The Cornered Cat
Why going to the range isn’t enough

Bumped into an old friend the other day, someone I hadn’t seen in awhile. She asked me about my life now, and I told her I’d been teaching firearms classes all over the country for the past few years. She raised a skeptical eyebrow and said, “People do that? Take classes just for shooting? I wouldn’t think there was that much to learn. You point at the target and you pull the trigger. That’s like, two minutes. So what else is there to teach?”

Funny thing is, she’s right in one sense. There’s really not that much to shooting a gun. It’s kind of like driving a car that way. You learn where the steering wheel is, maybe you learn how to put gas in the tank, 1 then you start the car, push the gas pedal and off you go. Right?

Have to laugh. That’s pretty much what my pre-teen boys thought. But it’s not quite like that. New drivers must learn at least two different categories of things in order to be safe when they drive on the road in public.

First, they must learn the physical actions that will make the car do the things they want it to do – how to start the car, how to get it into gear, how to get it moving, how to steer it, how to slow it down, and how to stop it. (Just for the record, after teaching all five of our sons to drive, I can say this from harrowing personal experience: young men seem to have a particular difficulty learning those last two points.)

With the basics of making the car go understood, the new driver isn’t done learning. That’s because she still has to learn the traffic rules, which include everything from “Which part of the road can I drive on?” to “How do I know whose turn it is to go next at a four-way stop sign?” and “Is it okay to turn right on red?”  There are questions that address expected courtesies and rights-of-way, which direction you can lawfully drive on a given street, and how to keep both the car and themselves properly licensed to be on the road at all. The new driver must also learn to decode traffic signs that look simple at a glance but convey surprisingly detailed information to the experienced driver.

So. Two categories: physical skills and legal stuff. By now you’ve undoubtedly figured out the analogy to our usual subject: defensive handgun use and all it entails.

A surprising number of people who intend to (or do!) carry guns in public have never even tried to understand the “rules of the road.” These folks are the equivalent of the high school sophomore who gets all his understanding about speed limits and traffic laws from listening to his buddies. That’s … a mistake.

On the other hand, an equally surprising number of folks spend a lot of time on theory. They  may look up the carry laws and use of force laws, and they may even join an organization like ACLDN to be sure their legal and financial ducks are all in a neat little row. But these people aren’t as willing to study the physical skills and practical dynamics of facing violence.  They make me remember my grandpa, a grand old man with a lead foot and an acid tongue. When another driver would cut him off in traffic, grandpa would slap the dashboard and say bitterly, “Where’d that guy learn to drive? Correspondence school!!?” It takes a certain amount of physical doing – ideally under the eyes of a well-trained, experienced other – before young drivers and new shooters develop a good baseline of physical skills and reactions they can trust in a crisis.

That’s not all. Come to think of it, there’s a third category of things a new driver needs to learn, too. This isn’t either law or physical skills, but a blend of both: mental and social skills with a physical component. Smart drivers learn how to protect themselves when other drivers don’t follow the rules or the courtesies. They learn how to see potential trouble coming, how to leave themselves both a cushion and an escape route in heavy traffic, how to spot the hole and steer for it in a quickly-developing crisis, how to assess the condition of the road, how to safely adjust their speed and direction when things begin to spin out of control. These skills come only to drivers who have already spent some time behind the wheel. They don’t develop in a vacuum and they don’t often appear spontaneously in drivers who aren’t consciously working to improve their abilities.

Back to firearms. A lot of people think they’ve learned how to protect themselves with a gun once they’ve learned how to yank the trigger on a calm day at the range. Being able to hit the target is a critical skill for self defense. But in exactly the same way that learning to adjust the mirrors might begin a young driver’s process of learning to drive, learning to shoot simply begins the lifelong process of learning how to protect yourself and the people you love.


  1. Unless you live in Oregon or New Jersey.

7 Responses to Why going to the range isn’t enough

  1. Sherra says:

    That is all so true Kathy! Even as an instructor you still go to classes and continue learning. Techniques change, laws change, equipment changes. The day you think you know all there is to know is the day you need to hang it up.

  2. larryarnold says:

    Dang. I was all the way down through paragraph eight thinking “there’s a third category.” Then you nailed it.

    IMHO this is where the open carry folks get in trouble. They (and some others) are so wrapped around “I know how and it’s my legal right” that they never get to “Is it smart.”

    Back in the day when I first got a driver’s license (when every state’s driving laws were different) they taught us a little poem:

    Right of Way
    He was right–dead right–as he drove along.
    But he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong.

    • Kathy Jackson says:


      That third category is where most of the really important learning comes in. But you can’t even get to that stuff until the other two are well squared away. A lot of people stop learning before that point, and that’s a shame.

      That’s one reason so many pro trainers act impatient or irritated with longtime, ‘my dad taught me to shoot’ people who won’t take a class dedicated to defensive gun use. Because those folks would get even more benefit from a class than even the new shooters would, but they’ll rarely risk the hit to the ego it takes to sign up for it. Hail to the ones who are that brave!

      • larryarnold says:

        Back in 1995 when Texas passed concealed carry, we started teaching the state CHL class. It’s mostly state law and non-violent conflict resolution.

        We got a bunch of bitching from what we called “crusty sergeants.” Quote, “I took basic back in ’41. What you gonna teach me?”

        The easiest answer was another question, “What are the six places in Texas where you can’t take any firearm?”

        To their credit, once we got them in class most of them (with the exception of one guy who just had a bad case of ear-lock) realized that military combat isn’t preparation for concealed carry.

      • awalker1829 says:

        And hail to the ones who are smart. Proper training makes all the difference. My parents are both licensed private pilots with advanced ratings. They’ve been flying for over 25 years-most of them accident free. Why? Because they train. Every year, they go to simulator school and go through three days of classroom training and time in the sim with the instructor throwing every conceivable emergency at them. Dad also got glider and aerobatic training (and the ratings) because loss of engine power and recovery from unsual attitudes are two leading causes of accidents.

        Guess what? Last October, I was at my desk in the courthouse and got the call that no one wants to get. I looked at the caller ID and it was from Mom. The first words she said were “Your Dad’s plane crashed”. He had been making a post-maintenance test flight in his experimental 3/4 scale P-51D and lost engine power west of Globe, Arizona. Due to his altitude, he could not glide to the Globe airport and made a forced landing in a dry wash. The airplane’s approach speed was about 150 mph and about 110 at touchdown.

        When the dust settled, the airplane was totally destroyed. Yet Dad literally walked away from the crash. Some railroad employees heard the crash and helped him get out of the wreckage. By the time they got him to the road, the air ambulance helicopter was on scene (their base was 100 yards from the wash where he went down and they actually saw the crash). What made his survival possible? Training.

        In Dad’s case, training meant that he had the proper equipment and knowledge that literally saved his life. He was wearing a military grade flight helmet. The helmet took a hell of a beating from the deceleration forces and was badly cracked. That could have been his skull. He knew from asking local pilots that washes were the safest place to attempt an off airport landing. He walked away from the crash with only a broken nose, fractured orbital (around one eye) and bruising. He was flown by helicopter to the hospital here in Tucson and discharged that evening. The only reason that the helicopter was used was that it was already there. A lesser skilled pilot would probably have been killed in that crash.

        The bottom line is, you are only as good as your training. To be successful with anything means that you have to devote yourself to mastering that art and recognizing that you will never know everything. As my high school bandmaster often said, “You never get done practicing. You just run out of time”.

  3. Tom Walls says:

    Yup. I’ve heard this a bazillion times: ” I know how to shoot”. THe problem is that my definition of “knowing how to shoot” if more than making a gun go bang. Your explanation defined this disconnect perfectly. I am gonna borrow the hell out of it (with attribution to you 😉 )

    • Tom Walls says:

      … and on re-read, my poor proof-reading skills make another analogy as “I already know how to write” …

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