Once upon a time, a person interested in learning how to use a firearm for self-defense had only one choice: he could join the military and learn marksmanship from a drill sergeant.1
In those years, although most ordinary people owned guns, they used those firearms primarily for hunting or recreation. It was a rare person who owned a gun simply for self-defense. Among those who did, there was little recognition of the need for training in how to use it effectively. Even law enforcement officers learned little about how to use their service weapons for self-protection; They already knew how to shoot when they were hired, so what else could they possibly need to learn?
Two things changed that perspective. First, an increase in the number of law enforcement deaths in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s gave rise to what we now call the Officer Survival Movement that began in earnest in the early 1970s. During those early years (and to some extent even today), there was bitter opposition to the idea that an officer might need to know more about firearms and self-defense than simply how to pull a trigger.
Today, professional defensive firearms instructors teach classes everywhere.
But the change did take place, and today’s law enforcement trainers widely recognize that their officers need to learn a whole lot more than basic marksmanship if they are going to survive a deadly force encounter in the real world.
At the same time these changes were taking place on the law enforcement side, the rest of the civilian self-defense world was undergoing a similar revolution in thought. Like the Officer Survival Movement, this citizen revolution began in the 1970s, but it really hit its stride two decades later as laws changed to allow more people to get their concealed carry permits. This revolution trumpeted two important messages: first, that guns are useful for defense against violent crime, and second, that simply owning a defensive firearm does not mean a citizen is prepared to protect himself or herself from criminal danger.
Today, gun owners rarely talk about self-defense without talking about training. We talk about what to practice, what bad habits to avoid, which techniques to use, which additional skill sets we might need. Most of us find that the decision to use a firearm in self-defense provokes a host of legal, ethical, and practical concerns—concerns that are best dealt with from a strong place of knowledge.
When we commit ourselves to carrying a firearm, we also commit ourselves to learning how to keep ourselves and our families safe. That’s why Concealed Carry Magazine is so popular, and the USCCA so strong: because USCCA members take that commitment to learning so seriously.
Today, professional defensive firearms instructors teach classes everywhere. Many offer training at fixed schools and private ranges. Some travel between locations, holding classes all over the country. Most have specialties: managing contact with unknown strangers, or making the physical transition from being caught off guard to effectively fighting back, or working in close quarters, or weathering the legal and social aftermath of a violent event.
In fact, there is a bewildering array of subjects, themes, and classes taught by qualified professional trainers. So how does a determined student figure out which subjects are worth learning, or which trainers worth learning them from?
Tom Givens suggests prospective students might begin to answer that question by attending the Tactical Conference he organizes through Rangemaster every year. Most years, around 20 trainers show up for this event, each one teaching a two-hour block of instruction that might be offered several times during the weekend.
When not shooting the Polite Society match that is the other half of this event, attendees are free to attend the training blocks. Those who are careful with their time over that three-day period could attend a number of training blocks taught by well-known instructors from all over the country. At a cost of less than $250 for three days of training available eight hours a day, Givens says, “That’s kind of a bargain.”
This year’s Tactical Conference, held the weekend of February 17-19, was no exception. It featured many well-known names such as John Farnam, Paul Gomez, and Rob Pincus, along with others whose names aren’t quite as familiar, but whose work should be.
For example, Lt. Chuck Haggard of the Topeka Police Department spoke about “active killers.” He presented startling details from mass casualty events throughout the past several decades, including an in-depth look at the Columbine High School shooting and the horrible event in Mumbai. Haggard discussed ways that ordinary people can prepare themselves to cope with sudden violence in crowded surroundings, and eloquently made the case for rapid, decisive action to save lives including one’s own.
Haggard noted that the majority of these events are stopped (when they are stopped), by the actions of people actually on the scene when the shootings start. “Historically, at the first hint of tactical pressure, these guys fold. They shoot themselves or give up,” Haggard said. Although the subject was grim, the presentation was hopeful: there are ways to lessen your personal risk from these events, and there are things you can teach your children to lessen their already-low risk of being affected by a school shooting.
For example, Haggard suggests pre-planning a place to meet your child off campus, and discussing with them when they might flee the school rather than staying on campus. With a heavy emphasis on realistic planning, Haggard noted that not every scenario is survivable. “If you cannot survive,” he says, “don’t make your family go through the emotional trauma of a murder trial. Take the [bad guys] with you.”
Craig “SouthNarc” Douglas taught a four-hour block that got participants up and moving. The subject title was “Managing Unknown Contacts,” which frankly made me think of prescription eyewear when I first heard it. But the class was truly eye-opening as Douglas taught us how to think about dealing with strangers and how to avoid unwanted interactions with people we don’t know. With a strong focus on awareness,
Douglas discussed ways we could avoid task fixation in public (such as not texting messages unless we are in a secure location). He encouraged us to widen our attention after focusing in on a necessary task, deliberately looking around after counting change or reading a sign. When approached by a stranger in a parking lot, Douglas suggests, the appropriate response should be eye contact followed by a simple, clear request in a level, calm voice: “Hey, buddy, can you do me a favor and stop right there …” Douglas emphasized that the initial voicing should not be a command, which might escalate into an unnecessary confrontation, nor should it be a question, which invites a closer approach.
Throughout the class, Douglas repeatedly emphasized the importance of staying conscious and mobile if attacked: “These are your two goals. Stay conscious and stay on your feet. Keep those goals in mind!” With its strong emphasis on verbal and physical skills to avoid a fight, and how to successfully make the transition to a firearm if a fight was inevitable, I found this presentation hugely valuable, and look forward to learning more from Douglas as time and budget allow.
Dr. Glenn Meyer, professor of psychology at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, gave a talk titled “Modern Psychology and Gunfighting.” Dr. Meyer has done some intriguing research about the factors that influence juries in self-defense cases, including the defendant’s choice of firearm and ammunition. Presenting his information in a humorously engaging style, Dr. Meyer outlined the human factors and risks associated with common gun designs, and discussed ways in which societal and cultural biases might influence a gun fight.
On the criminal psychology side of things, William Aprill discussed the factors that create and motivate violent criminals. Although this understanding is important for deterrence and avoidance, Aprill cautioned participants not to get too hung up on those details: “You need to recognize that your consent and your understanding are not required for someone else to decide that you are a problem that only has a lethal solution.” With that caution in place, Aprill went on to outline a number of surprising ways students could avoid or de-escalate frightening situations.
Jim Higginbotham discussed how to set up an effective training program and prepare oneself for a criminal encounter. Perhaps the most intriguing part of his presentation came at the beginning of his lecture, when he outlined the things that do not generally matter in defensive situations: stance, your choice of firearm, your ammunition, how you hold the gun, your ability as a shooter … If none of those things matter, what does? “Awareness matters,” said Higginbotham, “and so does your intention and ability to fight back.”
Those two things matter the most, Higginbotham asserted, because most criminal encounters stop when the assailant changes his mind. It is only in the very rare situations where the criminal does not change his mind that these other factors come into play. Nevertheless, he said, it’s important to prepare yourself to deal with the ones who do not decide to stop. “If you prepare only for the ‘average’ gunfight,” Higginbotham warned, “then if you were in one hundred criminal encounters you would lose fifty of them! That’s not acceptable.”
There simply isn’t enough space in a short article like this to outline all the different lectures and classes that were available over the weekend. For that matter, there wasn’t enough time to attend them all. Lectures covered practical topics such as ready positions, efficient drawstrokes, and stoppage reduction; criminal-defense topics such as how to deal with knives or how to protect family members; and equipment-selection topics such as how to find and use smart technology to improve your practice time, or what to look for when choosing ammunition.
Other presenters included Claude Werner, Skip Gochenour, Dr. Martin Topper, Steve Moses, Karl Rehn, Spencer Keepers, John Hearne, Leslie Buck—and, of course, Rangemaster’s own Tom Givens. Although Givens was busy running the match and overseeing the entire event, he still found time to present his not-to-be-missed “Lessons from the Street” lecture, a detailed after-action report about ten different shootings that involved Rangemaster students, and an overview of trends seen in a much larger number of shootings over the past several years.
After attending the Rangemaster Tactical Conference and Polite Society Match, I have a strong sense that Givens is right: this three-day conference allowed me to see nearly two dozen trainers in action, and get a feel for what they teach and why they teach it. I came away deeply thankful for the rich lessons.
1. The use of the word he in this sentence is deliberate, since we are talking about a time several decades before women could enjoy the dubious pleasure of being verbally abused by a drill sergeant in the regular military forces.