A good man always knows his limitations.
–Inspector Harry Callahan
As early as the colonial times, it was recognized that shooting firearms is an athletic endeavor. Thomas Jefferson implied as much to his nephew, when he recommended shooting rather than “games played with the ball” as a pastime. In any physical endeavor, it’s useful to establish a benchmark. This concept applies in:
- Medicine – what’s your blood pressure? Your doctor probably doesn’t just look at your face and decide if you have high blood pressure or not. A measurement is required. And that measurement is then evaluated in relation to established benchmarks for normal, pre‑hypertensive, or hypertensive conditions.
- Sports – universally, sports rely on numerical performance indicators. A team would certainly not field a player without having looked at the player’s performance stats. While good stats are no guarantee of success on the playing field, poor stats are unlikely to lead to success.
- Education – making acceptable grades is generally required to graduate from any educational institution. If your child went to a school that never evaluated performance, you probably would be unhappy about that. The general problem of that in our schools today is beyond the scope of this discussion. Suffice to say that any parent whose child can’t read but still is allowed to graduate from school should be very, very unhappy.
Avoiding Negative Outcomes is another key reason for why people might choose to have standards. This is where Dirty Harry’s statement comes into play. Two particular incidents come to mind as examples.
- A woman in Mississippi shot and killed her husband with a handgun while trying to protect him from an attacking dog. One bullet missed the dog and struck the husband in the chest, killing him.
- In Texas, a woman and her roommates were victims of a home invasion. When she fired her shotgun at the invaders, she missed them both but shot and seriously injured one of her roommates. This incident highlights a downside of owning a shotgun for home defense. There are few places those who live in urban or suburban areas can do any meaningful home defense practice with a shotgun.
“Weapons System” is a military buzzphrase that should be considered in the context of having standards. When a person picks up a firearm for personal protection, the combination of person and firearm become a ‘weapon system.’ Compatibility of the firearm with the person operating it is an important aspect of an appropriate choice.
- What works for you? Although the Glock pistol is enormously popular, it’s not the right choice for everyone. The other side of the coin is that the snub nose .38 revolver often recommended for women isn’t necessarily the right choice either.
- One of my colleagues somewhat rhetorically posed the question “What I shoot the best is a .22; is that what I should carry [or keep for home defense]?” That’s actually a really good question. If a person could only successfully shoot a very simple testing protocol with a .22, what’s the answer? Especially where senior citizens are concerned, how should they make a decision?
Psychology is yet another aspect of the standards decision. People like to think they know what they’re doing. Conversely, they don’t like not knowing what they’re doing. My friend and colleague Ken Hackathorn states a concept he calls Hackathorn’s Law.
You won’t do something under conditions of stress that you’re not subconsciously sure you can do reasonably well.
His Law has a distinct relationship to the concept of ‘Critical Distance’ in proxemics. Critical Distance is the distance at which pursued prey will turn and initiate a counter-attack against the predator. My analysis is that the North American subconscious Critical Distance is in the zone of 4-7 feet (the near phase of social space).
Those familiar with the Tueller Principle will recognize that primal Critical Distance is only one-third of ‘too close.’ As the late Paul Gomez said, “We’re not teaching people to start shooting soon enough.” If a person never has an inkling of the standard they are capable of shooting to, most likely they will default to the primal Critical Distance.
Liability mitigation is sometimes cited as a reason for having standards. Other than as an unstated barrier to entry, standards have been mentioned as a way for issuing authorities to reduce their liability. To what extent this is actually true remains to be seen but it is stated as a reason.
A significant downside to standards is that encountering or testing them may force a conflict with a person’s ego. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a well-recognized aspect of human nature. It’s the opposite side of the Hackathorn’s Law coin. As one shooter wryly observed,
Getting better is not for everyone.
If a person never tests what their skill level actually is, then this ego conflict is avoided. Many people are okay with that. Unless meeting a standard is mandated, it’s a personal decision.