It is an American mythology that access to a handgun is equivalent to effective self-defense. No other country maintains the persistent attitude that individuals may not be safe unless they own and sometimes carry handguns.
This subject came up during my last visit to the shooting range. The Fort Crowder Conservation Area has an excellent outdoor range, with 25, 50, and 100 yard stations and a clay-target field. It is a good example of the effective use of public revenues to serve hunters & recreational shooters, practice for self-defense, and law enforcement. There is also a separate archery range.
Some fellows shooting .40 cal and 9mm discussed the difficulty of hitting a target that is shooting back. After a while, I settled into conversation with ‘Doug’ (pseudonym), who is a 75 year-old former policeman. He described having been a former champion in Cowboy Action Shooting. CAS is an awesome sport. Baseball may be America’s Pastime, but CAS, Rodeo, and Lumberjack Competition are the Great American Sports.
Doug made a distinction between private and law enforcement use of handguns. Law enforcement officers cannot have the same options as private citizens. Sometimes, they must pursue a dangerous, armed suspect. Even with significant advantages in training and practice, they are vulnerable to the low-probability shot from a desperate fugitive. If there is some distance between a private citizen and an assailant, this reality dictates that the best defense is additional distance and use of cover.
Even with close encounters, Doug noted that law enforcement officers cannot be assured of effective handgun use. Encounters of 5 to 20 feet distance may result in very few hits on an assailant. Their placement, crucial to effectiveness, is at least as problematic. Doug could not describe how much poorer the situation would be for a private citizen who is not highly trained and practiced in such a tactical situation. My own performance is not especially good under ideal conditions: the 25-yard 17×11-inch target had just 14 hits in 21 shots from my .380 Beretta Model 1934. It was my Dad’s backup handgun (ankle holster) in the Postal Inspection Service. His aim was much better than mine.
After my brief discussion with Doug, I was determined to seek the comments of another Cowboy Action Shooter. ‘Dee’ (his real name!) is a former Army Sargeant with extensive experience. He served in the Persian Gulf War, Central America, and many other places. He was a military competition shooter, trained in tactical operations. He also practices open carry with his dual revolvers.
Dee uses a dual holster with cross-draw on the left. This allows him to shoot with the right hand while reining his horse with the left. With his dramatic handlebar mustache, he certainly looks like a Cowboy Action Shooter!
Dee says what many experts say about self defense (with or without firearms): situational awareness is vital. Self-defense situations are too varied and complex to depend upon any panacea. One generality which he did offer was, “The goal should be to get out of the situation”, with an exchange of gunfire being an option of last resort. He expressed concern that “dilettantes” regard firearms use as comparable to scenes in movies and games, without realistic regard for the danger to neighbors and family. Such folks have, as primary deficiencies, a “lack of committment” and a failure “to assume that whoever you’re facing is better than you”. It is clear that Dee, a person who is prepared to use handguns for self-defense, does not think that very many folks can do so safely, effectively, and with a likelihood of an improved outcome from dangerous encounters.
Dee confirmed my advice about firearms: most people who choose to have firearms at ready should have a 20 or 12-gauge shotgun with birdshot loads. Long-barrel weapons are more likely to be well-aimed under stress, and they are much less likely to endanger their owner or people outside of the nearest walls.
There is much research material for those who are interested in the profound complexities and difficulties of shootings. The New York Police Department has an ‘Analysis of Police Combat‘. The Rand Corporation has also studied the NYPD firearms training & review process. The “Practical Firearms Training” video series by Philip Van Cleave is a cautionary lesson from an advocate of firearms.
Thanks to Dee for his contributions to this blog.