Certifying Civilian Firearms Instructors – A Non-Governmental Approach

The growing number of private citizens interested in the use of firearms for self-defense both fosters and is fostered by the rise of the civilian gun training (cottage) industry. The civilian firearms training industry helps to solve the problem of teaching individuals with little or no personal (e.g., family, military, or law-enforcement) background in firearms to use them effectively for self-defense, or to improve the skills of those that do have a background in firearms.

But the proliferation of civilian gun trainers in the 40 years since Col. Jeff Cooper taught his first open-enrollment American Pistol Institute classes at Gunsite Ranch in 1976 itself potentially creates new problems to be addressed. The most pressing of these is the issue of quality, both from the perspective of (some in) the industry and for (some) consumers.

In this series of posts, I have examined two different vehicles for quality assurance in the services provided by occupational groups: professionalization (as well as semi-professionalism) and state licensing.

As some astute commenters on my previous posts observed, both professionalization and licensing create monopolistic conditions which can drive prices up by limiting competition at the same time they drive quality down by limiting entry into an occupation.

Licensing is also strongly resisted by many (most?) gun trainers (and advocates of training) because it requires government involvement where none is necessary.

But there are other ways to promote quality with less or no state involvement. Certification, for example. Although the terms are often used synonymously, certification is actually quite distinct from licensing.

Screen cap of Bearing Arms website, 16 November 2015 at https://bearingarms.com/bob-o/2015/11/16/worlds-worst-firearms-instructor-stripped-credentials/


According to labor economist Morris Kleiner, “A certification permits any person to perform the relevant tasks, but the government agency administers an examination and certifies those who have passed and the level of skill or knowledge.” Crucially, “Consumers of the product or service can then choose whether to hire a certified worker or not. In the case of occupational licensing, it is illegal for anyone without a license to perform the task. For example, travel agents and mechanics are generally certified, but not licensed” (emphasis added, p. 191). [1]

Because of the negative monopolistic effects created by licensing, Kleiner suggests certification as a more desirable policy.

“This potential substitute for licensing allows consumers or employers to choose whether they are willing to pay a higher wage for someone with greater state-documented skills relative to someone with fewer job characteristics. . . . Thus, it offers an intermediate choice between the extremes of no state role in qualifications at all and the absolute requirement of having a license before working at certain occupations” (p. 200).

The movement from mandatory licensing to optional certification opens up a number of possibilities in addition to the government agency administration highlighted by Kleiner.

In my post on licensing of civilian firearms trainers I noted that many state governments delegate the responsibility for certification of concealed carry instructors to a non-governmental organization – the National Rifle Association – which becomes a quasi-regulatory agency.

But while licensing is always by a government agency, certification does not have to be conducted or even delegated by the state. For example, in a small tennis racket stringing business I own, I am a “Certified Stringer” and “Master Racquet Technician” – certifications given to me by a private, for-profit association, the United States Racquet Stringers Association.

In the world of gun training, the biggest certifier of firearms instructors has long been the private, not-for-profit National Rifle Association. Nationally, the NRA Training Department currently claims a “network of more than 125,000 instructors, 8,000 coaches and 2,200 training counselors.”

This sort of private or voluntary certification is a way of addressing informational asymmetries in the market for specialized services, but the old refrain caveat emptor — let the buyer beware — still applies. You can go to an ASE Certified Mechanic or not, and you can go to a USRSA Certified Stringer or not. Whichever you go to, you the consumer are ultimately responsible for determining the quality of the services you receive.

To wit, the “world’s worst firearms trainer” was stripped of his NRA firearms instructor certification, but that does not prevent him from teaching firearms courses, as many people have continued to observe two years later.

Screen cap of Bearing Arms website, 12 July 2017 at https://bearingarms.com/jenn-j/2017/07/12/worlds-worst-firearms-instructor-fire-new-compilation-video/

In addition to the NRA, there are a number of other private, for profit associations and businesses that certify instructors. These are a major focus of my research on the civilian gun training industry.

In my next couple of posts, I highlight one such non-governmental effort to train the trainers: Tom Givens’s Rangemaster Instructor Development and Certification course, which I observed back in May.


[1] Morris M. Kleiner, “Occupational Licensing.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 14:4 (2000): 189–202.


  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Let’s not further burden the Second Amendment, by including anything that is not written into it.
    Should people be trained? I would suggest under advisement, yes. But it is the decision of anyone opt or refrain. If in time subsequent to an armed encounter, there arises litigation and/or incarceration issues, the person either will have sufficient background or, face the music.
    Due to my training and experience, the general public believes that I possess some higher level of knowledge, and what really happens is, that if you have extra knowledge, the defense attorneys come at you harder, therefore, go beyond what is considered reasonable and prudent, by taking classes aimed at courtroom testimony based upon actual cases that happened or happening.
    Start playing the Devil’s Advocate. THINK. In court, attorneys know the answers, before they ask the questions.


    • “In court, attorneys know the answers, before they ask the questions.”
      Not all of them as witnessed by someone perjuring themselves not once, but twice in successive questions on the witness stand in a trial that I was party to. I assure you, that was a first in the history of jurisprudence.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The bigger picture still matters. Frankly, the Second Amendment is oversold by gun rights people. Even Scalia said it was a limited right and that there is justification for time, place, and manner restrictions. No one has managed to get state PTP or CHL laws deemed unconstitutional; even AR bans have so far stood on appeal to several circuits. We will have to see what happens with the next appeal to SCOTUS once Trump gets his way with an appointment to replace one of the aging liberal or centrist jurors. Frankly, I am not looking forward to that day but it is a different story.

    The bottom line is there are two things going on. The gun rights people are trying for expanded, 50 state carry and the gun violence prevention people abhor the thought of more guns around as more guns, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of gun owners are law abiding citizens (felons don’t pass background checks) probably mean more theft, more screwups, and a philosophy that more guns make us safer (unproven). So it really comes down to whether more people buy into the DGU idea and whether Congress and Trump pass 50 state reciprocity. If they do, I really home someone with a sense of proportion in Congress tries to bridge the divide and write a bill that Federalizes the standards for fifty state carry reciprocity and require training. Good training. After all, a well regulated militia meant the members knew the muzzle from the breech. That will probably mean some variation on the themes discussed here.

    If the gun situation stays as it is today, then the requirements will be fluid state by state.


    • I have sedulously endeavored not to laugh at Lucien Black, nor to lament him, nor to detest him, but to understand him. So I am not sure how referring to Lucien Black affects my credibility as I am not endorsing him in any way.

      Further, I do not claim that Lucien Black is representative of civilian firearms instructors. He seems, rather, to be a worst case scenario to judge from the opinions of others in his industry. (Recall, I am not part of the industry/community, just an observer of it.)

      But the fact that he could have his credentials stripped by the NRA and still teach courses as a civilian firearms instructor highlights the point that certification provides consumers information about services being sold but does not limit who can sell their services; hence, caveat emptor.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Or, referring to the question of training standards, as Mike the Gun Guy said today:

        “…No, my objection to CCW – locally, statewide, nationally – is based on one simple idea, namely, that you don’t give anyone the ability to walk around with a highly-lethal weapon who hasn’t demonstrated sufficient and continuous proficiency with that weapon, and the demonstration must be conducted in front of a mandated, government-appointed individual, and not just some half-baked ‘trainer’ who hangs out a digital shingle and claims to know something about guns. If the NRA would endorse mandated training, believe it or not, Mike the Gun Guy would shut up and go away. Now I know there are lots of you out there who would like me to shut up and go away anyway, so contact the NRA, tell them to stop pushing phony training programs and Mike the Gun Guy will say adios and goodbye…”

        I would just as soon have a consensus standard that the firearms community gins up (since a government standard would probably rely on subject matter expertise anyway) but since it is Big Gubbmint that grants public carry permits (or allows permitless carry), Big Gubbmint is ultimately responsible for knowing it is approving something based on more than a half-baked idea. Hence why I think this is a good discussion to be having.


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