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Self Defense/Triggers and Tailor Made


QUESTION: Hello Marc,

It's Howard, the Corrections Officer from Florida.

I am thinking about the concept of triggers mentioned in one of your books, the concept of a predetermined automatic self-defense response to being attacked, the goal being to End Violence Now!  

You mentioned two kinds of triggers that I renamed 1)nonlethal and 2)lethal.  The nonlethal trigger is the automatic response to a non lethal attack and the signs of it's approach, using non lethal force to stop the attack.  The lethal trigger is when the non lethal defense is resisted and the attacker persists with seemingly unshakable resolve to gravely harm me physically.

Now, at the jail, my non lethal trigger/defense is pepper spray.  (In addition to tazers,DT, and back up.  I focus on one trigger for the sake of ease in times of stress.)  My "lethal trigger" would be my big flash light, which I would use like a baton, having been trained with batons.  On the streets, my non lethal trigger is civilian pepper spray (that is as strong as my work pepper spray,) and my gun, both of which I am trained.  

My question:  If I understand you correctly, is it safe to assume that if the nonlethal trigger is effectively used, and the attacker not only resists it, but pursues the attack, he/she DEFINITELY INTENDS ME grave bodily harm or death, leading of course to the use of the lethal trigger?  It seems like you are saying this in your book, but I want to be explicit.  (Though this may seem a silly question to some, intent seems tricky, legally speaking.)

I know that situations/circumstances dictate that interpretation.  For me, for example, in the jail, if an inmate attacks an officer, and the officer didn't somehow provoke it, then there is usually something very wrong with the inmate.  He is either extremely violent and looking fot the first excuse and person to be violent with, or there is some mental issue. Either way, I assume that if an inmate is determined to use violence with an officer after a non lethal trigger, from my past observations, he's going to try to hurt the officer very badly.  So I would word my use of force report something like this:

"When I observed the inmate's continued and determined attempt to attack me after being pepper sprayed in the eyes, nose, and mouth, based upon my past experiences with inmate violence on officers, I determined the possibility of the threat of grave bodily harm or death.  Having observed this kind of determination in the past, and the injuries sustained by officers in these attacks, I decided to escalate my defense...."  etc, etc.  

Of course much more would need to be said in terms of what the inmate ACTUALLY AND OBSERVABLY DID to make me feel my life or body was in grave danger, but I hope you get the jist of what I'm saying.  

In summary, in the jail as an example, I assume that any and every violent attack of an inmate, if they forcefully resist the non lethal trigger, becomes a lethal attack on me.  I assume this because in my experience, if inmates attack officers, there is usually over kill. (They usually build an immunity and resistance to pepper spray/tazers any way.  And once they've made the decision to attack an officer, expecting these non lethal defenses in the beginning, they are not only ready to "fight through" the spray/tazer, but they either have a shank ready for the officer, or they simply planned to beat the officer to a pulp.)   Let me know what you think.

My second question:
In light of what I just said about triggers, and some of the things you mentioned in your book about triggers and fundamental goals of self defense (using gravity and taking balance, structure, or both for example) it seems most practical to me to know the fundamental principles and adapt them to how I move, accordiing to the situations most probable, in and outside of the jail.  This seems to include the use of my lethal and nonlethal triggers.  Therefore, when being trained with my triggers or DT, I should test the training by whether they achieve fundamentals (range, structure, body movement, gravity use/physics, taking balance or structure or both) and then "tweak" the training to fit how I move at that moment in my life, so that I can effectively end violence now, in and out of the jail.  Please elaborate on this line of reasoning, unless you think it needs no further elaboration.

Thank you for your time.

ANSWER: You're kind of missing the point with 'triggers.'  It's not 'tools' it's you.

You've heard of the 'gold standard?' Think of a 'go standard.'  

But even then, it's 123. If I see this kind of stuff, I go at 'level one' (control).  If I see this I go at 'level two' (injury). If this is coming at me it's level... 'All mighty, all mighty, let the apocalypse begin.'

Each level has implied goals and tasks. While the over arching goal of all of them, is to end the threat now, the sub-goals (non-injurious control/injurious control/lethal) dictate the level of force you use.

I'm going to take a page out of Gordon R Dickson's "Tactics of Mistake."  The lead character is talking about teaching mercenaries both a battle language and new tactics. He tells them there are about 20,000 words and someone complains that's too many. He explains that the tactics/techniques are like a language. The 'grammer' of the situation/command tells you what the best answer is to the 'unfinished sentence.'

Example: The cat jumped on the ...

With all the possible words you could finish that sentence with, it's actually only a small selection of words that make sense. For example nouns. ('The cat jumped on the driving' makes no sense.) Then those nouns are very limited. ('The cat jumped on the ocean wave' or 'the cat jumped on the particle beam' again, don't make sense). The noun also has to be 'real' (The cat jumped on the unicorn.') Depending on which room or location (inside or outside) also dictates the options. ('The cat jumped onto the counter' implies kitchen)

I give you this sci-fi/grammar lesson so you can see how your response level is built in to the situation.

He's coming at me with...
bare hands,
a club
a knife

Yeah, intent is a legally tricky word. That's because we are not 'psychic' and can't read someone's mind. However, jeopardy, 'acting in a manner consistent known to create danger' is pretty much a weasel term and people don't react as well.

Personally I stick with 'intent' because I back it up with unconscious physiological signals (body language) AND jeopardy. So it's not me being psychic, it's what he's doing combined with the physiological condition he's displaying.  Gee, pin point pupils, pale flesh, snarling and lunging at me with a knife... I do believe he intends to cause death or grievous bodily injury.

Hence, he's going to get a level three trigger.

Reframe your second question in light of this new information

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------


By my over explanation, I complicated my question.  But I do get the point about triggers.  I wasn't thinking of pepperspray/guns/tools as triggers.  I meant them as tools in terms of me being the trigger, in the context of our defensive tactics matrix escalations/responses:
1.  passive resistance--officer response:  command, spray, etc.
2.  active resistance--
3.  aggressive resistance
4.  aggravated resistance.

What I was asking, without the complications and over explanations, is whether you agree that if an inmate "fights through" a non lethal officer response (like pepper spray, tazers, etc.), and seems hell bent on physically attacking an officer, it is safe to assume said inmates intends grave bodily harm or death?  I gave my explanations because I've observed that when inmates attack guards physically, they usually won't do so unless provoked, mentally challenged/psychotically violent, or a combination.  And when they do, there is going to be overkill.  

I thought of "triggers" in the context of one of the chapter summaries in your book, not as tools.  You spoke of having "two triggers," one where you focus on taking the guy down using AIs, and one where the AIs clearly aren't working.

I use  a real simple scale I picked up from Rory Miller ... If you're losing you're not using enough force.

Then I modify it with... If it ain't working, do something else.

Those two basic rules cover a lot of options -- especially when a lower level of force isn't working.

The problem is when something isn't working, a lot of folks just try to do more of it. This either through repetition AND/OR doing it harder (e.g. hit him again and harder).  If the guy fights through the pepperspray -- especially if he's charging -- it's time to use plan B. Plan B is not spray him again.

I have two things I tell folks. First is that "Violence -- overwhelmingly comes with instructions to avoid it" (e.g. "Get out of my cell." Even asocial violence is normally accompanied by instructions (e.g. give me your keys). If you didn't get instructions before the attack happens, the shit is serious. That is one of my 'triggers'

If you have an inmate coming at you, yeah, it's serious. The question is HOW serious?  

Active resistance ... at the bare minimum.  But even then was he talking shit and threatening you before he lunged at you? Was there warning and escalation? Then yeah, you're most likely to be in one fuck all of a hard fight.

Or did it come out of nowhere? Always assume an ambush is meant to be lethal and all of your surprises will be happy. That doesn't mean your response needs to be automatically lethal, but the threat DOES have to be neutralized immediately. Whatever it is, it MUST end now.

In ambush situations, I don't muck about much with trying to be lethal. What I am aiming for is immediate incapacitation. I need to immediately remove his ability to continue to attack me.  Now often that results in serious injury, death or unconsciousness. The guy bushwhacks me, I piledrive his head into the ground and jump back to see what the hell is going on (like if he has friends.)

This ties back into how much force I need to use. If the dude is unconscious on the ground in under two seconds, I don't have to keep on escalating my use of force. My problem then becomes, backing it down. Also it doesn't matter if he was trying to be lethal to me, he can't do it anymore.

Here's something else to consider. A lot of people are willing to kill you, but they aren't real committed to dying in the process. A whole lot of lethal 'intent' evaporates when they discover at the VERY best, they're going with you.  Coming at you hard costs. I've encountered a number of people who were more than willing to kill me until they found themselves laying on the floor with broken bones. Then getting up and finishing the job didn't seem quite so important.

THAT'S where stepping back is so important. Not only will it keep you from getting nailed by his accomplices, but it keeps you safer. Both from scaring the guy into having to fight for his life (and damaging you in the process) AND for keeping you from crossing the line into excessive force.  

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Marc MacYoung


Street self-defense, crime avoidance and personal safety


I grew up in the streets of Los Angeles in 'situational poverty.' I have dealt with criminals and violent people all my life -- both personally and professionally. I have written 15 books and 6 videos on surviving street violence. I was originally published under the name Marc Animal MacYoung. (Animal was my street name). I've taught police and military both internationally and within the US. I've lectured at universities, academies and done countless TV, radio, newspaper and magazine interviews. I'm a professional speaker on crime avoidance and personal safety. And I am an expert witness recognized by the US court system. My bio is at My abridged CV (Curriculum Vitae) is at

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Read "In the Name of Self-Defense" the streets don't give a Ph.D in scuffle.

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