Firearms training: Our attitudes need to change

Every year the FBI conducts an extensive and thorough investigation and study into law enforcement officer assaults and deaths. If you didn’t know this already, you should. If you’re serious about your survival on the street, then you need to read these yearly reports, and glean whatever information you can from them to assist you in staying safe.

Every so often the FBI will conduct a more in-depth study into officer assaults and killings. One of these studies was recently published: "Violent Encounters: A study of Felonious Assaults on Our Nation’s Law Enforcement Officers." In this study, forty incidents involving forty-three offenders were selected. These incidents also involved fifty officers. Extensive interviews were conducted with the officers, and the offenders, and some startling information was learned.

Some of the offenders admitted that they had started to carry firearms at the age of nine to 12-years-old, and admitted to being armed “most of the time” at approximately 17-years-old. For some of us working in gang details, this is no surprise. Gang members are well known to start carrying at an early age.

But think of these findings in the context of new recruits coming into an academy class. How many of our new recruits have never fired a firearm before, let alone a handgun? The days of going in the back yard with a .22 rifle and popping off a few rounds, are over. There is a diminishing “hunting culture” in the United States — save for a few states where a hunting culture remains strong because politicians are trying to make the gun laws tougher and tougher in every State.

Hunting Culture, Gun Culture
Years ago we didn’t just have a hunting culture, but target shooting was a huge event/sport in the United States. You had shooting ranges in high schools and colleges all across this country. Go to your local Rod & Gun Club, (if you’ve still got one in your area that hasn’t been shut down) and look at some of the old pictures hanging on the walls from the 1950’s, 1960’s, and the early 70’s. Back then it was a big affair that involved the whole family with shooting competitions, lavish banquets, and huge trophies awarded to the winners.

Some will say that our recruits don’t need to have this familiarity with firearms — that “we’ll teach them what they need to know.” That’s fine, if it’s done, and done properly, but sometimes it’s not. Even if it is, what happens once they leave the academy? Once the officer is back at their agency, how much training do they receive? On average most departments conduct firearms training for their officers once or twice a year, if they’re lucky. With the price, and lack of availability of ammo these days, some don’t even do that. If you happen to work for a more progressive department, maybe you get to shoot quarterly.

The bad guys on the other hand, according to the FBI study, practice with their handguns on a regular basis. With 80 percent of the offenders studied stating they averaged about twenty-three practice sessions a year. Just taking these couple of facts into consideration, who is more prepared for an armed street confrontation, the bad guy, or the officer?

Let’s take a look at a few other facts, mainly our training. Since most agencies only “qualify” their people once or twice a year, how much of that training involves just standing static on a firing line and punching holes in a paper target, versus training to shoot on the move? Movement in a gunfight is essential. If you’re down behind cover stay there, it only makes sense, but if not, you’ll want to move to cover if possible.

The problem with cover is that most officers don’t think of it until it’s too late, or there is no cover available.

Bad Guys Have Bad Breath
If you look at the FBI’s statistics, almost every year well over 50 percent of all officers are feloniously killed at less than five feet. How much cover is there, in between you and the bad guy, at five feet or less? Think back to the last incident you were involved in that “could have gone south” — where the pucker factor was running a little high. I’m willing to bet you were in close to the bad guy, probably within bad-breath distance.

Unfortunately, it’s the nature of the beast — it’s the nature of our jobs. We deal with people in close proximity all the time. You can’t handcuff someone from ten feet away. You can’t conduct field sobriety tests from twenty-one feet away. We have to be in close, and therefore there aren’t a lot of cover options available to us. With these being the facts, then we need to move, to create some action, to make them react to our action; to steal back some of that action versus reaction time. He who steals the most time wins the gunfight.

If that’s the case, then we need to give our officers some training in shooting on the move. Not only that, but they need some close quarters training as well. The old theory that says “If they can hit the target at 25 yards, then they can hit the target at three yards” is outdated. The dynamics of a gunfight at two feet, are totally different then how that gunfight is going to go down at twenty feet.

How about this one? “Slowly squeeze the trigger until the round goes off and it’s a surprise to you.” How many of you have heard that one before? How many instructors have said it before? I’m guilty of it myself; back when I didn’t know any better. This is how I was trained, so I thought I was supposed to pass it along when I conducted training.

First off, you are sending lethal projectiles down range; your gun should never go off as a surprise to you. Secondly, do you really think that you’ll “slowly squeeze the trigger” as some bad guy, some bad guy who practices 23 times a year, is trying to kill you from five feet away? Of course not!

If that’s the case, then we need to train that way. We need to train the way we fight! The problem is that a lot of firearms instructors can’t, or don’t, think past the square range. What passes on the range sometimes as “fun,” has no real merit on the street.

Train for Real Life Encounters
Recently there was a segment on one of the cable news channels showing U.S. police officers training Iraqi police officers in an academy setting. They showed a drill — and it’s been around a long time because I’ve seen it at several different police academies — where the officer’s gun is taken apart and laid out in pieces at the three-yard line. The officer starts the drill at the seven-yard line. He is required to run to the three-yard line, assemble his gun, and fire two rounds into the target to stop the clock, and pass the drill.

How much sense does that drill make? I have to be honest with you, if I’m at the seven-yard line, and my gun is in pieces at the three-yard line, I’m running as fast as I can to the fifty-yard line, and beyond. The only thing you’ll see from me is my backside and two elbows. If this ever happened — and I can’t ever imagine that it would, out on the street — I’d pull my backup gun or run back to my cruiser for a shotgun or a patrol rifle. Not stand three yards away from the bad guy who’s trying to kill me, and attempt to put my gun back together.

When considering any training, you have to ask yourself some simple questions.

• Is it simple to do, and can it be performed under stress?
• Does it play into my natural instinctive reactions (or does it go contrary to how I’m going to instinctively react when faced with a life or death confrontation)?
• Does the training make sense in a real world environment?

Even if you do train on the range with movement, some firearms instructors don’t teach their students to move rearward. Their theory is that they always want their students to move laterally, to step off of the line of fire. Let’s put this theory to the test.

• Is it simple to do, and can it be performed under stress? Yes.
• Does it play into my natural instinctive reactions? Sure.
• Does it make sense in a real world environment? Not necessarily.

Suppose you’re going down a long narrow hallway clearing a building. At the end of the hallway is a room with a door that you need to go through in order to clear the building. All of a sudden the active shooter you’ve been looking for pops out of the door and starts shooting. Moving in on the bad guy is an option, but not the best one for this situation. You can’t move laterally because you’re up against the wall in that narrow hallway, so moving rearward while returning fire would be your best option.

The real test of any tactic is when you put it into the real world environment. The real world is all about having options. To limit yourself to only moving laterally doesn’t make any sense, because moving laterally in the real world is one of many options, it is not the only option.

But you can’t put all of the blame on the firearms instructors. How many students show up to class with bad attitudes? How many officers look at their firearm as just another tool, like their pen and paper? Cops are resistant to change — how many balk at trying a new shooting drill, or learning something new because they “already know how” to shoot?
Our attitudes need to change. Look at the reports, if that doesn’t scare you into taking your firearms training more seriously — if that doesn’t shock you into making your training more realistic and relevant — than nothing will. Have we sometimes gone down the wrong path? Sure, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed.

Train like you fight, take it seriously, and stay safe.

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