctrinated us into the mental spirit of battle. “You don’t rise to the occasion,” McNeese lectured. “You default to your level of training. When the stress hits, you will only be half as good as your best day of recent training.”
McNeese appeared to be in his late fifties. With his gray beard, genial Southern accent, and toothy smile, he looked like a dangerous Colonel Sanders. “Excitement won’t kill you,” he concluded, “but surprise will.”
This was the kind of knowledge I needed. It seemed more useful and exciting than knowing the inflation rate and the price of gold and most of what they taught at the Sovereign Society—perhaps because McNeese’s words were meant for fighters, not runners, and I still knew nothing about fighting.
After the lecture, we picked up a thousand rounds of ammunition and drove down a dirt road to an outdoor gun range. A sign posted in a shed there read in big black letters, I’D RATHER BE WHACKING TANGOS.
I asked another student, a squat police officer who seemed physically unable to change the shape of his mouth into anything other than a straight line, what a Tango was. “A terrorist,” he replied, as if it were obvious (which perhaps it was). He didn’t speak another word to me for the rest of the week. I soon earned the derision of the rest of the class by asking the instructor to help me put on my gun belt. It was clear I would be the slowest student there.
I may have had book smarts, but I was sorely lacking in motor skills, practical knowledge, and common sense. In a survival situation, every other person here would most likely outlast me. Perhaps the reason I was so worried about the draft when I was a teenager was that I knew I’d die. If I was on patrol and someone yelled “duck,” my head would be the last to go down and the first to get shot.
The only other person struggling with the class was a tank of a woman named Stephanie, a navy officer who was being deployed to Iraq the following month. Her problem was the Beretta nine-millimeter pistol she was using. Not only did it seem to under-perform against every other weapon in class, but it was constantly jamming and misfiring.
When I asked why she was using the Beretta, she explained that it’s the gun the government issues to most of the U.S. military. In fact, she complained, the government had just bought 25,000 more Beretta M9s. Every time her pistol jammed in class after that, I imagined it happening in an actual gunfight in Iraq.
Other than Stephanie, I was the only other student with a nine-millimeter gun. Everyone else had larger, more powerful .45s, mostly 1911 Colts, which were favored by the late Colonel Jeff Cooper, the severe, charismatic shooting star who founded Gunsite in 1976.
“Why do we carry forty-fives?” McNeese replied when I asked about the gun. “Because they don’t make forty-sixes.”
At Gunsite, we didn’t just learn how to draw a pistol, shoot rapid-fire, quickly clear gun malfunctions, speed-reload, and hit targets at night. We learned the science of killing.
Here, there were no such things as bullet holes. They were called leak points. As McNeese taught us, “The bigger the bullet, the more fluid goes out and the more air comes in.”
As Campbell taught us, “When a guy hits the ground, the fight isn’t over. He’s dropping because the hole in him is causing his blood pressure to drop. But when he’s down, his blood pressure will rise again and this means he could still be a threat.”
As an instructor named Mike taught us, “If you shoot him in the skull, the skull is a hard thing—the bullet could just deflect and he’ll still be standing. You actually want to get him in the eye”.
While Mike lectured, I looked around and realized that many of the people there had either killed before or were preparing to kill—and without remorse. In their world, there seemed to be two kinds of people: good guys and bad guys. Good guys should have guns; bad guys shouldn’t. And they were the good guys.
It wasn’t too difficult to figure this out. One student, a former Green Beret named Evan, was wearing a shirt that read I’M THE GOOD GUY.
Personally, I don’t believe in good guys and bad guys, as compelling as those stories may be to children. There are no bad guys—just people who do bad things. Most of them aren’t trying to be bad. They think they’re the good guys; got stuck in a bad situation and lost control; or have something wrong with their heads that’s a product of the way they were raised, the drugs they’re using, or the chemistry in their brains. Most of them think they’re a hero to someone. And, sadly, they’re right—just as every good guy is a villain to someone.
In a Fliesian world, there is no black and white—only gray.
Midway through the week, we were taken to a shoot house. It was a building with multiple rooms filled with human replicas. Some were armed criminals, others innocent civilians. The instructors taught us how to open doors, look around corners, and move through a house where armed intruders are present. Then they sent us into the building one by one to take out the bad guys.
Though it was a simulation, my adrenaline kicked in instantly. I pushed the front door open, then quickly backed away with my gun in the ready position. I saw a man in the corridor in a leather jacket, holding something shiny and menacing in his right hand. I gave him what they called the Gunsite salute: two bullets aimed at the heart, one at the head. When I entered the corridor, though, I discovered that what was in his hands wasn’t actually a gun—it was a beer bottle.
For the rest of the exercise, I was shaken. All I could think was, if this had been real life, I would have just killed an innocent person. I suppose that was one of my problems with guns.
“You know what your problem is?” McNeese asked afterward.
“Nope.” He touched the tip of his index finger to the middle joint of his thumb to make a small circle. I stared at it a second, wondering what it was supposed to symbolize.
“Your sphincter,” he informed me.
“Your sphincter. Every time you shoot, it gets like this.” He narrowed the circle formed by his thumb and index finger. “It gets tight and itty-bitty. And when your sphincter gets tight, do you know what happens?”
“I can’t shoot?”
“You can’t even think. When your sphincter gets that tight, it cuts off the blood to your brain. And that cuts off the circulation to your muscles. So your shooting is all over the place.” He gave me a friendly smack on the shoulder, hard enough to throw me off balance, as if to prove a point. “If you have a more relaxed muscle, body, and mind, you’re going to perform at a higher level than when you’re extremely uptight. So you got to learn to relax, son. The sphincter will mess you up.”
I watched as the next student entered the shoot house. Since he was a police officer, I figured he’d do better than me. But he shot the innocent man as well.
“You just got yourself a lawsuit,” McNeese told him.
“Not if I fix it in the report,” the officer joked.
As a journalist, I’d spent most of my adult life interviewing individuals these people considered the bad guys. This was the first time I’d been on the other side of the law—with those whose job it was to uphold it. From what I saw, though, there was little difference between the two groups. It seemed to reaffirm one of my Fliesian beliefs: that people will get away with what they can.
In the evenings, I took an extra class that would earn me a permit to carry a concealed weapon in thirteen states. According to the teacher, a grizzled shooter with a missing finger, courts had affirmed that neither the state nor the police have a duty to protect citizens. “As individuals,” he told us, “we have a duty to protect ourselves.”
His words echoed the epiphany about being responsible for my own safety that I’d had during the blackout in St. Kitts. Shihan Clayton had definitely sent me to the right place.
Of course, the instructor went a little further, as most people tend to do. After teaching us how to keep from incriminating ourselves after shooting an intruder (hang up immediately after giving the 911 operator your address and don’t say a word to police officers without an attorney present), he concluded: “If I kill someone, you won’t find me sitting there in my lounge chair with my gun, smiling and telling myself that I done good. I’ll be shaking, I’ll squeeze a tear out of my eye, and at my age I’ll say I have chest pains. The smile will be on the inside.”
While listening to him field questions from students about where they were allowed to bring their concealed weapons, I realized most of the people here, even though they seemed tough on the surface, actually lived in fear. They owned guns because they were scared—of gangs in the streets, of robbers in the convenience stores, of burglars in their homes. In their minds, lurking just outside their lives, waiting for the right moment to attack them, were all kinds of men, women, and even animals belonging to a rampant, growing subspecies known as the bad guys.
One of the reasons they preferred .45s was because they were worried a bad guy who was high on PCP might not be stopped by a smaller nine-millimeter bullet. They didn’t like being prohibited from carrying guns on planes, in case they were held hostage by hijackers. And they didn’t like gun restrictions in national parks, because that left them open to attacks from bears. In short, they hated any business or law that regulated firearms—because without their firearms, they believed, they weren’t safe.
Yet when I asked even the most dogged marksman there if he’d ever used his gun in civilian life, the answer was almost always “no” or “almost.” But as easy as it was to find flaws in their logic, ultimately these gun enthusiasts were just like me: they were survivalists. And they wanted to be prepared for every eventuality, no matter how unlikely.