From The National Rifle Association, by David Burnett, January 2012 –Average Right-to-Carry permit holders will load or unload their handgun thousands of times over their lifespan. The guns tucked discretely inside waistbands, behind car seats and inside purses will rarely see action outside of the practice range, and the owners carefully observe the laws regarding their use and possession.
Yet tucked away in the corner of each armed citizen’s mind is the possibility of a day when that seldom-used firearm becomes the only lifeline to survival.
For Michelle Cornelsen of Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, that day came on a snowy morning during the wee hours of December 30, 2009. For John Lee of Miami, Fla., it came after Memorial Day 2010.
We asked each of them about their experiences, what they learned and what we can learn from them. Here are their stories:
In Miami, John Lee had been celebrating Memorial Day. After attending a cookout at the home of a friend, he dropped by to visit his daughter before heading to his apartment.
This was a regular routine for Lee, just another typical evening. Upon arriving home, however, things changed quickly.
“I got out of my car to go inside my apartment and three guys just jumped out,” Lee said. “They had a gun right in my face. They said, ‘Let me get that,’ and I’m looking right at his face, and it’s like something from the movies. I had a chain and bracelet and watch, and I guess I was taking too long and he fired the shot. It hit me in my left hand, broke it up.”
Lee knew he was dead if he didn’t do something quickly to stop the attack. So he reached for his own concealed handgun.
“By the time he could fire another shot, I reached for my gun,” Lee said. “He fired again and it hit me in my hand. By this time it’s like World War III out there. I’m firing shots at them around the car, they’re shooting at me. Then they ran off.
“I wasn’t able to hit them, but firing the shots scared them off. One of them was so scared he dropped the ski mask he was holding.”
The gunfight was like nothing Lee could have ever imagined. Being shot multiple times was such a surprise, survival was all that entered his mind.
“When you’re hit, your adrenaline’s going,” he said. “After the gun smoke cleared, I had blood rushing out like crazy.
“When I got out there to call the police, I was worried I wouldn’t survive. I was worried I wouldn’t see my kids again, or my mom. I wanted to hang up on the 9-1-1 operator and call my mom because I wasn’t sure if this would be it for me. But she didn’t let me. When you find out you’re going to be okay—you’re going to make it, you’re still there—it’s a big relief.”
Emergency workers stabilized Lee and got him to the hospital. In the end, he had two gunshot wounds to the abdomen and a severely broken hand.
Yet he was still alive—something he believes would have been different had he not chosen to acquire a Right-to-Carry permit and arm himself for protection.
“If I hadn’t had a gun, I wouldn’t be talking to you now,” Lee said matter-of-factly. “I know I wouldn’t. They didn’t have masks, anything. I wouldn’t be talking to you.
“Today’s society, you just never know. You see things happening on the news, you see things happening around the neighborhood. It definitely came in handy that night.”
Lee said that although he kept the fact that he carries a firearm mostly a secret, some who knew thought he was crazy for doing so.
“I try not to let too many people know that I carry a gun,” he said. “I kind of keep it a secret.
“The only one uncomfortable with it at first was my grandma. When she was growing up, it was different. She always asked me why I have it. And I’m like, ‘I’m legal, I have the right, and you just never know.’ She was always skeptical. But now she won’t let me leave the house without it, even to take out the garbage.”
Since the attack and the subsequent revelation of his choice to carry a firearm, however, many have congratulated Lee for saving his own life in an extremely tough situation.
“People recognize me to this day,” Lee said. “When I got back to work, people bought me cake. People came to the job just to make sure I was okay. They were glad I fought back. A lot of people showed me love, just being able to fight back so they [the attackers] couldn’t get anything.
“It was like I was a hero. I can’t even explain the feeling.”
The “hero” label, however, is one that Lee won’t accept. To him, he simply did what he had to do and had a right to do.
“I tell them I’m not a hero,” he said. “I went through what any man or woman would do when fighting for your life. I tell them all the time, ‘You’d probably do the same thing.’
“I work hard for everything I get. For someone just to come and take it? I can’t have that. I was in the ER and the doctor was like, ‘You need to play the lottery, man!’ They made me feel better while they cleaned me up. A lot of people don’t get a chance to shoot back or fight back, so they’re glad I had the chance to.”
Despite the fact that Lee would almost certainly be in a grave right now had he not been carrying a gun, there are still many who would deny him that right. And there are many who will still argue straight to his face that guns are bad—guns only make bad situations worse.
Of course, Lee isn’t buying it.
“I had a nice little talk with one guy who was, like, ‘Guns aren’t good for anyone!’ So I asked how he’d feel if someone was in his house robbing him.
“Guns are not the problem. It’s the people that have the guns. The bad guys are going to have the guns. How would you feel if a guy’s got a gun on you and you can’t do anything about it? If something’s happening to your family, your friends, and you can’t fight back? That’s not right. If they take away guns—trust me, man, that’s crazy.”
Lee had a good response to the man’s argument.
“I told him, ‘Sir, trust me. If you were in my situation, you’d wish you had your gun on you.’ It’s kind of funny. He was like, ‘Damn, you didn’t hit one of them?’ It was like a double standard.”
Before the incident, Lee was sold on the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. Now, after the healing is complete but the attack is still fresh in his mind, he realizes even more the importance of that right.
“I don’t live in a shell,” he said. “I’m going to take care of my family, I’m going to pay my bills, and I will protect myself.
“Being able to protect myself legally is a good thing. Why wouldn’t you?”
Michelle Cornelsen added the moniker “Armed and Delicious” to her Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, coffee shop after a juvenile offender attempted to rob her at gunpoint. Earlier in her career, a series of robberies at coffee shops first prompted her to get a gun to defend herself.
“I worked at some stands in Seattle, and one morning three guys robbed seven stands in, like, two hours’ time,” she said. “I spent the morning thinking, ‘What if they come to rob me? [Should I] throw hot water on them?’
“I went home and realized this was stupid. I’d grown up with guns, why did I not have one? I told [then-fiancé] Kevin I should get my concealed [carry permit], and he said it was really easy if I’m not a felon. So I went and got it.”
The circumstances on the day she was confronted by an armed robber are still fresh in her mind today.
“I used to have a .45, but it got stolen,” Cornelsen said. “I had my backup, a little Colt Mustang .380. But my husband, Kevin, wanted me to have something bigger. So he bought me a Kel-Tec 9 mm for Christmas. We went into the woods and shot it for the first time, and then I unloaded it. I had to go back to work the next day, and walked out the door, but realized I only had two shells in my gun. For some reason, it was important to me to go back and get the shells. It actually made me late for work.”
The fateful morning started just like any other morning at her coffeehouse. Business was brisk, and she stayed busy keeping customers’ orders filled.
“At work, I always kept my Mustang in the same spot and practiced grabbing it quickly,” she said. “So I did the same thing for the 9 mm.
“It was about 6 o’clock in the morning, and I was really busy. I hadn’t even had my own coffee yet. I finally got a moment to get my own drink when I got a feeling like I was being watched. I looked out the windows, it was hard to see out because the light is on inside. There was a guy looking in the window just staring at me. He had a hood on and a blue bandanna.”
Cornelsen had a feeling something wasn’t right. The customer made small talk for a while before she realized he wasn’t there for coffee. Before she could react, however, he pulled a gun and placed it on the counter.
“He said, ‘I’m really sorry, but I’m going to need you to give me all your money,’” Cornelsen recalls. “And I just looked at him. What the heck do you say to someone who just said they’re going to rob you? I told him, ‘Believe me, you don’t want to rob me.’”
The assailant apologized, but insisted he needed the money. As she talked with him, Cornelsen pulled the drawer with the gun halfway open, looked down at it and tried to judge whether she could get the gun pointed at the robber before he could pick his gun up and shoot her.
“I thought, ‘All right, Lord, give me the drop,’” she said. “He crossed his hands over the gun, and I realized he couldn’t get to it in time. So I grabbed mine, put it right in his face and told him to go away. Like, right in front of his nose.
“I don’t have a safety, but I know the trigger pull. I was beginning to pull the trigger, and right before I pulled, he backed off and started leaving.”
After her assailant left, Cornelsen called 9-1-1. At first, she said, the operator didn’t take her seriously. That is, until she told her she would shoot the assailant dead if he returned.
“Within 15 minutes, it looked like Christmas,” she said. “There were cops everywhere. They caught him really soon and had me identify him.”
Looking back at the incident, Cornelsen realizes that only a few years earlier she wouldn’t have been able to protect herself in such a way. She believes a gun owner must have a plan and rehearse that plan repeatedly to be effective when the chips are down.
“ I carried for years and never really had a specific plan for specific situations,” she said. “I had [the gun]—that was enough. But for some reason, a couple of years ago it got serious. In the military, they’re trained so they just do, they don’t think. So I decided I was going to practice and practice and practice and practice so that I knew exactly what I’d do if I ever was robbed.
“My whole reaction was something I programmed into myself.”
“I looked at him, and basically thought, ‘I don’t want to have to kill this kid. I hope I can defend myself in two ways—with words and using my gun to convince him to leave. This is somebody’s son making a bad decision. I hope I don’t have to kill him. But I will if I have to.’
“That’s the ultimate reason behind carrying, that it’s your life over someone else’s—the decision that you’re defending yourself. My main thought was being sad that I might have to make this decision.”
Cornelsen said that some people believe she is wrong for keeping her gun readily at hand. Some even believe she is crazy to do so. She has a good answer for those people.
“I always kept it quiet [that I had a gun]. The element of surprise is your best friend,” she said. “But since then, I’ve had people say, ‘You’re crazy.’ And I say, ‘No, I’m not crazy; I’m alive.’”
Cornelsen has gained some amount of notoriety since facing down an armed robber without ever firing a shot. Since the story went national—even worldwide on the Internet—visitors to Coeur D’Alene sometimes come to her shop and comment on the episode.
“Two months ago I had a couple come in from New York,” she said. “They are moving to Coeur d’Alene, and they said it was because they heard about my news story and started doing research on Coeur d’Alene and decided they wanted to live there.
“I had a friend who read it in Malaysia. It’s kind of funny how far it actually went. I still do have people that come in for the first time from out of state to say, ‘Good for you.’”
Of course, there are people who still argue that owning a gun makes a person less safe, rather than safer. Cornelsen knows just how to address such an argument.
“I ask them what the laws are in the state they refer to, because the states with the highest amounts of gun crimes are most likely the states with the most restrictions,” she said.
“The old saying, ‘When the guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns’ is more than true.
“Guns are dangerous? No, they’re not. They don’t shoot themselves; they don’t walk around the street creating problems or committing crimes on their own. In the wrong hands, they are [dangerous].”
Cornelsen has even confronted those who believe that America needs to just get rid of all guns. Wouldn’t that make things safer?
“I have a two-by-four in my garage; don’t you think I could do a lot of damage with that?” she said. “How about a baseball bat? How about a golf club? A hand is a very harsh weapon if you decide to punch somebody. Anything can be a weapon. Just because it shoots a projectile doesn’t make it a weapon.”
Despite her heroic effort during the armed robbery attempt, Cornelsen, like Lee following his shootout, doesn’t believe she should be referred to as a hero.
“I just tell them that they need to reserve that for people who actually are heroes—the military defending our freedom overseas,” she said. “I only did something I’m lawfully allowed to do, that anybody would do to protect themselves. I’m not a hero. I didn’t save anybody. I prefer ‘hero’ to ‘victim,’ but I’m not a hero.
“People who are heroes are people who have lost their lives defending my freedom. There’s no way to thank them.”
Although Cornelsen is quite humble about the situation many refer to her as a hero. She has some advice for them.
“I thank people and tell them to go get their concealed-carry permit when they say that,” she said.
Cornelsen has replayed the episode hundreds of times in her mind. Looking back, she has no doubt she would have pulled the trigger had her armed assailant not backed away.
“If I had to, I would have,” she said. “And I was close. He had enough sense to back off. He was a nanosecond away from being blown away.
“But he came at me with a firearm. He basically decided that for himself. When you bring a gun against someone to do them harm, you’re taking your own life into your hands.”
The memories of that day are still quite vivid in Cornelsen’s mind. After all, a near gun battle isn’t something you forget about quickly.
“It took two days to come down from the experience,” she said. “People say you can have nightmares after the rush wears off and reality hits you, when you all of a sudden think, ‘Oh my gosh, I almost died,’ or ‘I almost killed that kid.’
“It wasn’t a sadness or paranoia for me—it was anger,” she added. “I’m a Christian—it’s not up to me to decide who lives or dies. That’s God’s job. I don’t have a concealed-carry permit to be a vigilante. But that kid almost made me decide to end his life, and that made me mad! Who the heck are you to force me to have to live with those consequences for the rest of my life?”
Author’s Note: During our interview with Michelle, we were treated to pleasant interjections from Michelle’s 5-month-old baby girl, Dylann. There’s no denying every gun crime and accidental death impacts more than just the life taken. But for both John Lee and Michelle Cornelsen, it’s also clear that an act of self-defense saves more than just one life.