Thinking You’re a Hero, The John Wayne Syndrome

Making the decision to intervene with deadly force, requires much consideration.

You're a civilian concealed carrier, out and about on a typical day. You stop into the grocery store, turn to grab a box of Wheaties and hear screaming coming from the front of the store. Unsure of what is going on, but knowing you are armed, you now have to make a decision … investigate and possibly get involved, or avoid the area.

In this article, I am not talking about being personally attacked inside or outside of your home, or your family member being attacked. Of course you should defend yourself and your family against any attack with appropriate force. Instead, I want to address deciding to use force on a stranger's behalf.

There are hundreds of considerations you should be processing before you decide to intervene with deadly force on another's behalf. The type of crime being committed and the number of attackers are just two of these.

But… there is one mindset that can cloud your decision-making process, and get you killed. I have seen it in the Marine Corps during firefights and as an LEO.

Thinking You're Invincible:

Seeing well-trained people do things contrary to common and tactical sense is not uncommon. In the Marine Corps, we said the guy had the ‘John Wayne Syndrome.' The ‘John Wayne Syndrome' or the ‘Hero Complex' is something that affects the person's ability to properly calculate the risks and develop the proper response. This comes from a belief that the individual is invincible or bulletproof.

The exaggerated belief in one's abilities is a double edged sword. Controlled, this mindset allows us to persevere and succeed when our mind is telling us we can not. Uncontrolled, or used misguidedly, it can get us involved in situations where we are ill-prepared and ineffective against the threat. This is the situation we need to watch for.

Don't be a victim of the ‘John Wayne Syndrome'

Should You Get Involved?

This question is common in my Concealed Carry Class. There are legal issues dictating when you should use deadly force to intervene on someone else's behalf. Generally speaking, a civilian incurs an incredible amount of liability when they intervein on someone else's behalf. In some states, the person may face both civil and criminal charges if he/she mistakenly uses force against the wrong person. For this and many other obvious reasons, the legal implications should be one of the first things you should understand before carrying a firearm.

Legal issues aside, the question of should you get involved is extremely difficult to answer, and an individual decision based on countless factors.

I recommend you play ‘what if' scenario games. Wherever you are, think about what your response would be ‘if this happened.' For example, while in line at the bank (if people still go into the bank) think about what you would do if someone came in with a gun through that door, or the other door. What about your response if there were two bad guys etc.

Watch videos of shootings or assaults. Study how the person responded and what they did well, or what they could have done better. Study how bad guys react to certain actions. A quick internet search of something like ‘concealed carrier shoots bad guy' will return a plethora of pertinent videos. We can sometimes learn more from seeing poor decisions because the tragic results of those fatal flaws burn into our minds.

Sometimes what we think we can do, and what we can actually do are entirely different.

Know Your Role:

I know many of the readers have a desire to protect and help others, and this is a noble trait. But if you're are not a Law Enforcement Officer, don't act as one. As a civilian, you are not protected criminally or civilly like an LEO.

Don't get me wrong, you may be a high-volume shooter who possesses fighting and gun skills the average police officer doesn't. But knowing your role doesn't have anything to do with your skill set.

Your role as a civilian is to protect yourself and family FIRST, then, if appropriate and necessary help others. As a civilian, you may feel a moral obligation to help, but it's not your job and you have to differentiate between the two.

A police officer's job is difficult, dangerous and thankless. But they are the ones who protect the public and keep the peace. They possess other, less-lethal force options may be more appropriate in a given scenario. They also wear body armor and can radio other officers for assistance. Also, think about trying to detain someone if you don't carry cuffs.

Know Thy Self:

Be honest and know your abilities and limitations. If you haven't found your effective distance on the range, you should. Get an idea of the zone where you are a ‘can't miss' guaranteed hit, and where you have to get on the sights a little harder. This will help you determine realistic response to threats.

Know your level of physical fitness or hand to hand fighting skills, as well as physical limitations. Understand what you can and can't do, if the situation involves intervening without using a firearm.

Also know what you feel is worth risking your life for. Some of us posses the ability or nobility to risk our own lives on behalf of others. Some of us either lack this noble trait or just may feel that the need to continue to live as a dad or mom outweighs the potential good that can come from risking one's life on behalf of a stranger.

If you are a parent there are few things more important than staying alive for your children's sake.

Know Your Gear:

Every tool you carry has a specific purpose and may be more appropriate in a given situation. Sometimes the response may call for a gun sometimes not. Sometimes a knife, hand strikes or a blunt object may be the ‘proper tool.' Remember every tool has its limitations, respond accordingly with the tools at your disposal.

Handguns are great but they are not a magic wand. Part of knowing your gear involves trusting that it will work. So maintain your firearm, knife, holster etc. You must be able to trust that when you present your firearm and pull the trigger you are sending bullets into the bad guy, not hearing…CLICK.

And while we are on knowing your gear, you must know the condition of your firearm. By condition, I mean if it has a round in the chamber or not, and if the gun is on safe or not. This is not the article to discuss if you should or should not carry with a round in the chamber, or if you need a safety on your EDC. Whatever you choose to do, know the condition of your firearm so you don't screw it up.

Do You Really Know the Whole Story:

Before jumping into a situation where you don't know who the players are, pause and reflect. Do you REALLY know what's going on? For example, you exit a 7-11 at night, turn the corner and walk to your car. As you reach a poorly illuminated area of the parking lot, you see two men. One is kneeling and the other has a firearm drawn and pointed at the other guy. Both men are in plain clothes, and you hear ‘don't move or I'll shoot you!'

Is the guy kneeling on the ground being robbed by the guy with the gun? Could it be a narcotics detective in plain clothes (and we all know these dudes usually look grimier than the guys they arrest) effecting an arrest and you can't see his exposed badge?

Point is, we can come up with a lot of scenarios where things are not always as they seem. This is why intervening on someone else's behalf, is so risky.

It isn't always easy to identify who are the good and bad guys in the situation

Think About Tactics:

You can avoid getting involved in situations where you are ill-equipped if you think about tactical considerations, for example:

Intervening in a bank robbery where there are multiple suspects with rifles, while only having a 5 shot revolver is probably not the wisest thing to do, tactically speaking. This incident may devolve into one where engaging is your ONLY option, but it certainly is not preferable.

Getting involved in a situation when you have your toddler with you, will place you at a severe tactical disadvantage. It doesn't mean you shouldn't, it just means it is something that you HAVE to take into consideration when formulating your plan and decision to intervene.

While this point could really be found in any of the above sections, I am going to put it right in here. Remember, you are in plain clothes. The opportunity to be mistaken as a bad guy, not just by responding law enforcement, but an over anxious fellow concealed carrier is there.

Be a Good Witness:

Sometimes intervening, while legally and morally justifiable, is not the best solution. After weighing all the facts, you may determine the risks just don't outweigh the reward. In these situations, gathering as much information as you can, statements, descriptions, the direction of travel, vehicles people involved etc. can help in catching the bad guys.

AGAIN, I am not talking about hiding in the back snapping photos with your cell phone during an active shooter. But I think you get the point.

Not getting involved does not always mean you are a coward. Sometimes not getting involved and just being a good witness for Law Enforcement is the better thing to do.

You Expect me to Take All This Into Consideration Before I Act?

Yes, absolutely! I know it's a lot to contemplate, so don't try to do it all in 0.005 of a second. Think about scenarios, train for the known and possible contingencies, come up with a plan on how to secure your family, know your gear and your limitationsand know the law before hand.

So when the time comes, you can focus on the specifics of the incident, and make a decision.

Last but Not Least:

Make a decision and live with it. This doesn't mean make a bad decision and justify it. Sometimes indecisiveness is worse than making a bad decision. After weighing all the options you may only have two courses of action. Bad course number one, or bad course number two.

Think back to that active shooter. You may be out gunned and out manned. If it were just a robbery, you may choose not to intervene. But this is an active shooter incident, people are dying by the second. Each second spent weighing odds, another person dies. Do you intervene with the odds stacked against you? And if so when? Make a decision and live with the results.

It is natural to second guess your decisions in retrospect. But do your best and live with your decision to, or not to get involved. Don't ever feel like a coward for not getting involved, or a hero just because you did get involved.

Thinking that you are a hero is one mindset we want to avoid. Check out this list of 55 other concealed carry mistakes, and how to avoid them.

As always stay safe and God bless.

About Matthew Maruster

I follow my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ who is the eternal co-equal Son of God. I currently live in Columbus, Ohio with my wife and daughter. I served in the Marine Corps Infantry. I was a Staff Sergeant and served as a Platoon Sergeant during combat in Iraq. After I was a police officer at a municipal agency in San Diego County. I have a Bachelors's Degree in Criminal Justice from National University. MJ Maruster Defense.


  1. john\ on September 18, 2017 at 10:49 am

    Good article. Everyone should run through these decisions.

    • Matthew Maruster on September 18, 2017 at 4:03 pm

      Thank you John! I really think this aspect of concealed carry gets overlooked sometimes. It is something we should think about beforehand. God bless!

      • Davro on March 24, 2024 at 8:45 am

        So being a former Marine myself and never carrying a firearm, due to my John Wayne mentality, and being bulletproof, you are saying I should just dial 911?

  2. Bob on September 18, 2017 at 10:58 am

    Excellent thought provoking presentation. Thank you.

    • Matthew Maruster on September 18, 2017 at 4:02 pm

      Thanks Bob! Glad you liked the article! God bless!

  3. Mikial on September 18, 2017 at 4:57 pm

    Great article and food for thought. Some of us have extensive experience providing CP and some are recreational shooters with the common sense to prepare for the worst. Either way, you need to decide ahead of time where your boundaries lie. If I’m armed with a subcompact 9mm because of some social or clothing constraint, and an active shooter shows up I’m going to get myself and my wife (who is also always armed) out alive. That’s the best I can do. If, on the other hand I am coming out of the Men’s Room and see some slime ball pointing a gun at the 20 something chick at the 7-11, I’ll probably do my best to keep him from killing her.

    Know your limitations and be realistic in how you apply them.

    • Matthew Maruster on September 18, 2017 at 5:06 pm

      Glad you liked the article Mikial. Seems to me we have a similar mindset 🙂 stay safe and God bless.

  4. Chris on September 19, 2017 at 7:04 am

    Very good article. Far too many articles about concealed carriers being “Sheepdogs” with the expectation to protect as if they were LEOs. As mentioned I and most of my friends carry to protect family and myself first. The situation would have to be desperate and very obvious for me to intervene.

    • Matthew Maruster on September 19, 2017 at 3:05 pm

      Thanks, Chris. I agree that people hear the term ‘sheepdog’ and immediately think it has to mean they must protect everyone or risk being a coward. I think we can use the term sheepdog to refer to protecting ourselves and our family. Thanks so much for the feedback. God bless

  5. Todd L on September 19, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    This article reminded me of one of the stages at my locale IDPA match a few months ago. The senerio was a bank robbery in progress the doors where bared but windows were open and you are outside.

    When the start signal sounded I pulled out my cellphone pretended to dial 911 and report a robbery in progress.

    This got a good laugh and is exactly what I would do if this really happened to me. The only thing that could change that is if one of my family was in the bank.

    • Matthew Maruster on September 19, 2017 at 3:06 pm

      Hahaha that is a great story! I would say you passed that scenario flawlessly! 🙂 God bless

  6. Jeffrey on January 10, 2018 at 7:36 pm

    Any scenerios where a fella could get hasseled for NOT acting and stopping someone from hurting or killing somebody?

    • Matthew Maruster on January 10, 2018 at 8:37 pm

      Hi Jeffrey, great question, and thanks for the message. Legally speaking not one incident at all. Nowhere are citizens required to intervene with deadly force or other on someone else’s behalf. There is some confusion about ‘good samaritan laws’ where people believe this law requires them to act under penalty of law. But these laws are actually set to protect the person acting from liability. Think of the person who performs CPR but does it improperly or injures the person, and then gets sued. These laws help to protect against that, not obligate citizens to act as law enforcement.

      Could someone get hassled for not acting in certain scenarios? Sure, you probably will find people to give you a hard time because you didn’t intervene. But remember, no matter what you choose to do, people will find fault with it. So my best advice is base your decision on what you believe to be true and morally just. Act on your true beliefe (in accordance with what the law allows) and live with your decision. You will second guess yourself, but if you made your decision based on honest, moral and legal grounds, you can live with the outcome.

      Don’t listen to others, your choice your life. You have to live with the consequences not anyone else.

      God bless and stay safe!

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