Lessons Learned At A Convenience Store

This originally appeared in the U.S. Concealed Carry Association’s Concealed Carry Magazine.

Sometimes it takes a close call to really teach you. In June 2008, my wife and I were returning from a trip to Pensacola, Fla., to our home in Texas. On the day we were to return home, we got up very early and began driving back to the airport in New Orleans. We started early because we knew we would have to fuel and return the rental car and be ready to fly on the 6 a.m. flight. My carry gun at that time was a Kahr PM40, a single-stack six-shot auto-pistol. I usually carried a second magazine with an extra six shots, but on that morning I had packed the extra magazine in my locked bags.

When my wife and I entered the metro New Orleans area, we began looking for a gas station where we could fuel up our rental car. It was just before 3:30 a.m. when we spotted a convenience store off the freeway. The store’s exterior and gas pump area were brightly lit with high-powered lights. There were no people in or around the store at the time we pulled up except for the lone clerk inside. It appeared to be a safe and secure place to fuel the rental car.

At the time these events happened, I considered myself to be well-prepared, maybe over-prepared in the area of personal self-defense. (I am retired military and a former police officer.) I foolishly thought I was smart enough to be able to keep a criminal from getting the best of me. I was wrong.

As we pulled up to the gas pumps, my wife and I divided the duties. I would go in and take an urgently needed bathroom break. She would start fueling the car. When I came back out I would finish the fueling while she got to go to the restroom. I had taken no more than three steps toward the store when I heard a male voice from behind me say: “Hey, man, I need some money.” Impossible!

No one could have covered the distance across the brightly lit concrete apron to the pump island without my seeing them or, especially, hearing their footsteps as they approached. As I spun around, I found myself about 15 feet from a 15- to 18-year-old male seated on a bicycle. (Now you know why bicycle cops use bikes; they are fast and silent.)

Because of prior training, I am aware of the technique used by many robbers where they approach their victim and start off by panhandling for money. If confronted by law enforcement, they can claim they were just “asking” for a donation. In most places this is a misdemeanor or ordinance violation, at best. During the “panhandling phase,” they size up the mark. If they feel they have the upper hand and can make a clean getaway, they instantly change from “asking for a handout” to a strong-arm or armed robbery. In a blink of an eye, the dynamic changes from “asking” to threats and even armed violence.

To survive, their victim must instantly adapt to a potential life-and-death situation. I am convinced that this young adult, out at 3 a.m. on a weekday night, hanging around the darkened periphery of a convenience store supposedly trying to get “donations” from complete strangers, was not trying to obtain his Boy Scout merit badge in good citizenship.

At the time, I was carrying my pistol in the small of my back. I reached around and grasped my pistol, preparing to draw if that proved necessary. I used a direct, no-nonsense tone in speaking to him and tried to both verbally and nonverbally convey to him, “Leave me alone.” He kept pressing for money and I kept refusing. I instinctively shifted my position to place myself between him and my wife.

As I changed position, I noticed a vehicle enter the station parking lot and park in front of the convenience store. Almost immediately, I saw two additional young adults traveling at high speed on bikes enter the lighted parking lot from the dark via a side entrance. I realized then that these “panhandlers” were coming from a hill outside of the area lit by the high-intensity lights. They were in the shadows, where people in the lighted parking lot looking out into the dark couldn’t see them, and yet they could clearly see everything happening in the lot from their concealed position.

Using gravity and their superior position high on the hill to build speed, they were able to quickly and silently surprise their prey (as they had done so effectively with me). The two bicyclists flanked the car that had just stopped in the parking lot and both juveniles moved in on the man who exited the vehicle. The young adult who had been pressing me for money moved over to assist his two comrades. I stayed with my wife until the car had been fueled.

We then entered the convenience store and each used the restroom. When I opened the door from the men’s restroom, my wife was standing in front of the open door with her back pressed up against the hallway wall. Her hands were flat against the wall and her eyes were wide with fear. Her posture reminded me of someone trying to hide by melting into the wall. I asked her what was wrong and she said, “There are 10 of them!”

I looked down the hallway toward the main part of the store and, sure enough, my wife was right. I could see an apparent gang — 10 members with their 10 bicycles — parked in a row out in front of the store’s glass windows. I don’t know for a fact if they were armed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of them were. It was then that it hit me. If my “panhandler” had made the transition to armed robber and I had to engage him with defensive fire, I could have very well been facing nine more potentially armed members of the gang and I had a total of six shots available to deal with them!

Lessons Learned

Regardless of how good you feel about your skills, don’t let your arrogance or high self-opinion blind you to the fact that there could be someone out there who is smarter than you, faster than you or who has set a cleverer trap for you than you anticipated. Prepare for the worst by regular realistic training; and then, if the worst happens, you will be ready. Pride really does go before a fall.

An empty gun makes a poor club and an even worse self-defense tool. Make sure you have enough ammunition to deal with the anticipated threat and even those hidden threats you may not anticipate. Too much is better than too little.

In a self-defense shooting, you become a “bullet magnet” for the gunfire being aimed in your direction. Fight your natural instinct to shield your family members with your body. Keep your family members and loved ones away from you so that they will not be accidentally struck by projectiles intended for you.

Not all criminals are stupid. Maintain situational awareness by watching for and anticipating the well-prepared trap.

Not every self-defense situation will be one-on-one; prepare for a potential disparity of force where the odds are stacked against you. Life isn’t fair and that is especially true of situations requiring armed self-defense.

Following this incident, I now regularly participate in several formal self-defense training events each year. I have switched from a single-stack pocket pistol to a full-sized double-stack defensive pistol. I carry a minimum of 26 rounds on me at all times. I now realize that luck was the major determining factor in our surviving this situation. If something like this were to ever happen again, I intend that preparation will make the difference rather than luck. Are you prepared?

–Kevin O. Townsend



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Kevin O. Townsend