One of the scariest traits you can develop from a self-defense perspective is a false sense of security.
You know what I’m talking about. We’re human, so we’re superior not only because we have opposable thumbs, but because we can think, strategize, reason, and hope. The hope part, while awesome and critical to our long-term survival, can also get us into big trouble on occasion.
When most people buy a gun for self-defense, they immediately feel better, and sometimes even invincible. “Now, I’m prepared!” That’s the downside of hope.
Buying a gun no more prepares one for self-defense than the acquisition of an accordion prepares one to join the French Foreign Legion.
But don’t take my word for it. Consider the tragic case of Franklinton, North Carolina woman Tracy Williams. Her abusive ex-boyfriend, previously arrested 89 times, was reason enough for her to buy a gun and obtain her concealed carry license. When attacked yet again by the man, she fired once and hit him in the leg, at which point her gun jammed. She was unable to clear the jam or bring a second gun that she had available into the fight. She ran and was murdered. Her ex-boyfriend was able to not only load his gun but use it during the attack.
It’s not entirely fair to second-guess the result of a dynamic situation like this, but practice and training certainly would not have hurt. Knowing “non-range” skills like malfunction drills and how to transition to the backup gun she had on her person might have made all the difference. The knowledge that a state-mandated concealed carry class is not preparation for self-defense might also have saved her life. Concealed carry classes generally teach laws, not survival tactics.
So that some good might come from tragic cases like this one, it’s always a good idea to reflect on how we can learn and do better. With that thought in mind, here are some shooting range habits that just might get you killed.
1. Focusing on your target
You’ve probably seen people at the range who fire one or more shots and then pause and deliberately look side to side. They’re not tacti-cool derpa warriors. They’re just developing a good defensive shooting habit.
The act of firing a handgun tends to encourage tunnel vision. You know, because of that whole focus-on-the-front-sight thing. And then there’s the desire to see where you hit the target. After that, you’re focused on aiming the next shot. That’s great for deliberate and leisurely target shooting, but might get you killed in a self-defense situation.
Don’t take my word for it. Consider the case of Joseph Wilcox. After murdering two police officers at a CiCi’s Pizza restaurant, a married couple entered a nearby Walmart store. Firing into the air, they ordered customers to leave. Wilcox, a concealed carry holder, decided to intervene and challenged the husband of the perpetrator duo, unknowingly walking right past the wife, not suspecting her involvement. The wife then shot and killed Wilcox. Sadly, Wilcox focused on the man waving the gun and did not observe the other threat.
2. Firing one shot
In a self-defense shooting, you don’t get to decide how many shots are required to stop the proceedings—the assailant is in charge of that.
At the range, we tend to fire a shot, then stop to evaluate our results. That’s fine to establish bragging rights with your range buddies, but not so fine in a fast-moving self-defense encounter. Sometimes an attacker wisely chooses to stop attacking after one shot is fired. Sometimes the first shot misses. Sometimes, as in the case of one law enforcement gunfight, the attacker might absorb 33 gunshots before quitting.
If you’re practicing at the range, consider working different scenarios into your practice, so you don’t hard wire a habit of firing once, then lowering your gun and relaxing. Fire two times. Fire five times. Fire at multiple targets. Most important, before lowering your gun, evaluate the situation. Train your brain to consider your surroundings before ending a shooting string.
3. Not practicing with a holster
From personal experience, I can assure you that the first time you try to draw and fire from a holster under a bit of stress it’s going to go badly. Drawing a handgun seems so easy and natural until you’re trying to do it quickly. Add the complexity of concealed carry using covering garments and things can get interesting. Fumbling, tangling, and dropping aren’t words you want used to describe your tactical gun draws.
You might consider joining a local IDPA competition group. That discipline has competitors drawing from concealment, moving, and engaging multiple targets, all the while under time pressure. Of course, the “pressure” is minuscule compared to a life-or-death struggle, but it’s enough to show you where you need practice with your gun handling skills. Just to be clear, competitions like IDPA won’t teach tactics, but they will give you practice with manipulating your gun, drawing, reloading, malfunction clearance, and hitting multiple targets quickly.
4. Not moving
With the exception of those nifty little clocks, range shooting is like chess. The whole battlefield remains perfectly still while the players take all the time they want to plot their next move.
Virtually any self-defense encounter will involve movement, and lots of it, by all parties involved. That’s mainly because we have legs, unlike those chess pieces with felt bases. Shooting a pistol with accuracy under time and pressure is challenging. Hitting a moving target under those conditions is even harder. Hitting a moving target while you’re also moving is a whole new ball game.
Unfortunately, most ranges don’t offer moving targets, so that’s a tough scenario to practice with regularity. However, you can start to develop the habit of at least starting to move while drawing your gun to address a threat. No, your range probably won’t take kindly to you running across a half-dozen shooting lanes while unloading your 15-round magazine, but that doesn’t rule out smaller and safer practice moves. How about conditioning yourself to take a step to the side just before you draw or raise your gun to shoot? Getting into the habit of moving your whole self while deciding whether you need to draw and fire is a good defensive move. Movement not only makes you a more difficult target, but it creates action, which causes your assailant to evaluate what you are doing. That buys you time—perhaps just enough to save your life.
5. Practicing failure
One of the reasons I’m such an advocate for getting involved in local competition and live training is that you learn how to handle your gun. You program into your brain instinctive actions like focusing on your sight, transitioning to a new target, reloading, and, perhaps most importantly, dealing with malfunctions.
A competition involves a little bit of stress. The clock is running and people are watching you. Is that analogous to the stress of a self-defense encounter? Of course not. But it can be enough to expose your gun-handling weaknesses. In a competition, when your gun goes click instead of bang, you have to deal with it while the clock is running and peers are watching. That’s great! You’ll quickly learn the malfunction routines for your particular gun. More importantly, you’ll program those into your mind so the responses become automatic.
Think about this. I suggest that you are more likely to have a malfunction in a self-defense encounter than any time on the range. Why? By definition, you’re shooting from unnatural positions, and, especially if you use a semiautomatic, the odds of improper cycling are increased. Look at the first case in this article. Tracy William’s gun malfunctioned after the first shot. It can and does happen.
Whether you elect to get involved in some competitions or not, figure out your own ways to practice malfunction drills until they become automatic. You should never have to stop and ponder how to operate, load, or clear your gun. It needs to be automatic, like (hopefully) using the turn signal in your car.
I’ve highlighted just a couple of examples of range habits that are fine, and even fun while shooting recreationally, but that might develop bad self-defense habits. What say you?
Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon.
Images courtesy Tom McHale