Friday, May 17, 2024

Mindset: The Cooper Color Codes Revisited

Dominick Maldonado, Pierce 
County (WA) Sheriff's Department.
“When I changed into another position, I see just the most surreal sight,” McKown said from his bed at Tacoma General Hospital "It's a young Arabic-looking boy . . . with a ball cap on and an AK in his hand. McKown drew his 9mm pistol but then had second thoughts of shooting "a kid."

McKown told Dominick Maldonado (the shooter), "I think you need to put that gun down, young man."(1)

The “kid” turned and shot McKown five times, once in the leg and four times in the torso. Per McKown: "Every one of his shots got some part of me."

Cooper’s Color Code

The Cooper Color Code as Jeff Cooper promulgated it was not a system for describing levels of potential danger or situational awareness, but rather a technique to enable a law-abiding citizen (i.e. someone in McKown’s circumstance) to overcome a natural reluctance to use lawful deadly force against another.

Quoting Jeff Cooper: “The color code is not a means of assessing danger or formulating a tactical solution. It is rather a psychological means of overcoming your innate reluctance to shoot a man down. Normal people have a natural and healthy mental block against delivering the irrevocable blow. This is good, but in a gunfight it may well get you killed. The color code enables you to change your state of mind by three steps, each of which enables you to overcome your mental block and take lifesaving action.” (2)

Cooper’s color code conditions are White, Yellow, Orange, and Red as follows:

-- Condition White: Completely unprepared mentally to take a human life. In Condition White you may be in deadly danger and not realize it. If you are attacked in Condition White you are unlikely to be able to effectively respond and you may be seriously injured or killed.

-- Condition Yellow: State of relaxed alertness. In Condition Yellow although you are not aware of any specific situation which may call for immediate action, you know that you may have to defend yourself today. You understand that the world is full of hazards, many of which are human, and that your readiness to take defensive action can mitigate these threats. If you are attacked in Condition Yellow you will probably prevail if you are armed and may be able to take effective action even if unarmed.

-- Condition Orange: In Condition Orange you become alert to the possibility of a deadly threat in your immediate environment. In Condition Orange you understand that you may have to shoot a specific threat, right now, today. Your normal reluctance becomes easier to overcome because your training tells you that someone is threatening to use unlawful deadly force against you or another innocent.

Although you remain cognizant of the legal and moral aspects of the situation, the actions of that threat—right there—dictate your next move.

-- Condition Red: In Condition Red you have decided to act the instant the threat’s behavior warrants an immediate response. You have drawn your pistol because you are justified in taking the threat at gunpoint (and therefore justified in immediately using lawful deadly force); you can articulate why this is so. You wait for a trigger or immediately take lifesaving actions as the totality of the circumstances dictate.

An addition to the Cooper Color Code:

-- Condition Black: The color code as many instructors currently teach: The threat has tripped a final trigger. You must immediately use lawful deadly force to defend yourself or another innocent.

Massad Ayoob teaches that Condition Red delineates the gunpoint situation where you have clearly identified a threat (I am ready to shoot this person) but the threat is not using unlawful deadly force at that instant (I am not going to shoot this person yet). Ayoob defines Black as the instant an unlawful assault using deadly force is in progress upon you or other innocent people. In other words, a trigger or decision point at which we have no alternative but to use lawful deadly force to neutralize the threat. In this view, Black, describes the various triggering events that cause you go from readiness (Condition Red) to action.

Cooper contended that “Condition Black” was unnecessary and that Condition Red sufficed because in his view you have decided you are ready to use lawful deadly force when you enter Condition Red and as a result, there is no need to go beyond that condition. 

As stated above, many who teach Condition Black contend that there is a difference between being ready to act and deciding to act; that being in a Condition Red state of mental readiness does not necessarily imply immediate action.

Cooper himself alluded to this fact: “In Condition Red, you are ready to fight. You may not actually have to act on that, but your body and mind are now prepared for physical conflict. While this does not mean you instantly attack someone, you are certainly ready and waiting for a specific trigger or predetermined action that will launch the process. This state is where you have decided that you are ready and willing to fight back. Most people quite properly find this a difficult step, but the difficulty may be eased if it is anticipated. Thus, you cannot shift any farther upscale than Red, because in Red you have already surmounted the barrier. Adding categories merely complicates the problem without achieving any useful objective.” (3)

So, is Condition Black necessary? I guess it depends on how you view the problem. If the color code “conditions” describe a state of readiness then Condition Black is not necessary as Cooper contends. Once a critical trigger is tripped moving you to Condition Red, you are no longer in a state of readiness, but rather a state of action—you are actively responding to a deadly threat. If you accept this view, Black may be a decision point; however, it is not a condition.

Do you need another psychological condition to help you pull the trigger? Jeff Cooper would have said no, and I tend to agree. (4) I don’t think we need Black as a readiness condition; however, describing Black as a decision or trigger point may be useful after the event to enable you to articulate your mindset during the incident and how/why you knew you were facing unlawful deadly force.

Dan McKown was unable to shoot someone that looked to his eyes like a kid (see opening picture) even though that kid was actively shooting people in a crowded mall. McKown was in Condition White and his reluctance could easily have cost him his life and did likely cost him a lifetime of pain.

McKown's hesitancy had nothing to do with situational awareness, he was fully aware that he faced an immediate deadly threat. The tactically sound action at that moment would have been to immediately shoot Maldonado; however, he had not resolved in his own mind what he was and was not capable of doing. I am not criticizing McKown’s choice; however, if he had not been armed, McKown likely would not have confronted Maldonado.

I have been a Texas License to Carry (LTC) instructor for over eleven years and have taught over 1500 LTC students. Prior to COVID when I was doing in-person classes, I always asked every student why they wanted to get an LTC and whether they planned to carry a pistol. “I don’t want to shoot someone; I just want to be able to scare them if I am threatened” or “I only plan to carry my pistol when I think I might need it” were common answers. I believe that these students were in Condition White.

In classes, I have always stressed that the time to make such decisions is before, not during an incident. If you are not capable of using lawful deadly force, then all the training you may have completed and the fact that you possess a pistol is irrelevant.


(1) Tacoma News Tribune,

(2) Jeff Cooper's Commentaries Volume Six, No 9, pg 45-46

(3) Jeff Cooper's Commentaries Volume Eleven, No 12, pg 56

(4) Jeff Cooper's Commentaries Volume Thirteen, No 1, pg 4: “Moving from the various Conditions into each other is easy to accomplish once it is understood. If you are attacked in White you will lose the fight. In Yellow you will have the advantage of initiative response over your antagonist. In Orange you are pretty safe, provided you are armed, alert and aware. In Red you win. Simple, isn't it? Clearly you cannot go any further than Red because in Red you have already made the lethal decision. Complications are unproductive.”