Owning a handgun for personal protection doesn’t mean one is adequately prepared to use it for that purpose. Just like owning a car doesn’t mean one is ready to start driving it. There is some learning and skill development that should take place first.
There were more than 30 million NICS firearm background checks per year over the last three years. Those are the three years with the most background checks conducted since NICS was implemented in 1998. The increasing year over year trend of background checks is, with a few exceptions, typical. However, the total number of background checks conducted in the past three years is pretty impressive when we consider that they account for almost 25% of all the background checks conducted in the past quarter century. What’s even more interesting is that industry news claims that a large percentage of the background checks can be attributed to first time gun owners who for one reason or another were purchasing a gun for personal protection. Furthermore, news reports also suggest that women and minorities are the fastest growing demographic of gun owners who bought a gun for personal protection. While I personally think that is fantastic news, it brings us to the point of this post – there are a lot of new gun owners with new handguns who bought them for self defense purposes that may, or more likely are may not, be wondering what’s next. The goal of this is to help those folks with that. If that isn’t you, then chances are you know somebody who is in that position and hopefully this post will help you help them.
So you bought a handgun for personal protection, now what? There is a saying, “with great power comes great responsibility.” And as Tom Givens points out in his coursework and writings, with that gun we hold the power of life and death in our hands and all it takes to exercise that power is a single decision and moving a finger. It should go without saying that using that power without adequate competency can have dire consequences regardless of whether it was intentional or unintentional. As such, it behooves each of us to become competent practitioners of the handgun which requires a modest investment into the following areas at a minimum:
- Understanding the rules of gun safety
- Becoming familiar with the operation of the handgun
- Knowing the laws and regulations that pertain to the possession and use of the handgun
- Attaining at least a minimum level of competence and proficiency with the handgun
I hold a very strong opinion that these areas of study are best conducted with the assistance of high-quality professional instruction. However, finding a quality instructor is a challenge in of itself and it may not be feasible for some folks given local availability or financial constraints. So let’s dig a little deeper into these topics while keeping in mind that this is simply a starting point.
Rules of Gun Safety
The very first thing a new gun owner should concern themselves with is safe gun handling. As elementary, fundamental, and simple as this sounds, it’s not necessarily the easiest thing to do. Assuming the purchased handgun included a manual, which may not be the case if the purchased firearm was previously owned, it is likely to contain a section on gun safety. However, the rules presented are not uniform from one manual to the next. The number of safety rules vary and may be presented in a manner that is too brief to be meaningful or too wordy making it hard to digest and internalize. Some of the rules are specific to the firearm rather than universal.
Another approach that is very common today is to perform a search on the internet for “gun safety rules”, “rules of gun safety”, or something similar. The success of this approach depends on the search engines results, which can vary from one search engine to another, and the quality of the source selected by the new gun owner. One search I performed, yielded a link to a resource from the NRA, a resource from the NSSF, a link to a gun control advocacy group (that had absolutely nothing related to safe gun handling), another link to a resource from a law firm, and several more. Some of the sources were better than others, but even the high quality sources varied in the number of rules and how they were presented.
I’m getting long winded here with this initial concern so I’ll wrap it up. What the new gun owner needs are a few universal rules that are easy to digest and remember to create a safe gun handling foundation that good safe habits and behaviors can be built on. Thankfully there are four well established rules that have been widely adopted that apply universally to all firearms. I’ll list them here with links to posts where each rule is explored in depth.
- Treat Every Firearm Like It’s Loaded
- Keep the Gun Pointed in a Safe Direction
- Only Place Your Finger on the Trigger When You Are Ready to Shoot
- Be Sure of Your Target and What’s Beyond It
Living by and exercising these rules seriously regardless of the circumstances significantly reduces the occurrence of unintentional discharges and the consequences that follow. The possibility of an unintentional discharge will always remain, but it is virtually reduced to accidents that result from mechanical failure which are exceedingly rare.
Get To Know Your Handgun
Read the manual. Yeah, I know. That’s an old school and nerdy thing to do. Nevertheless, there is a lot of good information in there. Reading it, or atleast skimming it, will expose the new gun owner to nomenclature in addition to providing instructions how to load and clear the firearm. It also contains maintenance procedures that are necessary to keep the gun running reliably and extend its serviceable lifespan. If the gun didn’t come with a manual for whatever reason, then contact the manufacturer to request one or check the manufacturer’s website for a downloadable soft copy.
It’s worthwhile to make a note of and understand the handgun’s safety features. There is a chance that the gun purchased may not be well suited for defensive applications. For example, the manual may point out that the handgun isn’t drop safe. I suspect this scenario is unusual, but it’s possible and this may be an indicator to seek better assistance in selecting another handgun that is better suited to one’s needs.
After reading the manual, one should consider practicing the loading and clearing procedures using inert ammunition, commonly referred to as dummy rounds or snap caps, to become familiar with them. There are several companies that make dummy rounds. For common cartridges, I like the S.T. Action Pro dummy rounds which are made from a real brass case with a one-piece ABS insert. Oftentimes, these can be found on Amazon. Another option that I’ve found works relatively well are the Tipton Snap Caps which can also be found on Amazon.
The goal here is to become intimately familiar with safe operation and administration of the hand gun. One should know how to check its condition to determine whether or not the firearm is loaded, how to load the firearm, how to unload and clear the firearm, how to engage and disengage active and passive safety mechanisms, and how to fire the firearm. Using the manual for this can be challenging for a new owner depending on the quality and thoroughness of the manual. Internet searches might also be helpful, however, be wary of content produced by anyone other than the manufacturer or a known professional as instructional content from a random person on the internet may be incorrect.
Know the Law
There are a large number of laws and regulations that apply to handguns. Additionally, we are living in an era where laws surrounding storage, possession, transportation, and usage are changing rapidly. An example of this, is the adoption of permitless carry laws which have now been adopted by 28 states in the United States of America over the past two decades. The point is every gun owner should, in my opinion, make it a point to know those laws at least for the jurisdiction they reside in and those they travel to and through with their handgun in order to avoid catching a charge due as a result of ignorance that would like lead to the loss of their gun rights, freedom, and additional consequences.
Going through the local handgun carry permitting or licensing process is arguably the best way to become familiar with the current laws in a person’s locale. That said, it can be an expensive and time consuming process. Even if one decides to go through that process, it remains incumbent upon them to stay informed of future changes to the laws.
A good resource to remain informed on current handgun laws throughout the USA is the Handgunlaw.us website. However, the content there can sometimes be a little difficult to digest and understand since it contains reproductions of the actual legal statutes that apply to each individual state. It’s not a bad idea to be a member of a legal service or having a legal plan, like the plan offered by Right to Bear who happens to be a sponsor of this blog and offers readers who use the promo code “UNCLEZO” 10% off the first year of the plan, that provides access to an attorney who can help with deciphering the legalese and understanding how the laws apply to you.
Bottom line is ignorance of the law is not defendable. Knowing the laws is the responsibility of the gun owner.
This is very difficult to do on your own. Okay, I may be projecting here a bit based on my anecdotal experience, but I can honestly say that I don’t think I would be as proficient with my handgun had it not been for the professional instruction I sought out and received. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but it’s a lot easier to do with help and not all help is created equal. My initial foray into handgun shooting received assistance from a few friends who were “lifelong shooters”. Later, I learned that range safety officers and even members of law enforcement aren’t necessarily good shooters. Even if some of those folks were good shooters, they weren’t necessarily adept at teaching others to become good shooters.
The biggest challenge, in my opinion, is developing the proper mindset which is critical to being mentally prepared for a violent confrontation that requires the use of the handgun for personal protection. Beyond that are several other pretty big challenges, one of those is figuring out what to practice to improve the skills that are important for personal protection. Another huge challenge is figuring out how to measure skills against realistic achievable goals. There are several other smaller, albeit still important, challenges to the self taught journey. These include things like learning to evaluate and select adequate supporting equipment like holsters, training aids, and ammunition. A training program tailored to this, like the Defensive Pistol Skills Program from KR Training, makes this part of the journey much easier to navigate.
Alternatively a training aid like the Mantis X (another sponsor of the blog) can also facilitate the proficiency development process and should be considered when facing financial constraints or limited availability of local quality training. A couple of good books on the topic, like Tom Givens’ Concealed Carry Class and Annette Evans’ The Dry Fire Primer can also provide a bit of guidance here.
The definition of minimum level is a bit murky. John Daub has done a lot of research and work to help define a minimum level of competence which is documented in the Strategies and Standards for Defensive Handgun Training book (2023 Edition) which was co-authored with Karl Rehn. Their work can give us an idea of what that level might look like, but it is ultimately up to each of us to decide if our proficiency level is up to par for the things we are likely to protect ourselves from based on our circumstances and environment.
At the end of it all, it is ultimately up to the new gun owner to develop the level of proficiency they desire. Reaching that level is going to require doing a little homework, possibly seeking a little help, and a fair amount of elbow grease. It simply will not materialize without doing the work.