The Ayoob files; An urban gunfighter: The lessons of Lance Thomas
American Handgunner, March-April, 2002 by Massad Ayoob
Situation: A law-abiding armed citizen faces multiple armed robberies and murder attempts.
Lesson: Only the power of lawful force can answer the power of lawless criminal force.
A few years ago, the TV program Turning Point focused on private citizens who had used guns in self-defense. In refreshing contrast to much of the mainstream electronic media, the show for the most part gave a fair and balanced portrayal of ordinary people who had been forced to resort to defensive firearms in extraordinary circumstances. I wrote about it in this space at the time. Among the Turning Point shootings we discussed were the series of armed robberies and attempted murders defeated by Lance Thomas, the owner of a watch shop in Los Angeles.
In 2001, Paladin Press published one of the best "reads" of the year for people who follow the gun culture and understand the principles of self-protection. The author is Paul Kirchner, who has collaborated with Col. Jeff Cooper on previous books, and the title is The Deadliest Men: The World's Deadliest Combatants Through the Ages. It covers figures as disparate as the French swordswoman known as La Maupin, such great American war heroes as Alvin York and Audie Murphy; gunfighters like Wild Bill Hickok and Bat Masterson, and a man named Lance Thomas.
Over a period of less than 3 years, Thomas was involved in four gun battles against a total of 11 known suspects. He shot six of them, killing five. The watch dealer himself was wounded on two of these occasions, taking a total of five rounds. There are many lessons that the rest of us can learn: Lessons of long-term strategy and short-term tactics; of gun selection and ammunition effectiveness; and, above all, of courage under fire in the moment, and of determination over the long haul.
August 10, 1989. Like so many storekeepers, Thomas feels his watch shop would be a safer place if he had a gun with which to fend off armed robbers. He has acquired a Model 36, a five-shot Smith & Wesson .38 Chief Special. He keeps the snubnose revolver where he can reach it easily. On this day, he'll be glad he did.
Two men enter. One appears to have some sort of weapon, and the other pulls what Thomas recognizes as a 9mm semiautomatic pistol. Thomas knows he can just give the man his money and goods, but he also knows that to do so is to trust his life to the whim of a violent man unlawfully wielding a deadly weapon. Instead, Thomas chooses to fight.
His hand flashes to the Chief Special, and he comes up shooting. The little revolver barks three times. Two of his bullets miss, but one smashes into the gunman's face, putting him out of the fight.
The merchant swings toward the accomplice, but cannot see a weapon at the moment, and so, does not fire. Instead, he orders the suspect to leave. The now-compliant accomplice does so, dragging his wounded comrade with him.
The robber will survive. Lance Thomas is unhurt. His decision to be an armed citizen, to fight back, has been validated. The wounded robber will be charged, and the armed citizen has the sympathy of the authorities. Thomas has won in every respect.
In assessing the aftermath, the Rolex specialist analyzes what he has learned with the same precision he applies to the repair and adjustment of fine watches. It is not lost on him that he has expended 60 percent of his ammunition to neutralize 50 percent of his antagonists. It occurs to him that a single five-shot revolver might not be enough if there's a next time, and that there won't be much opportunity to reload.
And what if he had been caught out of reach of his Smith? Thomas expands his defensive strategy. The .38 is joined by a trio of .357 Magnum revolvers: a Colt Python, a Smith & Wesson Model 19 Combat Magnum, and a Ruger Security-Six. He arrays them a few feet apart within the small perimeter of his workspace so there will always be one within reach no matter where he's standing.
If he runs dry, he won't even think about reloading: he'll simply drop the empty gun and grab another fully loaded one.
November 27, 1989. This time, it's the kind of professional hit that the NYPD Stakeout Squad warned you about-- a five-man team of thugs who know what they're doing. There's seeded backup, a perpetrator ambling around on the sidewalk outside, pretending to be a passerby. The outrider is in the driver's seat of the getaway car, at once a wheelman and a potential killer who can murderously interdict responding officers, or go inside with heavy weapons to rescue accomplices who are captured inside the premises. The remaining three perpetrators comprise the raid team.
It opens hot, fast and ugly. One of the perpetrators opens up on Lance Thomas without warning, firing a semiautomatic pistol, hitting him four times with eight rounds fired. Three of the .25 ACP bullets bite into Thomas' right shoulder, a fourth into his neck. The watchmaker grabs the nearest revolver, the Ruger .357, missing with the first shot but scoring with the next five.
The gunman falls to the floor and so does the Security-Six: it has clicked empty. Thomas drops it, lunging for the next nearest weapon, the snubnose .38 that had saved him last time.
Now he engages the second suspect, who is shooting at him. Thomas shoots back. That gun, too, runs dry. He hasn't hit his antagonist, but he hasn't been hit either, and the second robber is in no mood to continue the gunfight.
The third inside suspect opens fire at Thomas. Wounded, but furious and still in the fight, the storekeeper grabs his third gun of the shootout, another .357. As Paul Kirchner relates it, he "empties it into" the third gunman. That offender goes down.
The little watch shop is filled with the stench of smokeless powder and the reek of blood. The second offender wants no more of being shot at, and has abjured from the conflict.
Outside, the two additional robbers realize that three of their colleagues have gone inside for an easy score, there has been a long volley of explosive gunfire, and only one has come back out alive. Whatever is in there, they don't want any part of it. The three surviving robbers flee.
Inside, only one of the combatants is standing. Bleeding but defiant, the wounded Lance Thomas looks down at the two men he has killed. In the course of the fight, he has fired 19 shots.
Some people are beginning to think that Thomas bears a charmed life. Since an enemy sent into ignominious retreat can certainly be said to have been vanquished, the score now stands at Lance Thomas 7, Armed Robbers 0.
However, it occurs to the storekeeper that his survival armory might need another firepower upgrade. This time, he decides to try semiautomatic pistols. He buys four, all SIGs, that operate the same way. One is the compact nine-shot P-225 9mm. The other three are assorted versions of the P-220 8-shot .45 auto.
As the Turning Point cameras pan across his gun collection, we see the American-style of SIG with push-button magazine release as well as the European-style with the butt heel mag release. There is a Browning BDA, which is a European P-220 by a different name.
Magazine release styles don't matter. Lance Thomas still doesn't plan to reload. If one gun runs dry, he'll reach for another. He now has up to eight handguns readily available. Fully loaded, they hold 56 rounds between them.
With his plan, they all function essentially the same: grab gun, index weapon on target, pull trigger until it stops shooting, grab additional guns, repeat as necessary. Thomas commits himself to constant practice in accessing one or another of his defense guns from any conceivable position.
Two Year Break
December 4, 1991. It has been more than two years since the last incident. Some others would be complacent by now. Not Lance Thomas, who has learned that vigilance equals survival, and from the beginning has realized he is responsible for the safety of his customers.
On this date a male perpetrator strides in, accompanied by a female accomplice who shows no weapon. The man pulls a loaded Glock pistol. He points the gun at Thomas and orders him to be motionless.
No way. Thomas goes for his gun.
The perpetrator fires first, pumping a 9mm bullet through Thomas' neck, drilling a wound channel that is just a fraction of an inch from being fatal. But now, Thomas has reached his nearest pistol, the little P225, and he is firing back.
The watch shop proprietor has been forced into an awkward hold on the gun, and he can only fire three rounds--all straight into the chest of his opponent-- before his imperfect grasp causes the usually reliable SIG 9mm to jam. Without missing a beat, he drops it and grabs one of its big brothers, which he fires into the opponent five more times until the armed robber falls and stops trying to commit murder.
Frozen in terror, the female accomplice offers no violence. It's over.
Wounded, Lance Thomas will recover. Not so the criminal who shot him, who will die of the eight rounds-- all hits, eight for eight-- that the armed citizen has inflicted with his two SIG-Sauer pistols.
February 20, 1992. It has been just over two and a half months since the last shootout. Lance Thomas has remained vigilant. Now, his wariness pays off.
Two armed perpetrators enter the store. As soon as Thomas sees the automatic pistol in one of their hands, he reflexes to his nearest pistol, one of the P-220s. This perpetrator goes down fast, hit with what author Kirchner describes as most of a "gunload" of .45 ACP ammunition.
Grabbing another P-220, Thomas engages the second armed robbery suspect and shoots him four times. The suspect falls. The danger is over.
Both armed robbers are dead at the shopowner's hands. In four gun battles, Lance Thomas has fired 40-plus shots. He has killed five men, and wounded another. He has defeated a total of 11 perpetrators, either shot down or driven off in abject flight. He has been wounded five times.
Word On The Street
By now the word was out on the street. Some of those who had died by the blazing Thomas guns had been members of the organized street gangs that infest Los Angeles like an advanced, spreading cancer. They had declared war. They were going to rake Lance Thomas' watch shop with drive-by shootings and massacre his customers for revenge.
The armed citizen had to make a difficult decision. Thomas had stood up to the armed criminals for some 29 months. He was ready to continue to risk his own life, however, he felt he had no right to risk the lives of customers and bystanders in the face of this latest threat. Reluctantly, sadly, he switched to business by mail order and Internet. The watch shop was closed. The big Rolex sign that some believed had attracted the robbers like flies came down. Lance Thomas moved.
The epoch of a modern urban gunfighter had ended.
There were those who said that Lance Thomas was a vigilante, something out of the Death Wish movies. Nothing could be further from the truth. Thomas never went looking for men to harm. The harm came to him, and he warded it off.
None of the predators he shot had been hunted down and self-righteously executed. Each and every one of them had died from a sudden and acute failure of the victim selection process. This is why each and every one of the deaths Thomas inflicted was ruled a justifiable homicide.
"It is not unusual for critics of the American scene to deplore what they hold to be an uncivilized toleration of personal violence in our society," Jeff Cooper once wrote. "Violent crime is not so much the issue, but rather the use of violence by socially acceptable persons in self-defense, in the righting of wrongs, and in meeting challenging situations. Such critics feel that Americans are too ready to ignore the police and handle their emergencies personally; and that, further, this barbarous attitude is encouraged, rather than inhibited, by our tradition."
Some thought Lance Thomas a dangerous man. I spoke at length with one of the producers of the Turning Point episode that featured the fighting watchmaker. He was appalled that Thomas had said that one reason he had survived these nearly unsurvivable experiences was that he had been "ready to die."
I explained that the producer had misunderstood the point. "Ready to die" didn't mean wanting to die in the suicidal-cum-homcidal sense; it meant prepared to die if necessary.
There are some things worth dying for. Freedom, including the right to make your living doing your chosen work. Protection of others from violence. There were times when innocent friends and customers were in the store when the attackers came in with guns in their hands and their fingers on the triggers
There were doubtless gang-bangers in Los Angeles who thought they had won, having driven off the man they feared. If so, they were deluding themselves. Lance Thomas had stood against 11 of them and won, 11 to nothing. Each time he had been against multiple intruders, never less than two-to-one odds and as high as five-to-one. He came back each time, resolute and defiant.
He left only when, the threats to himself extended and went past him, reaching out to innocent customers and bystanders whom he could not protect out on the sidewalk if the promised drive-by shootings had come to pass. The same man who risked his life to stand up for his rights and to protect others, chose to give up the shop he had created, the shop he loved, for the sake of the safety of strangers.
Lance Thomas was a better and more moral man than any of the street gang cowards who hated him, a better and more moral man than any of the commentators who criticized him from the safety of their office desks.
Some observers in the gun world thought Thomas would have been better served to carry his hardware on his person instead of stashing the guns in strategic locations in the shop The theory is that when the gun is on your person. it is always where you can reach it, and also simultaneously secured from unauthorized personnel.
The criticism has some validity; In his third gunfight, if Thomas could have quick-drawn from his hip instead of having to stretch and reach for his SIG, he might not have taken that first gunshot to the neck, which came so close to killing him.
We each bring our own preferences and habits to these topics. This writer prefers to keep the gun on his person, and has done so since growing up in a jewelry store much like the one in this case. Yet Lance Thomas' story hits close to home, because my father used he same strategy of keeping his handguns seeded at various places in the store plus a shotgun in the back room.
There are times-- when seated behind a watch repair bench, for example-- when it might be faster and easier to reach for a holster nailed to the side of the bench than to draw from one's belt.
For the most part, the strategy worked for Thomas. It worked better the more guns he had. Toward the end, according to the Turning Point people, he had a gun about every three feet. His workplace was fairly compact. The larger the workspace, the more room there is for the good guy to move, the more sense it makes for the gun to be on the shopkeeper's person instead of in a fixed location.
Practice is critical. Turning Point filmed Thomas at a shooting range, firing rapidly from a Weaver stance. Kirchner notes that he constantly practiced quick-draw of his guns from their resting places. There can be no doubt that both of these practices helped Lance Thomas survive his gunfights.
Firepower was a factor in all but the first, three-shot incident. The next three averaged more than a dozen shots by Thomas per incident. Add in the first shooting, and it still comes out to at least 10 shots per gunfight fired by the defender, 19 shots in one incident. Once the scope of the predictable threat became evident to him, Thomas was wise indeed to upgrade his firepower from the five-shot, snubnose revolver he started with.
Some critics-- usually ensconced safely in armchairs-- opine that five shots should be enough for five perpetrators. Well, well. One of Thomas antagonists apparently thought that four shots would be enough for one Rolex dealer: he shot Thomas four times. Thomas sucked up the four gunshot wounds and then proceeded to kill the man who shot him.
Others might suggest, "He just didn't use the right ammo." Really? Unimpressed with the effects of conventional .38 Special ammo in his first shooting, he went to the Glaser Safety Slug, and was underwhelmed with its performance the next time, out in the real world. He shot men multiple times with 9mm and .45 automatics and with .357 Magnum revolvers and had to shoot them again and again.
Sometimes, against dangerous men in the heat of battle, nothing less than multiple serious gunshot wounds will short-out the attack. If we learn nothing else from Lance Thomas' four gunfights, we cannot miss learning this.
Will. The predators had strong motivations-- greed, perhaps anger, certainly lust for power over others. When fought back against by surprise, some exhibited great will to live, as evidenced by the fact that it took so many of the good guy's bullets to put them down.
But one reason Lance Thomas prevailed against them was that his will to survive, to prevail, to stand up for the right thing was greater than their will to harm him. Outnumbered, drawing against drawn guns, sometimes wounded seriously at the opening of the encounters, Thomas never lost his indomitable will to survive, to fight, to prevail. This, in the last analysis, may be the most important lesson each of us can draw from his experiences.
Again, a quote from Col. Cooper. "It is very difficult for a normal man to realize that he is suddenly in danger of death. The time it takes him to realize this and act upon it may be too long to save his life. Thus the prime quality of the gunfighter-- more important than either marksmanship or manual speed-- is the instant readiness to react to a threat."
A men. The subject of this article had this trait. It obviously kept him alive.
This is one of the very few "Ayoob Files" installments I have written without debriefing the survivor. I tried more than once to reach Thomas, and was unable to make contact. Given the many death threats and the unwelcome press attention, Thomas guards his privacy. It wasn't that he was hiding in terror from his antagonists. It was more that he took no pleasure in being lionized for his acts, and simply wanted to live his own life, quietly and peacefully.
It was all he had ever wanted when the men he had to kill in self-defense forced their way into his life. In the end, I had to respect his obvious wishes, and I abandoned the search. Thus, the information above comes primarily from Turning Point and the excellent Kirchner book.
Kirchner's The Deadliest Men celebrates strong individuals who used deadly force righteously. You'll not find Jack the Ripper, Henry Lee Lucas, or the Boston Strangler in those pages, deadly as they were. The Deadliest Men is a collection of heroes and heroines. Lance Thomas well deserves his place in the book.