The Gun Guru of YouTube

John Correia wants you to prepare for the worst day of your life.

Andy Friedman

Someday John Correia will meet Jesus. As an ordained pastor, he has thought about how their first conversation will go. That is why he keeps his Heckler & Koch VP9 loaded with a 9-mm magazine in pristine condition. “You’re only going to draw a gun on the worst day of your life,” Correia told me. “You want to make sure the equipment works. I treat these mags like babies.” If he drops one and dents it, he never carries it again. “I don’t want Jesus to look at me and go, ‘How come you didn’t test your equipment, dummy?’ ” Better to be shot dead in a fair fight. “At the very least I want him to say, ‘He smoked you! He was better than you!’ And I’ll say, ‘Yes, Lord, I got smoked.’ ”

Until two years ago, Correia, who is 42, was not well known outside Phoenix, where he was raising four kids, tending a conspicuously well-armed flock at West Greenway Bible Church, and teaching part-time at Arizona Christian University. (He co-wrote a book about the Koine Greek word pistis, or “belief.”) I had come to visit him in Phoenix because in 2016 he was born again, professionally, as YouTube’s top expositor of mayhem, a subject in which I take both personal and professional interest. “I’m the John Madden of on-camera violence,” he says. About once a day, he posts a video depicting graphic real-life violence. Then he slows down the video and explains what happened, and how the good guys might have prevailed, or avoided the confrontation altogether. If you have never seen a person stabbed, shot, or (in one case) bludgeoned with a fish tank, go watch the 800 videos Correia has edited and analyzed. His popularity on YouTube has made him a minor celebrity at gun conventions. In deep-red states, people recognize his bearish, jovial figure on the street and greet him. “They’re always nice,” he says. “Maybe that’s because they know I’m probably armed.”

Correia’s transformation began when he asked his self-defense teacher how to guard against a knife attack. “The way we practiced didn’t seem right,” he told me. On YouTube, Correia had watched a few real-life stabbings caught on surveillance video, and “they didn’t look like what we were training against.” In the safety of the dojo, Correia and his classmates were practicing for an attacker who would extend his blade with one elegant thrust, like an Olympic fencer. “There was no energy, no resistance, no ill will,” he added. A real killer, the surveillance footage suggested, will hook you by the neck with one arm and plunge the knife into you repeatedly with the other, shredding your belly into strips of human bacon and chitterlings. “I asked him, ‘What do we do about this?’ ” The sensei, normally hard to stump, didn’t have an answer. “Right now,” he shrugged, “we die.”

Since then, Correia has watched approximately 13,000 more videos of deadly and near-deadly encounters, in an effort to bring reality to a field distorted by fantasy. As violence has become rarer, fewer people have had the misfortune of becoming personally acquainted with it. We harbor illusions about how muggings, gangland slayings, and bar fights go down, and about what we can do to intervene or protect ourselves. The new ubiquity of video surveillance could force gun nuts and gun haters alike to confront reality. Correia says he is “an evidence-based self-defense trainer”—a sabermetrician of violence who, having cataloged the events of each video, can tell you with nerdy accuracy that a third of attacks involve multiple assailants. Pepper spray works about 90 percent of the time. Twenty-three percent of the videos come from Brazil, so if you don’t want to be stabbed on camera, don’t go to Rio.

“Every situation is a snowflake,” he says. “But the same principles show up again and again. All I do is to teach people and give them a vocabulary for what to do.” In Correia’s most popular video, which is from Venezuela, an armed robber approaches his victim, an off-duty cop, in an ATM line. After dropping his wallet and necklace on the ground, the cop falls back, lets the mugger stoop to pick up the loot, and takes advantage of his distraction to draw a pistol and shoot the criminal four times. There are “some significant lessons here,” Correia says. He approves of the distraction. “This was incredibly wise … Give [the mugger] something else to think about. Don’t just stand there and fight him when he’s strong.” He commends the cop for “concealing his draw.” (The cop hid, somewhat ungallantly, behind a civilian for a few seconds to do so.) “This guy did a great job.”

Video: How to Win a Gun Fight

"If you can’t be safe, be dangerous," says Correia in this Atlantic documentary.

Correia’s narration is notable for its sanity and practicality, and (a rarity in the gun world) for not viewing all problems as solvable with more and larger guns. He used to carry more than one gun on his person, plus a spare mag in case he needed to reload. But in his study of violent encounters, he has seen zero emergency reloads and zero uses of a backup gun (or bug, in gun lingo), so he seldom carries extra mags anymore and has stopped carrying an extra gun altogether. He replaced them with a first-aid kit—which he has used twice, once to save a life—and pepper spray, which he has used twice to defend himself against stray dogs.

Overwhelmingly, the lesson of his videos is to avoid violence in the first place. “The answer to most social violence is: Check your ego,” he told me. Give up your valuables. Don’t kill to save your car, and don’t die to save your wallet. Don’t play “the monkey game,” an escalating display of dominance, often but not always between two drunk men. Many of the videos take place at ATMs or in what he calls “transitional spaces,” such as convenience stores and parking lots. He enumerated for me his “rules of stupid”: “Don’t do stupid things with stupid people at stupid times.”

Fans have come to love his folksy catchphrases. His pepper-spray canister is a “spicy-treat dispenser.” When a woman pulls a gun from her purse and sends a mugger scrambling, the mugger is experiencing the “fibsa factor” (“Fudge, I’m being shot at”). A victim who disarms his assailant then pummels him for good measure is administering (against Correia’s advice) an “educational beatdown.” When uniformed cops jump on a suspect, it’s a “polyester pileup.” Armed robbers killed by their victims have “taken the room-temperature challenge.” Murder victims remind us, Pastor John says, of the need for “spiritual fitness”—mental preparedness for the possibility that “today might be your last, and you need to be right with your loved ones and right with God.”

“If you know how many guns you own,” Correia told me, “you don’t have enough guns.” I have watched nearly all of Correia’s videos but do not carry a gun, or wish to. (I once owned one—a single-shot assassination tool, designed to look like a Montblanc pen—but couldn’t manage the paperwork necessary to bring it home from Pakistan.) Nevertheless, before we parted, I asked him to teach me to shoot, so he took me to a gun range for a lesson.

Like a flight attendant, Correia started the session with a litany of safety measures, reminding his assistant and me to keep our guns pointed downrange, to always treat them as if they were loaded, and to exercise trigger discipline (which is to say, keep your finger off the trigger when you’re not aiming downrange). He started by sending about 30 rounds through a human silhouette on a paper target, clustering them with each burst around the head and the heart. He liked the gun, an H&K P30sk, and admired its polymer-based frame. He used to carry a Glock, he says, but has become an H&K “fanboy” and a brand ambassador for the company. (“I prefer German murder-plastic to Austrian murder-plastic.”)

The jokes ended when Correia turned and offered to let me fire a few rounds. He handed the gun to me ritualistically, repeating verbatim his earlier safety reminders. Before he placed it in my hand, he popped out the magazine and invited me to probe the chamber with my finger, to satisfy myself that the gun was empty. “Nothing in there, right?” My finger emerged a little blackened. “Nothing,” I said, and he handed me the gun and a fresh magazine. I loaded it and aimed.

“Press the trigger slowly,” he said. “Let it go off. Let it surprise you.”

I lined up the iron sights with my left eye and the target. I snaked my finger around the trigger and applied pressure like he’d suggested, with the slow, deliberate squeeze of a python’s tail. Boom. The first shot poked an ovoid hole in the target’s epigastric region. “You’re a fast learner,” he said, generously. “That was about as perfect a shot as existed. We’re going to make an honorary Arizonan out of you.” The next two shots landed off-center. Correia remained encouraging.

On Second Amendment issues, Correia is very nearly a gun-rights absolutist. But he advised me, as gently as possible, that if I didn’t intend to put in time at the range, I might be safer unarmed. “You should be able to put five shots in five seconds in that circle,” he said, indicating an area seven yards away and about the size of a dinner plate. I could probably have hit a dinner table at that distance. A plate would’ve taken some work.

I don’t think I’m an especially incompetent shot. I’m just lazy and unwilling to spend hours at the range on the off chance that I run into a killer in a dark Brazilian alley. In Correia, however, I saw the perfect concealed-weapon carrier: someone who has trained to a high standard, who will avoid confrontation whenever possible, and who is much more eager to save lives with his first-aid training than to take lives with his VP9.

As Correia drove me to the airport, I told him about a news story I once read about a man, described as a “Good Samaritan,” who saw a kidnapping under way in a Walmart parking lot in Kansas. This was an armed Good Samaritan, and he killed the aggressor on the spot. I told him I remembered the biblical Good Samaritan story going differently, with the Samaritan administering first aid and nourishment rather than hot lead.

Correia, unsurprisingly, had thought a lot about how a Christian life might be reconciled with instruments of death. “I look forward to a day when there’s peace on Earth and goodwill toward men,” he told me. “That’s not going to happen till Jesus comes back.”

It sounded like a cop-out. But Correia wasn’t finished. “I have devoted my life to two things,” he said, his eyes on the road. The first was pastoring, and the second was armed self-defense. “And if my theological commitments are correct, neither of them will exist in the perfect state in which we’ll find ourselves later. If the picture of the afterlife that the Bible presents is true, we won’t be sitting on a cloud strumming a harp. There will be some continuity with the current world, but living in perfection.”

I asked whether there would be guns in heaven.

“No,” he said firmly. “When everyone follows the Lord and knows him and loves him and doesn’t have any problems, we won’t need guns.” (He later allowed that heaven might have target shooting, but only for recreation, not in training for self-defense.) “We won’t need preachers,” he added. “I’ll be out of work. I will have to find a new profession in eternity.”

This article appears in the September 2018 print edition with the headline “The Minister of Self-Defense.”