Training for armed self-defense is like preparing for a natural disaster, according to the research of two Oregon State University professors.
The researchers set out to understand how Americans who keep and carry handguns for self-defense mitigate the risks involved, such as accidentally shooting oneself, inaccurately identifying a threat or being clumsy. The professors identified ways that handguns owners work to diminish those risks, including through training, mental rehearsing and routine maintenance.
The researchers determined that while those efforts mitigate the physical, legal and moral risks associated with using handguns for self-defense, it does not remove all risk.
“It’s sort of like preparing for an earthquake or a tsunami,” said Aimee Huff, as assistant professor in the College of Business and one of the study’s lead authors. “You can do your best to be prepared, but in the moment, if it happens, yes, you’re going to rely on your training but there’s also going to be a lot of thinking in the moment.”
Also, the stimuli in the event will probably be different than what the gun owner had trained for, said the study’s other lead author, Michelle Barnhart, an associate professor in the College of Business.
The study was published Monday in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. OSU business professor James McAlexander and Brandon McAlexander of the University of Arkansas also are coauthors.
Focus on guns
According to a July report by the Crime Prevention Research Center, there are over 16.3 million concealed handgun permit holders in the United States. This was a record 1.83 million increase in permits over the previous year.
With American gun ownership on the rise and the laws surrounding firearms changing throughout the country, the researchers set out four years ago to study several issues surrounding gun culture. In July, they published a study finding that gun violence prevention groups are more moderate in ideology than typically portrayed.
In 2015, the researchers began studying the risks associated with handgun ownership. They went to gun trade shows and observed attendees and vendors. They attended the National Rifle Association’s annual convention and two researchers even signed up to become NRA members, receiving all the literature that comes with membership. The professors also participated in target shooting and interviewed gun range members, as well as a host of handgun owners, in Texas, Oregon and other states. One researcher became licensed to carry in Oregon. The professors also monitored conversations in four online discussion forums dedicated to defensive handgun use.
Huff said the researchers started out wanting to know how people who carry handguns or have them in their homes for self-defense mitigate the risk of accidentally firing the weapon. The professors soon realized there are a whole host of risks handgun owners face.
“It was sort of like unraveling something and realizing all these risks that gun owners understand they assume when they decide to carry a gun,” Huff said.
For instance, handgun owners with licenses to carry must understand the laws within their state governing how and where they are permitted to openly carry their gun, she said. The professors learned that people who carry guns have varying views on displaying their weapons, some feeling they would be targeted first if a threat materializes and others thinking they would be less likely to be victimized if their gun is showing.
Since the training required to obtain a license to carry varies greatly by state, the extent to which handgun owners are trained to use their firearms and respond in self-defense also varies, the professors said. While Texas requires permit applicants to complete hands-on training, people in Oregon applying for a concealed handgun license must only show they’ve passed an online handgun safety class, the researchers said.
“I would venture to say that for most people who have a concealed handgun license, they do (the training required by law) and that’s probably the extent of the training that they do,” Barnhart said.
The professors determined there is a subset of people who own handguns for self-defense who undergo additional training, which is often timely and costly. These people talked about the added benefits of one-on-one, realistic training involving interactive screens and even invasion scenarios, Huff said. In one training, the participant lays in a bed and practices hearing a threatening noise, taking their gun out of one safe and the ammunition out of another safe and firing rounds at an intruder, she said.
The researchers analogized carrying a handgun to driving a car, given both are done in public and both carry risks. But, the professors said driving is conspicuous and society has developed agreed-upon safety practices.
“We didn’t see that so much with conceal carry and we think it’s in part because it’s young and in part because it’s hidden, so you don’t monitor each other in the same way,” Barnhart said.
While the researchers found that safety norms exist at the gun range, there is a lack of best practices for conceal carrying outside of that space.
“You’re doing something in public but it’s not public,” Huff said. “You’re not letting other people know you do it so it’s really hard for social norms to evolve when you’re engaging in an activity that is not really social even though you’re doing it in a social space.”
For example, the professors found a range of opinions regarding de-escalation and when to engage. Some people who carry handguns think responsible gun owners must first try to verbally de-escalate a situation and call police, seeing the drawing of their gun as a last resort, Huff said. Others take more of a stand-your-ground approach and will fire when they perceive a real threat, she said.
The researchers said more consistent training among states would allow for social norms regarding handgun ownership for self-defense to emerge.
One consistent practice the professors discovered among people who carry handguns for self-defense was mental rehearsal. When people who carry handguns visit a restaurant or other public space, they determine where all entrances and exits are and then mentally work through what they would do if an active shooter appeared, Barnhart said.
The researchers also found this to be true when monitoring the online forums. The participants would discuss how to react during specific scenarios, such as being in a mall dressing room when shooting breaks out.
“Mental scenarios are pretty integrated throughout people’s socialization into armed self-defense,” Barnhart said.
The professors plan to continue studying gun culture, with their next project possibly focusing on the experience of non-gun owners in a country where there are so many guns, Huff said.