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To have and to have not

“A lot of people think they are prepared to defend themselves simply because they are able to stand at the range on a calm day and hit a target at 7 yards. That’s a little like thinking you are prepared to play in the NBA simply because you can usually sink a free throw.”

That’s what I wrote on Cornered Cat’s Facebook page yesterday. One of the people who saw that post complained that it might discourage people from trying to defend themselves at all. “All things have to start somewhere,” she wrote. “Reading that comment may now put a lot of people off from even starting to be able to defend themselves.”

My response to her on FB probably sounded short and abrupt (the venue does not exactly lend itself to long, thoughtful replies…) but I did understand and sympathize with what she was saying. The funny thing is, that same idea is one I’ve often struggled as I’ve worked to find my voice and my place in this community. So even though I ultimately disagree with her answer, I join her in admiring the question. How can an ethical person tell others that it is foolish to carry a gun without good training, when we know that saying so will cause some people not to carry a gun at all? It would be one thing if we knew that everyone who saw those words would be motivated to do the work, instead of put off by the idea that work may be involved. But we don’t know that. We know that some people will simply give up when we tell them it will take effort to get where they need to go. So how dare we take that risk?

I’m going to explain my answer to this dilemma by telling you a story. It’s really someone else’s story, not mine. But it might show you where I’m coming from a little better, so I’m going to tell you about a woman I met when I took my first class from Massad Ayoob nearly a dozen years ago.

Back then, Ayoob’s core class was called LFI-1, but it has since evolved into MAG-40. Ayoob takes his students through an incredibly tough, eye-opening journey during the 40 hours they spend with him. He forces them to confront the legal, ethical, and social ramifications of using deadly force, and provides answers to many questions that most of his students have never realized they should have asked themselves before picking up a defensive firearm. Many students find their first exposure to Ayoob’s course material both mind-blowing and emotionally grueling, as this woman did. In fact, she found her first trip through the class so upsetting that she went home, took her little snubby revolver out of her purse, and put it away in her safe. “I carried it a lot. Not every day, but a lot,” she told me, “and I had never, ever thought about what it would mean to use it!

That’s not the end of the story.

The woman left her snubby in the safe for nearly two months, while she worked through some of the questions Ayoob’s class had raised in her head. She talked with her pastor and with her family members. She did some real soul-searching about that deadly weapon she owned. She did not just think hard about whether to carry the gun. She even wondered if she should get rid of all the guns in her home. It’s safe to say that she was really upset and really teetered on the edge of giving up entirely.

But that’s not the end of the story, either.

After working through all her questions, this woman did not put her old snubby back into her purse. Instead, she went shopping for a gun she could use better and would practice with more faithfully. She ended up with a mid-sized pistol that held more rounds than her snubby, and she also bought a good on-body holster. She made the commitment to carry that gun on her body every day, everywhere it was legal. She decided to learn as much as she reasonably could about defensive firearm use, and she set a schedule so she would practice regularly. In other words, after she faced her doubts and her fears, she had a much stronger commitment to doing whatever it takes to get home safely to her family and friends—and she was much, much better prepared to do so from a place of knowledge and skill.

Maybe that sounds like a poor trade off to you. Was that risk, the risk that she might never pick up the gun again, really worth it? What kind of an instructor would do that to a student? Isn’t it a trainer’s job to improve their students’ confidence, not to destroy it?

Well, yes. All that is true. But it still sounds right to me. Because by the end of the summer, that woman ended up in a much safer and better place than she had been in the early spring. It took time, and work, and emotional risk. It wasn’t easy. She had to travel through some ugly and scary territory. But when she got there, the journey was worth it to her.

Confronting students and potential students with reality is always dangerous, especially when it’s so easy for them to retreat to a fantasy. Fantasy is everywhere. The idea that we can easily keep ourselves safe without any work? That’s a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that sells very, very well. Just take a look at some of the ridiculous “self defense” gadgets on the market and you’ll see what I mean. Fantasy sells.

Let’s bring all that together and wrap this thing up. The truth is, I’ve come to realize that my adult students are adults. As adults, they will always make their own choices and face their own challenges and come to their own decisions about how to meet those challenges. Ultimately, I am not responsible for their choices. I am not responsible for the decisions other people make with the information I supply. But as a defensive firearms trainer, I am absolutely obligated to give them good, honest information that works in the real world. That’s a heavy obligation all on its own.

Fantasy sells, but uncomfortable truths save lives.

14 Responses to To have and to have not

  1. kukuforguns says:

    I disagree with the stated premise of your post: that a person with only modest, static training is unprepared to defend herself using a handgun. Kleck’s research indicates that in the mid-90s, there were approximately 2.5 million effective DGUs per year. The overwhelming majority of these people almost certainly did not have training under realistic conditions. Anecdotally, there are numerous examples of convenience store clerks who have effectively used a handgun to defend themselves with little to no training. It is, therefore, apparent that a person with little to no training can effectively use a handgun to defend herself. Moreover, with 300 million guns in the U.S., the number of accidental casualties is astoundingly low. This suggests that people with moderate training are not only effective, but safe.

    That being said, I agree with the intended (but poorly stated) premise of your post: using a gun defensively is an enormous responsibility and anyone considering the possibility of using a gun defensively should educate herself and train to win.

    I note that in your blog post (as opposed to FB), you changed the issue to carrying a gun rather than simply using a gun. Again, I agree that people who carry a gun have an obligation to train to do so safely and effectively. But training to carry and training to use are not identical. I would argue that carrying requires more training than use.

    • kuku ~

      You’re right: approximately 2.5 million times a year in America, someone uses a firearm to defend themselves from violent crime. We can argue about the numbers (many do), which may be as “low” as “only” a million times a year. But the reality is, guns do get used during criminal encounters quite often. Most defensive gun uses (DGUs) come from people without training.

      The numbers are so high mostly because the overwhelming majority of the time, people simply show the gun to the criminal. They never need to use it as an actual tool, but instead just use it as a kind of visual aid (or sometimes, an audible aid) to help the bad guy make an informed decision about his career choices. That’s good, because for the most part untrained people are unprepared to do more than wave the gun at the bad guy and hope the bad guy decides to quit. The fact that so many bad guys do quit when the gun is shown – that’s a testament to the sweet reasonableness of bad guys, not an argument that the good guys were truly prepared to defend their own lives in any reliable manner.

      Worse than that, when the bad guys don’t quit and give up at the mere sight of the gun, too many good people who do need to shoot effectively never counted the cost in advance. They did not take time to consider what it might mean to use a deadly weapon. Those people, the ones who have not counted that cost in advance, suffer a great deal more than others during the aftermath of a shooting event. That’s painful. And some of them never recover. Too many weren’t prepared to defend their own lives, even though most of them thought they were.

      I’d like to help people avoid losing their lives. I want them to avoid permanent and crippling psychological injuries. I want to see them truly prepared to defend themselves – not just able to use the gun as a visual aid, but being fully prepared to use it as a tool.

      Even with 2.5 million DGUs, it still takes work to be prepared to defend your own life. Being able to hit a target at 7 yards on a calm day at the range may be a part of that work, but it’s not all of it.

      Not by a long shot.

      • kukuforguns says:

        “I’d like to help people avoid losing their lives. I want them to avoid permanent and crippling psychological injuries. I want to see them truly prepared to defend themselves – not just able to use the gun as a visual aid, but being fully prepared to use it as a tool.”

        And you do. I read your FB and blog precisely because you are one of the more holistic voices I’ve found. I want you to continue. I want people to get training. I want to improve my own preparedness.

        I just believe your FB post went too far. Playground athletes cannot compete in the NBA. They will be completely ineffective. Accordingly, your post was stating that people with basic, static training cannot effectively defend themselves with a handgun. That’s simply not accurate.

  2. mgutterres says:

    kukuforguns I think you are missing the point, specifically a person with only modest, static training may or may not be able to defend herself using a handgun. Training stacks the deck in your favor, leaving less to chance. Do people occasionally get lucky? Absolutely! but I for one will not leave my safety up to chance alone, and the reality people do want to face is that sometimes just showing a gun is not enough to discourage an attacker, sometimes you have to actually fire the gun at a moving, unpredictable adversary who may be shooting back. Training to win a gun fight is exponentially more difficult than static training on a square range, and as an instructor I’d be doing more harm than good by pretending otherwise.

    • kukuforguns says:

      Are you saying that a person with extensive, realistic training WILL be able to defend herself using a handgun? You know you cannot make that promise. Which means, even with extensive, realistic training a person may or may not be able to defend herself using a handgun. Does training increase the odds? Of course. But that is not what Kathy’s FB post said. We all know that a playground basketball player CANNOT succeed in the NBA. However, people with even very moderate training can — and do every day — defend themselves using a handgun. It’s not occassional. It’s multiple times every day. On the other hand, examples of a self-defender’s gun being used against her are extremely rare. http://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/WP-Tough-Targets.pdf This suggests that it’s not luck.

      Again, my criticism is not with Kathy’s intended point: “Training is extremely important and increases the odds you will be able to save your life.” My criticism is in the way she expressed her argument.

  3. Well said, Kathy. Here’s another side of that same (flawed, but reasonable, if that makes sense) thought process: the law. My experience has been that most people start off on one side of the scale, the “oh no one will ever get prosecuted for THAT,” and after taking some classing and doing some homework, some they can end up on the exact opposite side, the “OMG, everything I do will land me in jail.”

    The reality, of course, is that neither end is where you want to be. So one of our challenges is trying to keep our friends from getting too comfortable at either extreme. :)

    • Jeff ~

      Excellent point and right on the money. We all want simple, clear answers to complex and messy questions. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way.

  4. Pingback:Fantasy sells, but uncomfortable truths save lives. | Gun Start

  5. orygunmike says:

    KJ ….
    This article hit home for me in that I too was very affected by Ayoob’s LF-1 course to the extent that at one point during the course I questioned whether the possible benefits of carrying a gun were worth the associated risks. I did not carry for several months afterward, during which time I was learning more about the relevant laws and honing my skills. Like this woman, once I got to the point where I was convinced my life, and those around me, was worth the risk and I had worked to the point where I felt more prepared, I put the gun back on. For me it was exactly the message I needed to hear.

    Regarding the subject of your post, which I’ll summarize as –should defensive firearms instructors withhold information or comments that may scare or discourage people from learning how to defend themselves? — I find your closing comment, “ … as a defensive firearms trainer, I am absolutely obligated to give them good, honest information that works in the real world” to be spot on.

    To do anything less gives the student a false sense of preparedness, a false confidence that I believe would be more dangerous than having the student decide to not carry at all due to lack of confidence. It would be nothing less than a grave injustice to the student.

    Let’s substitute driving for defensive firearms training. We have all taught our kids to drive. I bet most of us spent a good deal of time raising their awareness to the risks and possible deadly outcomes of failing to perform. We likely gave them examples of how lives had been lost and ruined as a result of careless driving. Had their training consisted of a few hours of driving around at the local high school parking lot, and we then told them they were awesome drivers and ready to drive in New York City, it would have been irresponsible and set them up for tragedy. They would have happily gone on their way with the false belief that they were ready to perform very complex tasks that literally take years and thousands of hours behind the wheel to master. Instead, had we told them, “given your minimal experience you are doing well and have the potential to be an excellent driver, but you should restrict your driving to only favorable conditions until you have more miles under your belt” , would have provided needed encouragement as well as a reality check on their ability.

    To close, I think the old adage, “you buy your ticket and you take your chances” fits here. If the student decides to carry a gun, then they must also accept whatever results come from that decision. Trying to shield that student from realities associated with that decision places them in unnecessary jeopardy by denying them of all relevant information for them to make the best choice. That does not match the job description of ‘instructor’.

    • Mike ~

      Beautiful. May I steal errr, borrow with permission that analogy?

      KJ

      • orygunmike says:

        But of course Kathy …. With all the good information from this site and your book that I’ve used for myself and my students over the years, I’m glad to send something back in your direction.

  6. orygunmike says:

    But of course Kathy …. With all the good information from this site and your book that I’ve used for myself and my students over the years, I’m glad to send something back in your direction.

  7. don says:

    This discussion reminded me of an interview I once saw of Lance Thomas. I looked it up and found that interview on YouTube. You can find it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkWgp2abM2w

    Lance was a watch dealer in a bad part of Los Angeles in the late 80’s. Due to a series of deadly murder/robberies in the area, Lance decided to buy a gun to defend himself, but he did not initially seek any special training. Then in the summer of ’89 two robbers entered his shop and threatened Lance at gunpoint. Lance fought back firing three shots and seriously injuring one of the men. In the after math of this incident what did lance do? He purchased better equipment and he sought practice and training.

    In other words, despite his success, Lance did not feel he had been adequately prepared. He felt he had mostly been lucky and that next time he might not be so lucky. So he worked hard to become better prepared. This turned out to be a wise decision, but I’ll let you watch the interview to find out why. The thing is, Lance isn’t unique in this decision. Many of the survivors of a violent attack have the same reaction and become better trained and better equipped after the fact. They do this because they wish they had been better prepared before the attack. To me the lesson is — in the end simply owning a gun might turn out to be enough, but if the survivors who have actually been there and done that don’t believe it’s enough, maybe I shouldn’t either.

  8. kalaryn says:

    I think it’s wonderful that lady did the soul searching she did; she came out better for it. If it discourages maybe the person wasn’t ready to make the commitment in the first place and I know that sounds bad saying that but I think if you are going to carry, you should be certain you are going to commit to it wholly and with your eyes open and take the time, effort and work that it takes to make certain that you will do it correctly and be as prepared as you possible can be.

    I know for myself I have imagined a lot of scenarios, educated myself on the repercussions of what happens after you have had to defend yourself with a firearm, analyzed how I would feel about actually shooting someone, mentally preparing for all the things I have read about what happens when you are forced to defend yourself in a situation where deadly force is being used against you. Granted, I’m sure none of my mental preparing will be anything like what will actually happen if I’m ever to have to defend myself but it’s a start.

    One of the classes I plan on taking that is offered in my area is a tactical pistol class that uses paint rounds so as you are doing the training someone is firing at you, you have to focus on not getting hit and being able to concentrate at hitting the attacker. I took this same company’s self-defense class and was really impressed with the last portion, where he raises your adrenalin, makes you close your eyes and then attacks you. I think it would be a good class because in any scenario that I imagine, it’s not going to be anything like the reality (granted I try my best). It’s taking you from just standing at the range and hitting your target and putting you in a simulated panic scenario.

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