I shot a gun for the first time. Here’s what it taught me.

Earlier this month, I shot a gun for the first time. At the suggestion of our allies in law enforcement, Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV) staffers visited the Marksman Firearms Training Center and Indoor Shooting Range in Newport News, Virginia. We wanted to become better acquainted with firearms and the difficulties law enforcement officers face when they enter into unpredictable situations.

During our visit, our staff was able to shoot live rounds at an indoor range, learn about firearm safety, and perhaps most notably, participate in a firearms training simulator.

I did not expect the simulator to be the most enlightening part of the experience — but it was. Unlike a shooting range, a simulator uses firearms with compressed air rather than bullets. While live fire gave me a sense of how to handle and discharge firearms, the simulator allowed me to test my judgment in a variety of real-life scenarios that law enforcement officers face every day. The training scenarios include domestic violence disputes, a hit-and-run followed by a police chase, and an inebriated man exhibiting dangerous behavior and threatening a baby’s life.

The most challenging parts of the simulator experience were deciding when to use force and accurately hitting the intended target. We were told that we should only use deadly force if we felt as though the threat was imminent — not merely because we were entering into an intense situation. As we became more comfortable with the simulator, our instructor introduced more stressful scenarios to see how we would respond.

Turns out — not very well.

While the firearms we used had only 60 percent of the recoil of a loaded firearm, the situation felt real. And it was incredibly stressful. I missed nearly every target I intended to hit. More often than not, I was “shot” by the armed perpetrator before I could react.

It would be easy to attribute my failure to my lack of experience, but a 2015 article published in the International Journal of Police Science & Management revealed that expert shooters were only 10 percent more accurate than inexperienced shooters from 3 to 15 feet away. And data shows that even highly trained police officers miss their target more often than they hit it when presented with stressful situations.

A study of New York police officers showed that officers hit their intended target less than 30 percent of the time. In a similar study, Los Angeles police officers hit their targets only 31 percent of the time, with only 74 out of 237 discharged bullets striking the intended target.

Poor marksmanship and inexperience are not the reasons officers miss shots; the tension, the stress, and the unpredictability of the situations officers face are. And this stress is only compounded when multiple individuals on the scene are armed.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) loves to perpetuate the myth that a “bad guy with a gun” can be effectively neutralized by a “good guy with a gun.” I’ve always known that the evidence does not support this theory, but after participating in the simulator, I realized the full absurdity of this talking point.

In life-or-death scenarios involving a gunman, law enforcement officers often have only seconds to assess the situation and act. Multiple armed individuals make this split-second assessment far more difficult — and increase the danger to responding law enforcement, armed civilians, and bystanders.

After the 2016 Dallas shooting, during which roughly 20 to 30 individuals were open carrying weapons when shooting erupted, Mayor Mike Rawlings famously said, “In the middle of a firefight, it’s hard to pick out the good guys and the bad guys.”

Indeed, there are several recent examples in which civilians have chosen not to intervene during a shooting for fear of being mistaken for the shooter. In October 2015, a gunman opened fire at Umpqua Community College (UCC) in Roseburg, Oregon. John Parker Jr., a veteran and student at UCC, was carrying a concealed handgun at the time of the shooting. Parker later told MSNBC that he did not get involved because he feared he would be misidentified as the perpetrator.

My experience at the gun range reaffirmed the fact that the “good guy with a gun” is a myth. Most armed civilians carrying in public areas, claiming to be protectors of the public, lack the ability to effectively handle a crisis situation. Even when their intentions are good, by carrying firearms in public, they threaten to inflict unintended damage, injuries, or casualties upon the innocent people they claim to protect. If professional law enforcement officers have difficulty hitting their intended targets in high-risk scenarios, it is frightening to think about recreational shooters’ accuracy — or lack thereof — and the damage they could inflict.

I needed this experience. I needed to experience recreational shooting. I needed to understand how difficult and stressful law enforcement officers’ jobs are. I needed to see for myself that adding more guns to high intensity, high stress situations increases the danger. As the NRA continues to push guns into more areas of our public life, it is important to remember the facts: an armed society is not a polite society, and more guns do not make us safer.


Lisa Geller is the external affairs associate at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.