Shocking Heroism: Fla. School Board Member Attacks Gunman With Purse

PHOTO Ginger Littletons attempt to hinder a gunmans attack on her co-workers by hitting him her purse is shown here in a video still.PlayABC News
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Some would call it crazy, others would say it's stupid, but there's no question that Ginger Littleton's attempt to hinder a gunman's attack on her co-workers by hitting him her purse was downright brave.

When Clay Duke, a 56-year-old resident of Panama City, Fla., pulled a gun at a school board meeting Tuesday afternoon, he ordered Littleton and a few other women to leave the room. But she didn't feel she could leave her fellow board members at Duke's mercy: A surveillance video shows her sneaking back into the room and attempting to knock the gun out of Duke's hand with a swat of her purse.

"I had a choice. Leaving and feeling that something bad was about to happen, and living with myself if something did, and I turned back ... and they were all sitting there lined up like ... sitting ducks. I could either walk away thinking something bad was going to happen and try to live with myself or I could try to do something to divert and delay. My bag was what I had," Littleton told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos.

Littleton's didn't succeed in her attempt, and Duke brushed her off and told her to leave again, pointing his gun at her but thankfully not shooting.

Her actions may seem irrational -- pitting a leather purse against a man with a gun -- but her willingness to risk her life in those crucial moments may have something to do with how the body and mind respond to fear.

"We have this stereotypical notion of people freezing up and running away when in mortal danger, but often you get people describing a real sense of calm. In psychology it's called dissociation -- you feel like you are watching a movie of yourself," said Jeff Wise, science writer and author of "Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger."

"Often you don't feel fear, you just perceive what needs to be done and do it. Not to denigrate the courage this woman displayed. This was certainly a heroic thing," he said.

The Fear Response and Heroism

In essense, heroic attempts like Littleton's are our body's fear response at it's best. "The fear response evolved to help us," Wise said. "It's this hundreds of millions of years old system. It's the same thing that kicks in when your boyfriend proposes or you're mad."

Most people today don't often get to use it as it's meant, for life or death dilemmas, because we tend to avoid such dangerous situations whenever possible, he said.

And it doesn't always kick in properly for everyone. There are those who freeze and those who run, but then there are those who stick around and hit the attacker with their purse. And the mystery, Wise said, is that it's impossible to tell who will stay and fight, and who will take flight until it happens.

It would appear that Ginger Littleton falls into the former category.

Littleton's heroics may have bought a little time for backup to reach the site, but Duke opened fire on the school board members before help could arrive. Fortunately, the estimated two rounds he shot off all failed to hit any of the board members. Duke then took his own life after a shot from security guard Michael Jones left him wounded.