Imagine, for a moment, that you are a young, single woman living alone. On your way home from work, you spot a strange man walking around in your neighborhood. He’s not exactly doing anything wrong at the moment, but something about him just seems off. You’re glad to be passing him in the car rather than walking by him on the sidewalk. You make the final turn onto your street, park the car, and go inside.

About half an hour later, your eye is drawn to movement outside your front window. You look through the blinds, and there he is–the same man you passed on the street earlier. He’s only walking down the sidewalk, albeit slowly, and doesn’t seem to be paying any particular attention to your house. Still, you can’t help but feel vulnerable. As your mind runs through a hundred “what ifs,” you take great comfort in knowing you have a loaded 9mm semi-automatic pistol in the bedroom. Better get it out, just to be safe.

Okay, now what? Is it loaded? There’s a magazine in the grip. I think that means it’s loaded. The hammer is cocked, so it should be ready to fire. Now, what about the safety? The safety lever is up. Does that mean it’s off? I think that’s right. But what if it’s not? Maybe I should ask somebody…

In a country with 55 million gun owners, scenarios like the one described above play out a hundred times a day: someone who owns a firearm for self-defense is presented with a good reason to retrieve that firearm only to realize that they don’t remember how to operate it properly. Or even worse, they think they know how it works, but remember incorrectly. Some of these situations result in the successful use of the firearm in defense of life. Others lead to accidents resulting in death, serious injury, or legal trouble.

The scenario with the young woman was made up, but it was inspired by a true story relayed to me by Justin Carroll, a regular contributor to Lucky Gunner Lounge. A few months ago, he received a text message from a friend with a picture of her Sig P938, asking whether the safety was on. There was a “sketchy guy” in her neighborhood she was concerned about. In his personal blog Revolver Guy, Justin uses this story to support the idea that non-dedicated shooters may be better off with a revolver. From the user’s standpoint, revolvers are less complicated than semi-autos, and it’s easier to remember how to operate them. I’m inclined to agree with Justin on that point, but there’s another aspect to the story I want to draw attention to.

Shooters who consider themselves experienced and well-informed typically scoff at this kind of ignorance among less dedicated gun owners. “How could she be so negligent? She isn’t taking this seriously! She needs training!” But here’s the catch: Justin’s friend had received training. She has her concealed carry permit and she had attended at least two additional day-long shooting classes. Yet she was still not familiar enough with her gun to know how to use it in case of a life-threatening violent attack.

Again, this is not a unique situation. I’ve personally encountered many gun owners with previous “training” who are no better equipped to use their firearm to defend their own life than someone who has never held a gun before.

Is it possible that “you need training” isn’t the easy, fix-all answer we want it to be? I’d like to offer a few reasons why defensive firearms training often fails to instill the level of preparedness we would like to think it does.

1. Time and Cost

Training is only effective if people actually take it. According to Karl Rehn’s research, only about 1% of gun owners ever receive any formal training beyond what is required by law in order to receive a carry permit or hunting license. Karl offers a number of compelling hypotheses for why people do and do not pursue training. Anecdotally, however, the reasons I most often hear in opposition to training are that it’s too expensive or it takes too much time.

Of course, a distinction has to be made between “I don’t have the time/money to train” and “I don’t think training is worth the time/money.” The former argument is often merely an excuse when someone is unwilling to admit the latter. I witnessed a perfect demonstration of this phenomenon last Fall with a couple of articles we published. The first was about the importance of self-defense training. Much of the feedback we received was about the prohibitive cost of training. So I followed it up a few weeks later with some tips for training on a budget. That article (and the accompanying video on our YouTube channel) is one of the least viewed on our blog from the last year. I don’t say that to complain about our web traffic, but I think it reveals something about where people’s priorities lie.

“This woman was determined to do whatever she could to protect her family, but a $400 weekend-long class was probably well out of her reach, and not particularly helpful for an attack that might come tonight.”

If shooting is your hobby and you can afford a safe full of pistols and rifles, then you can almost certainly afford a few hundred bucks for a defensive handgun class. The problem among this group isn’t so much a lack of time or money, it’s a lack of motivation. They may look at someone like the woman at the beginning of this article and think “At least I’m familiar with how my guns work. What more do I really need to know?” Well, a great deal, really, but such is the curse of the Dunning-Kruger effect: you don’t know what you don’t know.

But for many, the problem is not motivation. Their roadblock to quality training truly does come down to a lack of resources. A couple of years ago, veteran firearms instructor Greg Ellifritz shared a compelling story on his blog about a young single mother of two he met completely by chance at the local public shooting range. She had good reason to believe someone may try to break into her home within the next few days, so she bought a cheap 9mm pistol and a box of ammo and went to the range to try to figure out how to use it.

This woman was determined to do whatever she could to protect her family, but a $400 weekend-long class was probably well out of her reach, and not particularly helpful for an attack that might come tonight (in addition to taking too much time, another common challenge is that the available training options are often not timely). She was fortunate enough to run into Greg while waiting in line, and he generously offered to coach her for the next hour, free of charge. Most other folks in similar situations will not stumble into such an opportunity. I don’t have an easy answer for this, but I do wish there was a way to connect motivated students who have an imminent need for defensive firearms training with qualified instructors who would be willing to help them.

2. People Forget

This one should be obvious. Imagine going through driver’s education as a teenager, getting your license, and then, after waiting ten years before you get behind the wheel again, the first thing you see is a drunk driver veering into your lane at 60 mph. That is the experience of many gun owners who suddenly find themselves in a violent encounter years after taking their one and only training course (or maybe it was a one on one coaching session with Uncle Tex from the Special Forces).

Shooting is considered a “perishable skill.” That essentially means if you don’t use it, you lose it. The degree to which your shooting skill degrades over time is dependent on factors like the quality and duration of your initial training, how often you practice following that training, your natural mechanical aptitude, and as mentioned earlier, the mechanical complexity of the firearm you’re using. Introduce the stress of a violent attack into the equation, and recency of practice becomes an even more important shield against skill degradation.

Successful armed resistance in a civilian context does not typically involve difficult feats of marksmanship, but it does often require a smooth drawstroke with a gun that is ready to be fired (meaning the gun has to be functional, loaded with a round chambered, and when applicable, the safety disengaged). This may sound like a pretty low bar for competency, but many gun owners could not accurately tell you the status of the gun they carry or keep for defense of the home, nor do they know for certain how to check. Whether or not they have had training in the past, without regular practice (which could be as simple as handling the gun and going through a few minutes of dry practice), people forget.

3. Not Everyone Wants a New Hobby

Whether it’s intentional or not, most civilian firearms training is marketed to people who have already adopted firearms as a recreational interest. But not everyone who owns a gun for personal protection has any desire to join the so-called “shooting community.”

That point seems difficult for some to believe, so try substituting “gun” with something else you’re less passionate about. For example, I own a chainsaw. It’s a dangerous tool that can have deadly consequences if handled improperly. I’ve taken it upon myself to learn how to use it safely and effectively in the context of my back yard… which really just means I spent a couple of hours reading articles and watching YouTube videos about chainsaw use. I like my chainsaw. It’s useful, and I think it’s pretty cool. I even occasionally look for an excuse to use it when the weather is nice on a Saturday afternoon. But that is the full extent of my relationship with the chainsaw. I am not interested in joining a “chainsaw community” or living the “lumberjack lifestyle.” It’s not a part of my personal identity and I don’t intend to dedicate any of more of my free time than is absolutely necessary to hone my chainsaw skills.

“Basic defensive firearms training might be more effective for Average Joe and Jane Gun Owner if it was simplified with an emphasis on ‘what you need to know for survival’ rather than ‘what you need to know before you start posting on gun forums.’”

Most defensive firearms training courses are designed with the assumption that the student is already motivated to continue to practice and train after they leave the class because the student is a shooting enthusiast. The class is intended to show you as many new techniques and skills as possible so you can go home and work on them. That’s perfectly acceptable when your students are all dedicated shooters already. Not so much when they think of their gun the same way I think of my chainsaw.

A few years back, I used to occasionally teach the concealed carry permit class for North Carolina. The state-mandated course outline required certain topics to be covered, including the traditional target shooting stances and the all-important handgun shooting fundamental of “breath control.” These are typical “handgun 101” subjects that may be useful for anyone who plans to pursue competitive slow fire pistol marksmanship. But I had people taking my class because they had recently been robbed and held at gunpoint and they wanted to be able to fight back if it ever happened again. I seriously doubt a primer on the great debate of Isosceles versus Weaver was a good use of the short eight hours I had with those students.

Basic defensive firearms training might be more effective for Average Joe and Jane Gun Owner if it was simplified with an emphasis on “what you need to know for survival” rather than “what you need to know before you start posting on gun forums.”

4. Unqualified Instructors

Most of the issues I brought up in the above points are exacerbated by the fact that the firearms training industry has a huge problem with quality control. There is a large market for self-defense oriented gun training, though not as large as most people think. There is no widely-recognized sanctioning body for firearms instructors, so anyone who wants to call themselves an instructor may do so. So now we’ve got a market flooded with under-qualified “instructors” looking for an easy buck by offering to train the public in life-saving skills with deadly weapons. The money goes to those with the best marketing tactics.

At best, unqualified instructors are well-meaning but ineffective and may inspire students to seek out someone better. At worst, they actively teach students to do things that are unsafe, unethical, and illegal. Even prospective students who are aware of the prevalence of snake oil salesmen in the training industry can have trouble locating and identifying quality instruction. Every week, I receive at least one message from someone asking if I know of any good instructors in their area. I try to help when I can, but this is another problem that I don’t have an easy answer for. I can tell you who some of the best instructors in the country are, and it’s usually easy to identify the worst of the worst. There’s a pretty huge gray area in between and it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff when all you have to go on is a website with a two-paragraph bio.

5. Nothing but Shooting

Some firearms training focuses solely on the mechanics of shooting. Others are shooting classes with an emphasis on using those skills in a defensive context. Either of those may be appropriate depending on the needs of the student. But the novice gun owner, whether they realize it or not, is usually looking for a class that will teach them both how to shoot and how to defend themselves; two separate skills that are only sometimes related. Instructors who may be qualified to coach students on their shooting skills are not necessarily well-informed on the broader issues of surviving a violent encounter.

“But the novice gun owner, whether they realize it or not, is usually looking for a class that will teach them both how to shoot and how to defend themselves; two separate skills that are only sometimes related.”

An effective self-defense course is not a shooting course with a couple of token words thrown in about “mindset” and “situational awareness.” Gun-handling and shooting may occupy the majority of the instruction time in a well-rounded class, but the student will also leave with an understanding of how the shooting skills they just learned fit into a broader strategy of self-defense. There may even be useful material covered that addresses how to identify and defuse a potential attack before it takes place, how to avoid being chosen as a victim, unarmed hand-to-hand skills, less lethal alternatives, or legal issues. I would not expect a one-day class to be a comprehensive survey of everything one needs to know in order to deal with violence, but a good introductory defensive shooting course goes beyond merely how to shoot. Among other things, it’s also when to shoot, when not to shoot, and how to safely handle and manage a deadly weapon in normal everyday life.

What Now?

Ideally, every gun owner would have the ability and motivation to attend a well-rounded training class from a reputable instructor and follow it up with regular practice and periodic recurrent training. We know that’s not reality, and nothing I write here is going to change that. So I’ve got a project in the works that I hope will at least address one of the biggest needs out there: basic instruction on how to handle a firearm for absolute beginners.

Over the new few weeks, I’m rolling out a series of videos and articles that will be targeted directly at the complete shooting novice. The posts will cover the kind of thing that experienced shooters often forget that people even need to be told about. Like how to tell whether the safety is on. I’ll have a separate post for each type of firearm (revolvers, semi-auto pistols, AR-15s, etc) and each installment will cover the basic rules of safe gun handling, how to load and unload the gun, and how to fire it.

The goal is to make these videos as concise and newbie friendly as possible so that when you get that text in the middle of the night from your brother-in-law that says “hey bro, I just bought a shotgun. How do I unload this thing?” you can send him a link and say “watch this video, it’s only 6 minutes long.” They are not intended to be a replacement for real training or regular practice, but they should be short enough that people will actually watch/read them and still provide just enough information to help prevent most serious accidents in the home, and get someone up and running for their first visit to the shooting range without giving the RSO a heart attack. Stay tuned for more…

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15 thoughts on “Five Reasons Firearms Training Fails

  1. Too many people are unable to assimilate anything they are taught, are told, see or hear about anything. Not just firearms.

  2. I recently went through the FBI firearms instructor class and I’m still not sure if I’m qualified enough to be an “instructor”. Especially after hearing what some of my fellow instructors are teaching new shooters in my agency. I feel that learning fundamentals of shooting is rather easy for me, but teaching people who aren’t interested in firearms can be very challenging. Furthermore, trying to further educate or correct a “gun guy” who thinks he knows it all can be doubly challenging! With that said, I think the most important things an instructor can teach someone is 1. How to safely handle a firearm, and 2. How to competently and confidently operate (not meant in the “tactical” sense) most firearms. I think these two trump good marksmanship and tactical ability by far, especially when taking into account the fact that the “dream shootout” that gun guys train for is extremely rare and avoidable for your average non-LE citizen. If you learn how to safely and competently operate your firearm, I think you are 80% (or more) there to successfully defending yourself in your most common home defense situations.

    1. I look at the “training triad” as a three-legged stool, with each leg as important as the other two. And the third leg you omitted is: 3. How to know the difference between LEGAL self-defense and ILLEGAL use of a weapon. Included in this is (a) knowing how to recognize an imminent threat and (b) not letting your emotions run away with you, so you don’t turn a lawful self-defense incident into a felony.

      1. Of course. I guess I left the use of force aspect off because I only focus/train on use of force from the position of a law enforcement officer while most readers here or most likely non-LEO, which are definitely different.

  3. What a great article. Too many inexperienced people buy guns based on something other than emergency self defense operation. For someone who doesn’t understand guns, they should take the class before buying one. They are “sold” a weapon based on other things. “It was pretty. I looked good holding it. The salesman said, “It was the gun for me””. The woman in the “story” obviously had the wrong weapon. So long as children are not living at home, a simpler operating Sig would be my choice.
    A P-250 or a P-320 might have been a better choice. No safety to fool with. No hammer to check. Loaded with one in the chamber. Ready to fire. Breathe. Point and shoot.
    PS: There are several P-250’s spotted in the house. The wife and I carry P-320’s when we are out. No kids.

  4. Good article, but you needed a simpler explanation of the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning Kruger effect basically means that the unskilled perceive themselves as greatly skilled, whereas greatly skilled individuals can’t understand why others can’t do what they do with the same level of competence. This is why inexperienced gun owners make what others perceive as obvious mistakes, and why well-trained gun owners (i.e., instructors) get extremely frustrated with students, ultimately giving up on them rather than addressing the obvious mistakes.

    But, you are correct: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” It is truly this the lack of knowledge that gets people into trouble. While lots of people have a basic level of training and have acquired some proficiency in hitting the target on a range, they lack the knowledge of what to do in high stress situations – knowledge that truly could mean life or death. In the military, we train for these high stress situations continually, fully acknowledging that we will face environments where we won’t have time to think and training will take over. Such training requires intense application and multiple, multiple repetitions. But even that level of training won’t eliminate freeze-ups or errors; it only serves to minimize both.

    It is unlikely that the civilian gun owner will encounter such high stress situations, so we don’t train for them. (I acknowledge that such training does exist and there are those who do take that training and take it seriously, but those are a tiny minority of gun owners.) The rest of the bunch erroneously assume that the level of training they have acquired will be adequate to handle any situation — until it is too late. Only then do we realize, just as the lady in the article did, that there really are things that we didn’t know we didn’t know.

    1. Ditto! While talking about a defensive pistol class I recently took, a friend said “either you can shoot or you can’t” (she carries an LCP in a purse. I suggested there was more to it than just shooting and moved onto another subject.

  5. This is a great article. I think the nearest analogy is driving.

    Automobiles like guns are dangerous objects. They can maim and kill. The government has created a myriad of laws to try to enforce “safety”.

    The point I think that Chris has made better than I can is that we have to be able to train people like we train drivers. First, not all are very talented at the subject, and second, most simply want to get to driving not worry about the operating of the firearm or vehicle. The goal has to be to create competent enough drivers and self-defenders so that the activity is useful both to the person and to society. Obviously, we each don’t get a personal policeman. We also now do not have personal chauffeurs.

    The gun culture needs to be able to inculcate some simple safety values and some useful self-defense abilities into gun oweners without trying to make them a high-priest of “gunness”. We all have to understand this very real human requirement that a skill be useful without demanding all our resources to become competent at. That I believe is the goal.

  6. In my opinion, the woman in the article should not have a gun that she doesn’t know how to use. If you’re going to have a gun in your home, you need to use it, and use it often enough that you know how to use it well and not have to wonder if it’s ready to fire or not. Ignorance is no excuse. Guns are machines that kill and if you own one you’d better know how to operate that machine. No excuses!

  7. Thank you for this advice. It is right on.

    I’m a wheel gun and 1911 fan, but a friend who REALLY wants a well made HD 9mm asked me to take her to the range. My wife and I did, shooting a Walter PPQ, H&K VP9, and a Glock 19. They all shot really well and save for the H&K, had similar mag releases. She shot center of mass well and worked the slides competently. She also got a S&W 64, with both target-load .38 and +p ammo. We’ll go back to try a Smith M&P and some larger frame revolvers.

    My caveat to her: do not buy any gun you won’t shoot every month for practice. Build up the muscle memory. If you get a 9, come to the range with me and shoot it. Regularly. Spend the $$ on a good defensive-pistol class.

    Otherwise, get a good dog and a wireless burglar alarm.

  8. aaaaaand #5, while 100% true, is actively resisted by large swaths of the firearms training community, which is a giant, elephant-in-the-room problem.

  9. “shooters who consider themselves experienced and well-informed typically scoff at this kind of ignorance among less dedicated gun owners. ‘How could she be so negligent? She isn’t taking this seriously! She needs training!’ But here’s the catch: Justin’s friend had received training. She has her concealed carry permit and she had attended at least two additional day-long shooting classes. Yet she was still not familiar enough with her gun to know how to use it in case of a life-threatening violent attack.”

    The article reads like fodder for the anti-gun/ anti 2nd amendment crowd: “Look! Even people who have training don’t know how to adequately use the firearms acquired for self defense! Imagine the accidents, negligent discharges, children obtaining access to loaded guns and any number of tragedies waiting to happen! Won’t someone think of the children!”

    I know people who simply cannot fathom how particular firearms function even after instruction. They are not “gun people.” This person described clearly falls into that category. Who sold her the single-action SIG pistol? The manual of arms is clearly too much for this person to handle. Age may be a factor. I mean, who takes cell phone pictures of things and shares with friends at the point of purchase, or before purchase, or offers “unboxing videos” and the like…? Yeah. Did she assume that her training alleviated self-examination, appraisal, and a clear appreciation of her capabilities? Like most people, I can shoot a semiauto pistol better than a revolver. Easier trigger, better balance, less recoil, etc. etc. But I carry a revolver. The easiest gun to shoot, but the most difficult to shoot proficiently. And for HD, I favor long arms. I have taken training, and I take periodic refreshers even though I’ve already had past training so I can see different perspectives and reinforce skills. I also don’t deride particular firearm choices people make. If someone has considered what s/he and his/her loved ones authorized to use lethal force can effectively use, then so be it. “Pistol caliber carbine?! Why not get a *real rifle?*” Um. Because the pistol caliber carbine can be used effectively? “OMG! A hoary old shotgun! No one uses shotguns anymore… Get a rifle! The AR has 30 cartridges in the magazine, less recoil, more precise shot placement…Etc. etc.”

    People get really dogmatic about “one size fits all” recommendations that just don’t work for everyone.

    The person mentioned was negligent. A concealed carry permit procedure simply represents a “point of sale” lecture on the need to a) get training, and b) understand the law and how it applies to self-defense or “legally justified homicide” and/or wrongful death and injury lawsuits and that it is not a “license to kill” or go out and pretend you are a deputy of the local law enforcement. Let’s face it, anyone can get fifty shots downrange, or whatever is called for in a given locale.

    Her “training” was clearly inadequate, insofar as it did not equip her to make effective choices. And, again, she was negligent in selecting a firearm she could not operate under a high level of stress and duress. So again: Who sold her the gun? How’d she make her selection? Tap-rack-bang drills?

    Another problem not noted in the article is that if someone shows up to a training class with a particular firearm that they are comfortable with, the instructor will frequently balk at the selection or browbeat the pupils into what s/he thinks is most reasonable and effective. I’ve never found a defensive handgun class that is amenable to a revolver, although in a carbine class we did transition to pistol drills, and out came my stainless revolver! Fact is, I carry a revolver inside the pocket–a slow draw requiring the hands go into the pocket when situational awareness warrants it. Trainers want a hard belt holster that does not collapse when the pistol is drawn. Well, if one must “fight like one trains/ train like one fights” and isn’t going to spend a fortune on entirely inappropriate tactical gear and full size duty pistols and so on… What then? Outta luck as the saying goes.

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