Anxiety and Guns

I had the pleasure of working with one of my fellow Rangemaster disciples this weekend, Jim Darnell.  He led a small group of his church members in an informal handgun class that just covered the basics of marksmanship and safety.  Most of the participants were females, and I think most were probably novice- to intermediate-level shooters.  There was one woman who characterized herself as a beginner and ended up blasting a big ragged hole in the middle of her target.  She called it “beginner’s luck” (I love modest shooters), but in reality she listened well, learned well, and performed well. She was grinning all the way to her car, and we had a good laugh at how surprisingly fun she found shooting to be.  But not everyone thought it was fun.

For a few, it was quite stressful.  Some found the handgun manipulation to be physically difficult — due to arthritis, nerve damage, waning hand strength, or other medical conditions; or just because it was a new motor skill that would take some acclimation and conditioning.

We had one student who was just uncomfortable and opted not to continue shooting.  And you know what?  In my opinion, that’s perfectly fine.  I tried to tell her — and I really hope she believed me — that there was absolutely nothing wrong with her decision.  I think Jim did a great job of reassuring her that we weren’t there to pressure her into doing anything she didn’t want to do.  Since we’re in the personal defense world and not in Iraq or Afghanistan, the last thing I’d want is for an anxious or hesitant student to have those emotions even further rattled by this:

I’ve had experiences with trainers who are overly pushy, and luckily for me I was able to shake it off.  But I know of others who were permanently turned off from guns altogether because of a bad experience with a condescending trainer who made them feel inadequate for fretting over what can be for some a very intimidating experience.  I truly hope that’s not the case for the nice lady from Jim’s class this weekend.

It can sometimes be a delicate balance to strike: encouraging students to step beyond their comfort zone while not pushing them to the point of panic or mental shut-down.  If Jim and I are lucky, all the students at least left the class with a heightened appreciation for firearms: what they are, what they’re not, what they can and can’t do, and what our responsibilities are as possessors of these awesome tools.  And when a “newbie” blasts a ragged hole in her target, well that’s just icing on the cake.

When I was a newbie, I was completely overwhelmed with all the different things I was tasked to remember all at once.  The very first shot I ever fired is as crystal clear in my mind right now as it was that day back in 2001.  It went a little something like this…

Phew, okay, you got this.  No worries.  Think, think, think.  Centered and even.  Right hand, check.  Left hand, check.  Are my thumbs right?  Not sure… Okay feet, shoulders, finger straight, oh okay now finger on trigger. Find the front sight, there it is.  Wait, the target is blurry… I think he said that was okay… Front sight, move it over a little, okay, wait, which eye is closed? Lean forward, dang it. Don’t slap the trigger, smooth press, smooth preeeeeeessss, HOLY SH*T that was loud… Okay breathe, breathe, quit trembling you damn wuss, suck it up, I didn’t die, I’m okay, it’s all good.  Reset. Wait what does reset mean again?  Oh yeah, I remember, wait, dang it, I screwed that up… These damn glasses are foggy.  Can’t see sh*t…

And that was without the added pressure of having to grapple with physical challenges (arthritis, bad back, etc.).  I’ve heard a bunch of speeches and strategies from trainers endeavoring to cure extreme cases of nerves.  One of my favorites is the driving analogy. Someone said to me, “How many different simultaneous tasks do you have to perform in order to drive a car?”  And of course I have no problem doing that.  Like everything, it just took a little practice. That helped to settle my shakiness and put things in perspective.

What techniques have you guys used?  Do you have a magic anecdote or analogy that helps put nervous shooters at ease?  Are you the nerves-whisperer?  If so, please, do tell.

Special thanks to Jim for inviting me along this weekend, and to the lovely ladies of his class who made me feel right at home.

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