Practice Not Shooting


Robert over at The Truth About Guns has a good reminder today: One thing we should include in our training is practice not shooting.

Robert discusses the tragic case of Jeffrey Giuliano, a Connecticut man who recently shot and killed a masked intruder in his home, only to discover the hooded figure was his own fifteen year old son. And he points out something interesting and, I think, important.

Robert writes:

One thing is for sure, if you shoot every time you clear leather or aim a gun at a gun range—which people do tens of thousands of times over decades— you’re most likely to shoot when you clear leather in a defensive gun use (DGU). Regardless of whether or not you should.

To be clear, Robert is not saying the father in this story did anything wrong. By all accounts, he confronted a masked person in his home late at night who came at him with a gun. The son’s intentions notwithstanding, it’s hard to imagine that a reasonable person standing in his shoes, knowing what he knew at that moment and nothing more, would conclude that he was not justified in perceiving an imminent threat to his life.

Rather, Robert’s point is this: If all we ever practice is drawing our gun, acquiring a target, and pulling the trigger, then we aren’t practicing and conditioning the habit of making those split-second shoot/don’t shoot decisions. A substantial body of evidence and research tells us that, in a crisis, we fall back on our conditioning. If our conditioning is “whenever the gun clears the holster and I acquire a target, I will pull the trigger” that increases our chances of shooting when we really will wish, later, that we hadn’t. The increased risk might be small, but small factors are amplified in a crisis.

Police officers and military troops do a lot of training and simulation in making these go/no-go decisions. For us civilians, replicating that decision-making under fire is harder. Personally, this is part of why I like to shoot IDPA matches: Although IDPA isn’t the same as training, conditioning yourself to differentiate threat and non-threat targets, under pressure, is an enormously valuable skill. I’ve never shot USPSA, but I imagine one could practice similar skills in that sport.

Next time you go to the range, here’s a drill to try. Get two or three different colors of construction paper and set them up. A 3×3 grid arrangement is ideal if you have the space. Stand with your pistol holstered (or in low ready) and, at a signal, have someone call out one of the colors. Engage the targets of that color only. Shot placement doesn’t really matter for this drill; you’re only working on honing the go/no-go decision.

Many shooters seem to spend a lot of time practicing shooting. Which is a good thing, and a lot of fun besides. But try practicing not shooting too. If you ever have to engage a threat in an environment with “friendlies”, you’ll be glad you’ve conditioned yourself to make those decisions under pressure.


  1. Leethar says:

    I really like this idea for a drill but had an idea- instead of the assistant calling out a color and then the shooter drawing, how about draw from a buzzer or draw command and then have your assistant call out the color as you draw, with the added possibility of saying “no shoot” or even calling out a color that’s not posted?
    That way, you have to practice thinking during your draw, and maybe cancelling your shot at the last second.

    • I like this variation, and will definitely have to try it out next time I’m at the range. Thanks for the suggestion, and for reading and commenting!

  2. Very good advice. This is actually part of the “know your target and what is beyond it” rule. It’s not discussed or demonstrated nearly enough.

    From my personal experience, I don’t think this would be difficult to practice. Most human beings have a serious inborn reluctance to kill or even injure others.

    But that is demonstrably true in most ordinary people. Think of the many millions/billions of people, each and every day, who endure all sorts of dangerous and confrontational situations in their lives without resorting to killing or harming others – whether they are armed or not – and whether or not they have a perfectly good reason to strike back.

    Most of us must work hard to overcome our natural tendency NOT to do harm in order to effectively defend ourselves in an actual attack. Only major mental and emotional conditioning can overcome or alter that reluctance. Actually, most soldiers and even cops are conditioned to RATIONALIZE their actions as something else, not conditioned to be willing to kill indiscriminately.

    Otherwise, where do you think the large PTSD and suicide rate of soldiers and cops come from? The PTSD and emotional anguish come from the massive conflicts created by that conditioning since most soldiers and cops are not sociopaths and continue to have a conscience and empathy for others. Those who lose (or are born without) that conscience and empathy are rare, and hopefully always will be.

    So, yes indeed! Add some shoot/don’t shoot exercises to your practice by all means. Add that to your “know your target” advice to new folks. But I wouldn’t worry too much about over training to shoot.

    • Well said. I agree with you that the impact of “over-training to shoot” is small for most people. My experience has been that small effects get amplified when you’re under stress, which is why I like to train for them once in a while. Another thing is, being able to stand up in court and say “these are the things I do to train myself NOT to shoot until I’ve positively identified the threat” can only help, I think, if you’re involved in a deadly force encounter.

      Thank you as always for commenting, my friend!

  3. 🙂 – You are more than welcome, of course. I’ve found this blog to be a very valuable read in many ways.

    I was speaking before from my own experience, of course. The ONLY time I ever had to shoot in self defense, to save my life – and KNOWING without doubt that he would have killed me if he’d gotten his hands on me – I STILL couldn’t shoot him point blank. I fired over his head, hoping foolishly that it would make him go away. The fact that it worked out that way is a miracle… and I would not chance it again, knowing what I know now.

    Not that it wouldn’t be all to the good in some jurisdictions, of course, but I don’t think the “shoot/don’t shoot” training would be a factor in any court proceedings resulting from a clear need to defend yourself. An ambiguous situation would still be a big problem with or without that.

    I decided a long time ago that I was going to train exclusively in the things that would improve my chances of survival if attacked, and intentionally not in any attempt to anticipate some legal entanglement. If I am careful NEVER to be the aggressor, and to follow the rules of safe shooting… the chance of legal trouble is even less than the chance of actual attack. I’m not going to sweat it. 🙂

    But then… I won’t live in California, NYC or an awful lot of other places either!

    • I totally agree that “an ambiguous situation would still be a big problem with or without” shoot/don’t shoot training, and that anticipating legal entanglements can lead one down a rabbit-hole. On the other hand, I also recognize that “I’m alive, but sitting in a jail cell for the next 25 years while my family declares bankruptcy because of my legal bills and civil judgments against me” is something of a pyrrhic victory. So it’s a bit of a balancing act, and we each have to decide where we land on those issues.

      For myself, living in a gun-hostile county in a gun-hostile state, I tread more cautiously than I might if I lived somewhere freer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: