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Four Tenets of Teaching a First Time Gun Owner

Over the next few months, chances are pretty good that you’ll be asked to help a neighbor, friend, or family member learn to shoot that new gun they bought in the COVID-19 pandemic. With 3.7-million background checks performed in March alone (the highest ever on record, until June with 3.9, followed by July with another 3.6 million), and anecdotal reports saying that maybe as many as 75 percent of those sales were to a first time gun owner, there are a lot of folks with a shiny new gun box on the top shelf of their closet. Plenty of those folks will seek out trusted friends to help them learn the basics of shooting their new burglar extinguisher, and since you’re the resident firearms enthusiast in their world, it’s likely you’re just the person for the job.

When you get that text message, you’ll be excited to welcome a new firearms enthusiast into the world of defensive and sport firearms shooting, but what should you do to help them get started on the right foot? This is a pretty savvy question to ask, because your goal is to help them be safe and proficient, while also helping them see that owning a firearm comes with a big responsibility to be safe and proficient. Maybe you’re not a highly qualified instructor, but you can at least help them get moving in the right direction until they can get to a class.

There’s a danger here, though. If you muck this up and lead a first time gun owner astray, then you’ll potentially hurt their family and make the whole purpose of them owning a firearm null and void. And if you make learning about safe handling and use of firearms a chore or a scare, they’ll likely never come back for more, squandering the opportunity to help someone you care about, and maybe turning them off to firearms ownership. That ain’t cool, so let’s make sure you do it right.

I teach 300 to 400 students a year, and I have four principles that’ll help you make sure their first experience shooting a gun is a rewarding. Take them to heart, and you’ll have the best chance of turning a first time gun owner into an eventual enthusiast like you.

TENET 1: Sheath Your Damn Knife-Hand

First and foremost, you have to completely avoid or rid yourself of the paradigm of issuing commands and barking orders. Perhaps you learned weapons safety while a member of Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children, and you love gun school and barked “UP UP UP” commands. Maybe you had a deep desire to be a drill instructor and have total power and authority over someone, and now as the expert, you have your chance. Man, that knife-hand can come out quick, and you can show them all they missed by not serving.
john correia first time gun owner manipulation

Except, don’t. I mean it. I served, soaking up all the being yelled at that I can handle for a lifetime. I’m sure you don’t like being yelled at. And your friend and first time gun owner is probably already doing the cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof routine, because they don’t want to hurt themselves with this gun that they’re still somewhat afraid of and don’t know how to use. Barking at them for holding it wrong will make them more anxious, and they won’t be able to learn a thing.

What actually enables people to learn? A feeling of safety and concern. If you can add some fun to that, such that they start to attach positive emotions to the experience, you get a double benefit. So, make sure that you treat your friend as a grown-up rather than a buck private. If you take a positive, helpful, upbeat attitude and tell them that your goal is to help them be safe and learn some skills, they’ll feed off your energy and engage the learning part of their brain rather than the fight or flight response.

Of course, you shouldn’t be sloppy or casual with safety or unconcerned with giving good instruction; however, your attitude will be reflected in your student, so sheath your damn knife hand and treat your student with some respect. You know, that Golden Rule you learned in Sunday School when you were a kid and grandma dragged you to church.

TENET 2: Gentlemen, This is a Football


At the start of every season, Vince Lombardi began training camp with the same speech. It began, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” Lombardi then taught the rudiments of football, from terminology to the rules of the game, from principles of offense and defense to how to do the simplest task. Many times he was teaching a whole team of returnees from the previous season’s national championship win, but he started without assuming anything.

This should be your guiding principle as you teach a first time gun owner, too. As enthusiasts, we get so used to our own lingo and technical jargon that we usually don’t even realize we’re using it. But your student hasn’t spent time on the gunternet and doesn’t know what an isosceles stance or thumbs-forward grip is.

That doesn’t mean you have to treat your student like a child (see Tenet 1), but it does mean you should explain terms and principles and not assume that your student knows them. Honestly, it doesn’t matter if they call the ammo source a clip, but they need to know the muzzle end of the gun and what it means to keep their finger off the trigger. Explain the rules of safe firearms handling and have them repeat them back to you and explain them so you know they understand. It means not taking any lingo or knowledge for granted, and explaining to your student the why as much as the what. It’s taken you years to get to your level of knowledge, so don’t expect them to have that same store.

TENET 3: Stay on Topic

This one is hard, but hear me out: leave politics out of your lesson. Stay on the topic of effective and safe firearms handling. Yes, this may be the neighbor who has voted for gun control legislation in your district and flown the flag for candidates who you feel have trampled our 2nd Amendment rights, and this could be your chance to really put the screws to them and get them to admit that they were wrong. Just by being there they admit you win, right?

Wrong. This situation might be causing them some cognitive dissonance on a political level, and now is not the time for you to be a stereotypical gun nut to drive them back to the other side. Instead, now is the time for you to be the kind, helpful, reasonable person who passes up the gotcha moment in favor of being kind, understanding, and helpful. They’ll already be wrestling with what it means for them to be a gun owner; if you soft-play your hand here, they might come to you for follow-up discussion — but not if you ram politics down their throat and force-team them on other issues they have strong feelings about.

So keep to the topic at hand. Show them respect as a complex human being, just as you are. Keep the lesson focused on firearms, and if you really want to build trust, ask them if they’d prefer you to keep their newfound ownership in confidence. Only mention it to others if they give permission and show yourself trustworthy. Keeping the lesson on topic builds trust as well.


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TENET 4: Keep It Short, Simple, and Positive

john correia first time gun owner firing
This tenet is actually a double entendre. Think about keeping the entire lesson short, simple, and positive, and also make sure that your instructions are short, simple, and positive. This will help your student retain what they’ve learned and keep mental fatigue at bay.

It’s tempting to show a first time gun owner everything they might need all at once so that if you don’t get to help them again, they hopefully have all they need. If they’ve decided to keep a gun for home defense, it’ll be tempting to cover defensive ammo, barricaded positions, communicating with police, clearing a house to get to children, identifying targets, white light on the gun, and a host of other topics. But going through all of that, all at once, is daunting even to the most enthusiastic student and quickly gets overwhelming. Besides, if you have an hour or two to spend with them on the range, you’ll have your hands full just teaching safe handling and the fundamentals of grip, sights, and trigger. Keep the lesson short (for a first time gun owner, I recommend an hour max), simple, and positive, and they’ll want to come back for more.

john correia first time gun owner
Likewise, so many fledgling teachers want to give a student lessons on everything they’ve been working on for years. Instead, keep the ideas short, simple, and positive. Rather than parroting the typical scary gun safety rule of “don’t point the muzzle at anything you don’t want to destroy” (who wants to destroy anything?), try “from the moment you pick it up, keep your firearm pointed in a safe direction.” Rather than explaining all about isometric muscle engagement, tell your student, “grip the gun from the front to the rear with that hand, and side to side with the other hand.” Explain, demonstrate, and then allow them to imitate and practice.

BE THE COACH YOU WISH MORE PEOPLE HAD

first time gun owner teaching revolver
If you follow these four basic tenets, you’ll set your first time gun owner up for a successful experience and start them on the road to proficiency. You’ll give them a solid foundation and make the experience fun, engaging, and safe, which will encourage them to come back for more. For most of us, I bet we had a good start in firearms use — and more people could use good mentors to help them get started. If we all commit to these key tenets with the millions and millions of new gun owners in America, we can help positively change the perception of firearms ownership and use for decades to come. And that happens one coach to one student at a time.

[Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in CONCEALMENT #18, photos by Sure Shot Photography]


About the Author:
John Correia is the founder and owner of Active Self Protection, whose YouTube channel routinely reaches 25 million people a month to learn the realities of self-defense. John is a trainer specializing in handguns and empty-handed skills based out of Phoenix, Arizona.


More on Training and Safety:

  • In Concealment 7 Hana Bilodau presented an excellent way of showing the Importance of Training.
  • The Second Amendment is Alive and Well, Share RECOIL with your first time gun owner.


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4 responses to “Four Tenets of Teaching a First Time Gun Owner”

  1. Max Wedge says:

    I agree with your “don’t yell” policy but when a millennial young girl nonchalantly points a locked and loaded AK47 at your abdomen, protocol can quickly be forgotten.

    • SL says:

      great article, and timely with all the new gun owners out there. definitely don’t want to be yelling, talking politics, etc… anything that detracts from the goal of teaching and instilling safe and effective gun handling inhibits safe and effective gun handling.

      btw — suddenly yelling at a student whose finger is on the trigger and who is inexperienced with safe gun handling might just induce a negligent discharge with the muzzle inadvertently covering something not intended

  2. Dante Zanone says:

    Great article John, has Gorilla Fritz inspired you to write now, or is this just the first time I’m seeing it.

  3. Jeff says:

    Did anyone not already know this?

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