From training to practice to procuring legal protection, choosing to concealed carry is a commitment that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
A recent report from the Crime Prevention Research Center indicated the number of concealed carry permits is up 10.5% from the same time last year and a staggering 48% from 2016. Even with 21 current Constitutional carry states, the total number of permit holders throughout the country has surpassed the 21 million mark.
We’ve all heard that only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun. But what if the good guy doesn’t know how to safely operate that gun or couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn in a real-life scenario? While carrying a sidearm is certainly a great step in self-defense, just holstering a handgun on your hip simply isn’t enough.
Here are six things you should consider when carrying a concealed weapon.
1. Be Aware of Misconceptions
According to Kevin Michalowski — a fully certified law enforcement officer, firearms instructor, and executive Editor of the U.S. Concealed Carry Association’s Concealed Carry Magazine — many gun owners make misguided assumptions that could leave them unprepared and even cost them their lives.
“The most common misconception is that your gun is going to protect you. It is not,” says Michalowski. “Your gun will not protect you — it’s not a bulletproof vest and a shield. Your gun is simply a tool for you to use in the event that things go so badly you have to use deadly force to stop the threat.”
Furthermore, he says live shooter situations are much more unpredictable than people anticipate. And while some assume a gun guarantees they’ll win a fight for their lives, this isn’t always true. “The people who are going to attack you have been in a lot more fights than you’ve been in. They know these skills. They practice them. And they are much more well-versed in dealing with violence,” he says. “Don’t just assume that because you have a gun you’re going to win the fight — it’s not automatic.”
Even with so many uncertainties, gun owners can take several steps to better protect themselves, their families, and the public.
2. Build an Educational Foundation
Gun owners can protect themselves both physically and legally by building a solid foundation of education centered around firearm law and safety.
“The first part of education is understanding every nuance of how your gun works,” says Michalowski. “Did you read the instruction manual when you got the gun? Or did you just assume you know how to use it because Uncle Bob taught you when you were 14?”
Ensuring you’re well-versed in the ever-evolving gun regulations where you live and carry is also critical. Michalowski says a comprehensive tool such as USCCA’s interactive reciprocity map — which outlines specific regulations for each individual state — is a great place to start.
“Absolutely the most important thing is to understand the laws where you will be carrying, where your feet will be on the ground with that gun in your holster. You need to know what the laws are, and you need to have a basic foundation in the understanding of deadly force decision-making — that is, when you can and cannot use deadly force. And you have to have that right from the start.”
From castle doctrine to duty to retreat to stand your ground laws, regulations vary widely from state to state and even on certain grounds within state lines. A thorough study of regulations — and staying up to date on any changes — will ensure you’re not breaking any laws.
3. Participate in Comprehensive Training
Once you’ve read up on your firearm and gun laws, Michalowski says you should connect with a reputable firearm training organization. While it might not be a legal requirement to carry, it will help make you a much more capable carrier.
“This idea of putting a gun on your hip and just thinking that you’re going to be ok, thinking you’ll know what to do is not enough because the incident will last only seconds, but the aftermath will last for months, years, perhaps your entire lifetime,” he says. “And truly if you make mistakes, you can destroy your life, your family’s life, and lose everything you have.”
Some states will issue residents a concealed carry permit with a completed hunter education course, but an investigation into the use of deadly force will last much longer than any one-day class. Michalowski says these courses don’t teach you what it takes to legally defend yourself, and self-defense requires a completely different mindset and skill set than any type of hunting.
Bonus: Do More than One Kind of Training
Online and in-person firearm training courses run the gamut from the basic mechanics of different types of firearms to the legal, moral, and ethical dilemmas of carrying a concealed weapon to defensive shooting tactics. While training programs such as USCCA’s Protector Academy stress situational awareness and conflict avoidance, playing out possible scenarios in advance is critical to correctly responding to a threat.
Michalowski says anyone carrying a concealed weapon should study the self-defense tactics involved in a real-life scenario. “It lasts just seconds, but it’s truly a high-stress scenario. You have to do things right, and it’s not like anything you’ve ever been involved in. You’re not standing still trying to shoot a really small group at a 25-yard target; you’re in a dynamic, violent encounter where you need to stop the threat immediately, and in order to do that it might mean that you need to fire rounds quite accurately. You want to hit your target, but it’s a fairly big target at really close range at really high speed, and that’s not something a lot of people practice.”
A solid training program will also help you understand the physiology behind what happens to your body in this type of high-stress situation so you can recognize the signs and react appropriately.
“There’s really no way to train for the physiological changes that your body goes through, but we can talk about them and understand them and know that they might happen. Things like vasoconstriction — your muscles tense up, all the blood rushes to your major organs, and suddenly your hands feel like clubs. Or tunnel vision or auditory exclusion — those sorts of things happen when people are under high stress,” says Michalowski. “And while we can’t mimic them in training, we can remind people that they will happen.”
4. Practice, Practice, Practice
Michalowski says as soon as you receive training from an instructor, you should immediately begin practicing on your own.
“People need to understand that all these skills are perishable. If you don’t use them, you’ll lose them. If you don’t practice, you won’t be at your highest level,” he says. “Under stress, we do not rise to the occasion; we revert to our lowest level of training.”
Whenever practicing or handling a gun in any way, be sure to practice the four rules of firearm safety: treat all guns as if they’re loaded, never point your gun at something you aren’t willing to destroy, be aware of your target and what’s behind it, and keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.
Consistent live-fire training at a range can be costly — especially in the midst of an ammo shortage — but gun owners can still get plenty of practice through regular dry fire training.
You can do this in any room of your house with either a training firearm or your unloaded gun — just be sure to triple-check that the chamber, magazine, and entire room are free of any live rounds.
Even though we’re taught to never play with firearms as kids, Michalowski says this is precisely what we should do as gun-owning grown-ups.
Read: It’s Ok for Grown-Ups to Play with Guns
“Play with your gun. Take your gun out of your holster. Take all the ammunition out of it. Move all the ammunition out of the room. Sit down and learn the nuances of how that gun operates. Rack the slide with your hands. Operate the safety and make sure that you know right where it is. Hit the magazine release over and over so your thumb just automatically goes there. You’re building these neural pathways — people call them muscle memory, but they’re actually neural pathways in your brain that remind you where things are. We want you to practice not until you get it right but until you can’t get it wrong.”
Dry fire training can also help you see exactly how you’ll move around, how you’ll draw from your holster, and even where your gun could get caught on your clothing in a shooting situation.
Pay Attention to the “Rule of Threes”
Michalowski explains it’s important to practice all these elements so they become second nature due to the rule of threes. “FBI statistics show the average firearm exchange is three rounds in three seconds from a range of typically three yards. That doesn’t give you a whole lot of time to think about all that has to go into this.”
“You have to identify the threat, make sure you are legal in your actions, look around and make sure you have target acquisition and target isolation so that you’re not hitting anyone else because you’re responsible for every bullet that leaves your gun. And then you have to make sure that you can get your gun out of its holster, into action, and on target, engage the threat, identify that you have taken proper action to stop the threat.”
“Once you realize the threat is stopped, you need to stop using force because any use of force after the threat is stopped then becomes an assault — it’s no longer self-defense. You only have three seconds to figure all of that out. So the mechanical parts of that need to come naturally, and that only comes with practice.”
5. Establish Legal Protection
According to Michalowski, anyone who has a firearm for personal protection should proactively find an attorney. Or, plan for a means to pay for one, should the need arise.
“Any use of force is going to land you in the legal system, and the legal system is incredibly complex and incredibly expensive,” he says. “People need to understand that if they use force and even if they do everything perfectly, they’re still going to be facing a police officer, investigator, district attorney, maybe even a judge and a jury depending on how things go.”
He says you’d be looking at five figures just for an attorney to get started on your case, and self-defense liability insurance could lift a great burden off you and your family — both for getting on-demand legal help and long-term financial support.
“The cost of defending yourself, even if you believe you did everything right, is really great,” says Michalowski.
6. Embrace the Concealed Carry Lifestyle
Taking on the responsibility of carrying a concealed weapon means this decision will factor into every aspect of your everyday life.
“People need to understand that your concealed carry permit and your gun are just one component in what we call the concealed carry lifestyle,” says Michalowski. “Carrying a gun is a choice you’re making for your life because it changes everything you do. It changes how you dress, it changes where you go, it changes what you do with your free time. You need training, you need education, you need to understand all of the rules around it, and it changes how you’re going to respond to people in different situations. Suddenly when you’re carrying a concealed weapon, little things are not so important because now there’s a gun present.”
Michalowski stresses the importance of making sure you have all the knowledge and skills so you can not just survive but do so in a way that won’t get you in hot water legally.
“Your firearm is the last resort — it’s the last thing you want to do. But you don’t want it to be the last thing you ever do.”