So you’ve decided to carry concealed. Maybe you have carried concealed for some time but still wonder if you’re prepared enough to act in defense of life. Maybe you’re one of the millions of Americans who are new to carrying a handgun and are wondering how you can carry but still relax enough to have a good time while you’re out on the town for dinner and a movie.
Either way, you are not alone. Right now about 16 million people have concealed-carry permits, and that’s not counting the people who carry in the dozen or so states (depending on how you count them) that have some version of constitutional (or “permitless”) carry. Just a few years ago an estimated 12 million people had concealed-carry permits (CCPs), just a few years before that less than 10 million had them, and in the mid-1980s only about 1 million people had CCPs.
Hopefully you have found a good instructor or several (NRAInstructors.org gives a lot of options), chosen a handgun to start with and found the right carry method for you. But just as likely, wherever you are on this path, you are still wondering how you can stay ready by maintaining a heightened state of alert as you carry in public. After all, no one can stay on condition orange or above at all times. Even if you tried, you’d burn out. So, whether you’re enjoying a day at the beach or just going grocery shopping, are there times when you can completely relax? How do any of us who carry reconcile that need with the knowledge that any situation, no matter how serene, can turn violent without warning?
Of course, as we think about this we quickly acknowledge that someone who carries can’t completely turn off their radar. After all, those who take freedoms in their hands by carrying concealed have a greater responsibility—those who carry must protect life, have the skills and training to do so, must keep their firearms secure at all times and more. So how do we shoulder this responsibility without taking the fun out of life? How do we create a mindset that keeps us ready, but that also allows us to relax enough to have fun when we’re out to dinner or a movie?
For answers we reached out to firearms instructors, law enforcement professionals and more. Here’s what the pros have to say.
1. Create Good Habits
All of the firearms instructors began by saying you can’t let your awareness go to zero. Many called the people who walk around looking into their smart phones “zombies” and “the walking dead.” This reminded me of something Il Ling New, an instructor at Gunsite Academy, once told me: “Don’t let texting, phone calls or even window shopping shift your focus from what is in your immediate area. Our visual processing decreases when we listen to someone speak, as a result, cell-phone users make great targets. And need I say anything about those who virtually eliminate one of their most important defensive senses by filling their ears with ear buds?”
So how do you create those good habits? Bill “Doc” Harris said, “The difference between a professional and an amateur is the pro does the fundamentals better.” Harris is a 21-year Navy veteran who served as a combat medic with the U.S. Marines and Naval Special Warfare. He is now the director of emergency medicine at Tomahawk Strategic Solutions and co-founder decreases when we listen to someone speak, as a result, cell-phone users make great targets. And need I say anything about those who virtually eliminate one of their most important defensive of First CARE Provider—a veteran-run nonprofit that teaches life-saving skills to everyday citizens. He is also a federal law-enforcement instructor. “Training constantly is key,” he said. “Don’t train at a hundred miles an hour; you should go slow and smooth. You’ll speed up as the skills become good habits. This will build your confidence and your familiarity with your firearm, and will instill a healthy comfort when carrying concealed.”
All of the instructors interviewed for this article advised people to seek out quality instructors and to keep training to create good gun habits. “You can’t get enough training,” was a constant refrain. This advice is actually ancient. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), in his Nicomachean Ethics, emphasized the role of habit in creating virtuous conduct when he argued that “moral virtue comes about as a result of habit.”
“People are often intimidated by an expert, but a good instructor puts people at ease,” says Harris. “Look for someone who is con dent enough to speak in everyday language—not gun-guy lingo—who can show you by example how to create safe gun-handling habits and shooting skills and how to stay aware without being over the top about it.”
Next, you must continuously build on those good habits by doing the gun-training drills instructors show you until they are natural to you—until you do them without thinking. Learn to draw smoothly and to habitually keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction until you are ready to shoot, and learn good trigger control by dry ring and practicing at the range, and so on. Meanwhile, don’t become complacent. Even an experienced person must continue to train.
2. Stay Alert
“You shouldn’t live in fear,” said Harris. “You are carrying so you can defend yourself and others in a crisis. It’s like being a parent with a young child. You are always scanning ahead of them and around them for potential trouble—for traffic in a parking lot, a loose dog or whatever. It’s the same when you’re carrying concealed. You need to stay aware.”
Julie Golob, a multi-time world and national shooting champion, responded to questions about how she stays in a ready mindset by saying, “It’s easy for some to confuse preparedness with paranoia when it comes to personal defense, but the differences are significant. A paranoid person lives in constant worry and fear, whereas someone who has prepared appropriately is aware, confident and capable. One who chooses to take responsibility for their own safety doesn’t leave things to chance. They understand that self-sufficiency is not only a proactive way to stay safe, but it also enhances existence as it makes you free and empowers you. It’s one of the most powerful choices you can make for yourself.”
Ken Hackathorn, an FBI Certified Firearms Instructor who was in law enforcement for 37 years and who has trained U.S. Military Special Operations forces, described the proper mindset as “thinking like a cop on duty.”
Bill Rogers, a former FBI agent and the founder and chief instructor at Rogers Shooting School, said, “It’s about creating a heightened sense of responsibility and maturity. There are times and places where we know our risk of running into a bad situation is higher. You need to turn up your radar in these places. You don’t ever turn your awareness off, but as you learn to live this way you won’t see it as a burden. Actually, it enhances your life, even your sense of being alive.”
Pat McNamara, a firearms instructor who is president of TMACS, INC. and a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Army, said, “I tell people to look at it this way: You are your first responder. You are your, and perhaps your spouse’s and children’s, security detail. You are doing executive protection on a micro level. As you move about society you are not at level ‘orange’ you are at ‘yellow,’ just outside the light and ready to be switched on.”
They all advised that we need to learn how to assess threats and to avoid them when we can. Outside of time in the military and while serving in law enforcement, none of the people interviewed for this article have had to pull a gun in defense of life, but they are all ready to do so in this new reality of terrorist attacks and more.
“When I go to the movies I’ll scan for the exits and look over the crowd. I’ll sit in a position where I can ideally see trouble coming,” said Harris. “For years, as I carried, I didn’t tell my wife about this kind of stuff, but now I do. The other day when we entered a movie theater I told her, if there is an emergency, don’t take the first exit, go to the second door marked exit. She asked me why and I told her that the first exit goes into the lobby, but the other goes to the parking lot. She said, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’”
3. Never Get Too Comfortable
Getting good firearms training, finding the right carry options and firearms for you, and more are all critical. But these instructors all pointed out that, at some point, you will develop the right mindset and will feel like your handgun is an extension of you; when you reach this level you must be careful about becoming too confident or complacent.
McNamara said, “Don’t become cocky.”
Hackathorn said, “You’d better stay aware of your gun. The environment is always changing.” They pointed out that a child could enter the picture and he or she might sit on your lap or who knows what. You might become so secure that you won’t pay attention when you enter a parking garage or approach a street corner at night. That sixth sense you have that tells you when trouble is coming might be ignored, not because you are not aware, but because you can become too confident.
This is why all of these instructors referred to a balance between being relaxed and being apprehensive. They all agreed that we can never just completely relax and let our guard all the way down. They said we must be careful of becoming so sure of our skills that we willingly, even stupidly, walk into a situation we should have known looked bad.
“Going from white to red all in an instant is a hard transition,” said Hackathorn. “At that point you are going to fall back on training because you won’t be able to think clearly. The decades I spent in law enforcement taught me that. You are much more likely to make good, smart decisions if you are trained properly and mentally aware and humble so that you give yourself a moment to react in the best way possible.”
“Your mind is your greatest weapon,” said McNamara. “Use it.”
Il Ling New was even more blunt. She once told me, “Don’t look like food. Eye contact alone can help eliminate you from a criminal’s wish list. Our intuition is amazingly accurate. Listen to and trust your gut.”
Learning to live this way makes you more aware, more alive, more engaged. Outside of threat assessment, you’ll notice more things. Your memories will become more vivid. You won’t be the “walking dead,” as many of these instructors referred to the people living in their smart-phone bubbles or self-involvement zones. Many good things can come from being aware and ready. Society needs us to do this.
I was standing at the ATM when a shadowy man entered the foyer, shoved a pistol toward my midsection and simultaneously blocked the door.
JDLR. As a Special Operations soldier in Vietnam and Central America, I literally lived by this maxim.