Massad Ayoob’s MAG-40 Course – A Humanitarian Approach to Armed Citizenship

I recently completed the Massad Ayoob Group’s MAG-40 course, “Armed Citizens’ Rules of Engagement,” co-sponsored by Derby Guns of Scottsdale (shout out to Kate and Jim Kreuger!). This is the course Ayoob used to teach under the auspices of the Lethal Force Institute in New Hampshire. (A review of the LFI course written in 1999 for the Boston Phoenix is remarkably close to my experience at MAG-40.)

MAG40-2012-AZCourse description: “an intensive 40-hour program encompassing the legal and ethical parameters of the use of lethal force and deadly weapons by private citizens in defense of themselves and others within the mantle of their protection, including the use of the defensive handgun under stress with an overall emphasis on safety and fast, accurate shot placement.”

Approximately 60% of class time is spent in the classroom, and 40% on the gun range. On the final day, proficiency in learning the classroom lessons is tested with a 25 question written exam, and proficiency with the handgun is tested with a 60 round police-style qualification course.

In my analysis, the instruction breaks down into 6 distinct but related topics (NOT presented in this order in class):

I. An ethical perspective on being an armed citizen.
II. When can an armed citizen use lethal force against another person and be found legally justified?
III. What should an armed citizen do in advance of an event requiring the use of lethal force to prepare for the event?
IV. What should an armed citizen do during such an event?
V. What should an armed citizen do after such an event?
VI. Use of defensive handgun under stress (mostly taught on the range)

Alot of people have reviewed the course on-line, so I don’t know how much I will post about parts II-VI. The part that fascinated me most and that I think is most unique about MAG training is the first part. Below is my summary of the materials presented throughout the course that speak to Massad Ayoob’s ethical perspective on being an armed citizen — what I call his humanitarian approach to armed citizenship.

(Note that in what follows I am summarizing my understanding of Ayoob’s perspective. Although I personally agree with alot of what he says, my intent here is not to endorse this perspective. Ayoob has also not reviewed what I have written here for accuracy. I apologize in advance for any misunderstandings or misattributions on my part. I welcome and will make any corrections necessary.)

An Ethical Perspective on Armed Citizenship
Although Massad Ayoob has a final in-class section of the MAG-40 course that he describes as “the mandatory ethics part” (viewing a video, “LFI Principles” from a series shot in 1990), in fact the entire course is an ethics course. He has been teaching this course since 1981. Some things change, like machinery and tactics. The principles don’t change.

From the very first session, Ayoob stresses that life is precious and the use of lethal force is a cosmic decision that is not to be made lightly. It is not simply a matter of knowing when you can legally use lethal force and what to do before, during, and after an encounter, but it is also a matter of understanding what you should and should not do.

This is a very different perspective than some of those I have heard on talk radio or read on on-line forums — individuals that threaten to shoot anyone who steps on their property, or suggest that someone they killed cannot testify against them to refute their claims of self-defense, or adhere to the motto “when in doubt, shoot it out.” It is also different than the platitudinous claims of preferring to “be tried by 12 than carried by 6.”

Ayoob makes fun of the people who hold that “the gun is a scalpel used to carve out the cancers of society.” He begins from the perspective that the evil man has the same rights as the good man. He can forfeit those rights. But he begins with the same rights as us. You cannot just go around shooting “scumbags.” Don’t be a sheep, to be sure, but also don’t become a wolf just because there are wolves out there. Be a sheep dog. (If you can’t be a sheep dog, at least be a lamb with a .38 special! If deer had guns, how many people would hunt them?)

While you are doing this, it is also important to remember that the gun has no soul. It can kill good people and bad. Throughout the course, Ayoob offers tragic examples of instances in which good people killed other good people with guns.

Thus, the gun carries with it great power, and society rightfully expects armed citizens to exercise a proportional level responsibility in both their understanding the legal and ethical parameters of their use and also in their command of the weapon. (Note that the class is targeted at both of these aspects of responsibility: the legal/ethical and the ability.)

Ayoob characterizes it as a “higher standard of care.” In choosing to carry a firearm in public, the trained armed citizen is held to a higher standard. As Ayoob puts it, “You of all people should know better.” If you accept the right to carry, you need to accept the equally momentous responsibility.

Ask yourself, why are you carrying a gun in public? Because you anticipate that you may need to shoot someone in public. That is an awesome responsibility, and Ayoob wants to teach people when they can and can’t do this. The provision for justifiable homicide in the law is a license to kill for every citizen; Ayoob wants to teach the rules of the road. Or, to use a different analogy, “Any time you draw the gun, you are walking on ice. We are going to teach you to walk where the ice is thick.”

This reflects a very realistic perspective on the use of lethal force. Ayoob notes that he was mentored by Bill Jordan (1911-1997) – US Border Patrol agent and US Marine during World War II and the Korean War. One of Jordan’s best known books is called No Second Place Winner. The title is taken from the idea that, unlike in a shooting competition, where second place gets a trophy, in a gunfight only first place “wins.”

In Ayoob’s view, “Bill Jordan was an optimist.” In a gunfight, “there is no first place winner either.” The way you handle the aftermath of a shooting could make things better. And if you are truly in a life threatening situation, if you pull the trigger you lose less than you would have otherwise. But the result of surviving a gunfight is not victory but damage control. The only true victory for the armed citizen is deterrence. (And, according to Florida State University criminology professor Gary Kleck’s research, most “defensive gun uses” or DGUs do not require the potential victim to fire their weapon.)

However, the power to deter comes only with the willingness to kill. Ayoob uses the analogy of toxin-antitoxin therapy in which you use a poison to counter another poison. For example, using chemotherapy to fight cancer. You don’t want to use the poison, but the alternative – death – is worse.

So, even though deterrence is very powerful, don’t carry a gun just to scare somebody. Feral man is not scared by a gun that he doesn’t think you’ll use. They are scared of armed citizens who are willing and able to make “The Decision” – and who know that The Decision is an ethical one.  If you are confronted with a life threatening situation, you need to react in 1-3 seconds. That is not enough time to make a decision as cosmic as taking another human being’s life. You need to have made The Decision ahead of time so you have the ability to act when the time comes.

According to Ayoob (speaking in the 1990 video), the single largest category of Lethal Force Institute students are medical doctors. They, like the police, see the carnage. ER work and management of threat have in common the need to triage. In a disaster scene, first responders have to prioritize the injuries and assign treatments. In some cases, in a disaster scene someone has to make the decision of who will live and who will die. In medical triage, the person will do it passively, by giving treatment to some and withholding it from others. In the armed citizen scenario, the person is going to make the same kind of life or death decision – but will do so actively.

Can you make that decision? The Decision? To see, Ayoob suggests you go hunting or kill your own food. “If you can’t kill a sheep in the slaughterhouse, if you can’t kill a deer in the woods, how are you going to use lethal force against another human being?”

In the “LFI Principles” video, Ayoob talks some about his personal background, and this information is very helpful in understanding his overall perspective on the use of lethal force. Ayoob’s Grandfather emigrated from Damascus, Syria. The family has Bedouin roots. A significant part of the honor code for Bedouin men revolves around protection of family and clan, and related to that is an emphasis on bravery and the reality of pain. Ayoob feels this being passed down through his family. His grandfather owned chain of businesses in the inner city of Boston. He once shot a robber through the shoulder. Ayoob’s father owned a jewelry store in Massachusetts. One day a criminal came in, held a .38 revolver to his head, and pulled the trigger. His father ducked but was left deafened in his left ear. He also shot the guy dead and shot the guy’s partner in crime “in the balls.”

Later in the course, Ayoob talks about dealing with the post-event emotional/psychological trauma that comes with involvement in a self-defense shooting. He challenges the view, espoused by an unnamed figure in the gun world (Jeff Cooper, perhaps?), that “when you kill a man, your beer tastes colder, your bed feels warmer, and your jokes are funnier.” According to Ayoob, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has a term for these people: “psychopaths.” “This is bullshit. Killing another American citizen is not going to make you feel good. It is a larger than life act.” He adds, “The shooting of a criminal is still the death of a citizen – and is going to be treated as such. You need to be prepared to deal with that reality. That person is the victim and you are the killer.”

Thus, among the post-event traumas to be managed is what Ayoob calls the “Mark of Cain” syndrome. This is a sort of stigma or badge of shame that one’s community puts on a person who uses lethal force. The person’s previous identity becomes sublimated by a new identity: “killer.” Although he does not say so explicitly, one suspects that this is how Ayoob’s grandfather and father felt. Even though their self-defense shootings of robbers were perfectly defensible, Ayoob still characterizes himself as being “born under the Mark of Cain.”

Although he has been criticized by some “internet commandos” (my term, not his) for deigning to be a firearms trainer despite never having been in a gun fight (see, e.g., “Why is Massad Ayoob considered an authority…” on the Calguns forum), Ayoob in fact grew up with guns, carrying a handgun from the age of 12 while working in the family jewelry store. As a part-time police officer in New Hampshire, he has (by his own account) taken 29-30 people at gun point, and not had to shoot any of them. On 6 occasions he had the right to shoot them but did not. In Ayoob’s view, the difference between him and his forefathers is training. He also very much wants to go to his deathbed without killing another human being, to remove the Mark of Cain from his family name.

Ayoob concludes the “principles” material with a poignant story. In November 1967, his sister and only sibling Elizabeth died from Hodgkin’s disease (lymphoma). She died in his arms at 26 years of age, when he was 19. After the death of his sister, Ayoob’s mother suggested he go deer hunting to get out from under the pain. At the end of the day, he saw a nice year-old deer. He put the crosshairs on him, looked at him for some time, and then decided to let him live. In tears, he realized the power in the choice not to kill.

In the end, Ayoob reminds everyone, you have a lot to fight for – a lot of debts, loved ones, people who rely on you. The willingness to live and help others live is more important than the willingness to kill. The gun gives you the power to kill. The ultimate power you have, however, is the choice not to kill.

Massad Ayoob, humanitarian gun trainer.


  1. […] The course title is certainly jarring, as is the notion of the “Gentleman Killer” in the course description. But if I was in Arizona I would certainly be interested in taking the course, if only to compare and contrast it to other courses I have taken which deal with self-defense and the law like Andrew Branca’s Law of Self Defense and Massad Ayoob’s MAG-40. […]


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