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The Boston Phoenix Finishing School

The New Hampshire seminar to take when you absolutely, positively need to kill someone tomorrow

By Chris Wright

NOVEMBER 29, 1999:  Thanks to the Second Amendment, it is legal to own a handgun in America. Depending on the circumstances, it's legal to kill someone with it. And whether or not you own a gun, it is perfectly legal to attend a class that will show you how to kill someone with a gun and stay out of jail. You might not find the class right away -- I mean, they don't teach this stuff at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education -- but it's out there. Somewhere.

Though there's no shortage of firearms in the US -- 240 million of them at last count -- there is a remarkably small number of places that teach you what to do with them. In a country that requires training for everything from driving a car to practicing CPR, you can generally acquire a gun before you know which end the bullets go in.

If you pore through one of the country's many glossy gun mags -- Guns and Ammo, American Gunner, Gun Digest, Gun World -- you will find instructors willing to teach you how to hit a target, and courses that purport to integrate that skill into self-defense techniques. More serious are the handful of genuine firearms academies in America: Defense Training International in Laport, Colorado; the Gunsite Training Center in Paulden, Arizona; the Smith & Wesson Academy in Springfield, Massachusetts; Thunder Ranch in Mountain Home, Texas; and Yavapai Firearms Academy in Prescott Valley, Arizona.

And then there is the Lethal Force Institute.

Situated an hour north of Boston, in Dunbarton, New Hampshire, the Lethal Force Institute is widely considered to be the most intense education of its kind in the country, if not the world. For $600, a licensed gun owner with a clean criminal record can take the starter course, LFI-I, an intensive four-day, 40-hour seminar that reveals not only how to shoot and, possibly, kill an assailant -- but also how to stay out of jail when that happens, and how to handle the emotional aftermath of having pulled the trigger. It's an all-around education -- a finishing school in the truest sense of the words.

Those who graduate from LFI-I can take LFI-II, which teaches the fine art of machine-gun combat. The highest-level course, LFI- III, shows you how to fire from a moving vehicle.

For people who own guns, LFI makes perfect sense: if you own a gun, you should know how to use it, and if you use it you should know how to minimize the fallout. Shooting to kill and then defending yourself in court is the logical extension of the abstract piece of writing called the Second Amendment. In America's insanely complex relationship with its firearms, LFI is the place where the rubber meets the road.

Not everyone, of course, is comfortable that it exists. "I would like to see exactly what they do up there," says John Rosenthal, founder of the Boston-based Stop Handgun Violence.

I'd had pretty much the same reaction when I stumbled across LFI's Web site a few weeks earlier. The words "Lethal" and "New Hampshire" immediately caught my eye, calling to mind the image of a band of grubby survivalists just slightly overcommitted to the principle "Live Free or Die." I was afraid, but I was also curious. I called the number, vowing to hang up if someone named Jebediah answered. Instead I got a courteous, competent-sounding guy named Massad Ayoob.

The Lethal Force Institute pretty much is Massad Ayoob. A 27-year police veteran, Ayoob began by training fellow cops in self-defense in the early '70s, branching out into the civilian realm 19 years ago. At first I was worried that Ayoob might not like to have a representative of the liberal media snooping around in his business. But you get the sense that Ayoob has dealt with worse things than reporters. In fact, he was much more than civil: he invited me up to take the course, spotted me the tuition, and agreed to lend me a gun.

Stand aside, Bruce Willis. Watch your back, Arnold. There's a new kid in town. And his name is . . . Easy, easy.

"I do not teach bullshit, son," says Ayoob.

In any case, my dreams of superheroism dwindle pretty quickly when, one chilly November morning, I find myself standing in the parking lot of the Pioneer Sportsmen's Range in Dunbarton, New Hampshire, staring at a sign that says: PARK AT YOUR OWN RISK. Signs like this take on new meaning when you're aware that hundreds of rounds of live ammunition are being fired nearby. They become less warnings than omens.

As I stand and ponder this, another vehicle pulls in to the lot. A truck. Out of the truck steps a large, shaven-headed guy sporting a mustache. Or maybe he's not so large; maybe his hunting regalia adds to his stature. Either way: Oh, jeez. We strike up a conversation: the guy's name is David. He mumbles something about "drug gangs" and offers me a cup of coffee. I decline.

Turns out, David's a registered nurse from Syracuse -- a really nice, soft-spoken guy. Judge not, I think to myself. But it's difficult not to, not when you know you're about to be surrounded by armed citizens, alone, in the middle of the wilderness.

While David and I shoot the breeze -- I mean, chat -- other students arrive in a steady trickle. None of them looks particularly menacing. But for the fact that we're convened in the parking lot of a shooting club, we could be people standing in a checkout line at Wal-Mart. Villains of America, take note: a potential predator -- the gun-toting citizen -- looks an awful lot like prey.

And this is, of course, why these people are here. Hell, I'm tempted to mug a couple of them. Which wouldn't be such a good idea. The guy with the white beard and intense eyes, the guy who weighs about 300 pounds, the bespectacled woman who's fussing over having forgotten her warm coat, the bearded beanpole who looks like he couldn't fight his way out of a wet paper bag -- there's one thing that unites them: they're armed.

Even so, there's very little evidence of a he-man attitude in the people I talk to. Roberta, a coffee-shop manager from Martha's Vineyard, bought a handgun to "take control" of her own life. "I pray to God nothing ever happens," she says. "I shy away from those kill-'em-all-and-let-God-sort-'em-out people. They belong with the thugs on the other side."

There is one chap, a cloth-capped, jowly sixtysomething from the Midwest, who worries me a little. He refuses to talk on the record, but does take the time to explain his solution to the crime problem in Washington, DC: give "them" as many guns as they need, then move in with dump trucks the next day to clean up the mess.

But this guy's the exception. Most of the people at LFI seem to be here to alleviate a sense of vulnerability. Lenny, a psychiatrist from Maine, puts it bluntly: "Evil exists, and I want to be able to survive it."

Suddenly a car pulls in and a little buzz of recognition goes around the lot; people stop rummaging through their bags, sipping their cups of coffee, rubbing hands against the cold. "There he is," someone whispers. It's Massad Ayoob.

The 51-year-old Ayoob is something of a celebrity in the gun community. In 1980, he published In the Gravest Extreme, a book that quickly came to be known as the definitive study on the tactical, legal, and ethical issues surrounding the use of lethal force by civilians. Twenty years after its publication, the book has sold about 300,000 copies.

In all, Ayoob has written a dozen books -- The Truth About Self-Protection, Stressfire, Hit the White Part -- plus countless articles for gun periodicals. He has been an expert witness in about 70 criminal trials. He has taught in Switzerland and South America, England and Africa. He has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the National Enquirer. He has appeared on Frontline, 20/20, and the Today show.

"He's a celebrity among thinking gun owners," says Miami criminal-defense lawyer Jeffrey Weiner, former president of the National Association of Criminal Lawyers and an LFI grad. "He's not a celebrity among macho types."

At first glance, Ayoob certainly looks like the macho type. Though not what you'd call a big guy, he nonetheless cuts an imposing figure: dark hair, aviator glasses, mustache, black leather jacket, black T-shirt, black flak trousers, boots. He has an unmistakable don't-mess-with-me air. His body language barks authority.

Ayoob leads us into a drafty hunting lodge -- or what a hunting lodge might look like if a cash-strapped school district built it. It has wood-paneled walls, a coffee machine, bulletins pinned to the walls. At the front of the room there's a table and a chalkboard, which is faced by a few rows of straight-backed chairs. When you add 18 students and one instructor to the mix, the cat-swinging potential of the room is pretty much nil.

Of the 18 students taking the course, two are women. There is a doctor, a sales manager, a computer programmer, an animal-control officer. And then there's me: a journalist, not the most beloved profession among members of the gun community. Ayoob has me stand and introduce myself to the class, which elicits a silent groan -- and a not-so-silent challenge from a guy who wants to know if I'm here to write a "snide" story. Not for the first time, it occurs to me that I'm probably the only unarmed person in the room.

"I'm here to stop the 18 of you from shooting your asses off," Ayoob says by way of introduction. The students titter at this, but fall silent when he bellows: "No one has ever taken a bullet at LFI. Now you're not going to fuck that up for me -- ARE YOU?!"

What about my ass? I want to ask.

As Stop Handgun Violence's John Rosenthal puts it, "Ayoob says he's training law-abiding citizens. But he could be training a law-abiding citizen who is planning a mass shooting. There are 900 new felons every year. There have been eight mass shootings in seven months, many by people without criminal records in the past."

In the wrong hands, what we're learning at LFI -- crudely put, how to kill and get away with it -- is nothing less than a public menace. Ayoob is aware of this; indeed, much of the stuff he teaches at LFI he won't put in his books. "I will not write a recipe to commit murder," is the way he puts it.

In the 18 years since LFI's inception, about 1000 civilians a year have taken the course, and Ayoob doesn't particularly want to graduate felons. So he maintains "a rigid screening process" for prospective students. "I can control who comes here," he says.

"The people I call the strange rangers," he tells me, "know this is not a place for them. I do get the occasional person on the phone. I explain that this is probably not going to work out."

You probably have a better chance of being stabbed with a pencil at LFI than being shot. There's an awful lot of theory. Indeed, the next four days are more like being a cast member of The Paper Chase than of Die Hard.

Here is the first thing you learn: keep good notes. If you ever end up shooting someone, you will find yourself in court trying to demonstrate "reasonable mind set," and good, clean notes from LFI will be evidence in your favor. Ayoob even suggests that we seal the notes, send them to ourselves by registered mail, then store them in a safe-deposit box.

"Don't draw skulls and crossbones in the margins," he says. "Don't write things like 'Kill them all and let God sort them out.' "

Here's the next thing you learn: every American has a license to kill. "It's called justifiable homicide." The question is, when is killing someone deemed justifiable by society?

Not often. Justifiable homicide is the only aspect of American justice where the burden of proof is on the defendant. The only certainty is this: "Expect to be arrested."

"You can shoot Charlie Manson raping a nun," Ayoob says, "and you'll end up in court."

Considering the grim subject matter, Ayoob's lectures can be pretty funny. Like all good educators, he's a bit of a performer ("I'm a ham," he admits). When demonstrating how a villain can come across as an injured party, Ayoob adopts the character of a generic thug named Mungo: "Dur, oi wuz just moinding moi own bizniss," says the slack-jawed Mungo/Ayoob.

To avoid becoming the Bride of Mungo -- Ayoob's euphemism for going to prison -- the shooter must prove immediate and otherwise unavoidable danger of death or grave bodily harm to the innocent. And if you do end up in the dock, don't lie.

"There's a saying," says Ayoob. "If you suck one cock, you're a cocksucker forever. Well, if you tell one lie in court, you're a liar forever. That sucking noise you hear will be your freedom going down the toilet."

There's a palpable silence. Ayoob's language does tend to be colorful, but that "cocksucker" bit seems to have caught a few class members off guard.

Ayoob notices this. "If you raise your eyebrows at the word 'motherfucker,' you'll have trouble coming to terms with the psychology of violence," he says. "It's grief, it's suffering. I will not say 'vomitus' instead of 'puke.' This is ugly stuff."

Then he adds, "If my language offends, I apologize. Mea fucking culpa."

Following another burst of laughter, Ayoob's deadly serious again. "There are no first-place winners in a shooting situation," he warns us. "When it's over, believe me, you haven't won. Deterrence is the only victory."

In many ways, LFI isn't a class in killing people. It's a class in not killing them. Ayoob finds himself in the curious position of believing the best way to prevent gun violence is to teach people how to commit it. His entire lethal-force philosophy hinges on a single principle: the more prepared you are to kill an assailant, the less likely you are to have to.

This may sound a bit nutty at first, but perhaps the only way to get to the heart of a matter as complex as gun ownership is through paradox. In an issue that many people view in black-and-white terms, Ayoob's pacifism-through-violence philosophy has made him as many enemies as it has friends.

"I've found myself caught in the middle of a very polarized debate," he says. "On one side I've got the hard-core anti-gunners. To them I'm a crypto-fascist because I tell women that if a rapist attacks you, killing the son of a bitch is absolutely one of your options -- legally and morally. On the other side there's the hard-core right-wing ultra-

gunnies, who consider me a crypto-commie because I tell them, 'No, as a matter of fact, you don't have a God-given right to carry a loaded gun in shopping malls where there are kids walking around. It's a privilege, and you need to be able show society that you know how to use it and when to use it. That you're not going to shoot at a perpetrator and hit a kid by mistake.' I think that's a reasonable request.

"In the history of polarized debates," he adds, "anybody in the middle find himself in a very lonely place."

It's clear from the outset why Ayoob wouldn't have many friends in the anti-gun world, and it quickly becomes clear why the pro-gun people might be uncomfortable too. For one thing, he doesn't make vigilantism sound like much fun.

If you do shoot an attacker, he warns, a typical legal defense will cost upwards of six figures. And the ordeal doesn't end with financial ruin. Kill someone, and your friends and neighbors will instinctively turn their backs on you. "The newspapers are not going to write GOOD GUYS ONE, SCUMBAGS NIL," Ayoob says, "but MAN HELD IN SLAYING. Society doesn't say, 'You put this beast in the dirt where he belonged.' Society will make you feel like a murderer. You killed a citizen."

Then there's the psychological trauma. The first thing you'll feel after having shot someone is euphoria -- "not because you killed, but because you survived." When this wears off, you'll enter into a downward spiral: sleep disturbance, appetite disturbance, substance abuse, sexual dysfunction, social withdrawal, depression, maybe even suicidal tendencies.

"Some say that you'll feel warm and fuzzy," Ayoob says. "Your beer will be colder, your jokes will be funnier, your dick will be four inches longer." He pauses, then shouts: "No! You may have killed the archetype of the beast, but you have committed an unnatural act!"

You can tell that some students are getting a bit disheartened by all this damned-if-you-do, dead-if-you-don't stuff. Indeed, there's a touch of after-class grumbling. "I'm a little discouraged," says one man, a 69-year-old psychiatrist. "It's troubling to know the ocean of doo-doo you get into if you have to defend yourself, no matter how well judged the response."

Still, all this is better than the alternative: "There is no reversal from the grave," says Ayoob, "no appeal from the wheelchair." Shooting might be the last resort of the last resort, but it's something we have to learn how to do.

Yeah? Then how come we haven't done any shooting yet?

Tomorrow, Ayoob assures me. "Tomorrow we'll shoot until we barf."

The next day Ayoob takes us out onto the firing range. I am given a Smith & Wesson .38 Special revolver. I've never held a gun before, let alone fired one, and having the thing in my hand gives me the jitters. I grasp it as if it were trying to escape, gripping so hard my knuckles seem about to pop through the skin. I hold in my hand the power over life and death. Like an avenging angel. A god.

And that's before they've given us any bullets.

First we have to go through some drills. We learn a few stances: the Chapman, the Weaver, the Isosceles. We learn the Ayoob wedge grip, speed-loading techniques. We learn how to shoot from kneeling positions, one-handed, weak-handed. We learn how to focus on the front sight of the gun. Then we're finally ready for the live ammo. We load (steady, steady), aim (steady, steady), and . . . BANG!

Firing a gun for the first time can only be described as ouch. Even though my gun has what is known as "mouse-fart recoil," it delivers a sensation that falls somewhere between painful whap and electric shock. And, of course, there's a big noise. The gun, however, hasn't flown out of my hand, I haven't ended up flat on my back, and no one's dead. I'm heartened by this. So, eyes closed (a big no-no, by the way), I throttle the trigger again.

By the time we're finished, we've each fired about a hundred shots. Amazingly, almost all my bullets went somewhere near the target. "You're a natural," says Ayoob, and my fellow LFIers clap. Even though the crook between thumb and finger of my shooting hand feels as if someone's been at it with a pair of pliers, I'm itching for another go. But no, it's back to the class for more book stuff.

"Never draw a gun with the intent to kill," says Ayoob. "But you must draw with the willingness."

We're back to Ayoob's first principle of aggressive nonviolence: "The irony is, if you're willing to kill a perpetrator, you probably won't have to."

There's something a little sinister, a little Will to Power-ish, in the rituals one uses to establish control over another person through threat of lethal force. "It's a lot more complicated than killing the son of a bitch," Ayoob says. "An amoeba can kill an amoeba. It's a far more complex thing to intimidate."

The basics of confronting an assailant are: get attention, gain credibility, intimidate, and render incapable of killing. Most of us have seen an armed confrontation only by way of Hollywood or TV, and for us, there is this piece of advice: don't yell, "Freeze, motherfucker!" ("These are people," says Ayoob, "for whom 'mother' is half a word.") There are things that should be said, places the gun should be pointed.

"Stopping power is like real estate: location, location, location," Ayoob explains. And stopping someone doesn't necessarily mean killing him. It means shooting an attacker in whatever place most drastically affects his ability to keep attacking. But I've said too much. There are some things that Ayoob doesn't want me printing in the paper -- lest I give the bad guys ideas -- and where to aim and shoot are among these things. Suffice it to say, the places you point the gun are generally not places one would want to receive a bullet, or even a sharp slap.

What I can print are a few more of Ayoob's key points: "Civilians chasing criminals are like dogs chasing cars: they have no idea what to do with them when they catch them." That is: if they run, let them go. If it's a robbery, give them the money. If you're armed and someone comes up and spits in your face, walk away. If you hear a noise in your house, hide yourself in a safe room and call the police -- never go looking for intruders.

When in doubt, don't shoot.

"I can't believe I spent $600 for that ugly little Ay-rab to tell me I can't shoot anyone," says Ayoob, with what sounds suspiciously like his Mungo voice.

But hold on. I'm not planning on shooting anyone. I mean, who plans for such contingencies -- where to put the bullet, what to say to "the archetype of the beast," how to beat the murder rap? Every now and again the absurdity of what we're learning here strikes home. We've been immersed in this stuff for three days now, and that night, when I go back to my chilly, cruddy little motel room, I can't sleep. I miss my wife. I miss warmth. I miss the absence of death.

On Sunday morning, the last day of the course, we go out onto the range for the final time, this time to get graded. It's snowing, and the wind has whipped up a mini sand storm. But we've got to shoot -- we've no choice in the matter. We'll be firing a total of 60 rounds, timed, from all the positions and grips we've learned so far. Our LFI certificate hangs on our getting a good score.

"Weak hand! Load! Shoot! Back to the 15-yard line! Classic Weaver! Load! Shoot!" This is what's known, quite rightly, as a "stress fire" drill.

As dozens -- hundreds -- of shots ring out, an acrid smell of sulfur fills the air. Though we're all wearing ear protection, you can feel the gunfire on your skin. And, if you concentrate, you can actually see the bullets: a thin swish followed by a puff of sand from behind the target. When the dust settles, I have scored 279 out of a possible 300 points, one of the highest scores in the class. Like Ayoob said, I'm a natural. Another well-earned round of applause, and it's off to the classroom for a final session.

We're to eat a late lunch while watching a videotape. Oh, goody. There's a sort of carnival atmosphere in the room; people compare shooting scores and munch gratefully on sandwiches. There's a lot of banter, laughter.

Then the video starts rolling.

It's a greatest-hits flick from some city morgue. Shooting victims. If we were in any doubt as to the gulf between letting fly at a square of cardboard and at a human being, the video makes it quite clear. With people, bullets don't just go in one side and out the other. They do weird, terrible things. They spin, shatter, tumble, spread, splatter. The video reveals ragged amputations, fist-size holes, close-range wounds where the flesh has cooked, eyes blown out of sockets, skulls imploded, guts exploded, brains mashed, rubber faces filled with fluid. One guy lies face down on the slab, the back of his head blossoming like a black flower. There are groans. A couple of people get up and leave the room.

"If you can't face this," Ayoob says in the video's aftermath, "maybe you shouldn't be carrying a firearm." And "this" is nothing more than the truth of what a gun is. It's not a tool, not a piece of equipment. There is no veneer of utility that can mask the hellishness of a gunshot wound to the mouth.

We've been sucker-punched. With a crash we come down from our target-range high, while our lunches threaten to go in the opposite direction. It's a master stroke on Ayoob's part. He has managed somehow to approximate the revulsion one must feel after having put a bullet in someone.

But he's not letting us off the hook yet. "Go hunting. Hunt a deer and kill it," he says. "There will be no more mating and raising fawns for the animal. Its destiny now becomes your table. It's been sacrificed to satisfy your needs." Ayoob is relentless. If we can't kill a deer, he asks, what makes us think we can kill a human being?

"That made me sick," says Roberta later. "I didn't like seeing the autopsies, but to think that I had to go out and kill something, it made me nauseous."

Then, Ayoob does a 180. "These days, I do most of my hunting with cameras," he says. It's a very weird moment. Before we can fully absorb what he's getting at, he puts on another videotape. "I never stick around for this," he says and leaves the room. Jesus. Now what?

On the screen, Ayoob tells a story. When he was a teenager, his sister -- his only sibling -- succumbed to Hodgkin's disease. She died in his arms. In the aftermath of the death, Ayoob's mother suggested he go hunting, to take his mind off things. After a few hours in the woods, he hadn't shot anything, and he decided to call it a day. On the way back to his truck, though, Ayoob spotted a young, plump, juicy deer. Hello, food, he thought as he lowered his sights. He had the animal, had it, but he couldn't pull the trigger. By now he was weeping. Something clicked. Something changed. He put the gun down and shooed the animal away. "It was the last day of the hunting season," he says. "He was going to live for another year."

I, for one, am dumbstruck. Not to mention exhausted, confused, and a little depressed. Ayoob returns, taking his place at the front of the class. "If you do not value life," he says, quietly, "you have no right to possess the power to destroy it."

The Lethal Force Institute is kind of a crazy idea. Or at least a very American idea. Nowhere else on earth is the ideal of armed self-defense etched so firmly into the social contract. Every American has the license to kill. Ayoob's relatives learned this when they came here from Damascus. For them, the right to use lethal force has become something of a family curse.

Ayoob's grandfather, the owner of a jewelry store, once shot a robber dead. His father, too, shot and killed a violent criminal. "I was born under the mark of Cain," Ayoob says.

In his lifetime, Ayoob has had to pull a gun on people about 30 times.

"God help me," he says, "I haven't had to drop the hammer."

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