Equality is a hot buzzword these days across a whole array of topics spanning the width and breadth of the social and political spectrums. We don’t talk politics (more precisely we don’t talk politics on this page), so we won’t wade into any of those discussions here.

When it comes to fighting though, everything pretty much ultimately boils down to physics, psychology, and biology. From one perspective, it’s incredibly fair. Setting comic book movies aside, the laws of physics don’t change from one person to another in a fight. Everybody needs to abide by the same set of rules. But, that doesn’t make everybody equal. Far from it. Physical equality is nothing more than a fantastical pipedream.

Am I equal to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson? Nope. It’s not even close. And no amount of gym time or training is likely to change that.

Is, say, Rosie O’Donnell equal to me? Nope. Again…no contest.

Enter tools = Gamechanger.

The Rock? Depending on distance, if we add firearms into the mix, the equation may have just flip-flopped (though a few days to a few weeks training (depending on any real pre-existing skillset) could probably even that out).

Rosie? Well, she’s still a big underdog. But, even at her base level with no training, she’s actually in the race once tools are in the mix, at least at close range. In this hypothetical example, I’m definitely thinking twice about whether I even want to tangle. With some training—hate to say it—but things could definitely even out. This could possibly even happen as quickly as a month or two too (at least for relatively close-range defensive applications) if she was a willing and motivated participant in a quality training program.

Staying within the realm of self-defense, once you strip everything else out a firearm is really nothing more than an equality calibration device. You, me, the police, everybody, we’re all pretty much equal (or have a reasonable path to get there), at least one-on-one. In fact, while it seems to get lost sometimes in all the noise, that’s pretty much the whole point of firearms.

As the classic saying goes: “God made men, Sam Colt made ‘em equal.”

And, if we may, women too.

Without diving off into politics, virtually everything has pros and cons, risks and rewards, capabilities and limitations. Guns and armed societies are no different. There are pros. There are cons. 

Weighing heavily on the “pro” side, at least for anyone who believes in any version of anything resembling some sort of social equality being a worthwhile pursuit, is the fact that firearms place that outcome within grasp. They are simple tools that function as physical equalizers.

If you’re an instructor, the next time somebody asks you what you do, try telling them you’re a social equality calibration advocate and trainer. Try not to giggle when you do it—that’s the trick.

Here’s a question: if firearms, fundamentally, are physical equalizers, why do so many people in the industry default towards treating women like they can’t learn to use them equally?

Fairly recently I had a civilian student, with a concealed carry permit, who has carried a handgun daily for years, who goes to the range about once a month with her husband—an experienced armed professional. Because she already carried, we started with a test (using dummy rounds).

The results were telling. She was unable to unload, or even operate the slide, on a Glock pistol—a firearm she sometimes carries. She looked at me, face reddening, and said, “My husband always loads the gun for me.”

As we progressed into the first lesson, she said that she was afraid the slide might catch her hand while trying to lock it back and that she wasn’t sure she was strong enough to operate the pistol.

Later the same week, I had another entry-level student who failed to lock the slide back on her first attempt. Her immediate response? “Oh, I have really weak hands and I’m not strong enough to do this.”

Whenever I get this immediate response from a student (which happens quite frequently with females) I always ask them, “Can you pick up 20lbs?” 

Of course they say yes.

“Then you’re strong enough to operate this firearm.”

And, almost without fail, they are.

Before anybody gets the wrong impression here, physical strength and size are relevant in shooting and gun handling, as is recoil. The physical and mechanical aspects of shooting are essentially applied physics. Therefore, things like mass, force, and leverage (ergonomics) matter.

That said, it’s uncommon for these issues to be significant for adults who are shooting modern, defensive-caliber centerfire carry or duty type handguns—at least for close-quarters self-defense applications. Please note that we don’t think this means that weapon and caliber selection don’t matter—they certainly can. However, as long as you’re sticking in the realm of a standard carry caliber and weapon these should almost never be relevant in the context of passing a qualification—especially the concealed carry “test.” (Don’t get me started.)

I once had an instructor tell me that upwards of 70% of his students were incapable of using a Glock pistol to pass his State’s concealed carry test. Absurdity. While this kind of thing does occasionally happen, usually based on an injury, disability, or other physical anomaly, it is the exception—not the rule.

What’s not rare is for people in this industry and within gun culture (men in particular) to start out the conversation by telling women that they aren’t capable of doing things that, in fact, they are perfectly capable of not only doing, but of excelling at.

For example, the students mentioned above? Both were easily locking back the slide inside of an hour’s time. We are under no illusions here that this either an impressive accomplishment or a great feat of strength—but that’s the point. They were more than capable of performing the task, yet entered into the training believing they could not.

Why did they believe something that was untrue (absurdly so in these cases) about their own ability?

Because somebody taught them.

As previously mentioned, the first student’s husband always loaded the weapon for her, even before she carried it. “Don’t worry about that honey, it’s tough, complicated, and requires manly man strength. I’ll do it for you.” (That’s obviously not an actual quote, but you get the point.)

The second student’s father had always told her that she needed to get herself a .22 to protect herself in her apartment. Why a .22? Because it’s something she could handle. The implication? She wasn’t capable of handling anything else.

Sound like physical equality calibration to you? It doesn’t to us either.

Believe it or not, there’s a name for this phenomenon, where a person learns that they “can’t” do something that they are perfectly capable of doing. It’s called learned helplessness. And, unfortunately, it’s something that way too many people (usually, though not necessarily exclusively men) teach in this industry—especially to women.

Learned helplessness is a term coined by a psychologist named Martin Seligman. He and another researcher named Steve Maier conducted experiments during which they learned that dogs, when repeatedly exposed to electric shocks that they could not escape or avoid, learned that they could not avoid the shocks and eventually quit trying.

Even when the dogs could easily avoid the shocks, they simply sat still and allowed the shocks to continue. They had learned that they “couldn’t do it.”

For the sake of accuracy, note that a small percentage of dogs in the experiments did display the opposite response. 

In the years and decades that followed, Seligman and others went on to demonstrate how this same general principle applies to people. We can “learn” that we can’t do something, largely losing the personal capacity to even try—even when it’s something that we are perfectly capable of doing.

As shooters and firearms trainers, this should be the opposite of what we want to accomplish.

Our culture, message, subject matter, and tools are rooted in personal responsibility and physical equalization. From a purely tactical perspective, it’s about enhancing capability—theoretically bringing everyone to the same baseline of potential, regardless of factors like gender, genetics, and age. 

From a cultural perspective, when these capabilities are possessed and applied by individuals possessing both empathy and a willingness to actively better their immediate community, society benefits as a result.

As instructors, we should seek to foster development of both.

To avoid any confusion, we are not suggesting some sort of vigilantism; nor are we providing any specific tactical or legal advice with respect to event intervention as an armed citizen. What we are suggesting is that, at a systemic level, a society of generally helpful people who possess deep wells of personal capability will be far more successful, and far safer, than a society of personally helpless, incapable people.

Note: To learn about the legal considerations in armed intervention we suggest consultation with an attorney and reading authors such as attorney Andrew Branca and long-time writer/trainer Massad Ayoob. As an aside, here’s a fascinating interview Ayoob recently did with Mike Seeklander on The American Warrior Show. We are not attorneys nor are these subjects the focus of this page.

Question: Does a person who believes themselves to be incapable of loading or unloading the firearm they carry most likely fit into the category of potentially helpful or the category of probably helpless?

As an instructor, you’ll get some students who show up and are already in the “helpful” category. It’s why they are there. You might provide some capability enhancement, but you’re not making them into anything new. They are already there.

What about the others, the ones who you can set on a path—or not?

Do you set them up for success? Do you provide or recommend tools that are fundamentally capable of solving complex or varied problem sets? Do you facilitate development of in-depth skillsets that lead to expansive individual problem-solving capability? Do you foster a culture of personal responsibility and social helpfulness?

Or, do you lead them to believe, right from the outset, that their personal capability is realistically limited to maybe solving the three-foot problem—as long as somebody else is around to prep the tools for them?

To be fair, our standard industry training structures and methods simply don’t work very well, which makes affecting truly successful outcomes problematic for instructors. The training methods that we use aren’t designed to deliver information in the same way that people learn.

This leads many instructors and mentors to erroneously diagnose early failure to perform (often an integral component of effective learning) with a fundamental inability to perform. These are not the same thing; however, this is not well understood and both our students and our culture suffer as a result.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Modern brain-science research has now gifted us the capability to generally understand how the brain works. Applying this understanding can allow us to start delivering training in a way that’s compatible with the how people learn—greatly improving both efficiency and outcomes.

This is the subject of both our 2016 book Building Shooters (if you’re interested in the theory and underlying scientific research) and our recently released book Mentoring Shooters, which applies the fundamental scientific principles directly to the art of teaching practical firearms skills. We hope you give them a look if you haven’t already. (Shameless book plugs complete—hey it’s our page.)

Either way, if you’re an instructor, whether you learn from us or somebody else, please do take the time educate yourself, not just about the “what” (what problems are we trying to solve and what is necessary in terms of equipment and skills to solve them), but also the why and how behind human learning. Not only will your students thank you, but both gun culture and society in general will be better off because of it.

As we move into a new year, set both yourself and your students up for success. Don’t teach them learned helplessness by mistake. Instead, teach them learned helpfulness.

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"Easily one of the more important books of our time when it comes to preparing police, military and armed civilians for armed lethal combat."
-Kenneth Murray
Author, Training at the Speed of Life
Co-Founder of Simunition