What exactly is safety on the shooting range — and how can you evaluate it?
There is a story heating up social media this week concerning a certain shooting school in Tulsa, OK that has its students participate in an odd drill: according to the first-hand account, the students unload their guns then point them at the instructor and dry-fire.
The reasoning given, according to the participant, is to acclimate the student to “pointing a gun at another human being.”
There are significant safety issues with such a drill. The students were allowed to keep their loaded magazines on their person; only the gun was unloaded. The potential, therefore, for an accident is extremely high: it would take only a split second for a student to thoughtlessly decide to load his/her gun and pull the trigger.
This is how accidents happen.
Anything that we do on the range needs to be done with regard to a philosophy of safety: the benefit of any activity or drill has to greatly exceed the risks of doing it.
Let that sink in; re-read the statement and think about it.
Let’s put that concept to work in a familiar situation. The reason we wear hearing protection on the range is because there is a danger posed by the loud noises of guns being fired. Those noises will cause hearing loss, because exposure to high volume is cumulative: it doesn’t take many unmuffled shots in close quarters before one’s hearing is degraded, and it never recovers.
So, to reduce the risk from that danger we wear hearing protection (like the daughter of my best friend is doing in the picture!) This reduces the risk of hearing loss to such a great degree that even the small recreational benefit we get from plinking exceeds the risk. This allows us to participate in the activity in relative safety.
Now take that same gun in your bedroom when a vicious killer breaks into your house: if you need to shoot you’ll likely do so without taking the time to put earplugs or earmuffs on, because the time it takes to do so may be more than you have to stop his attack. You’ll likely suffer a bit of hearing loss from the discharge of those rounds in such a small area, but you’ll be alive and (hopefully) unscathed. In this case the very real and probable risk of hearing loss is greatly exceeded by the benefit of not being murdered!
Everything you do that involves any amount of danger is managed the same way, whether you know it or not. If you get into your car to go to the movies, for instance, there is a very real danger of being killed on the highway. Most people will reduce the risk posed by auto accidents by wearing their seatbelts, not driving under the influence, obeying traffic laws, driving in the correct lane, and so on. This lowers the risk to the point that the benefit of arriving at the destination greatly exceeds the risk taken to get there.
This is why we have safety rules and associated procedures, to help us manage that risk. For instance, my classes use three safety rules that overlap to manage the risk of handling firearms and keep the students safe:
1. Always keep the muzzle pointed in a generally safe direction as much as possible. (That’s a direction in which, should the gun fire, no one will be injured.)
2. Always keep the trigger finger outside of the trigger guard (preferably on the frame above the trigger) except when actually shooting.
3. Always remember that the object in your hands is capable of killing you or another person, and handle it accordingly.
These rules build on each other and serve as a control mechanism for unsafe behavior. Following them, like following the rules of the road when driving, serve as a way to help us reduce the risk of shooting to a level that allows us to derive a benefit.
What about the drill in question?
Based on the description of the drill from a participant, the risk (of being accidentally shot) is quite high, particularly since the drill violates just about everyone’s set of safe gunhandling rules.
What’s the benefit? As far as I can see, any benefit is nebulous at best; getting people used to pointing guns at other people just isn’t an issue in the context of defensive shooting. I submit that if you’re being attacked, you’ll have no trouble pointing your gun at your attacker to get him to stop! There is therefore no valid benefit to being on the range, pointing supposedly empty guns at other innocent people, pulling the trigger and hearing the gun go “click”.
Looked at in that light, the benefit of this drill doesn’t even come close to matching the risk — let alone exceeding it. It is simply unsafe, and I don’t believe it can be made safe under our conceptual model.
Even if the range were to be sterilized of any and all ammunition, the guns triple-checked and everyone strip-searched to make sure that not a single round of ammunition were on their person, it would still be unsafe because there is no real benefit to the exercise. Since there is no benefit, but still some small risk, it just doesn’t make any sense.
Might there be a situation where there was a real benefit to this kind of drill? Outside of some outrageous Hollywood clandestine operative training scenario, as it was done here I can’t see it. I am willing to listen to a cogent argument otherwise, but I cannot concoct a valid reason in my mind.
Are there situations where we might point real guns at other people and pull the triggers? Yes, in highly controlled force-on-force exercises — but that’s not what we’re talking about here.
Sadly there are many such iterations of nonsensical training in this business, all of them explained away with macho bravado and specious reasoning. If you’re asked to do something in a class that you don’t feel is safe, ask the instructor to explain the risk/benefit calculation to you. It’s always possible that you didn’t understand a safety protocol which makes the drill safe by reducing the risks, or the instructor forgot to present that/those protocols to you.
If the explanation still doesn’t make sense to you, if you can’t see where the benefit greatly exceeds the risk involved, then it’s up to you to decline to participate. If the safety violation is significant, I’d even suggest packing up your gear and leaving the area. You can always ask for a refund later.
Safety in shooting goes beyond mere rules; safety has to be understood as a concept as well, which is more than a robotic recitation of a list of arbitrary directives. If your instructor doesn’t understand this, you should probably be looking elsewhere for your training!
-=[ Grant Cunningham ]=-