12 October 2016

Every Girl Should Learn How to Shoot - Part 4 of 4

Read part 1, part 2, and part 3 first if you haven't already.

And as I said, I’ve found some of the best people in the world by being around firearms. It’s not all kittens and rainbows, but the best here really are the best. Let me share a little of my piece of the community with you.

At one of my local monthly matches, a regular competitor is a police officer who I have seen show up straight from his overnight shift to shoot with us. He told me that yeah, he was pretty tired, but he couldn’t let go the opportunity to shoot because the dangers of his job don’t wait for him to be fresh and wide awake. Some of why my friend comes is love of the game, but much of it is his dedication to honing a skill that he knows he needs to stay alive and do his job. And he’s not the only one.

By day, my coach is a law enforcement training officer. One of his current crop of recruits is pursuing her dream to become a police officer, but has been challenged by severe dyslexia combined with additional vision problems. She’s been working especially hard in training these past few months, including extra one-on-one training and spending hours of her own time practicing and visualizing. Last week, she made a breakthrough and jumped from the back of the class to the top. Because she didn’t give up, even when others were ready to suggest that she could do good for her community in other roles.

But many of us don’t need to practice shooting for our professions. While we might be interested in self-defense applications, a lot of us are ultimately out on the range for fun. Safety is always first, and competition is called that for a reason – wanting to win is a thing, and not a bad one. It’s not the only thing, however, and that common attitude leads to some of the greatest acts of individual generosity I’ve seen anywhere.

For instance, shooters have raised thousands and more for various causes close to our hearts. From the Salute to Valor 3 gun match that raised more than thirty thousand dollars for a selection of charities benefitting veterans across the United States to the many clubs that annually run food and toy drives for local families, shooters have formed a community that takes care of its own and others.

Shooters give on an even more micro level too. When I had an unexpected several-day layover in Los Angeles trying to get home in the middle of a snowstorm, a friend told me, “I’ve got friends down there! Let me ask them what you should do…” I had barely found a last-minute hotel for my stay by the time enough volunteers and gear had been offered to outfit both me and my husband to shoot a match the next day. What could have been a miserable few days in an airport hotel turned out to be more fun than I could have imagined.

One of the best parts of that side trip was following it up a few weeks later with an intended trip west to shoot Phoenix Handgunner, at the invitation of my friends Jaci and Jess. They put me up, fed me, and made me feel completely at home even though I knew about four people there (and they were half of them) and had never shot that match format before.

I was reminded of my earlier trips to A Girl and a Gun Club’s national conference with my friend Tracy, who also picked me up from the airport, drove me all over, and helped me navigate a whole new crowd and event. While I enjoyed meeting and spending time with other friends, new and old, during those events, those trips were particularly special to me because of those I spent the most time with.

The shenanigans I have with my shooting girlfriends are fun, but even better is how those trips are only crystallized moments of the support we provide to each other whether as shooters working to improve our skills, as women navigating a male-dominated industry, or in our lives off the range.

Most of my friends growing up were boys and like many of you, my circle shrank as I got older. In the gun community, I found not just men I’m proud to call friends, but women with whom I could form an instant bond. It’s not just that I’ve found friends with a common hobby, it’s all of the other things I’ve talked about this evening. I’m delighted to have discovered these confident, competent, thoughtful women with a take-no-prisoners attitude towards life. Like I said, it’s not all puppies and ice cream, but these gems are what makes it all worthwhile.

Every girl should learn how to shoot. She’ll get to meet some really cool people and make some lifelong friends.

Thank you for being another step on my journey, and I hope I’ve brought you some inspiration for your own. I know many of you have already started shooting but if you haven’t, I hear there are some good folks to learn from around here. And as you start putting more rounds downrange, I hope you, too, discover for yourself why every girl should learn how to shoot.

Every Girl Should Learn How to Shoot - Part 3 of 4

Read part 1 and part 2 first if you haven't already.

The complicated web of laws and rules relating to carry, the heavy responsibility of choosing a potentially lethal self-defense tool, the difficulty in finding a gun to carry, figuring out how to carry and conceal it, and getting confident enough to shoot it well were almost enough to make me swear off concealed carry. After all, I got into guns for fun and I thought I lived a pretty sheltered and secure life.

But much as I thought I could avoid “bad places” and “bad people”, it became increasingly clear to me that I could not always avoid them. During this time in my life, I worked in downtown Philadelphia at a job where leaving at 6 or 6:30 in the evening was considered early. Parking in that particular part of town was pretty slim, and the best option I could reliably use was about four blocks away, through an area that on one side more or less shut down in the evenings and on the other side hosted quite a bit of Philly's night life. The neighborhood was pretty good, but not unknown for muggings and other attacks. My employer was not large enough to offer escorts to parking. Oh, and I was taking night classes in North Philly.

You can easily see I’m not exactly in prime physical shape to fight off a larger, more physical attacker. What you can’t see are the many old injuries that I was still rehabbing and that made it difficult for me to run, not to mention the knee I blew right about that time.

I had a hard time getting that job, and I thought finishing my masters’ degree could help me find a better one but until then, I was stuck.  And I knew that all of the ninja hand-to-hand skills in the world wouldn’t do much against someone larger and stronger than me. Maybe my safe lifestyle wasn’t and couldn’t be as safe as I thought.

And maybe that little weekend hobby of mine really was the answer, especially since my employer was too small to even think about a gun policy. I knew I’d feel silly if I knew how to shoot and didn’t have a gun when I needed one, but now I started feeling like I really might need one. I figured that as difficult as getting comfortable with the laws and rules were, I was a smart cookie. I’d passed the bar. I could figure it out.

As for knowing someone might die because of my self-defense choices? It’s not something I look forward to, but I’ve come to believe that if I were involved in a fight with one winner, I’d want to do whatever it takes to come out on top. I’ve worked too hard to be who and what I am to let some criminal take that away from me. Victim selection is on them, not me. Consequences are on them, not me.

So all that was left was figuring out what to carry and how. Back then, there weren’t as many tiny guns on the market and I didn’t think I could conceal anything “big”, so I bought myself a cute little Kahr. A heavy leather gun belt and a long wait for a custom holster later, I had myself six rounds in a slim package, but very little knowledge in how to use it.

I mentioned earlier this evening that I took some basic classes early in my shooting career. That thankfully included some beginner defensive pistol instruction, where I learned how to safely draw a concealed gun from a holster, how to shoot around walls, how to shoot while moving, all sorts of cool stuff.

It didn’t take me very long, though, to realize that learning them once wasn’t a good way to know how to use those skills if I really needed them. Since the range we went to back then didn’t allow “action” shooting, I knew I had to find some way to practice.

One way I found was to take more classes. Even if they covered material I’d gotten from another instructor, hearing it over and over helped, not to mention all of the supervised shooting with immediate feedback. I still take a class or two every year to tune up my shooting and review and expand my related knowledge.

I also learned back then about the concept of dry fire, or practicing safely without live ammunition. At first, I used it just to learn how to run my gun: rack the slide, lock it back, insert magazines, things like that. A far cry from what my dry fire routine looks like these days, but it was the first step on the journey that’s taken me from barely able to hit the target to hammering up to six accurate, close-up shots in under a second...

...then having fun with pistol targets fifty yards away.

And finally, I learned about the wide world of competitive shooting. There, I could do all of the things I was learning in classes or might need to know for self-defense. It wasn’t really “practice” in that I could do the same thing over and over again until I perfected it, but it was something close and came with some real pressure.

While a match is just a game, your shooting is timed and scored, and there will often be people watching you. The results aren’t really important in the grand scheme of things and most of the audience is full of well-wishers, but they still add a little extra edge. And I won’t lie, I’m a little competitive. Having some numbers I could improve and some people to try to beat certainly helped drive my improvement.

It didn’t take long for competitive shooting, especially the action pistol sports, to become my passion and to change the course of my life. In the last few years, I’ve called competitive shooting and everything I did around it a second job, but it wasn’t really work. I loved everything about it: the people, the events, the gear, the practice.

I’ve been fortunate to meet some of my closest friends through the gun world, and have had the amazing opportunity to represent companies from as big as SIG Sauer and Lucas Oil to as small as PHLster and my local gun store, King Shooters Supply, as a sponsored shooter. I spend most weekends shooting or at a gun-related event, like this one, so much so that I actually quit my day job to develop and run a new indoor range near my home. It’s a scary ride so far, but I’m already much happier than I was in my prior career.

Every girl should learn how to shoot. In the process of learning to protect herself, she might also find herself.

Read on for part 4...

Every Girl Should Learn How to Shoot - Part 2 of 4

Read part 1 first if you haven't already.

As shooting became a more serious hobby, I became increasingly aware of the legal and political implications of my new weekend activity.

Although I was having so much fun shooting, I had to be discreet about gun ownership at work and among friends. Guns were, are, polarizing and have only become increasingly so in this post-Sandy Hook, post-Virginia Tech, post-Aurora, post-Orlando world. They are viewed by many as instruments of death and destruction, as weapons for murderers and terrorists.

Remember how I said I didn’t grow up with guns? Well, I did grow up in a community where guns were simply unremarkable. We knew enough hunters that venison wasn’t unusual, and there were definitely kids out of school on the first day of deer season. I’m sure we had friends or neighbors that owned guns, but nobody talked about them not out of shame, but because guns just weren’t really a topic of conversation in my semi-rural western New York world.

Then when I did start shooting, I was fresh out of the bubble that was studying for the bar exam, days in which I interacted with video lectures, workbooks, brownie sundaes, and sometimes even my husband. I was a little rusty at remembering what normal people were like, people who weren’t immersed in memorizing arcane facts and applying merciless logic all day. It just never occurred to me in the beginning that guns might be difficult or controversial.

I learned quickly.

See, I live near a state border and while the range we shot at was in the same state I lived in, the fast route was to go through another state and the convenient route for a little dinner or shopping after shooting was also through that state. If you’re familiar at all with traveling with guns, you can already spot the potential problems.

In my home state, I can only travel directly between home and range unless I have a license to carry firearms. That definitely means no dinner stops or errand-running after shooting a few boxes of ammo, but fortunately, the license is relatively easy to get. It does take some processing time and they called my references, but Pennsylvania is a “shall-issue” state, so if you can buy a gun you’re almost certainly going to be able to get the license too. That solved the “dinner and a lane rental” problem if I stayed on my side of the state line, but not the “shooting after shopping” problem if I wanted to head next door.

We don’t exactly have border crossings between PA and Delaware and my home and the range I shot at back then were both close to the line, so it’s easy to accidentally an interstate trip if you make a wrong turn, even if it wasn’t faster for me to go through Delaware and back to PA. I could legally do that if I locked up guns in the trunk and didn’t stop but hello? Shopping? I still liked it back then.

With my Pennsylvania permit, I could leave guns in the car all I liked as long as I stayed in PA, and only had to worry about my own comfort level with how well secured they were. Delaware, however, doesn’t recognize Pennsylvania licenses, and is a “may-issue” state and you might not be approved for a license even after publishing your name in newspaper notices. [Note: As of this posting, Delaware no longer allows any non-resident to receive a permit in any case.] The only other option was to find yet another state’s non-resident permit that would be accepted by Delaware.

That was the moment I realized how hard it could get to be a law-abiding gun owner.

And I hadn’t even gotten into thinking about using a gun for self-defense yet. I just wanted to be able to toss my .22 in the trunk and stop at the range after a trip to Home Depot. Law school hadn’t prepared me for the complexities of non-reciprocal licensing since in most every other area I’d studied, laws were generally either consistent across most of the US or could be bucketed into two or three variations. While there is a federal law that covers traveling between states, the details of staying legal once you’ve stopped somewhere can be drastically different from place to place.

And then I decided that if I knew how to point a gun and make a bullet hole appear where I wanted it to, I would feel kind of silly not being able to apply that skill in self-defense. And if I thought I was prepared to shoot someone in self-defense, then I would definitely feel silly if I didn’t actually have a gun with me if the need arose. Learning the technical part of carrying a gun, drawing from concealment, and all that was one thing….but learning all of the laws and all of their nuances? That definitely put the “Esquire” after my name to work because I sure didn’t want to become a criminal defendant.

Somewhere between trying to understand how a magazine in the same bag as a pistol made the gun loaded by law and why that really cute and easily handled short-barrel rifle I admired was classified as a restricted weapon, I began to appreciate the Second Amendment movement. It was a surprise to me, since I had never before considered myself political in any way, but the more I learned, the more I realized that a lot of the current laws, let alone at-the-time old ones like the federal Assault Weapons Ban really did more to trip up people who wanted to stay legal than anyone else.

I mean, if I found it difficult to untangle firearms regulations with a law degree, what was it like for everyone else?

Every girl should learn how to shoot. It will teach her that doing the right and legal thing isn’t always as easy as it looks, and that “common sense and common morality” aren’t always so obvious or correct.

Read on for part 3 and part 4...

Every Girl Should Learn How to Shoot - Part 1 of 4

In July, I was honored as the keynote speaker at the Women's Concealed Carry Fashion Show in Columbia County, NY. I went through my history as a shooter in order to figure out what I wanted to share with the audience, then realized that my journey was the story. And this is how my journey started:

Every girl should learn how to shoot.

That’s where I started my firearms journey almost ten years ago.

Guns weren’t forbidden by my parents when I was growing up, but they just weren’t a thing and I never prioritized opportunities to learn about them.

Still, I felt that shooting was the sort of life skill I needed, just like being able to change a flat on my car. Being a prime customer for road hazard insurance, I had to pick up on how to change a tire…though I’m definitely not ashamed to accept help and generally be useless on the side of the road as I was for both flat tires I’ve had this year.

That’s not where I ended up with guns.

When my husband, Mark, went to a local gun range with his coworkers as part of teambuilding activity, I remembered how much I’d wanted to learn how to shoot as a little girl, and a few weeks later, I shot a real gun for the first time, at an indoor range attached to a popular local gun store.

The gun store attached to the range seemed big and filled with all sorts of mysterious things. You could just walk up to the counter, hand over your ID and cash, pick a gun out of the rental case to shoot, and go right out onto the range. The range was loud and smoky and a little scary, and there were no instructors. I don’t remember much, except that I didn’t really have any idea of what I was doing. After getting the gun loaded, pointing it downrange, and pulling the trigger the first time though?

I fell in love.

Tonight, I’d like to tell you the story of my firearms journey and share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned since I fired those first shots.

In the beginning, shooting was a way to spend time with my husband. We were newlyweds and since I wasn’t long out of school, we hadn’t yet settled into a mutual hobby…something fun we could do together.

Going to the range and shooting a box or two of ammo, followed by a meal or a little shopping, ended up being a perfect low-key date for the two of us, especially back when ammo was a lot cheaper!

We were self-taught back then, but once we started taking classes, we discovered how much there was to learn. And learn I did: basic pistol, defensive shooting, hunter safety, skeet shooting, tactical rifle, competitive shooting. You name it, I was game for it.

I discovered something about myself in those days. Even though I wasn’t very good at shooting, or very good at anything mechanical at all, I could learn. It didn’t come quickly or naturally to me, but I learned to clean my own guns, then maintain them, and now do my own armorer-level work. I do still send the complicated stuff to my gunsmith though!

And while I didn’t have too much trouble hitting paper at the range as a new shooter, I wasn’t quite so successful at anything more complicated.

That was from the beginning of my first full season of USPSA. I had already been shooting IDPA matches for years, and was about five years into gun ownership. I’m not kidding when I say I struggled.

It took a lot of training and a lot of practice, but that’s changed. Even though I used to come in last place all the time at my first competitive shooting matches, that’s no longer the case.

Since I started competing about six years ago, I’ve become a top competitor in my region. At local matches, it’s becoming normal for me to come in the top five or ten in my division and I’ve even won a time or two. In the last year, I’ve had four top-ten stage finishes in major matches. It’s not just my finishes, though: objective measures of my performance are going up. I’m faster and more accurate with a gun than I’ve ever been, and my numbers show it. While I’m not sure I could have found my gun in its holster in one second in the early days, I can now draw and fire an accurate round on target in less than that.

I don't tell you this to brag on my accomplishments, though I am pretty proud of them. I tell you because I was the worst shooter ever when I started and I got here by taking classes, practicing hard, and not losing faith that I could improve. You can get here too.

My improvement and increased confidence in competitive shooting isn’t all, though. I’m also far more confident with guns in all situations now, whether it’s carrying a gun wherever legally allowed, being the only girl in a class or a gun store, or shooting something I never have before.

For that matter, I’m more confident now period. Knowing that I could do all these things with a new and overwhelming tool like a gun helped make me more fearless in trying and mastering other new and overwhelming things.

After all, if I could learn how to operate and shoot guns, how could any home improvement puzzle be beyond me?

If I could travel solo to a new range and compete against people I’d never met before, how could any presentation at the office be scary?

If I could calmly handle an angry and unsafe shooter while acting as a range officer, what vendor or contractor could unsettle me?

Every girl should learn how to shoot. It’s one of the biggest confidence builders in the world, on the range and off.

Read on for part 2, part 3, and part 4...