3 reasons female cops are turning to women's firearms training

The problem is that people associate 'different' training with special and easy - and it's neither; it's personalized and it's proving effective

The debate about whether or not women and men learn differently and should therefore be trained differently isn’t new. Many women argue that they train the same as their male counterparts and wouldn’t have it any other way. And many men agree — after all, they face the same dangers on the streets and are equally responsible for protecting themselves, their partners, and their communities. So why should they train differently?

The problem is that people associate ‘different’ with ‘special.’ Approaching firearms training differently doesn’t mean making it easier and it doesn’t mean any sort of special treatment. And if different training is producing more accurate, more confident shooters, than how is different bad?

A female rangemaster, firearms instructor, and officer agreed to share their experiences in firearms training in order to illustrate best practices and common struggles — as well as how female-specific courses are helping to improve skills among women officers.

Photo courtesy Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

1. Having Instructors Who ‘Get It’
For most officers, their first experience with firearms training comes from the academy. It’s where habits are formed and — for some — where negative associations with firearms training are made.

When Deirdre Faherty, a Marin County (Calif.) police officer, went through the academy, she said the instructors had mostly worked in the 70s and 80s, a time when few women worked in law enforcement, and therefore didn’t have much experience training women. Their lack of experience lead to a lack of understanding, and in some cases, coddling.

“When I started, we used the Glock 17 9mm, and I specifically remember an instructor told the females in the class we could rest [between drills],” said Faherty. ”That was frustrating to be singled out and told that we’re not strong enough. Myself and the other females were so frustrated, even though we were tired, we stayed up on target.

“That’s the first time I remember thinking, ‘Okay, these guys don’t get it. We’re here to learn and we did everything the guys did to get here.’”

Another frustration many female officers face is lack of hands-on training. This isn’t to say a majority of instructors fail to do this, but it’s not uncommon, either.

“You can make an educated guess based on where the rounds fall on the target — you can make further assumptions about the shooter by watching the hands, but the next step is to physically manipulate that weapon with them so you can feel what they’re doing,” said Lou Ann Hamblin, firearms instructor for LouKaTactical and retired officer.

“Instructors can’t get to that third level of diagnostics [without being hands-on] and they can only take the student to a certain level as a result.”

So what’s holding some instructors back from training hands-on? Hamblin says it’s a regional issue — and most commonly a problem where females in the ranks are rare, or where issues have come up in the past.

“Every policy has a name attached to it,” said Hamblin. “That one guy that set the tone for all instructors to follow, and now a whole generation of instructors pay the price because after this one scenario a policy was enacted.”

2. Removing the Intimidation Factor
Females in law enforcement are almost always in the minority, which for some already makes each scenario intimidating.  

One trait that tends to separate women from men when learning is a need for details. The idea is that women tend to be multi-taskers and men tend to mono-task, so when they receive instructions that include multiple steps, most women prefer to have as much information as possible up front to ensure they’re completing each component of the task correctly.

On the gun range, this trait can surface.

“A lot of times the instructor will say something quickly and I’ll say, ‘Wait a second, we’re doing two to the chest, one to the head, kneeling, and repeat?’” Faherty said. “I feel like I’m slow to pick it up, but the way they instruct, I need further instruction. It can be intimidating asking questions; you don’t want to hold up the class when they’re on the line and ready to shoot.” 

An all-female firearms course gives students the opportunity to ask these questions without the pressure of holding up their peers. This may mean the course moves at a slightly slower pace so that students can perfect each maneuver.

“The class for me was to really focus on whatever I needed and slow it down without having to worry about a time crunch,” said Faherty, who attended a female firearms course instructed by Hamblin.

Faherty explained that at her agency, there isn’t nearly enough one-on-one time, with monthly range days lasting 15-20 minutes on-duty, between assignments.

“I wasn’t really getting how women learn differently,” said UCSF Rangemaster Mary Snider. “Some men and women get it quickly, some don’t. But I have to admit seeing the way Lou Ann ran [her female firearms course], there were things that really clicked as far as her communication styles. There was a different depth of explanation [for each drill.]”

3. A Different Kind of Support
Female camaraderie in law enforcement is key — and it shouldn’t exist solely in women’s firearms courses; it should come from instructors and peers alike. Women tend to be hard on one another, but that added pressure can be channeled into something positive.

“You gain confidence by confiding some of your problems with other females,” said Faherty. “Whether you’re having trouble manipulating the slide of the gun, you’re slow to pull out of the holster, whatever it is — the course isn’t female specific in technique, it’s the same, but it is good to be with other females and see you’re not the only one with these problems.”

Hamblin — who has been instructing firearms courses for 22 years — says the approach to teaching an all-female class is a bit different, too.

“I’m more animated. I’m initially open to more input, it’s interactive in the beginning,” she said. “When it’s a mostly-male class, there’s this need to establish dominance in the classroom — and it’s no different than if a male was instructing the class. You have to own them in a different way than you would a female class. In either class you have to prove yourself, but I choose a different route to get there.”

Regardless of what reasons you have for seeking out an all-female firearms course, the fact is that it’s extra training. Not special training. Not easy training. Just focused training that can make a difference in your firearms skills. 

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