Awareness and Managing Unknown Contacts: Before a Harsh Word or a Gun

One of the most annoying and offensive criticisms I hear of Gun Culture 2.0 is that defensive gun owners are itchin’ for a fight and prefer to shoot first and ask questions later. Of course, there are irresponsible individuals in any group, like the “good guy with a gun” near me who recently shot at an Edible Arrangements driver who was making a gift delivery at his home.

But this is not the core of individuals I have met in my journey through gun culture, and certainly doesn’t represent anything I have seen in the mainstream gun training community. (Full disclosure: I do not hang out with internet commandos, so I cannot speak to that cadre.)

To borrow from Michael Bane, from whom I also took the concept of Gun Culture 2.0, many times (most often?) awareness and avoidance are your best defense. This reality is an important part of Craig Douglas’s Extreme Close Quarters Concepts (ECQC) course.

Craig Douglas buying his way out of potential trouble with a couple dollars. ECQC course, March 2019. Photo by Sandy Yamane

ECQC is one of a range of courses taught via the ShivWorks consortium. Collectively the goal of their multimodal, interdisciplinary approach to self-defense is to “give every student the empty-hand skills of an MMA fighter, the firearm skills of a USPSA grand master, and the verbal agility of a stand-up comic.”

As I noted in my previous post, ECQC course is different than other gun training courses I have observed or participated in because of its focus on “aggressive problem solving during a life or death struggle at arm’s length or closer.”

But some of the most important lessons from ECQC are how to prevent yourself from needing to solve a problem at arm’s length in the first place.

Craig Douglas, Mike Levandowski, and other students at ECQC course, Chapel Hill Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, March 2019. Photo by David Yamane

Thanks to host Mike Levandowski (known on social media as the Functional Gentleman), the ECQC class I attended began Friday night at 6:00pm on the mats at Chapel Hill Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. After introductions and other preliminaries, Douglas begins the formal instruction by observing, “A good self-defense course should begin with not letting it get shitty.” But how to do this this practically?

Many people will answer “situational awareness.” But awareness, Douglas points out, “is not a verb. It is not something you can do. You cannot aware.” Rather, he operationalizes awareness in terms of expanded or restricted fields of awareness. We need to avoid task fixation (especially on phones) that restrict our fields of awareness. This allows us to expand our fields of awareness to detect potential threats early and make ourselves less vulnerable to ambush attacks.

Early detection of potential threats gives us more time to manage unknown contacts in public space to avoid having to fight in the first place. Douglas argues that bad guys do cost-benefit analyses of victim selection and notes, “I’m a fan of the high art of de-selection.”

Again, how do you do this practically? Here verbal agility is a key first line of defense. Douglas teaches that everyone needs to develop a “playlist” of concise, repeated phrases representing a range of verbalizations from asking to telling. Before an unknown contact is even within a couple of arm lengths distance, a clear request should be made like, “Hey, man, can you hold up right there?” If the request is not met, verbal escalation to a clear command like “Back up!!!” is warranted.

Along with these verbalizations, the hands should be brought up in a high compressed fence position. This reinforces the request/command, gives a visual signal to someone who may not understand the verbalization, and gets the hands in a defensive position if necessary.

Movement if the request is not met is not forward or backward but laterally on arcs to avoid a potential second attacker from behind. (Douglas, to his credit, manages to teach this material without ever invoking the phrase “watch your 6.”)

For a good part of the first four hours of the course, we pair off and do various improvisations to practice “not letting it get shitty” through verbalization and movement. Alternating between being the defender and the unknown contact allows ECQC students to imagine the many different situations — some potentially threatening, many others not — in which we might find ourselves. This alone can help shift the initiative from a potential attacker to the defender in a real life encounter.

Craig Douglas managing an unknown contact, Ryan Hoover. ECQC course, March 2019. Photo by Sandy Yamane

In the grand scheme of things, this aspect of MUC “is a way to give gun guys social literacy,” according to Douglas. As we live our lives in society, we ought not immediately start screaming at strangers to “get the fuck away!” or draw down on people just because they approach us in public space.

Sometimes people need help. They lose their kids or their way, they need medical help or a hand. Being aware of who is around us and being able to recognize pre-assault cues (that Douglas also teaches) can help us determine whether we want to engage an unknown contact and dictate the terms of that engagement in socially literate ways.

For me, the most important part of having social literacy is that it allows us not to treat public space as a battlefield to be negotiated but as a place to be enjoyed. As Douglas put it, “Sometimes you just want to go enjoy a museum without having to worry about whether you have a gun or not.”

After he taught in my Sociology of Guns class at Wake Forest before the ECQC course, Douglas and I enjoyed dinner together at the Katharine Brasserie in the former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco headquarters, a beautiful old art deco building in downtown Winston-Salem. From there we walked to Bailey Park, an urban greenspace where I showed him the conversion of old Reynolds warehouses into a high-tech innovation district. We ended up meeting my wife Sandy at Fair Witness Fancy Drinks, a craft cocktail bar nearby where we had a few drinks and a lot of laughs. And we didn’t have to yell at, eye gouge, punch, stab, or shoot anyone. It was a good day.


  1. Best post I think I have read. This says it all, and also is a clear explanation of why packing heat alone is not a complete individual public safety strategy or for that matter, good armed citizenship.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Tarani develops the idea of preventative defense or “PreFense” in his book by that title. The whole idea of preventative defense is based on the goal of NOT having to actively defend yourself by recognizing looming threats and avoiding critical incidents, i.e., preventing them from happening in the first place. This goes beyond the mantra “don’t go stupid places with stupid people at stupid times” by allowing us to treat public space not as a battlefield to be negotiated but as a place to be enjoyed. […]


  3. […] *Craig Douglas’s Extreme Close Quarters Concepts (ECQC), which offers an interdisciplinary approach to self-defense designed to “give every student the empty-hand skills of an MMA fighter, the firearm skills of a USPSA grand master, and the verbal agility of a stand-up comic.” This last ability is probably the most important one for most people on most days and falls under the broader rubric of managing unknown contacts (MUC). As Douglas says, “A good self-defense course should begin with not letting it get shitty.” […]


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