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. 
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?” 
“[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.
 William M. Sullivan, Work and Integrity: The Crisis and Promise of Professionalism in America. New York: Harper Business, 1995.
 Harold L. Wilensky, “The Professionalization of Everyone?” American Journal of Sociology 70:2 (1964): 137–58.