As the one year anniversary of the tragic Newtown shooting arrives next week, there will surely be talk about the current status of the gun safety reform movement. One area that ought to be discussed more is mandatory firearms training for gun owners.
Dick Metcalf’s November 7 firing from Guns & Ammo magazine shows that some in the gun community don’t much like dissent from the idea of unlimited Second Amendment rights. The long-time columnist dared to suggest in his last piece that just maybe gun owners should be required to get some firearms training. Outraged readers deluged the magazine with subscription cancellations, two firearms manufacturers threatened to pull advertising (according to Metcalf) and he got the boot. “It is very clear to me that [Metcalf’s views] don’t reflect the views of our readership,” editor Jim Bequette wrote in an apology.
If so, the readership’s views probably don’t reflect the opinions of most gun-rights supporters, either. In a survey last July of 945 gun owners by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, 74 percent of current or former NRA members said “concealed-carry permits should only be granted to applicants who have completed gun safety training.” In March 2011, gun rights blog The Truth About Guns posted an entry by regular contributor Jim Sutherland arguing for mandatory training for gun owners. And in his majority Supreme Court opinion in D.C. v. Heller, Justice Scalia notes that the adjective “well-regulated” in the Second Amendment implies the “imposition of proper discipline and training.”
There’s a reason that the idea of mandating training won’t stay dead — in volatile situations, a good many gun owners don’t have a fraction of the practice they need to make good decisions or even shoot straight. Kenneth Cooper, a New York State-certified firearms instructor, was in a gun shop last week when a woman came in who’d gotten her handgun license. It soon became clear she didn’t know the first thing about guns — like what a magazine is or the difference between a semiautomatic and a revolver. “This is very scary stuff,” Cooper says. “If she hurts somebody, it’s bad for the gun industry, it’s bad for the person she hurts and it’s bad for her.”
A good guy with a gun might stop a bad guy with a gun, but he (or she) also may well take out bystanders. CDC data show just over 600 accidental firearms deaths and 17,000 injuries for the latest years that data are available. Shooters can miss their targets, like concealed-carry car-jack victim Edward Bell, who fired on his own car as it was being driven away by an assailant and instead killed 69-year-old Geraldine Jackson inside her house. Or they open up on the wrong person, like the concealed-carry holder in Arkansas who shot at what he thought was a bank robbery getaway car but turned out not to be. They make careless mistakes, like the concealed-carry holder in a Florida internet café whose handgun fell out of his waistband, hit the floor and went off, killing another patron. And they make bad choices, like the one that allegedly killed Renisha McBride, who was shot on November 2 after crashing her car and knocking on a door for help — the homeowner claims he thought someone was breaking in and that his gun discharged by accident.
Even experienced cops have trouble handling shoot-don’t-shoot decisions and gun battles well, say police experts. Low light, suspects in motion and combat stress all affect their accuracy and judgment. Quality firearms training makes the difference between taking down an assailant or killing an innocent. Standards vary across states, but on average new police recruits get 60 hours of weapons training. After that, all cops have to re-test on a target range once or twice a year or more, including shooting in dim light and at moving targets. Every year, they also participate in tactical training designed to mimic real-world scenarios.
Contrast that with what armed civilians get. All 50 states now allow concealed carry, but most mandate little or no training to get a permit (five states require no permit at all). A case study of nine states last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the most any of the nine required for a permit was 16 hours. Two required no training at all. Five of the nine didn’t ask permit applicants to pass a proficiency test. And none had any mandated refresher trainings, scenario-based instruction or retesting. Even weirder, states like Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia require that applicants for hunting licenses take a safety course, but not those who want concealed-carry permits.
Alan Gottlieb of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms argues that civilians actually perform better in gun battles than police. Asked for the source of that claim, he suggests doing a Google search. It appears to trace back to an informal 1979 study of 296 incidents described in St. Louis newspaper articles in which guns were used to repel criminal attacks. But the book chapter describing that study doesn’t mention rates of accidental homicides of innocent bystanders by cops versus civilians. It does compare rates at which cops versus civilians themselves were wounded or killed. If Gottlieb’s citation is wrong, it’s an honest mistake since other pro-gun-rights materials make the same claim about that study.
Gottlieb also counters that most of the time when civilians use guns defensively, they don’t fire them — just pulling them out wards off those with evil intent. As evidence, he points to stories on sites like gunssavelives.net. And requiring training will mean fewer gun owners, he says: “When you start mandating training, it increases the cost of getting a gun.”
But that’s an odd argument since a little instruction would make gun owners safer in those dangerous encounters. In his classes, firearms trainer Cooper, who says he’s a patron member of the NRA, teaches that the first line of defense is avoiding confrontations altogether: “The best gun owners get themselves out of the killing zone. That’s how you survive,” he says. “It’s the idiots who go in there and think they can solve a problem with a gun.” As for the cost of training, it’s hardly prohibitive. In New York, Cooper says even three days of firearms training — beyond what even the most stringent states in the GAO study mandate — would cost about $325. With driving lessons averaging $200 to $800, that one-time cost hardly seems unreasonable.
Gottlieb correctly points out that the number of accidental gun deaths has dropped — in the latest 10 years of CDC data, they’re down almost 30 percent, and injuries are down 15 percent. But those figures need context. Violent crime dropped 19 percent in the last 10 years, meaning that there have been fewer chances for reckless errors while using a gun for defense. And the rate of household gun ownership has dropped — down from 42 percent in 2000 to 37 percent today, according to Gallup, so the number of people who could make a mistake has also fallen. In any case, the families of the nearly 18,000 people a year killed or injured in gun accidents can hardly be expected to take comfort in the decline in the numbers. (The NRA didn’t respond to a request for comment on this article.)
Many of those incidents kick off fresh debates over the right to bear arms. Gun-rights supporters usually resort to one of two arguments — either the shooter was a careless knucklehead and therefore an atypical gun owner, or he made a reasonable mistake in a dangerous situation. But if more gun owners were required to learn how to manage their weapons responsibly, they could avoid a lot of those arguments altogether.