As real estate agent Aaron Smith was ending an open house at a new-construction condo in Covington, Ky., last spring, one prospective buyer — a tall man who appeared disheveled — stood between Smith and the front door. The tone of their meeting suddenly took a dark turn.
Up until that point, nothing had seemed awry during the property tour, says Smith, a sales associate with Keller Williams Advisors Realty in Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River from Covington. The prospect was asking typical questions about the homebuying process. But once he was blocking the exit, his questions became personal and uncomfortable.
“He started asking me really weird questions about real estate agents,” Smith recalls. “It seemed like he was planning something.”
As Smith, an arguably vulnerable target at 5-foot-7-inches tall and 150 pounds, began to feel threatened, he started planning for the worst. A gun owner with a concealed-carry license since 2011, Smith had a firearm on his person the day of the open house. He says he was ready to use it if the situation with the prospect got uglier. Luckily, it didn’t: Smith told the prospect to leave, and the two departed with no further incident.
But what if Smith did have to use his gun? Would that have made him any safer?
When Gun Use Isn't Legal
There are situations in which you may feel uncomfortable or even threatened, but the use of a gun is not lawful.
“An overly grabby or friendly drunk, or a purse snatcher, may deserve physical intervention, such as a physical strike or the use of pepper spray,” Taylor explains. “But it doesn’t justify having a firearm used on them.”
Though the legal threshold varies from state to state, the victim generally needs to believe, based on a “reasonable person” standard, that their life or the life of another person is in imminent danger and that using lesser force won’t stop the threat. Preventing rape, violent assault, or assault with a dangerous weapon are justified reasons for using a gun in the eyes of the law, Taylor said.
The penalty for unlawful use of a deadly weapon also varies from state to state but is often considered a felony, which may carry a mandatory prison sentence. Courts consider many circumstances when weighing a person’s use of a gun, such as the size disparity between victim and perpetrator, previous encounters between the two, the availability of help during the incident, weather conditions, and location.
As REALTOR® safety has become a hot topic following brutal attacks on agents — most notably the September death ofBeverly Carter in Arkansas at the hands of a killer posing as a home buyer — so has the issue of guns. When REALTOR® Magazine asked its Facebook followers how many carry firearms on the job, the overwhelming majority of the more than 150 respondents said they either do or would consider doing so. And in the National Association of REALTORS®’ 2015 Member Safety Report, 12 percent of REALTORS® say they carry a gun in the field.
Forty percent say that they have been in a situation where they feared for their personal safety or the safety of their personal information. Only 4 percent say they have been a victim of a crime.
There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to whether practitioners should arm themselves with guns. Law enforcement officials and safety instructors who spoke to REALTOR® Magazine say they support professionals’ right to retain a gun as a means of protection. But for those experts, the issue isn’t simply carry or don’t carry. The question is whether having a weapon actually keeps practitioners safer.
Having a gun doesn’t inherently make someone better able to thwart an attack; it just means the battle has become more deadly, these experts say. Because pros don’t typically go through the same kind of weapons training that police do — which goes far beyond the safety classes required to obtain a gun permit— they likely aren’t truly skilled at using a gun in a life-threatening situation. Because of that, attackers — many of whom are skilled at gunplay — will have an easier time turning agents’ weapons against them. The more agents who carry a gun, experts say, the more are at risk of ending up dead.
Are You Prepared to Kill?
Preston Taylor, a police sergeant with the Sheriff’s Department in Grand Traverse County, Mich., says criminals have often killed law enforcement officers by using the cops’ guns against them. If a highly trained professional is vulnerable to such an attack, average citizens are doubly so, he says. Taylor, who teaches safety seminars to real estate professionals, says hesitation to use a gun in a life-threatening situation puts the gun holder’s life at risk.
“The individual who carries the gun has to ask themselves what they’re prepared to do,” he says. “If they’re not prepared to take a life, they shouldn’t carry a gun.”
Tips to Stay Safe
- If you pull a gun on an assailant, stay at least six feet away from them. “When we draw our pistol, we feel like we need to be right in the face of the attacker,” Taylor says. “But if you’re too close, the bad guy can take the gun.” If the attacker also has a weapon, stay 21 feet away.
- Never fire warning shots. “A gun is only pulled and pointed if the victim intends on using it,” Taylor says. “Shooting bad guys in the leg exists only in fantasy land.”
- If you don’t want to carry a gun, keep a bottle of Clorox Formula 409 in your car. “It’s more [effective] than pepper spray,” Sutton says.
- Do a lot of bluffing. Tell prospective clients that you’ll meet them at a home with your partner; take a picture of their license plate and send it to your boss; if they object to your safety practices, tell them it’s company policy. “If I’m a criminal, none of this is lining up in my favor,” Sutton says.
- Get your head out of the sand. “Most people are Facebooking their clients and friends as they arrive at a home,” Sutton says. “Look up and take note of your surroundings.”
But there are other factors at play, too. Many agents carry their guns in purses or store them in their cars. The time it takes to recognize danger, retrieve the gun, and get it ready to use could be all an attacker needs to gain the advantage.
The average adult takes eight seconds to load a gun, says Chris Sutton, a former corrections and police officer with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and Largo Police Department in Florida. Sutton is now the founder and CEO of the real estate–focused self-defense and safety training company COBRA Defense, based in Tampa.
“But most people would have the safety on and the magazine out,” he says. “Then it takes 30 seconds to get that gun out. Imagine what I can do to you in 30 seconds.”
Neither Sutton nor Taylor say real estate practitioners should avoid carrying guns. But they say that too many people who carry have a false sense of bravado just because they have a gun.
“Unless you train on a weekly or monthly basis, you are not a proficient user,” Sutton says. “It’s like when you get a driver’s license: You take a class, and say you haven’t driven in eight years. You have a license that says you can do it, but you’re not skilled. When is the last time you spent five hours a month at the gun range? Most concealed-carry permit holders, you don’t touch that gun again for sometimes years at a time.”
A Case Against Guns
Smith says he grew up around guns and goes to a shooting range once a month to make sure he remains comfortable using his firearm. And while he recognizes the risks accompanied with carrying a gun, he says he’d rather have the option to use it if his life is being threatened. But other agents who own guns or have faced danger in the field, and have no hesitation in expressing support for their colleagues’ right to carry,say they would never bring a gun on the job themselves.
Even after being spooked by news of another agent’s rape at a recent open house in the area, Alicia Soekawa, a sales associate with Long & Foster, REALTORS® in Richmond, Va., says she won’t carry. She and her husband keep a gun at home, and they sometimes go to a shooting range to practice. But she never takes the gun with her on the job.
“I almost think of [shooting at the range] as a hobby,” Soekawa says. “I don’t want to take on more than I can handle. Would I really shoot at someone? It’s different than shooting at a target.”
Though she’s taken several self-defense classes over the years, Soekawa says she recognizes that she wouldn’t have the inclination to pull the trigger on someone. Instead, she carries a Taser.
“It’s easier to hold and to have with me,” Soekawa adds. “And I have in my head a plan of action, a safe place to go if I need to. With a gun, you have to have it with you 100 percent of the time, and have it loaded 100 percent of the time, to be safe.”
Victoria Copeland, associate broker at Ming Tree, REALTORS®, in Eureka, Calif., can relate to Soekawa’s reluctance to carry a gun. In December, Copeland went to do a weekly property inspection at a Fannie Mae listing and found the front door kicked in. She went back to her car, locked herself in, and called the police. When an officer arrived, he told her he was going to call for backup before entering the property.
“When someone like a police officer, who has a gun and is trained to use it, doesn’t want to go into the property without backup, that’s really telling to me,” Copeland says. “I think I’m better off trying to make a run for it than trying to get a gun out of my purse.”
Safety has become a bigger issue in her area, Copeland says. Her local association started offering safety classes taught by police officers, and her company has instituted new safety policies. With that has come increased attention on guns.
“Recently, people have asked me, ‘When are you going to get your carry license?’” Copeland says. “I just say, ‘It’s not my thing.’”
Other Means for Safety
The emphasis on safety in real estate has given rise to new companies and products promising to help agents, but one has found particular success in targeting practitioners who are looking for nonlethal methods of self-defense. Damsel in Defense, founded in 2011 by longtime friends Mindy Lin and Bethany Hughes, has grown into a network of 8,000 “Damsel Pros” nationwide who teach safety classes and sell the company’s line of “hermergency” products, including stun guns, lipstick-shaped pepper spray, and more.
Christine Richards, a Damsel Pro based in Belmont, N.H., says the company’s mission is to help people handle themselves in dangerous situations. And it’s not just women they cater to: Richards says men are increasingly showing interest in Damsel products.
“It’s not just about having something to carry but having confidence,” Richards says. “Whether you use it sometimes is beside the point.”
She adds that many are looking for something they can use as a scare tactic to ward off an attacker, and guns are far too dangerous to use for that purpose. “When you’re using alarms or other safety mechanisms, it’s to get yourself out of the situation, not draw yourself in, which guns tend to do. You have a chance to be more in control.”
Taylor and Sutton advise considering tools like Damsel’s line of nonlethal weapons before guns because most people aren’t psychologically prepared to use lethal force.
“A gun makes people think they can handle more than they can,” Sutton says. “They start doing things they normally wouldn’t do because they think they’re protected. You have to start thinking, ‘Everywhere I go, there’s a gun involved.’ Just remember that you can’t outrun a plan; if someone is planning something, they will be able to execute it before you ever know it. A gun won’t stop that.”
This article originally appeared in the March, 2015 issue of Realtor® Magazine.