What to do during a robbery

woman being robbed

Yesterday, my kids overheard me talking about a women who was the victim of an attempted robbery in Portland. A man with a knife approached a woman and demanded money. The woman was able to retrieve a handgun from her car and point it at the man, scaring him off.

I am very glad she’s OK, and hope the police catch the suspect.

My daughter asked, “Daddy, what would you do if somebody pointed a knife at you and asked for money.” My daughters know that I have trained in combative martial arts for decades, and have been teaching self-defense for over 15 years. My answer might have surprised her a little.

“Well honey, I’d give them my money.”

You see, knives and guns are very dangerous. A cut to an artery can render you unconscious in seconds and dead in a couple of minutes. Gunshots are bad news too.

Just so we’re all clear on what a robbery is: it is basically theft by force, or the threat of force.

The important thing is this: There is nothing in my wallet or nothing I own that I would throw away my life for.

Here’s my wallet, good luck, the credit cards are maxed-out.

This strategy might change if, instead of a threat, the person leads with violence or has something else in mind, or if I am protecting my family.

There are very few hard and fast rules in self-defense, but there are options.

Fight, flight, comply, or resist

These are the four basic choices you have under threat of violence, and each has its strengths and weaknesses, which I’ll cover here.


This is where you simply refuse to do what the person tells you to do. Obviously, the risk here is that they make good on the threat of violence. It’s definitely a riskier option than compliance.

I did this once in Boston when I was young, dumb, and without kids. A man approached me from the rear and told me he was going to blow my head off if I didn’t give him my wallet. I glanced over my shoulder and saw his hands were empty, so I spun around and confronted him. I think I shocked the heck out of him.

I stood him down and got him to leave, but I was prepared to fight or run if I needed to.


This is where you simply hand over whatever the person is demanding. Most of the time, this is the safest option. You can replace stuff, but you are irreplaceable.

I have had a friend who was robbed once, and got away after giving over her money ask me what she could have done differently. I asked her, “did you get away unharmed?”


“Then job well done, in my book.”

The danger comes from the robber who isn’t satisfied with what you turn over – more on that in a minute.


This is where you run away. I call this “run-fu,” and I am a huge fan. If you can safely run from violence and get to a safer place – do it. I don’t care if you’re Chuck Norris. Put some distance, some cover, and some concealment between you and the threat.

I would be super-careful about turning your back on an criminal who is at close range. It’s impossible to defend yourself from a threat you can’t see. But, if you can bolt towards safety – it’s a good option.

Now, I am not a lawyer, and nothing I ever say or write should be construed as any kind of legal advice. That said, there is a legal concept in justifiable self-defense called “duty to retreat.” This means that, except in your home in Maine, you have a legal obligation to retreat if it’s safe to do so before you can physically defend yourself.

I ca’t think of a situation where running away is going to get you into legal trouble.


I don’t really like the word “fighting” as it almost implies a sports match, or mutually agreed-upon combat, but there aren’t really better words. What we’re talking about here is the counter use of force, or threat of force.

Here’s one of my rules, and something I teach my students. Don’t threaten, either do or do not use violence. Don’t give away information, and don’t escalate.

“But what about the woman in the story who scared away the guy using her gun.”

There are exceptions, and this is one of them. If you can use a threat, which is visible, and you can back up the threat if need be – it is an option.

I should tell you that, in the state of Maine, the threat of deadly force is the same exact thing as the use of non-deadly force. So be careful about issuing threats. The woman in this story was clearly justified.

So when would I use violence?

Always as a last resort. If I couldn’t get away, if somebody attacked me first, or if my family was under threat. Then you must only use a reasonable amount of force, and stop once the person is no longer a threat.

One of the things many trained and untrained people get wrong, and sometimes go to prison for, is the crossover from self-defense to assault. If you don’t stop when the threat is neutralized, your use of force is no longer justified.

A good mindset for physical self-defense is that it’s about escape. It’s about getting to a safer place. You fight your way free and you get somewhere safer.

Safety rules

Remember I said there are few, hard and fast rules when it comes to personal protection? Here are a couple of them…

1. Never let a criminal take you to a second location.
Abductions are nearly always fatal. In Maine, the use of deadly force is authorized to stop an abduction, and for good reason. A criminal is not taking you away because he has good intentions for when he gets you isolated.

My personal take is that I would fight, literally tooth and nail, to stop this from happening.

2. Never let a criminal tie you up
Again, their intentions for you are not good. Tied up, you have zero options.

3. If you are going to fight, fight early and fight hard
Statistics show, particularly with sexual assaults, that women who fight back are less likely to be injured during the assault. The earlier you fight in the encounter, the better as well.

This is not to say that you might comply with a robber first, and then be forced to fight later. However, under assault you probably won’t be thinking as clearly as you are now. So decide now that, if you have to, you’re going to fight with everything you have.

Maine’s still safe

I hate to scare people, so I want to leave you with this. Despite the stabbings, shootings, and robberies in the news, Maine is still a relatively safe place to live.

Dramatic events stick in our brains and we overestimate their occurrence. This is part of a cognitive bias called the availability heuristic.

You can be smart without being scared. You can be prepared without being paranoid.

John Moore

About John Moore

John Moore is a Maine native who overcame congenital physical limitations to achieve a 3rd degree black belt in jujutsu. He holds two master's degrees, and is a nationally certified crime prevention instructor. John teaches martial arts and self defense in the Portland area