Research: Untrained gun users prove ineffective at self defense

Research says effective self-defense training needs to go beyond target practice and emulate the speed, anxiety, and pressure of real situations.

Seth Perlman/AP/File
Semi-automatic handguns are seen display for purchase at Capitol City Arms Supply in Springfield, Ill. on July 10, 2013

If you’re going to rely on a gun for self-defense, you should know how to use it.

This is the key finding of a recent report by Mount St. Mary’s University and the National Gun Victims Action Council, which states “safe and effective firearms usage requires mental preparation; legal knowledge; judgmental awareness; as well as firearm expertise, skill, and familiarity.”

The report urged gun-owners to undergo frequent and good-quality training, which goes beyond target practice, and addresses the high-pressure mental stressors in situations of self-defense.

"Shooting targets on a range is one thing. You can put all your shots on a dot when you control the situation and can decide when to fire," said Sgt. Jason Halifax, a Des Moines police spokesman and a law enforcement firearms trainer, according to the report. “But when your adrenaline is pumping and your heart is beating faster, you're not going to shoot the same way you do at the range – not without a lot of training."

Halifax also acknowledged the mental agony behind shooting someone.

"It's easy to say you would rather be tried by 12 than carried by six, but taking a life is never easy," he said "There are mental aspects of it. It will change your life. Saying you can do it and doing it are two very different things."

Halifax doesn’t discourage people from their right to bear arms but asks they carefully consider what they are willing to do according to their own values.

Concealed Carry University (CCU), an online information resource for private citizens who choose to carry a concealed handgun, finds a series of myths can prevent the effective use of handguns in self-defense:

  • “Accuracy in Combat = Accuracy at the Range." Statistically, 77 percent of shots fired in self-defense situations will miss their targets, even when fired by trained gun-handlers
  • “I’ll see him coming."  Roughly 67 percent of the time, the bad guy is the first one to use lethal force. They ambush us. This tells us that a gunfight is not a clear-cut incident where a target pops up from behind a barricade.
  • “I’ll have time to think and decide.” The average violent attack is over in 3 seconds. They are “blitz” attacks, designed to blindside and overwhelm us.

CCU says “confidence should be in your abilities, not your gun” and stresses the importance of “muscle memory” and subsequently, “practice."

The recent investigation used 77 volunteers and had each of them participate in three scenarios – a carjacking, an armed robbery, and a case of suspected larceny.

People with firearms training performed better than those without it.

The Washington Post noted the latter “didn't take cover. They didn't attempt to issue commands to their assailants. Their trigger fingers were either too itchy – they shot innocent bystanders or unarmed people, or not itchy enough – they didn't shoot armed assailants until they were already being shot at.”

According to CCU, 93 percent of single-gunshot wounds are survivable, which goes against the common expectation that one bullet is enough to stop a threat. This assumption was reflected in the study, which found “participants with no skills were not only slow to fire, but did not fire enough shots to effectively neutralize the threat they faced.”

The report also noted five states have passed laws that eliminate any training as a requirement for carrying a handgun in public and said minimum standards for tests required to employ concealed-carry are not even high enough.

It said consensus among law enforcement and firearm experts agreed with their findings and argued in favor of mandatory firearms training.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has complicated views on requirements for concealed carry.

Following the Newton, Conn. shooting, which left 26 people dead, including 20 children, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun,” CBS News reported.

The Washington Post reports the organization has “floated the idea of mandatory firearms training for school children,” but has also “opposed laws requiring mandatory training for gun purchases.”

According to the report, the NRA’s hostility to such laws was founded on the idea “citizens are capable of deciding for themselves that attending firearms training is the responsible thing to do” and do not need to be “micromanage[d].”

But the study notes training teaches participants more than how to shoot an assailant: it also “increases the probability that one will take protective cover, issue commands and attempt to de-escalate the situation before it becomes deadly and exercise trigger discipline, which reduces the chance of accidentally firing and potentially harming bystanders.”

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