“OK, Beth. You’ve just arrived home. But there’s somebody in your house … and your loved ones need your help.”

Those were the precise directives given to me by my instructor and range officer Chris Currie as I drew my M&P 9mm and started making my way down a short cinderblock hallway to the “Funhouse,” one of three indoor training simulators at Gunsite Academy in Paulden, Arizona. I knew that those would be my RO’s last words until I’d completed the live-fire exercise. And, unless something went wrong, his objective was to stay behind me in order to watch and evaluate.

As if the “test anxiety” wasn’t bad enough, my heart immediately started racing as I contemplated the situation laid out before me. I did my best to remember my training: Move quietly but purposefully; angle around corners to spot possible threats; don’t peek into rooms but check them, step into them and “own” them; look carefully; and shoot even more carefully…

A tangle of thoughts and instructions tumbled around in my head as I took my first step into the shoot house and tried to ignore how loud my own breathing and heartbeat seemed to have become in my ears. I was taking the training exercise very seriously, but I was afraid of letting the anxiety get to me.

“Calm down,” I told myself. “You can do this. Just breathe.”

I moved purposefully through the house, carefully scanning each room and shooting any threat targets, most often following the “Failure Drill.” Somewhere in the maze, I lost count of how many targets I’d encountered. Time failed to register with me anymore. As anticipated, I spotted a gun in the man’s left hand, but then I saw something that I wasn’t expecting at all.

The Gunsite Shoot House

This was the last day of a weeklong training course at Gunsite Academy, the renowned, 2,800-acre training facility established by Col. Jeff Cooper, known as “The Father of Modern Pistolcraft.” My three USCCA colleagues and I, plus 24 other students, had spent the previous four days working on drills and techniques to become more skilled and effective in the three tenets of Gunsite’s “Combat Triad:” mindset, marksmanship and gun-handling.

This prerequisite Pistol 250 course included classroom lectures, demonstrations, range work, competitions, low-light and night shooting with flashlight techniques, and some intense indoor and outdoor live-fire simulations. Over the years, the 250 class has fittingly become known as “The Gunsite Experience.” It was first presented in October 1976 by Col. Cooper himself.

It was a fantastic, fun and challenging week of firearms training that seemed to influence all experience levels and backgrounds of those in attendance, though certainly in different ways and on different levels. Some students learned to draw their firearms for the first time. Others shot more rounds in five days than they’d shot in a lifetime. While Gunsite didn’t necessarily change my mindset, it definitely reinforced and strengthened it. And it certainly made an impact on me that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

In my firearms training to that point, I didn’t have much experience clearing rooms or dealing with realistic targets. Of course, my training hadn’t been completely static either; I enjoy competitive shooting, and I train in defensive pistol techniques whenever possible. But I’d never had to put my skills to the test in a live-fire shoot house. And the targets in the Funhouse weren’t round bullseyes, cartoon-like caricatures or even zombies. These targets were images of real people. They included all different looks and builds — some women, some men, some masked and some innocent.

Where It Became Real

As I edged around the corner of the doorframe to get a better shot, I wondered if the anxiety had gotten to me after all. “Is my mind playing tricks on me?” All I knew was that at the end of this gunman’s muzzle was a hostage … a young, blonde, frightened boy who looked shockingly similar to my own 7-year-old son. And as I agonized over the scene that was staged in front of me, I felt like I was looking at my own little boy, injured and terrified, in the hands of a violent stranger.

Somewhat unexpectedly, I sensed my concentration grow more intense than it had ever been before. I was enraged, horrified, focused and calm — all at the same time. But I raised my M&P to the target’s head, lined up my sights and stared at the green fiber-optic front sight as if I were about to burn a hole right through it with the intensity of my gaze. I pressed the trigger three times, hitting the target first in his left eye, then his nose and then slightly below his right eye.

For an instant, I almost felt like I wasn’t really there; that I was instead watching myself engage the target. But it was in that intense, overwhelming moment that everything I have ever thought or believed about why I train and why I carry a gun became more real and more profound than I’d ever imagined.

That’s when I heard the range officer’s voice call out, “Holster your weapon.” I took a slow, cleansing breath and carefully slid my firearm into the holster on my right hip.

“We’re done,” he said. “Great job!”

The Shoot House Experience

I looked back at the target, and that’s when reality set in. Tears flooded my eyes and poured down my cheeks. Slightly confused, the RO asked me if everything was OK. Almost breathless by this point, I pointed toward the hostage and managed to say, “That’s my son. It looks just like my little boy.”

I could tell that the range officer was a bit stunned and perhaps had not encountered a reaction quite like this before.

“I didn’t expect that at all,” I continued, my voice breaking. “I had no idea there would be a target like this. And when I saw it, all I knew was I had to save him.”

“But you did it,” he responded. “You did it. You didn’t stop. You didn’t break your focus. You got him.”

I nodded, still feeling a bit like I’d stepped out of an episode of The Twilight Zone. But it was true: I did it. I faced the training exercise, and I came out successful. But more importantly than that, I’d faced an unexpected challenge, and I came out transformed. And, in that moment, I knew with such certainty that this is exactly why I do what I do. This is why I train, why I practice, why I live a responsibly armed lifestyle, why I choose to carry a self-defense gun and why I do my best to communicate this valuable knowledge to others. No doubt I’ve believed it, lived it and shared it for many, many years. But this experience took it from just being knowledge in my head to becoming evidence in my heart.

Where It Ended

Call it clarification. Call it justification. Call it validation. I know my reasons why, and I actually had a chance to live out those very reasons. Facing that target — a man full of evil holding an innocent child at gunpoint — solidified within me that I do all of this for my loved ones so I can have a better chance to keep them safe. Beyond that, going through this experience proved that I can’t depend on someone else to be there to help the ones I love; it truly is up to me to protect my family. And above all else, overcoming this challenge confirmed that while some people claim their kids are the reason why they do NOT have firearms in their homes, my three children are the most important three reasons why I do have them.

I’d venture to say that our instructors could not have known how profoundly a trip through the live-fire shoot house would affect me that day, but I have a feeling that they know how much of an impact this kind of training can make. In fact, Gunsite’s website claims, “Regardless of your age, gender or experience, completing the 250 class will change your life!”

And no doubt, I would have to wholeheartedly agree with that statement.