6 Situational Awareness Tips for Avoiding the Gun Fight

Situational Awareness Banner Photo

How many times have you seen it on a bumper sticker, or on a decal in the back window of a car, or on a T-shirt, an emblem depicting the American flag along with the words:

These Colors Don’t Run”.

These Colours Don't Run
Image via Flickr Commons

The very idea of defending, standing your ground, answering the call of duty is etched on the American psyche.

For many of us, the reason we got into Concealed Carry is because of the desire on our part to defend ourselves and our families, and even our neighbors.

Avoiding a Gun Fight

Having said this it may seem a contradiction to go on to talk about avoiding a fight, but the truth is the best way to defend yourself against threats is to avoid them in the first place. And while it is obvious that this is not always possible, it must be recognized that it is often possible. In fact, if you train yourself, you will find it possible to avoid the vast majority of bad situations.

Common sense will go a long way in helping you achieve this. Taking the time to evaluate a planned outing beforehand will help you judge the potential risk involved and making some common sense decisions may help you avoid disaster.


#1: Erring on the side of Caution

Don’t be afraid to err on the side of caution. We live near Washington DC and I do occasionally go into the DC metro area. But I will at times avoid any area that seems to me to be high-risk if I can reasonably do so. There is no sense putting myself at risk if I don’t have to.

I consider the area where we live to be relatively safe. But there have been times when my wife and I decided to practice avoidance when there was a chance of trouble.

#2: Avoid Situations that are Not Normative for Their Context

One evening, a few years back, we were at our local Wal-Mart during the evening before Halloween. In the store were several young people dressed up to look like Zombies. Some had face paint, some were wearing masks, running around the store. They were not exactly raucous, but I didn’t feel comfortable with the level of disguise and agitation they were exhibiting.

It was something out of the norm. So my wife and I quietly checked out with what we had and left. Nothing happened – but even if it had we were out of the building.


First Responders are taught to run toward the sound of gunfire.

They recognize that this is their duty. But for the rest of us, our goal is to employ the best means possible to secure the safety of ourselves and our loved ones. To that end we need to learn to practice the skill of staying alert, identifying a potential threat early on and, if possible, finding a way to avoid the threat and take ourselves out of danger.

To accomplish this we need to develop a couple of skills. The first is called Situational Awareness.

We do this every day when we drive our car. We watch the road ahead of us, watch our rearview mirror, paying attention to what the other driver is doing. And if we see a situation developing we react, hopefully in time to avoid an accident. But we have to pay attention; if we take up our cell phones to text or make a call, we can quickly lose that awareness of our surroundings and find ourselves in trouble.

#3: Develop a Habit of Watching

The same principle applies to our personal defense.

When we are out in a public place, out among other people, we need to develop the habit of watching. Pay attention to the people in front of you, and behind as well. Note their dress, their demeanor. What are they doing with their hands, where are they looking, how are they dressed[RK1] .

Is it a couple with a child, on a trip to the grocery store or is it a solitary individual. Do they look relaxed or stressed, happy or otherwise?

  • Who is in front of you?
  • Who is behind you?
  • What about dress and demeanor?
  • What are people doing with their hands and where are they looking?

Noting these things can help you get in the habit of being aware of your surroundings.  The point of all of this is that, when something is not right, you will begin to notice it. Your intuition will tell you that this is not ordinary and you better pay attention.

#4: Putting Down your Phone and Keeping Your Head Up

You will find that the urge is to let your guard down. Cell phones are amazing deterrents to developing situational awareness, just look at how many people throughout your day are looking at their iPhone instead of their surroundings. So to develop this skill you have to put down the phone, lift up your head, and observe.

#5: Seeing and Hearing

It is not only a matter of seeing; it involves hearing as well.

Listening for, and paying attention to, noises and sounds that may or may not be unusual; sounds of a commotion, people arguing or scuffling, popping sounds or even explosions. Most of these are insignificant, and in the end most will turn out to not be a threat. But the point is if you heard it, and pay attention to it, you have placed yourself in a better position to respond should there be a danger.

I am hard of hearing so this is challenging to me. But even so, I can judge by the tenor of voices if it is an argument, even if I can’t tell what they are saying. I can’t tell precisely where a noise came from, but once I hear it I can be alerted, head up and scanning around me.

#6: Taking Note of your Physical Surroundings

You also need to develop the habit of taking in your physical surroundings. When entering a building you should note exits and routes which you would use to leave the venue.

At least, have some orientation as to where everything is. This can be harder than you might realize; just think back to how many times you have parked your car at the mall only to have trouble finding it when you come back out.

Try to find clues to help you remember where everything is.

Normalcy Bias

In the first part of our two-part series, Avoiding the Fight, we talked about Situational Awareness. We stressed that we need to develop the habit of maintaining a continual awareness of our surroundings, paying attention to what is going on around us, rather than simply “zoning out” and sinking into mental passivity. This is particularly important when we are out of our home area in unfamiliar territory.

Being aware of our surroundings will help us identify potential threats and react early on. This is the best way of implementing the most effective means of protection; avoiding a threat.

But now that you are aware of your surroundings, how do you recognize a threat? What is it you are looking for? In answering this I am reminded of something I once heard a Speaker say when he was talking about how they train bank tellers to recognize counterfeit money. He said that what they do is have them study real money; what it looks like; what it feels like, even how it smells. Once they become thoroughly familiar with the normal, any paper money that does not look or feel normal sticks out like a sore thumb. The unusual, (or abnormal, if you like) becomes obvious. In a similar way I believe you can train yourself to recognize the out-of-ordinary things going on around you, even when they are somewhat subtle.

There is another element to this that is more difficult to deal with. It is something called Normalcy Bias and it refers to something that is innate to human nature. Simply put, it refers to the tendency we all have to interpret things we are seeing in such a way as to believe it is normal. Or, to put it another way, the tendency to not believe danger is imminent because it simply isn’t the usual thing that happens. It has been defined as;

The phenomenon of not believing in the reality of one’s situation when faced with grave and imminent danger and/or catastrophe, because these circumstances are not typical.”


When faced with a real serious threat, our minds will hesitate, as if to say, “No, this isn’t a danger; he doesn’t want to hurt you, this must be some joke.” The popping noises must be fireworks, this must be part of the show, these people are just playing a trick.

The more serious the threat, the more processing our minds will do to try to make sense of it.This processing can consume precious seconds and often leads to tragic results. Examples can be seen in the videos of the Las Vegas shooting last October where many people in the crowd are simply standing, looking around, not reacting even though the sound of gunfire can be heard. They simply could not make the mental leap as to what was actually happening and, in some cases, had to be forcibly moved into action.

It stands to reason that the more dire the threat, the more difficult it is to overcome your normalcy bias, but I think that with practice you can develop quicker reaction time. The first thing you can do is the mental exercise of acknowledging the possibility of problems. Being realistic about our vulnerabilities can help us wrap our minds around the threats we can face, making the leap from denial to action much shorter.

The second thing you can do is make preparations. Any kind of preparation for an emergency – whether it is making up emergency kits such as bug-out-bags, learning self-defense, training to handle a firearm, or even rehearsing various scenarios – can help you train to respond more quickly to an unexpected crisis.

The take-home lesson is this;

  • Resist the trap of mental passivity,
  • Develop the habit of active awareness of our surroundings,
  • Train yourself to recognize the out-of-the-ordinary,
  • Act swiftly to avoid, if possible, the threat.


When you are in a public place and you find your intuition is telling you that something is not right – when that small voice in the back of your mind is tapping you on your shoulder – you can develop the alertness to do something in time before danger occurs.

You may find yourself and your loved have avoided a dangerous situation.