The Cornered Cat
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Depressing statistics

Men who are murdered are overwhelmingly murdered by strangers. But more than a third of women who are murdered, are killed by husbands and boyfriends and other people they  know. (See crime statistics here.)

This puts a very, very different face on effective defense for women than for men.

At the Rangemaster Tactical Conference several years ago, Massad Ayoob gave a presentation titled, “Lessons from Recent Cases.” It was an eye-opening look at three self-defense cases that went to court, and the legal issues that came into play during each one. One of the cases involved a woman who defended herself against her estranged husband. Based on the information Mas gave, it was a good shoot. But I found myself mourning for a woman who ended up having to shoot (and kill) her children’s father, just to survive the immediate threat to her life.

That’s a rough, rough thing. Nobody should ever have to face such a thing. And yet, she did.

Hesitating to put this one up, because I suspect it’ll garner a few “why didn’t she just leave him?” type comments. For those who might be tempted to ask, you should realize that 1) she had, and 2) it’s not often that easy, and 3) one of the reasons it’s not that easy is because leaving the abuser often triggers the most extreme violence of all.

Since the title of this post is “depressing statistics,” here’s one: 70% of women killed by abusive partners are killed after they leave the guy.

This also puts a different complexion on the whole “more likely to shoot someone you know” debate about firearms ownership and gun laws. If a woman is more likely to be murdered by someone she knows than by a stranger, then maybe all those arguments about women who own guns being “more likely” to be used to kill people they know than it is to be used to kill a stranger does not mean that the gun (all on its own, natch) is somehow slaying innocent people that a woman loves. Maybe at least some  of the “used to kill someone she knows” numbers are driven by legitimate cases of self defense against a true and deadly threat.

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“Train as you fight!”

Came across this discussion awhile back, on an old forum best forgotten. Someone posted a picture of a defensive handgun class where students were told to point “unloaded” but functional firearms at each other as part of role playing exercise.

When some people protested that this was (and is) a violation of the most basic safety protocols, others responded: “Train as you fight!” The contention was, of course, that a person could never develop a proper fighting mindset if they were worried about something so mundane and childish as following the safety rules.

So.

Train as you fight.

Hopefully, when you fight — which I sincerely hope you never have to do — it will be with fully loaded gun. Not with a checked and triple-checked “unloaded” one. But with one fully and immediately capable of dealing death or grave bodily harm to the person at the noisy end of the muzzle.

To “train as you fight” in this context would be to accept, with full intention, the likelihood of killing the person in front of you when you press the trigger.

That is training as you fight. You fight with full understanding that you may kill your attacker.

In the context of a class, innocent assistants and fellow students will be role playing the attacker. And since killing innocent students is not okay, we need to find another way.

Mindset Goal

Instructors who take the job seriously do want to erase potential glitches and freezes before they happen, building a strong and determined outlook in our students’ minds. We want to reduce the possibility that our students will freeze under pressure. We want students to act quickly, correctly, and without hesitation when the time comes.

That is why many instructors work hard to help students overcome their reluctance to point gun-shaped objects at criminal attackers or to press the trigger while someone else is directly in front of the muzzle.

That’s the goal.

Fortunately, we can help students begin to break down their reluctance using role play with inert gun-shaped objects (dummy guns). We don’t need to use working firearms here, and it’s better if we don’t.

Whatever the training objective might be, we should only simulate deaths and serious injuries during training — not cause real ones.

So here’s the rule: whenever we have a simulated attacker, we use a simulated weapon.  Only real attackers should ever get the honor of being really killed with real weapons. 1

Every fake bad guy gets up and goes home at the end of the day.

As long as we are not willing to accept the real-life consequence of killing a fellow student or an instructor during training, we should never use a functional gun for this type of drill.

Glitches

Back when I taught my own classes, we practiced gun retention (and a few other things) using blue plastic dummy guns. And we would often notice glitches and hesitations beginning in the very first drill — when we asked them to point the dummy gun directly at their “bad guy” partner’s chest.

Glitches an instructor might spot here include:

  • Pointing the muzzle off to the side, or at the ground.
  • Doing as instructed, but look incredibly uncomfortable, refusing to look at the “bad guy.”
  • Pointing the muzzle correctly, but never touching the trigger.

I think my favorite weird glitch (and it’s not an uncommon one!) is the one where a person will say, “Bang” as if they are shooting the simulated attacker, but do it with trigger finger straight alongside the frame. Most truly do not realize they are doing that, and need someone else to point it out to them.

In all these cases, when we spotted the glitch we would explain that they need to build a mindset of being willing to shoot a living, breathing human being under some circumstances. We would also point out that they won’t be able to protect themselves using a gun if they aren’t willing to point even a pretend gun at someone “attacking” them in a very controlled setting.

We drag their discomfort with all of this into the light and we force them to confront it and some people think it through and decide carrying a gun isn’t for them and others think it through and get much more serious about learning to defend themselves effectively.

Either way, the mindset mission is accomplished.

Or at least, beginning to be accomplished.

For most people, the very simple exercises we do in most classes won’t fully meet their mindset needs. It will, however, get them moving down the right path. In the long run, it takes repeated exposure to well-designed, well-run interactive scenarios before most people fully internalize some of those lessons, and I always encouraged my students to go on and get that additional experience.

Pretend Attackers, Real Consequences

Back to my primary point: all roleplaying scenarios — no matter how basic or advanced, static or active, entangled or distant — can be run without any risk of a gunshot hitting one of the participants. They can be run without compromising the mindset goal in any way simply by using an inert replica or dummy gun that could never launch a bullet even if someone did make a mistake by bringing ammunition into the area.

Although the benefit of realistic mindset training is substantial, the death of an innocent student is not an acceptable risk for anyone to take in a world where it is so easy to use realistic dummy guns and training replicas to get those benefits. For any drill that requires innocent people to stand directly in front of a muzzle, the muzzle should simply not be capable of launching a deadly round.

The bottom line here is that we won’t do those things because we are absolutely not willing to risk making a mistake about the status of the gun when an innocent human life is at stake.

Checking and re-checking the gun does not erase the potential consequences of getting it wrong. This means a person should never point even a triple-checked “unloaded” gun at someone they are not willing to kill.

Because while the role-playing situation might be only make believe, the consequences for making a mistake with a deadly weapon always happen in the real world.

 

Notes:

  1. This is similar to the safe-direction rule. When we use a simluated firearm for a training exercise, such as a dummy gun or a regular gun that has been disabled and is currently non-functional, we can also use a simulated or designated safe direction. But whenever we handle a real gun, even an unloaded one, we must treat it with real repect. This includes keeping the real gun pointed in a real safe direction, one that will definitely bring the bullet completely to rest in a known and acceptable place.

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“No live ammo…”

I get so tired of the “no live ammo in the classroom” chant from people who refuse to worry about bullets going through walls.

It has its exact analog in the “always check that the gun is unloaded” chant from people who routinely point the gun at their own body parts.

Checking the loaded or unloaded status of the gun is important. But putting a hand in front of the muzzle is a foolish thing to do even when we think there’s no ammunition in the gun.

Keeping ammunition out of the area where we intend to dryfire is important. But pointing a deadly weapon at an unreinforced wall is a foolish thing to do even when we think there’s no ammunition in the area.

Flimsy interior walls (and many exterior walls of modern construction) simply do not stop bullets, so deliberately pointing the gun at a plain, ordinary wall while pressing the trigger is not the same thing as pointing it in a ‘safe direction,’ and should never be treated as such.

To be clear, I do support the idea of taking ammunition out of any room, including a classroom, where people will be handling firearms. Just as I support keeping ammunition out of any other place we use for dry fire. It’s a great rule to follow whenever and wherever a person will be dry firing, because striving to keep ammunition out of the dry fire area does make a noisy mistake less likely.

But.

Mistakes can and do still happen.

Trying to keep live ammunition out of the room can never erase the chance of making a deadly mistake. It’s not a 100% guarantee that there will never be ammunition in the room or in the gun. Mistakes about the ammunition status can (and sadly, do) still happen. 

We can make mistakes about whether the gun has any ammunition in it. We can make mistakes that include mixing a live round among the dummy ones. And we can make other types of mistakes that lead to equally bad outcomes.

We have more than one safety rule, because people can make more than one type of mistake.

That is why the core safety rules always apply even to “unloaded” guns. 

Because we can make mistakes about the gun’s loaded or unloaded status, we simply do not point guns at people we are not prepared to shoot.

Pointing a functional gun — loaded or not, ammo in the area or not — at another human being is a dangerous thing to do, because sometimes people make mistakes and the gun is really loaded and then it really fires and someone really dies. That’s why plastic dummy guns and devices such as replacement ‘training barrel’ mockups that turn the functional gun into a non-functioning replica are absolutely required whenever the program calls for students to point guns at each other or at the instructor.

It’s not enough to simply unload the guns, no matter how carefully,  because so many people have died of getting shot with “unloaded” guns when someone made a mistake in this type of program.

“I didn’t know the gun was loaded!” won’t bring your best friend or fellow student back to life, and it’s a lousy thing to have echoing through your nightmares for the rest of the years you spend on this earth.

But the wall…

Pointing a functional gun at people you can see violates the core safety rules.

In the same way, pointing a functional gun at people you cannot see also violates the core safety rules.

Because people may be on the other side of any wall and you don’t have x-ray vision, you don’t know that no one is in your line of fire as you press the trigger. And if there are people on the other side of the wall, there can be deadly consequences.

“No ammo in the classroom” is supposed to be an added layer of protection, one that we put in place over and above the lifetime habit of following the core safety rules. It is not intended to be a replacement for any of those rules.

In other words, keeping ammunition out of the area isn’t something we do instead of using a ‘safe direction’ that includes a solid backstop when we dry fire. It is something we do in addition to using that solid backstop for dry fire.

Keeping ammunition out of the area isn’t something we do instead of not pointing guns at other people. It’s something we do in addition to not pointing guns at other people.

Keeping ammunition out of the area isn’t something we do instead of not putting our own hand in front of the muzzle when we press the trigger. It’s something we do in addition to keeping our own body parts away from the muzzle.

Nothing is 100%

As long as people treat any single rule or safety protocol or gunhandling habit as if it is the only layer of protection they will ever need, they will do things such as:

  • Pointing the gun at a normal interior wall with people on the other side of it.
  • Palming the muzzle as they snap a handgun’s trigger in the gun store.
  • Playing quick draw mcgraw games with ‘unloaded’ guns rather than inert dummy guns, perhaps even calling this type of activity ‘force on force’ to make it all tactical-ish n stuff.

And people will continue to suffer unnecessary injuries and sometimes even die from these bad habits.

If the area offers a solid backstop and the lesson includes group dry fire, “no live ammo in the classroom” can be an excellent classroom-management tool. But that’s really all it is. It isn’t a core safety rule, it does not stand on its own without the core safety rules also being in effect, and it’s entirely possible to run a competent and safe lecture-only classroom without it.

Safety rules and protocols are like multiple layers of swiss cheese. Every single one of them has a hole or two. We stack them up so that no one hole goes all the way through the stack.

When we rely on only one layer of protection — whether that layer is “it’s unloaded” or “there’s no ammo here” or “keep your finger off the trigger” or whatever that one layer is — we’re destined to fail. And the hole that goes all the way through the stack may also put a hole in someone we love.

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Women’s Shooting Groups – Good & Bad

Quote: “I am patient with stupidity but not with those who are proud of it.” – Edith Sitwell

My take: Time for some real talk, here. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and draw up a chair; this might take a minute.

***

Lately I have been thinking a lot about my time within the firearms training industry.

For those who don’t know: I quietly retired from teaching a couple of years ago, and have kept the website and social media presence going mostly for the good of the order, getting no financial benefit from either at any point over the past several years. Though I still make a tiny bit from book sales, and truly appreciate it when people buy my books and recommend them to others, realistically this is all a labor of love.

Because I no longer draw a paycheck from teaching classes, and because it has been several years since I’ve done so, I’m beginning to realize that I am finally free to say some things that really need to be said — and since I’m neither trying to build a business/brand name nor currently making any money at it there’s no one who can (with any degree of integrity whatsoever!) accuse me of saying any of this just because it might financially benefit me to do so.

So. Let’s start with the old saying about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar. The saying is true, but do you know what catches the most flies of all? That would be a great, big, steaming pile of 💩

And quite frankly, 💩 sells really, really well in the gun world.

This is especially and particularly true among the part of the market that caters to women.

Whether it’s craptastic non-holster products like the SUPER DANGEROUS “Lethal Lace”, or YouTube celebs with huge followings but no actual skills, or “women’s shooting groups” that ——

WAIT.

WHAT???!?

Is she really about to bag on women’s shooting groups?? Really??

Yes. Yes I am.

…. Well, sort of.

Pay attention here, because I don’t want you to misunderstand me, or get offended by things I haven’t said and don’t mean. There are a lot of really awesome people doing really good things inside many of these groups. I not only support those folks — I’m maybe their biggest fan!

The Good Stuff

You see, when a person reaches a certain stage on their personal defense readiness journey, they often go looking for like-minded others to support them and help them along the way. That’s definitely what happened to me when I first started. I still have very fond memories of the Women’s Study Group at FAS that I helped get started and attended for several years as I was just beginning to learn how to shoot, and I was beyond thrilled to realize that similar opportunities were going to be available to other people across the country through groups such as AG&AG, AWAW, and similar. So the women’s shooting group was definitely part of my own process and I’m a fan of it.

And the same thing happened to a huge crowd of new shooters about ten or so years back. Because there were so many women who were new to the gun world at that time, they all hit the same stage of growth at about the same time and they collectively introduced a new thing to the shooting world: the women’s gun club.

Before that time, if you heard a shooter talking about “my gun club,” that person was almost certainly talking about their membership benefits at an indoor or outdoor range. But after that time, if you heard a person talking about their shooting club, they were just as likely to be talking about a group of people with regularly-scheduled meetings to shoot together. One was about buildings, the other about people.

These groups are most emphatically not just for new shooters, by the way. It is indeed awesome for new shooters, and the foundations of such clubs often hark back to new shooters because that desire to get together with like-minded others on the range is kind of a strong impulse for many people, early on. The club provides social and emotional support, along with reassuring lived experience that guns are normal and normal people use guns, for people who might otherwise not have any social entry point into gun ownership. It can be a great starting point.

Later, as we become more experienced and accomplished as shooters, we definitely still benefit from pushing each other to do better and learn more. That skill development often happens within the structure of an encouraging group of like-minded others who encourage one another and spur one another on.

Not only this, but as we become more skilled there’s a satisfaction in being able to turn around and help others — and the constant influx of new members into the club definitely provides those opportunities. Most adults have long since figured out that one reliable pathway to learning a thing well for ourselves is turning around and teaching what we know to others, so that constant flow of newcomers ready to learn is also a benefit for the more experienced shooters in these groups too.

So I’m a big fan of these groups, whether they are a small local gathering or a chapter meeting under the banner of one of the big national clubs. They aren’t just about shooting, they aren’t just for new shooters, and they are positioned to do a lot of good things for their members as many women can attest.

BUT.

The Challenges

Women’s shooting groups can turn toxic, and when they do, they get in the way of their members’ skill development rather than enhancing it. They can stop you from learning more about self defense, rather than supporting your desire to do so. And they can lead to a weird type of humble-arrogance that really gets in the way of learning more.

Challenge #1 – Toxicity City

First, the toxic problem. I could write a lot about this, but I don’t really need to. Everyone has at some point been involved with a friend group, a social club, a church, a work environment that became an uncomfortable and eventually a mentally unhealthy place for whatever reason. No matter how excellent the national club might be, any given chapter is only as good as its local leadership. And beyond that, the group of people that make up the core of that group can definitely change the social environment in ways that may not be healthy for others.

There is one aspect of the toxicity issue that is perhaps unique to groups of people who shoot together. That is the weirdness around getting better, becoming a truly good shot. Pay attention to your own local group and if you find a consistent pattern of people disappearing or drifting away as they become more competent shooters, that’s a small red flag you might want to look out for. (It’s a small flag because there are other reasons people drift away and if the group consistently helps people do better, then of course the people who drift away over time will all have also been getting better; but if you have a group where only bad or stagnant shooters stay while people who are improving all drift off, that’s what I’m talking about).

A huge red flag on the toxicity issue is if you find yourself deliberately muffing shots so that other people in the group won’t feel hurt when you shoot better than they do. That is especially and specifically true if the person you’re afraid of offending by shooting well is the group leader.

Challenge #2 – Self Defense Mindset

Second, the self-defense issue. I could write an entire book about this one, and maybe someday I will. The challenge here is that you get a group of people together, and the group mostly focuses on having fun together as a social thing or even focuses on competition, and gradually your own mindset shifts away from thinking about the gun as a defensive tool and toward thinking about guns as toys you pull out on the weekend to play with when you get together with your friends. This process can definitely get in the way of you developing your own defensive mindset and ability to protect yourself, even as your shooting skill improves, so it’s worth keeping an eye on.

The self defense/mindset issue can also get a little complicated for people who want to carry but haven’t quite made the jump yet, as often times the group safety rules work on a subconscious level to make it actively harder for these would-be concealed carry people to visualize themselves putting a loaded gun in the holster anywhere except on the range. And maybe not even there, depending on the specific group rules. Because after all, if having a loaded gun in the holster is so very dangerous that you cannot even walk onto the range with one on… How can it possibly be safe in daily life? Eventually, these people simply give up on the idea of carrying a gun at all, although they often continue going to the range and enjoying time shooting with their friends. This isn’t necessarily a conscious thought process, but I have seen it happen enough on the subconscious level to people who really want to do concealed carry that it’s worth thinking about.

Challenge #3 – Humble Arrogance

Finally, and maybe most important and tricky to deal with, the humble arrogance that prevents people from learning more.

Humble arrogance is, oddly enough, often the result of untreated imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is that frightened little voice in your head, especially common among women doing things in traditionally male environments. It whispers things like:

  • “I don’t deserve to be here”
  • “I am only here because of luck”
  • “I’m only here because [some specific person, often a mentor] likes me; I haven’t earned my place”
  • ”I have to be careful so nobody finds out what a fraud I am.”

This one is super dangerous for group leaders especially. And it is also dangerous for anyone who listens to, follows, or learns from them.

How can feeling like a fraud create danger for yourself or other people? Like this: because you feel afraid of being found out as not knowing everything that you should, you become terrified of anyone seeing you struggle, of seeing you maybe fail, of seeing you… well, of seeing you learn anything. Because that’s what the learning process looks like – it looks like you didn’t already know it in the first place. And that is the core fear of imposter syndrome, that people might find out that we don’t already know everything they might assume we do.

So these people with this humble arrogance going on are terribly afraid that somebody might find out they don’t already know something. This means they simply cannot risk learning anything new, because you cannot learn anything you already know.

That is why I call it humble arrogance: it comes from a place of fear and feeling inferior. But no matter how humble it might feel, the end result is arrogant, because the fear refuses to learn and refuses to admit that it needs to learn.

Humble arrogance is very difficult to address, because no matter how carefully you talk to people caught in it about the need to learn more, they simply cannot hear what you’re saying. Their fears are shouting too loudly. When you talk to them about what they need to learn, what they hear is somehow always about other people needing to learn.

Weirdly, a lot of these folks will turn around and preach the need for “training”. But what they mean by that is usually just practice. Training means learning under someone else’s supervision, which is different from solo practice or even from group practice. People caught in the grip of imposter syndrome and the humble arrogance that goes with it rarely quiet their fears enough to learn from anyone else, especially anyone outside their immediate circle, because even when they truly want to learn they simply cannot risk being seen learning.

This is the terrible, horrible trap of imposter syndrome. And women who have risen into leadership within women’s shooting clubs are often its victims. Because they want to be seen as competent, as knowledgeable, as capable, as deserving to be where they are … they can literally never learn anything beyond where they are right now. They can’t risk learning alongside the women in their groups – they’re far too busy for that, the story usually goes. Their very desire to be seen as experts (or at least, not as frauds) stops them from becoming the experts they long to be.

And that’s where the great big steaming pile of 💩 comes in.

Solution?

If you, or your group leader, have not learned anything from a competent teacher outside your local circle or outside your group in more than a year, two years, five years, or maybe ever … well then, your group might very well be caught in this problem. Because imposter syndrome and the humble arrogance that goes with it tend to stunt growth both for the people who suffer from it and for the people around them.

The way to combat this, if you fear you are slipping into it or if you think your group might be slipping into it:

Take a risk. Face down your fears. Model for your group what it looks like to learn from someone other than your preferred local expert, other than your local chapter leader, other than yourself.

The worst possible outcome from inside imposter syndrome is somebody finding out that you’re a fraud. You can feel that fear either as an individual, or sometimes an entire group can feel it together.

The only solution, the only way to quiet that fear of being found out as a fraud, is to not be a fraud. This is terrifying because other people might find out that you didn’t already know the thing you are just now learning. But it’s literally the only way to learn it.

Take the risk of learning.

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The Spellcheck Problem (Explained Discreetly)

This is really about firearms, but let’s start by discussing the spellcheck problem.

“Dew knot trussed yore spill chick two fined awl yore missed aches.”

Some people do not recognize the word discreetly when it is spelled and used correctly. These people often default to using discretely — which is a different word entirely, with a separate (and dare I say, discrete) meaning from the first word.

This is the type of error that the spellcheck program will not catch. The person used a valid word even though it is not the one the person intended to use. Spellcheck can’t help with that. Grammar check rarely catches this type of error either.

But that’s not the real problem.

Here’s the real problem: People rarely, if ever, spot our own errors of this type. We can’t! Telling us to proofread our work, or to check our spelling, will not help us find this type of confident mistake. We cannot see the error because we don’t realize it is an error. If we knew the right word, we would probably have used it in the first place. So we cannot see the error when we proofread what we wrote, either. We see only that the document says exactly what we intended to write. Must not be any mistakes here!

While we accurately see the word, we simply cannot see the mistake in its use.

A discreet check of the dictionary would show us the error in our thinking. But when someone has made a mistake of this type, we never think to check the dictionary, because we don’t feel any insecurity in our word choice. We may even discreetly try to “correct” another person’s spelling, because we are so very confident in how we spelled the word and the spellcheck never told us otherwise.

The spellcheck problem is a different one than a simple typo. A typo is usually just fumbly fingers — typing teh instead of the, or well instead of we’ll. The first type of mistake can be caught by spellcheck, and the second is usually caught on the re-read, because most of us can easily see the difference between the word we intended to use and the word that appears on the screen.

But a person who uses the wrong word or phrase because they are fully convinced they are using the right one, cannot be helped by spellcheck. And they cannot find the mistake when they read the work themselves, either.

What we “know” gets in the way of what we need to see.

And … Firearms?

This is an exact analogy to asking people who don’t know about gun safety to check each other for safe gunhandling on the range. Very few people actually intend to put themselves or anyone else at risk with the way they handle a gun. Instead, most people who handle guns unsafely do so because they don’t realize they’re doing it, and also because they don’t know how to not do it.

This is also why so many bad gunhandlers get offended when someone else makes a comment about how they handled the gun. They honestly don’t believe they have done anything wrong. If they knew they were endangering themselves and others, they most likely would not have done it. You have just accused them of doing something they know they would never do, because they’re not the kind of person who would or could kill someone else without meaning to.

They pointed the muzzle at you, or at themselves. Maybe they had their finger on the trigger when it should not have been. But they did not know that they had done that. Or (perhaps worse) they did not realize that doing things that way could be a problem.

What bad gunhandling habit do you see in this still from a surveillance video?

People don’t notice when the dude at the gun shop points the gun at his own left hand, because they don’t know to look for it. Or because they think it’s no big deal as long as the gun is unloaded.

They don’t notice when someone points the gun into their body core as they reholster, because they don’t realize that’s a problem in the first place. Or they know it could be a problem, but they don’t realize they’ve done it themselves because it does not feel as dangerous as it looks when someone else does it.

People don’t realize they are using the decocker incorrectly, or failing to use the thumb safety at the appropriate times, or sweeping everyone to the left of them as they put the gun into their range bag.

Sometimes, they have a sense that maybe they need to do something differently — so they move more quickly as they do all of these things!

This is why even experienced shooters should attend a good class from time to time. We cannot spot the errors we make with full confidence. Just as we confidently type discretely when we mean discreetly, and never even feel the impulse to look it up since we “know” the word we used, the shooting mistakes we’ve been making with full confidence will never be corrected, unless we voluntarily ask a skilled and competent observer to help us find and fix them.

The confident-mistake problem applies just as much to shooting and gunhandling skills as it does to basic safety behavior. It isn’t only a beginner problem, but it applies to all of us at different times.

This is also why potential students should look very suspiciously at any program that has novices-watching-novices as a part of the safety protocols. People cannot see whole categories of our own mistakes, and naive observers are also unlikely to catch those same mistakes when others make them. Because of this, setting novices to watch novices may help the observers learn to see the errors, but it does little or nothing for safety among those who are handling the guns at the moment.

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Unintentional Discharges Project – Part 3

Several of my gun-owning friends have asked me about the (sigh) political side of the “Unintended” project. Have I thought about the risks and dangers of collecting and talking openly about these events? Do I realize that this work could be used against us, politically? Shouldn’t we just … you know … kind of keep quiet about these types of incidents?

Short answers: yes, yes, and NO.

Let’s talk about that.

Not too long after a highly-publicized mass murder awhile back, one of my old friends contacted me. This friend is essentially against firearms ownership for ordinary people, and is very much in favor of laws that make it much harder for people with low incomes to afford owning them. But she is still my friend, and I am still her friend. 1

While we talked, my friend claimed (and boy, did she sound frustrated!) that I should agree with her about making guns more difficult to own. After all, she said, on this website, I talk all the time about the dangers of handling firearms carelessly or irresponsibly. She said that I constantly encourage people who own guns to learn more about them, to become more skilled at handling them safely. She pointed out that I often tell people about the dangers of bad gun-related products, such as “holsters” that do not hold the gun securely or protect the trigger in a solid and reliable way. And, my friend told me, every time I talk about how people can hurt themselves or others by not using their guns responsibly, I am giving more energy to her ideas about keeping guns away from people who want to own them.

This makes sense … on the surface. But look a little deeper: my friend was saying that gun owners’ voluntary (and sometimes expensive) efforts to be responsible and careful with their firearms is really evidence — catch this! — that gun owners cannot be trusted to be either responsible or careful with their firearms.

That’s nuts.

We should say so, often and loudly. That is an extremely weird and non-rational way to think!

While I am extremely sensitive to all the different ways the anti-rights people can use our attempts to educate each other against us, I’m also not a fan of the type of thinking that would point to this type of conversation as an argument that ordinary people can’t be trusted with tools to protect themselves and the people they love. That’s just not sane thinking there.

More to the point.

My reference files are full of links to news stories about unintentional, accidental, and negligent discharges that happen in public, sometimes with disastrous results. (Did you see the one last week, about the gun that fell out of a guy’s pocket while he was sitting on a couch at Ikea, and a child found it and fired it?) The news stories about situations  where people got hurt, or got charged with a crime, are not exactly hard to find and anyone who’s looking for those can easily find them.

At the same time, stories found only in the news are not all that useful for educational purposes, except in very broad terms that may-or-may-not have anything to do with the event as it actually happened.

Clue: when a “news” report starts off with a reference to a “Glock revolver” or somesuch, you know there’s not going to be anything in the details of that story you can trust. And that’s even assuming that the article offers any real information about what actually happened, which generally they do not. They’ll report what the gun owner has been charged with, or how the neighbors felt, or what the police spokesperson said … but the brief sentence (if that) about what actually happened to kick off all those reactions and feelings will be buried well down toward the bottom of the article, as an afterthought, if it’s there at all. And the details in that part of the story are usually about as trustworthy as a wall full of termites.

So if we want to educate ourselves and each other, we have to be willing to talk about our own learning points, and learn from the mistakes others talk about.

By the way, with at least 50 million households in America having guns in them, and more than 16 million people with concealed carry permits, it would be absolutely shocking if we did not see some of these mistakes happening from time to time. In absolute numbers, these are common events. But as a percentage value, for how often they happen vs how many people own guns and handle them on a daily basis, unintentional discharges are extraordinarily rare. It’s easy to get a skewed understanding of how often such mistakes happen just because the stories are so memorable and heart-stopping when they do happen. But they are extremely uncommon.

So people with a political or public policy agenda can easily find headlines to bolster their cause, but the details (that aren’t reported) are where we as gun owners can learn the lessons we need to learn in order to avoid making new headlines. We can learn a lot from these events, but only as long as we’re willing to actually talk about them.

What happened? How did it happen? What factors do the people who were there think are important?

That’s what we need to know. 2

Notes:

  1. Which is a good thing. The idea that people can (or worse, should) only be friends with people who agree with them on everything is … harmful. And if you don’t agree, I guess that means you and I can’t be friends, hm? So maybe there’s no point in disagreeing with me about this one.  😉
  2. I am still collecting stories about unintended, accidental, and negligent discharges (and close calls). If you’d like to help, please send your story with as many details as you remember and are willing to share to pax at cornered cat dot com. Unless you prefer otherwise and clearly let me know, your contribution will be anonymous. Thanks!
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Unintentional Discharges Project – Part 2

Awhile back, I got interested in how firearms mishaps occur — especially mishaps that involve experienced shooters who should know better. What leads up to them? What mistakes are frequently made and why are those mistakes made? When a gun “just goes off,” what common factors might be involved? 1

My interest was not sparked by any serious mishap of my own (thank goodness, knock on wood), but by listening to people, especially newcomers, on the range as they discussed how to stay safe around firearms. It seems to me that studying how people have endangered themselves might help the rest of us avoid making similar mistakes.

One question I have constantly thought about while doing this study: Are the Four Rules actually enough to prevent negligent shots, or should firearms handling be hedged about with additional safety precautions over and above the Four Rules?

For reference, here are the Four Rules:

  1. All guns are always loaded. (Treat them so!)
  2. Never point the gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your muzzle is on target and you have made the decision to shoot.
  4. Be sure of your target and what’s around it.

Not one of these four universal safety rules, by itself, will prevent an unintentional shot. Rather, they are intended to overlap and provide redundant layers of protection from injuries.

Further, even all four of the rules together do not entirely prevent all unexpected or unintentional shots. We see this in a number of incidents where people fired more quickly than expected, even while carefully following every single one of the safety rules on the range. So even all the rules working together do not always stop an unexpected round. The overlapping rules do, however, make it almost impossible for a normal moment of inattention to injure or kill someone.

This what we see, over and over again, as we look at these types of events. Keep this in mind, because it turns out that many — the vast majority! — of close calls happen when people are in fact doing their reasonable best to handle guns safely under the normal pressures of everyday life.

The overlapping rules are based upon two universal truths:

  1. All human beings make mistakes.
  2. All mechanical devices can fail.

These safety protocols overlap. This is by design! The overlapping nature of these rules serves to reduce the number of bad outcomes from the mistakes that humans will sometimes make. The rules do not prevent mistakes, but they do make it less likely that  normal human mistakes will turn into unbearable tragedies. They also function as redundant systems to help protect human lives when a mechanical device fails.

It is important to understand that a shooter can break every single one of the rules and still avoid injury or tragedy through sheer luck.

The gun that you expect to be empty might really be empty.

The unexpectedly-fired bullet might be stopped by a solid 2×4 stud in the wall instead of passing through sheetrock and empty space to hit the child sleeping on the other side.

The noise in the brush that the excited hunter shoots at might actually be a deer instead of another hunter.

Luck happens.

***

Luck happens.
But we never, ever count on luck.

***

Nor is luck the only factor. Because the basic rules are designed to work together and function as an interlocking safety net, even when a shooter breaks one rule, very often a different rule – or a remnant of one – can save that shooter’s bacon.

For instance, a person handling a gun might sometimes pull the trigger without first pointing the muzzle at a specific target with a solid backstop. This would, of course, break Rule Three. Perhaps they never realized that this rule applies to gunhandling at home as well as on the range. Maybe they “only” meant to take the gun apart or to check the trigger after they cleaned it, and did not think of Rule Three at all. In any case, the person did not choose a specific place for a bullet to land before they touched the trigger, which means they definitely broke Rule Three.

But the person who did this might still avoid an unintentional discharge because they did double-check the gun to be sure that it was truly empty (one possible implication of Rule One, although not the most important aspect of that rule).

Or they might unexpectedly fire the gun, but still avoid injury because they at least kept their own body parts away from the muzzle while they were handling it (a weakened form of Rule Two).

This means that even a single poorly-understood or poorly-followed rule can help prevent a tragedy. That’s the way the interlocking safety rules are designed to work.

***

Even a poorly-understood or poorly-followed rule
can help prevent a tragedy
.

***

This does not mean it is a smart idea to ignore any one of the rules simply because we intend to follow at least one of the others. It only means that people who try to follow the rules often avoid injury because the rules are so very redundant.

Understood completely and used properly, the gunhandling rules work together to create a strong safety net. Habitually breaking one of the rules means that the shooter’s safety net has a gaping hole in that particular spot. It means the shooter has decided to gamble that he will never make a single mistake within the area formerly covered by that rule.

Is this a safe gamble? I don’t think so!

As one of the shooters in my files admits, “In spite of having years of experience handling firearms, all it took was one moment of distraction for a near tragedy to occur.” In many of these cases, a single moment of distraction caused – or nearly caused – a tragedy simply because the person had in the past avoided the same unfortunate outcome only by repeated good luck.

When used as intended, the redundant and interlocking rules make it impossible for a single moment of inattention to cause any lasting harm. So as you will see in the collected stories when they are published, injuries and close calls happen most often when someone violates more than one of the rules.

This is why it is important to follow each rule, every time, even though they overlap. Even in circumstances where it might feel overly cautious to follow all of the rules all the time, the rules overlap for good reason.

When a person regularly breaks one rule, but has long avoided serious consequence by consciously and carefully following one of the other rules, this is the circumstance where a single moment of distraction can cause danger, injury, or death – because this is the exact condition under which the interlocking rules are no longer redundant and no longer protect against that single moment of inattention.

This is why “but it’s unloaded!” is the most foolish response of all, when someone calls out careless gunhandling for what it is: dangerous.

In the near future, I will be releasing an e-book that contains many of these incidents, along with some observations about what we can learn from the experiences of others. I hope it will be useful to you!

Notes:

  1. I am still collecting these stories. If you would like to help, please send your story — along with as many details as you can recall and feel comfortable sharing — to pax at cornered cat dot com. Unless you prefer otherwise and clearly let me know, your contribution will be anonymous.
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Unintentional Discharges Project – Part 1

Still busily working away on the ND / AD / UD project.

Do you wonder how it’s coming along?

Well… here’s the bottom line, right up front.

***

Unintentional discharges happen when people handle firearms …

  • while distracted or physically stressed;
  • while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, including prescription drugs;
  • while ignorant of, or apathetic toward, fundamental aspects of firearm function and/or safe gunhandling;
  • while unfamiliar with a specific gun type;
  • while mixing functional guns with dummy guns, or while handling guns presumed to be “unloaded” alongside guns known to be loaded;
  • while mechanically lowering an external hammer;
  • while using a decocking lever or closing the action (this factor is not limited to guns in poor repair);
  • while using equipment — guns and holsters — in poor repair;
  • while using holsters that are poorly designed, or while using a holster carelessly;
  • while relying upon personal attention to detail rather than proven and redundantly overlapping gunhandling systems; and
  • while believing ‘it can never happen to me’.

Injurious unintentional discharges – ones that maim or kill someone  – tend to happen most often when the gun handler mistakenly believes that the gun is unloaded. Many of these injuries happen when the user deliberately pulls the trigger.

 

More to follow …

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