What is a “Professional Civilian Firearms Trainer”?

With the exception of concealed carry instructors in certain states (like North Carolina), “civilian firearms instructor” as an occupation is unregulated by any local, state, or federal agency (that I am aware of – please correct me if I am wrong).

In such an environment, anyone can put up a shingle that says “I are a gun trainer,” to quote Ken Campbell, COO of Gunsite Academy.

As the gun training industry has grown over the past several decades, it is clear that many people are doing just that. Which raises the question, what is a “professional civilian firearms instructor”?

At its most basic level, if someone says they are a “professional [fill in the occupation],” they mean they do that job for money, as opposed to being an amateur or doing it as a hobby. For example, being a professional tennis player like Roger Federer as opposed to just being a tennis player like myself.

Being a professional civilian firearms instructor could just mean that someone charges fees for their services as opposed to teaching for free (e.g., to family and friends).

But there are also common uses of the term “professional” which suggest a meaning beyond simply the monetary. For example, Nick Kyrigos is a professional tennis player in the sense of playing the sport for money, but he does not always handle himself “professionally” or “as a professional.”

What understanding of “professional” is implied in statements like these, and what would it mean for civilian firearms instructors to be professionals in this broader sense?

What is a profession?

Historically, being a professional always meant something more than making money at a particular job. The historic professions like medicine and law were organized around specialized technical knowledge, but also (and more importantly) they embodied an ethos of duty or obligation to serve the public interest. In exchange for upholding their civic responsibility, professions secured the autonomy to regulate their own professional practice. [1]

The contemporary understanding of profession is clearly a diluted version of this historic civic professionalism. As early as 1964, sociologist Harold Wilensky questioned “The Professionalization of Everyone?” [2]

“[T]here is a recurrent idea among students of occupations that the labor force as a whole is in one way or another becoming professionalized. . . . [M]any sociologists have succumbed to the common tendency to label as ‘professionalization’ what is happening to real estate dealers (realtors) and laboratory technicians (medical technologists)” (p. 138).

In line with the older understanding of professionalism, Wilensky argued that there are two essential points of distinction between professions and other occupations:

“(1) The job of the professional is technical—based on systemic knowledge or doctrine acquired only through long prescribed training. (2) The professional man adheres to a set of professional norms” (p. 138).

Frequently those norms are tied to “a service ideal—devotion to the client’s interests more than personal or commercial profit should guide decisions when the two are in conflict.” Indeed, “The service ideal is the pivot around which the moral claim to professional status revolves” (p. 140).

What is the process of professionalization?

Wilensky then distilled a generic process of professionalization from the natural history of some of the 30 to 40 full-fledged professions he analyzed (including law, university teaching, medicine, military, dentistry, architecture, engineering, and certified public accounting).

It is interesting to consider whether elements of this process of professionalization can be seen in the development of the civilian firearms training industry.

(1) Full-time work. According to Wilensky, “an obvious first step” in the process of becoming a profession “is to start doing full time the thing that needs doing” (p. 142).

This alone could prevent firearms training from being fully professionalized, as Karl Rehn noted in his recent guest column here.

(2) Establish training schools. Because professions are technical jobs, the acquisition of the knowledge proper to the job comes to be housed in formal organizations, especially academies, universities, and graduate/professional schools.

There are no civilian gun trainer equivalents to law school or medical school or a service academy. There are, however, some courses that attempt to pass on the knowledge necessary to do the job. The instructor development course taught by Tom Givens is such a course. It is unlikely, however, that his and other courses could be developed into full-fledged training schools for civilian firearms instructors – in no small part because of #1, there are too few people who do the job full time.

(3) Combine to form a professional association. The professional association becomes a key regulator of the training schools and helps advance the legal standing of the profession (point 4).

There is no single professional association of civilian firearms instructors, though I note the existence of the National Association of Certified Firearms Instructors and the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors (about which I will have more to say later), neither of which has much traction in the gun training industry as far as I can tell.

(4) Win the support of law. The profession thus achieves legal protection of the monopoly of skill in the profession and its sustaining code of ethics.

Not only are there no regulations affecting civilian firearms training as an occupation, there is no effort being made by any firearms trainers collectively to have their work legally protected through government regulation.

(5) Code of Ethics. Wilensky observes, “Eventually rules to eliminate the unqualified and unscrupulous, rules to reduce internal competition, and rules to protect clients and emphasize the service ideal will be embodied in a formal code of ethics” (p. 145).

Again, if there is no legal regulation of civilian gun training as an occupation nor any self-regulation through a professional association, the idea of a formal code of ethics has no vehicle through which it could be realized.

What about semi-professionalism?

According to Wilensky’s model, civilian firearms trainers are neither professionalized nor professionalizing nor likely to professionalize in the future. That said, Wilensky does observe that “many occupations which fail to fit the professional model” are nonetheless “developing higher levels of training and performance, an increasingly sober, dutiful dedication to the task, and even some standards of honorable dealing.” Following T.H. Marshall, he calls this “a modern type of semi-professionalism” (p. 157).

Although it would be premature to offer any definitive conclusions as my research is just beginning, I do see some efforts at this modern type of semi-professionalism among civilian gun trainers. In my next post I will apply this idea to the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors.


[1] William M. Sullivan, Work and Integrity: The Crisis and Promise of Professionalism in America. New York: Harper Business, 1995.

[2] Harold L. Wilensky, “The Professionalization of Everyone?” American Journal of Sociology 70:2 (1964): 137–58.


  1. New Mexico has a fifteen hour classroom/range requirement to get a CHL and the state licenses instructors.

    Of course the other thing one needs to be a professional is a market. Few folks are keen to do their own appendectomy and some fields are tough to do without years of advanced study (nuclear forensic analysis requires high level analytical chemistry skills as well as an understanding of all things nuclear). So does Sociology, as David demonstrates.

    As far as stuff the public uses, I’ll contrast motorcycles and pedalcycles. Motorcyclists suffer about ten times the death rate in traffic as four wheeled motorists. To try to change the image of motorcycles as two wheeled coffins, the moto industry funded the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and runs it out of motorcycle shops. Instructors are supported by the industry but I don’t know if this goes as far as making them semipros. That said, new or returning riders are encouraged to take training. At least in NM, the MSF completion certificate works in lieu of a state test to get one’s motorcycle license endorsement and most insurance agencies give discounts to riders who graduate. I took the advanced rider class when I started riding again after a long layoff.

    The national bicycling organization League of American Bicyclists likewise offers Traffic Skills training but the bicycle industry and advocates often work at cross purposes, selling bicycles as though anyone with a pulse can climb on and ride off, and advocating for separate but equal infrastructure. The results of inexperience and lax attitude is obvious to anyone who watches bicyclists in traffic. The bicycle community tends to blame everyone but the inept bicyclist when things go wrong. To some degree it is often a hostile enviornment in the US for bicyclists, meaning all the more reason for training. But we don’t see it pushed. So there is little market for bicycle competency training, as I know as a League Certified Instructor. Limited market, few trainers.

    I see GC 2.0 going the way of the bicycle model with stuff like Constitutional Carry and the state by state drive for fewer restrictions on carrying in public. But unlike motorcyclists, who kill themselves when they goof, the news we will get on the 24/7 news cycle when a Constitutional Carryist blows away a bystander or shoots himself in the ass will be “I told you so”. So the question of expertise is separate, but ultimately related, to challenges to our rights. Maybe its time we try to get the gun community on board with the motorcycle model–impress them with our excellence rather than baffle them with Dana Loesch’s bullshit.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. keep in mind that “eliminate the unqualified” is a Latin phrase meaning “Use the government to eliminate any competition that isn’t in our cozy little club.”. This, of course, is the first order of business when forming a Guild.

    Wafa Wafa, Wasara Wasara.

    Liked by 1 person

      • True, though medecine is not really the best analogy. Bad anesthetics will kill. Bad advice is just that. There is a difference between establishing minimum standards that all who can pass can get certified under, and regulatory capture where the process itself is used to limit entry.

        Should it be sufficient to pass an objective bar exam open to all comers to get a law license, or should you have to get accepted to one of a few accredited schools and spend thousands on a degree first?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Seems to me one should not have to bleed money if one is qualified to do something. Coming up with an objective and fair test is important. I’ve thought about that, actually, as I approach retirement. Caught between just wanting to ride my bikes, get a PE license, or practice law….

        Liked by 1 person

      • That is certainly a point. However, several years ago I had some go-to-sleep surgery and I noted the anesthesiologist, frankly because he had an odd name and English was obviously not his first language. Everything went well and I pretty much forgot about it.
        About two or three years later there was a big (Local.) news story about him. Come to find out he had just faked up his credentials and shopped them around till he got hired part time, did good work and ended up with a nice six figure income and a permanent position.
        According to the News (I know, a suspect source.) he was only found out as a result of a malpractice law suit against a Surgeon, not the man himself. In fact a review of his work found him not at fault of any physical error. Certainly I had no cause for complaint.
        This caused me to lose a lot of my awe and wonder concerning the white smock crowd. It also brings up the question of just what “qualified” means. Here’s a guy with more than a decade of successful work but no piece of paper. Is he really less qualified than a guy with a piece of paper but no track record? I don’t have a ready answer to that.


      • Responding to W. Fleetwood, I agree that life experience can be an acceptable, sometimes great substitute for formal training.

        My expertise is in geochemistry (M.S., Ph.D., decades of experience in problem solving) but I spent the last dozen years on my county transportation advisory board. By the time I stepped down this spring, I could converse easily with all our P.E. types and understood the codes and the engineering nearly as well as I could if I took a certification course. I have a buddy in the urban planning dept. back at the U of Hawaii at Manoa who once told me that I could use all this life experience as part of a degree program. So I am all for accepting that one can learn from experience, from personal educational efforts, or from classrooms.

        Indeed, what worries me about all this certification stuff is that some day, in a state not to far away (Democratic People’s Republic of California) we will see that the state requires a license for a kid to sell lemonade by the side of the road. Food poisoning is a possibility, you know. Plus there is the matter of child labor….


    • Great point and reminder, and one I mention in a post that is forthcoming. As Matthew and Khal have suggested, although there is a huge middle ground between monopoly and anything goes, it is still a challenge to balance.

      Liked by 2 people

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